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Memoirs of a Padawan: My time at lightsaber combat academy

As Star Wars turns 40, CNET's Christine Cain decides it's time to apply her martial arts training to Jedi academy. Will her lightsaber cooperate?

Now Playing: Watch this: Inside a lightsaber combat lesson
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A blue and green glow dances through glass doors as I stand outside a fitness studio waiting to take my first lightsaber combat lesson. I nervously fidget with the zippers on my bag as I eye the other students chatting nearby. I'm a brand new Padawan about to join an advanced class, and let's just say the Force isn't with my confidence.

Star Wars is a global phenomenon turning 40 this month, so it's no surprise lightsaber clubs are popular. One international organization, LudoSport Light Saber Combat Academy, teaches seven styles of lightsaber combat named after those of the Star Wars universe. LudoSport isn't associated with Disney or Lucasfilm, but naturally Star Wars fans are drawn to its classes. When I found out LudoSport had opened its first US school in San Francisco, the martial artist in me had to try it out.

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A faintly woody air envelops me as I step into the room. Our instructor, Roy, greets my friend Elaine and me with a firm handshake and gives each of us a Polaris SSe-1, a sports saber described as "neither a toy, nor a collectible." It's a tool specially designed to withstand the stress of training. And it definitely feels that way -- the weapon is much sturdier than the toy versions we have sitting around the CNET office. Its handle nestles into my grip as I gauge the heft of the metal hilt, the semiopaque polycarbonate blade marked with light scuffs and scratches from use.

"Now to activate our sport sabers, we perform a modified salute," Roy tells Elaine and me.

We both do what feels like a weird sci-fi military salute -- hold, tilt, slap slap, tilt, drop. I look down to see if my saber has changed colors, indicating it's on, and it's ... nothing. I try it again. Hold, tilt, slap slap, tilt, drop. Still nothing. I try it more slowly, then more slowly still, but my lightsaber remains dark.

James, another instructor, kindly reassures me each saber has its own personality. It seems mine is lazy. He hands me a fresh weapon. After several more failures, I decide maybe I should stick with a blaster. James performs the salute for me and the lightsaber awakens, emitting a hum and a radiant blue.

Well, that was embarrassing. I'm off to a great start.

The author practices drills with Michael, another student. Fancy robes? A Jedi needs not these things.

Stephen Beacham/CNET

The students line up facing the front of the studio. "Since we have two guests today," Roy motions at Elaine and me, "we'll review some aspects of LudoSport Combat Style I." Form I, called Shii-Cho, is the foundation for all LudoSport practitioners due to its emphasis on defense.

Following a quick warm-up, it's time to learn. We start with feet. Roy takes us through some basic steps, showing how to maneuver and position ourselves relative to an opponent. Next, the part I've been waiting for: attacks and blocks. LudoSport originated in Italy more than a decade ago, and each technique has an Italian name: "destro" for an attack to the right, "fendente" for an attack from above, and so on.

Afterward, we practice a partner drill that strings the techniques we learned into combinations, with one person defending and the other attacking. "Destro, fendente, sinistro, fendente, destro, fendente, sinistro..." Roy sets the tempo as my partner and I lunge across the studio's hardwood floor.

In my slight panic to keep pace, I waver a few times as my brain tries to process complex concepts like "right" and "left." It doesn't help that I don't know Italian. Elaine appears to have the same problem.

How do you say 'nervous' in Italian?

Thankfully, LudoSport is an incredibly supportive community -- the other students smile, earnestly telling us that the same thing still happens to them. As we speed up, I recognize how similar the steps are to those I've practiced in martial arts classes. My movements grow bolder as I start to get in the zone, the blades producing a satisfying sound as they clash.

"Keep your lightsaber in front of you," Roy says as he spots me holding my saber above the crown of my head. "This is very samurai, which looks cool but isn't an effective block in LudoSport combat." It seems my kenjutsu training is leaking out.

Now comes the real test: sparring. We all form a circle with two combatants inside at a time. I stay back and watch the other students duel, too intimidated to challenge anyone in this advanced class. But I feel several pairs of eyes on me, as if nudging me into the ring. I bashfully comply. My heart quickens with each opponent I face -- I'm not sure if it's because I'm nervous or need to do more cardio. Probably both.

To my pleasant surprise, I end up with two formidable win streaks, the last ending in a draw with Roy. I feel a rush of bewildered victory, like I'm in that scene from "The Last Samurai" where Tom Cruise finally matches his trainer in a practice duel. (Nevermind that Roy was controlling himself to stay at my level -- he normally would've kicked my ass.)

My lightsaber, perhaps sensing I am getting a little too cocky, again refuses to turn on. James explains that in tournaments, competitors get three attempts to activate their weapon. If they're unsuccessful, the competitor is penalized if their instructor can turn it on. And, as if my lightsaber takes that as a threat, it lights up once again. "It knows we're watching it now," James quips, "so it's behaving itself."

To conclude class, we raise our weapons and clang them together, then turn them off in unison. Now, of course, mine won't turn off. My lightsaber's a troll. But I leave with all my limbs intact and a big smile on my face.

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