Having somebody hurl a bamboo sword at your head over and over again in rapid succession may sound like a terrifying experience, and if you're learning the art of sword fighting for the first time, it certainly can be — at least, at the beginning. But if you're Sara Tunick, an instructor at New York City martial arts school Sword Class NYC, it's all in a day's work, and it's completely exhilarating. And, as I would soon find out while leaping across a padded dojo, trying to master basic footwork taught to me by Tunick during an intro to Kendo course at Sword Class NYC's Harlem studio, it is also a completely feminist sport — not to mention one that is beyond badass.
Sword fighting, feminist? As Tunick says herself, the act of sword fighting, Kendo, and martial arts in general have always been considered something of a "boy's club," a field dominated by men trying to prove their heroism through strength. I mean, turn to any Samurai movie ever produced by Hollywood (and there are a lot of them), and find me a strong female lead wielding her sword for the good of humankind — they are, unsurprisingly, hard to come by. But, as Tunick would later explain, in the dojo, everyone is equal. The idea is to move in sync with your opponent, not against them. Behind the armor and cage-like masks, everyone is simply following the path of their sword, calling out moves as they make them so that everyone can move together in harmony, rather than in opposition. Though perhaps not intuitively, it's a beautiful exercise in teamwork. It's also incredibly thrilling, running around with a sword above your head (albeit one made of bamboo that weighs only a few pounds), calling all the shots. Like, can I do this every day?
Kendo, for those curious, is the art of Japanese martial arts sword fighting. Quite literally, the word "Kendo" translates to "way of the sword." It originated in 15th century Japan as a way to train Samurai warriors with bamboo swords instead of metal ones, but has become increasingly popular in modern day martial arts studios across Asia, the United States, Brazil, and Canada. It's just as mental as it is physical — at schools like Sword Class NYC, just as much emphasis is placed on the etiquette, history, and philosophy behind the practice as it is on the actual steps themselves.
I had made the trek to Sword Class NYC's Harlem studio with three other Bustle editors to see if we possessed the skill and discipline needed to dominate in the world of Kendo. Having the elegance, coordination, and flexibility of a hedgehog (no really, it's true), I wasn't totally sure I did. Worst case scenario, I figured, I'd end the day crumpled up in a ball on the dojo mat with my limbs sticking out at funny angles. Best case scenario, I'd unleash an inner warrior inside of me I never knew existed, and waltz out of there with an adrenaline-fueled shot of confidence, my body fully intact.
How'd it turn out? Well, you just kind of have to see it for yourself. Here's what happened when Bustle tried sword fighting for the first time:
Am I a Kendo master? Hardly — it takes years and years of practice and discipline to move up through the ranks. Will I try fencing again? Absolutely. To me, it seems that Kendo is ultimately a sport that tests you as an individual, more so than your opponent. It's a challenge in discipline. It demands presence, and perseverance. It requires you to be sure of yourself, and of your next move. And if that isn't an exercise in living life itself, I don't know what is.
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