Behind one of the studio doors at the Long Island City Art Center you can get a slice of Japanese culture dating back to the 1600s and come out feeling like a warrior.
Every Thursday night, the LIC Japanese art gallery RESOBOX holds samurai sword (iaido) classes at the center, based on the traditional sword techniques of the samurai, with instructor Deborah Klens-Bigman.
Although the classes first began at RESOBOX’s official gallery space located at 41-26 27th St. in 2011, a few months ago the instruction was moved to 44-02 23rd St., providing more open space for students and allowing art pieces to be kept at a safe distance from moving swords.
At the center, studio 210 becomes the dojo for Klens-Bigman and her students, who during a visit by The Queens Courier included one of RESOBOX’s founders, Takashi Ikezawa.
Klens-Bigman has studied iaido for more than 25 years and was first introduced to it by Yoshiteru Otani when she saw him perform a demonstration. Otani later became her teacher until his death in 2004 .
“I was at a point in my life where I was looking to make a change of direction. [Otani] provided it,” Klens-Bigman said about her decision to begin learning iaido.
She has been teaching the form for about 14 years and brought her classes to RESOBOX when it opened in Long Island City.
At the beginning of Klens-Bigman’s class, students enter a moment of silence and breath while kneeling. They follow by bowing to the shinzen on the wall, a piece of calligraphy by Kiyami Hiroshi meaning culture and martial arts are the same path, then they bow to the instructor and finally to their sword.
Beginners are given a wooden sword to start learning the technique. Although it isn’t the same as a real blade, it still has the design and feel of a sword (just without the potential danger of hacking off a finger).
The main goal behind iaido is to draw your sword, defeat the opponent and then return your sword to its case, according to Klens-Bigman.
The class begins with an opening exercise, designed by Otani, called happogiri, which is the cutting in eight directions. It takes foot and arm movement, and can take a few tries to get the order correct. Afterward, students work on an individual kata, or exercise, called a Shohatto.
“It’s not a sport. For one thing, any adult who is in reasonably good physical shape can take up this art form and do it for the rest of his/her life. One can’t say that about most sports. And the more you practice, the better you get at it,” Klens-Bigman said. “One of my teachers turned 90 years old this year!”
Once the class comes to an end, students come together again, kneel down and bow to their sword, instructor and then the shinzen on the wall.
“For people who are interested, learning to use a sword teaches self-discipline and concentration. It is also good low-impact aerobic exercise,” Klens-Bigman added. “Most importantly, though, as my teacher used to say, ‘Iaido (swordsmanship) is philosophy.’”
Classes are available every Thursday starting at 6:30 p.m. at 44-02 23rd St. A trial class is $15 for 30 minutes, with prior registration. One class is $25 and five classes are $100.
For more information and to sign up for a class, visit www.resobox.com/iaido.