For many, Orlando is known as the city where Disney’s magic comes true.
For those using The Force, it is known as the Star Wars capital of the United States.
Now, in Horizon West, a master is training the next generation of Jedi.
Kung fu master Donovan Cecil teaches lightsaber classes through the Galactic Saber Academy every Tuesday at Independence Community Park. There, students learn authentic martial arts movements to properly wield their sabers.
And, like many great adventures, this one starts with a chance meeting and, arguably, in a galaxy far, far way: Pre-COVID.
Bobby Viera and Cecil met in Miami in January 2020. Viera had visited Disney and was impressed by how people at the Galaxy’s Edge bought lightsaber after lightsaber.
“These things aren’t cheap,” he said. “I thought, ‘What are they doing? Just buying them? And then what? What are (they) doing with these things?'”
As a lifelong Star Wars fan, Viera had a striking idea not long after that visit. He wanted to start offering classes for people interested in learning how to actually wield a saber. That’s when he found Cecil.
“He came to the kung fu school (where I was teaching) close to Miami,” Cecil said. “I’d been teaching (martial arts) for 17 years back then. He brought a saber, and I started spinning it around. I was hired on the spot.”
The duo began planning their first Galactic Saber Academy’s class for March 2020.
And then, the world freezes.
Since then, both Viera and Cecil moved to the City Beautiful. And their idea finally became a reality in January.
YOUR FOCUS DETERMINES YOUR REALITY
Cecil started practicing kung fu when he was only 6 years old. Not only is he fully immersed within the martial arts community, but he also is involved within the Star Wars world.
“The interest is in my family,” he said. “My parents’ first date was to go see ‘Empire Strikes Back.’ That was about six years before I was born, on the exact date, so I was born on the anniversary of that first date.”
Students at the Galactic Saber Academy learn a mix of sword movements from tai chi and kung fu.
“What I really love about it is that everyone loves the shows, everyone loves the lightsabers or going to the galaxies,” Cecil said. “There’s so many people that are interested in Star Wars, but then I watch Star Wars, and I see where they got the ideas of The Force, and the philosophy, the way of the Jedi. To me, it’s a lot of Eastern history.”
Cecil said controlling The Force is rooted in Far East philosophy and thought.
“In tai chi; it’s energy,” he said. “Your breath work, you are always relaxed, you are always peaceful. It’s a defensive style.”
And that’s the beauty of these classes. Students are able to learn the art of lightsabers while learning a real traditional art.
“You can get into it as far as entertaining, but then you leave with something that really helps you,” Cecil said. “Kung fu isn’t just about fighting. It’s about developing character. It’s about discipline and self-respect, so it just has so much more going on than what people think.”
For Viera, being able to learn martial arts from a real kung fu master is an honor.
“This didn’t come from a galaxy far far away; it came from a country far, far away — China!” he said. “I love the martial arts aspect of it, I love the tradition of it, I love learning the reality behind it. You love the stuff from Star Wars, but you don’t really know why you love it. When you start learning about the culture, where it came from and the technique and all of its forms. … I’m learning something that’s been taught for thousands of years.”
Nathanael Vitale has been a part of the classes since their inception. For him, it is more of a side hobby, but he hopes it will become a full-time job. He currently promotes the class to attract more students.
Vitale fell in love with Star Wars when he was about 6 years old after he got a Star Wars LEGO set.
“After that, I got into the Clone Wars TV series, and that’s when Star Wars really hit it off for me,” he said. “I felt such a connection with it. I felt like I was more in tune with who I am as a person, have a higher self-esteem and a higher confidence. I was able to live life more freely, because I had this escape for whenever I was dealing with hard times in my life and needed a place to emotionally have respite.”
YOUR PATH YOU MUST DECIDE
Cecil and his students performed at Disney May 4.
“They liked it, because when we are doing the form, it’s not like we are fighting,” Viera said. “We are coordination of the same motion; it’s very artistic. It’s like a video of 500 temple monks moving together.”
The long-term goal for Galactic Saber Academy is to be able to offer performances in different places, including Disney, and to open an academy — or as Viera and Cecil prefer to call it, a temple. This temple would include different sections — a tai chi room, a kung fu room, an obstacle course, lightsabers for sale, meditation classes and more.
For Vitale, attending the classes has deepened the relationship he had with the Star Wars world.
“I was able to connect with something that I loved playing around with when I was a kid,” he said. “I was 6 years old when I got my first lightsaber. I loved the beauty of it, the elegance and just holding it in my hand. … But (to) learn how to use it professionally and efficiently is something I really like.”
Every class, Cecil is able to use his still drum, an instrument he learned to play during quarantine.
“I use that to guide people’t breathing so I’m getting more into the energy work,” he said. “They want to know what The Force is. It is energy in our bodies, and if you learn how to meditate, you can feel that. In Star Wars movies, you see people meditating, and all I want to actually teach people is how to guide their breathing and how to (guide them) to master themselves.”
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