New Yorkers Discover Way of the Samurai

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The New York Sun

On any given day, New Yorkers seeking a challenging aerobic and upper-body workout crowd into city exercise studios to spend the better part of an hour making broad slashing and skewering movements, all the while wielding 2- to 3-foot swords. The battle-worthy sequences are the core of the popular group fitness phenomenon called Forza, in which a weapon of the ancient Japanese warrior class doubles as a fitness prop.

These samurai-inspired Forza classes are not as daunting, or as dangerous, as they may seem: Students are taught to brandish their weapons, made of dulled wood, with the utmost care and control, thus minimizing the risk of injury in exercise studios that are filled to capacity.

Forza’s popularity and availability has been growing ever since it was developed more than a decade ago by the Italian-born karate black belt Ilaria Montagnani “as a way to bridge the world of martial arts with the world of fitness,” she said. The discipline has been boosted in recent years by the popularity of feature films such as “The Last Samurai” and “Kill Bill,” which glorify traditional Japanese warfare.

Beginners may find Forza downright grueling. Even a 1- to 2-pound sword can feel unwieldy after an hour of swinging it. But with a little practice, Ms. Montagnani said the class becomes a “moving meditation,” and one that can burn more than 500 calories an hour. “There is nothing more beautiful, graceful, elegant, and empowering,” she said of the samurai forms that inspired the workout.

To date, hundreds of fitness professionals have been trained to teach Forza — the name is Italian for “strength” — at health clubs throughout the East Coast and the mid-Atlantic region. In New York, Ms. Montagnani herself instructs most of the sword-centric classes at the Sports Club/LA in Midtown, the Reebok Sports Club on the Upper West Side, and at various Equinox locations in Manhattan.

When a 26-year-old marketing associate, Tessa Epstein, first tried Forza about three years ago, she said her arms were so sore the next day that she had trouble brushing her teeth. In spite of the muscle aches — “I knew right away that it was effective because I could feel it,” she said — Ms. Epstein, a Manhattan resident, returned to class. “Now, I walk in, and I’m concentrating so hard on perfecting the moves that I don’t even realize that I’m working out,” she said.

Another student of Ms. Montagnani, Desiree Care, said she had watched several Forza classes through the window of an exercise studio at her gym but was initially too intimidated to join in. After about two weeks, she got up the nerve to try the class, and six sessions later, she said she’s hooked. “It makes you feel very strong, very powerful” and is an effective stress reliever, too, Ms. Care, a 30-year-old actress living in Queens, said.

Those looking for a more authentic samurai experience can find it at the JCC in Manhattan, where Cary Nemeroff, the author of the forthcoming book “Mastering the Samurai Sword” (Tuttle), teaches group lessons. Mr. Nemeroff, known by his students as “Soke” — a title often bestowed upon the leader of a school or style of Japanese martial arts — expects those who attend his classes to don traditional samurai garb and, within about a month, learn how to wield a bladed metal sword. All commands are given in Japanese during the two-hour sword class, which is the most popular of all the dojo-style martial arts courses Mr. Nemeroff teaches.

Mr. Nemeroff’s weekly lessons, which attract between 18 and 25 students, draw on the techniques of a variety of Japan’s sword-based martial arts. Students may eventually learn how to draw, fence, and disarm an opponent, and even how to run, jump, and roll with their weapon unsheathed. Mr. Nemeroff said that in his 31 years of learning and teaching the skills of samurai swordsmanship, neither he nor any of his students have been injured by the weapon — carried sheathed and in protective coverings outside the studio.

Between lessons at the JCC, 74-year-old retiree Nannette Gordon, who has been studying with Mr. Nemeroff for eight years, said she practices in her 650-square-foot Manhattan apartment, her small dog watching from the sofa. “I figure if I can take away a sword from another samurai, I could take away a knife or a gun from someone on a city street,” she said. “If a burglar comes in, good luck.”

Forza classes offered free to members at the Sports Club/LA at Rockefeller Center, 45 Rockefeller Plaza, 212-218-8600, Reebok Sports Club, 160 Columbus Ave. at 67th Street, 212-362-6800, and various Equinox locations, 212-332-6549, wooden swords are provided in class; Samurai Sword classes at the JCC in Manhattan, 334 Amsterdam Ave. at 76th Street, 646-505-4446, nine 180-minute classes cost $160 for members, $190 for non-members. Private lessons are also available.

The New York Sun

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