The University’s K gym on 23rd Street looks like a traditional school gymnasium, but on the eastern-most wall, there is a big, parchment scroll.
“It’s not best to win a hundred out of a hundred battles, rather the highest level of skill is to defeat the opponent without engaging in battle,” the scroll says in Chinese characters.
In two straight lines, 12 barefooted students turn and bow to the scroll. Then they turn back to the mirror, kneel and bow to the swords in front of them.
For the next hour and 40 minutes, the students take turns slicing their wooden swords through the air, stopping inches from the chest or face of their partners – all while shouting in Japanese above the whirr of the fan.
It’s possibly the most offbeat way to earn a credit at GW.
Japanese swordsmanship is just one of many nontraditional, one-credit exercise and sports activities classes GW offers. Courses such as scuba diving, hip-hop conditioning, massage and foil fencing may not have much to do with the degrees that students are earning at GW, but the classes fill to capacity every semester. A horseback riding class even goes to stables in Rockville, Md., for lessons.
Everyone has his or her reasons for wanting to deviate from the traditional course load. Some are looking for a unique way to exercise and some are looking for an escape from their other, more stressful classes. Others are just curious.
“I’m taking it ’cause of ‘Kill Bill,'” said freshman and Japanese swordsmanship student Chris Diaz, referring to the popular movie that features international assassins and a bevy of sword fighting.
When asked if the drill-oriented course met his expectations, Diaz smiled.
“Well, I didn’t expect it to be exactly like ‘Kill Bill,'” he said. “But I kind of wish we did a little more fighting other people – it’s a lot of technique.”
Instructor Brian Wright, who also instructs a course in taekwondo, developed the class himself after convincing the Exercise Science Department to let him share with students what he learned while training with a local swordsmanship group in Rockville.
Patricia Sullivan, exercise science professor and acting chair of the Exercise Science Department, was hesitant to accept Japanese swordsmanship as a class at first.
“I said ‘Japanese what?'” Sullivan recalled.
But when she saw the class fill to capacity early in the registration period, as so many of the unique exercise science classes do, Sullivan said she was pleasantly surprised.
Wright hopes that his students will be able to take away skills from the class that will be applicable throughout their lives: conflict management, self discipline and focus.
“It forces you to pay attention when someone’s swinging this wooden thing on top of your head,” he said. “It gets rid of your tendency to space out.”
Freshman Val Ignatyeva said that she can see a noticeable difference in her ability to concentrate on schoolwork since joining the class. Feeling sick last week, however, led to some unfortunate consequences for her partners.
“I actually hit a couple of people on the head today,” she said. “You feel kind of bad about it.”
Wright said nobody has ever gotten injured in one of his classes, aside from the occasional foot blister.
Although Japanese swordsmanship may have gotten a boost in appeal from recent movies like “Kill Bill,” Sullivan said the department is not looking to follow trends in choosing their course offerings.
“If we offered something that was trendy, then a year later it might be off the radar screen,” she said. “The Health and Wellness Center can do trendy. They can change something at a moment’s notice.”
The department still switches up its quirky exercise and sports activities classes. Sullivan said discussions are underway for a canoeing class next spring.
“If we had a canoeing class, I’m guessing it would fly,” Sullivan said. “Everything else seems to fly.”