Dave Lea walks into Dallas Martial Arts. He’s wearing workout pants, a suit vest and lightly tinted sunglasses. His long hair falls below his shoulders, and he speaks with a strong British accent.
Lea is one of Hollywood’s best stuntmen. He was Michael Keaton’s stuntman during the first two Batman films, and last Saturday, 25 students gathered in a room to learn stunt fighting moves from him. The workshop was set up by a company called Icon Studios Dallas.
While we were waiting for Lea to arrive, the students stretched and warmed up. I looked around and tried to emulate what everyone else was doing. I remembered some stretches from my high school drill team days, so I began doing those.
While trying my best to reach my toes, Izzy, a 13-year-old girl, introduced herself to me.
“Do you do martial arts or anything?” she asked me.
“No, I write for a newspaper and I’m just here. I know nothing.”
She laughed. “I’ve done martial arts for about five years, but not at this gym.”
Across the room, a 15-year-old boy who appeared to be the lovechild of Justin Bieber and an Olympic gymnast did several backflips in a row.
“Do you have social media or Instagram or anything?” Izzy asked me. “I want you to upload a video of you trying to do that,” she said, giggling.
Before attending the class, the students had to send Lea and his team acting reels or videos — dancing, gymnastics, anything. I sent a five-year-old video of me participating in a college classmate’s acting assignment. I played Gwyneth Paltrow’s role in Iron Man. It was bad, but it was all I had.
“Oh, no. I write for a newspaper,” I explained to her once again. “What about you?”
“I mainly do commercials and print stuff,” she said. The class hadn’t even begun, and a 13-year-old girl had already made me feel like a loser.
Once Lea arrived, he instructed us to find an area of the gym and practice our moves. I looked around to see what everyone else was doing and made up anything I could. I knew how to do a cartwheel, and I could hike up one of my legs to propel the other to kick. My flexibility wasn’t great. Lea approached me.
“Tie up your shirt,” he said. “Show off your figure.”
I tied up my shirt, I guess because when a Hollywood stuntman tells you to, you do it.
After a few minutes of practicing, everyone showed his or her routine. One woman told the class and Lea she had recently lost 100 pounds. She performed some salsa dancing. “You have rhythm,” Lea told her.
“I love to dance,” she said.
“No, I didn’t say dancing," he responded. "You have rhythm.”
The 15-year-old did all of his flips. One woman performed a comedic stunt routine. A few women did pirouettes and leaps.
I performed my cartwheel and a few weak punches at myself in the mirror, followed by some kicks on each leg. Lea gave no feedback, but as I was returning to my spot, a gorgeous man with blonde highlighted hair, long eyelashes and the biggest chest I’d ever seen, tapped me on the back and said, “Good job.” I watched the rest of the group and untied my shirt.
From there, we did some reaction exercises of pretending to get hit. "Every action has a reaction," Lea told us several times throughout the seminar. We looked right, left and up, and then pretended to get gut-punched. We punched with our right and left arms and did a couple of hooks. Then we paired up.
I paired up with the woman who lost 100 pounds, Leonor Blair. For what seemed like hours, we practiced a routine in which she punched me twice, I reacted, I came back and did a half-crescent kick, she reacted and then she stiffed me with her right arm. At one point, Blair and I decided to switch up the roles. I would do the punching and she would do the half-crescent kick. My hip was starting to give out anyway.
Lea stopped the class. “Raise your hand if you switched roles.” I knew immediately by his tone that switching roles was not a good thing. Blair, however, didn’t get the same feeling. She eagerly raised her hand, along with several other students.
“Give me 70 sit-ups,” Lea said. “Do not switch roles if I haven’t told you.” I dropped to the ground and did about eight crunches before he told us to get up and get back to the routine.
Randomly, Lea would stop the class to see if we had any questions. Typically, we did not. I don’t know if we were too tired or too scared we'd look dumb, but the class had to be prodded to ask anything. Finally, one woman spoke up. “With fight scenes that involve water, does anything change?”
“What do you mean?” Lea asked.
“I mean, do the reactions change at all?”
“Yes, if you’re underwater, you drown,” he said. “Have you ever drowned,” he asked the woman. “I have a few times.”
He then instructed us to partner up again and practice two of our best moves. I decided on a half-crescent kick and a normal kick because I wanted to look like I was trying as hard as I could. My partner, Blair, did a half-crescent kick and a punch.
After a few minutes of practice, we showed the class our moves. “Oh, good, you’re copying each other,” Lea said to Blair and me. “And just so you know,” he said as he was walking toward the next group. “I don’t actually mean good.”
Then we switched partners and practiced kicks for awhile. One partner kicked while the other stood there. I was the lucky one who got to kick. At one point, with sweat dripping down my back, I looked around to see if Lea was watching. He had left the room, so I stopped.
When he walked back in, I began kicking furiously. He walked up to me. “You’re out of control, Paige,” his tone making me completely uncertain whether that was a good or bad thing. “You’re an animal,” he said. He grinned and walked away.
“OK,” I said.
Toward the end of the four-hour class, Lea asked if anyone wanted to fight him. The class stood still and silent. Suddenly, the 15-year-old student appeared wearing a Batman mask and gloves. Lea instructed him to punch him in the gut. We later learned that the class was the boy’s birthday present from his parents, and Lea let him wear original Batman pieces.
Lea explained to the class something called ARK, or acts of random kindness. Lea said he likes to partake in these. For instance, once he helped a man in a wheelchair cross a busy street, and now he was letting the boy punch him in the gut and wear his original Batman pieces while doing it.
Thank you for your random kindness, Mr. Lea.