A petite woman stands, feet shoulder-width apart, her right arm held straight out in front of her. The handle of a knife juts out from between her fingertips, the blade resting in her palm. In one swift motion, she pulls the blade behind her head and lunges forward with the downward arc of her arm. Though it’s flown too fast for any of us to see, the thick “kthunk” of metal sinking into wood tells all of us that she has hit her target.
“I wouldn’t want to run into her in a dark alley,” I say to Greg, another classmate.
He laughs, “But we are!”
Chicago’s Knife Throwing 101, held in the alley behind a large collection of artists’ lofts in East Garfield Park, is consistently sold out. After just one class, it isn’t difficult to see why. For one, it is most likely the only BYOB knife throwing class you’ll find in any responsible municipality. (Par for the course might include a PBR in one hand and an 8-inch throwing blade in the other.) The setting is also unbeatable. Brick on one side and brush on the other, the kthunks and clangs of hurled blades intermingle with the chirps of crickets, the crackle of a glowing firepit and the occasional roar of a Metra train passing just yards away. What must the train commuters think we’re doing out here, wielding weapons in the dark. Assassin tryouts?
Morgan Martinson and John Burkholder did not expect to be leading such shenanigans. A year and a half ago, strange clangs from outside caused Morgan to peer out the window of her studio, where she saw a strange man throwing sharpened butter knives in the alley below. “I ran downstairs and yelled, ‘Show me!’” Since then, the two have upgraded to bona fide throwing knives, and, with the help of books and the occasional Youtube video, have honed their technique enough to teach it.
As instructors, Morgan and John are the perfect combination of laid-back and passionate: they’ll correct you, attentive to your form and progress, but their demeanors make you feel less like you’re in a class than in their secret alleyway clubhouse.
There are about ten other clubhouse invitees: a mother and son have selected this particularly badass bonding activity. (Not the only parental pair: Morgan tells me she also recently gave her dad knives for Christmas so they can throw together.) Most either are or have been invited by Dabble devotees. Two women discover that they’ve taken the same class in glass pumpkin making—obviously knife throwing was the next logical adventure. All of us are novices at best, but it’s astounding how quickly the clangs of missed throws fall away to the thick kthunks of knives sticking in targets.
Instructors and students alike note the Clang-Kthunk measure of success: “The two are such contrasts,” Morgan says, “You feel so good when you land it, and when the students are landing it… that’s like the best. They’re so proud, and they’ve got all their knives out, and they’re getting their photos next to their knives.”
It’s wonderful to see Morgan and John at work. “I will always correct you on this,” Morgan says with a smile as she adjusts my hammer throw grip. When Ben, at his first Dabble class, lands four throws in a row she turns to me, holding her hands like a heart, and mouths, “I love this.” Across the alley, John instructs a girl trying to wield a Bowie Knife to loosen up: “I throw like I dance,” he says, waggling his limbs in every direction. When she turns and smoothly plants the Bowie in a bullseye, John is as excited as she is. “You didn’t even think that much about it,” he shouts as her feet tap the ground in a gleeful dance, “you felt about it!”
Knife throwing is as much mental as it is physical, Morgan advises, noting that throwing requires “this determination: the knife’s going nowhere but the target.” John agrees that it’s almost meditative. He throws mostly on his own, as part of a daily routine, and appreciates the activity’s focus and silence. “It makes a fun group activity, like making games out of it,” Morgan adds, “but it can also be a really good solo activity.” I have to agree that, standing in a dark alley with a bunch of strangers, a Bowie knife in each hand, I have rarely felt so relaxed.
If you’re anything like me, you won’t be able to look at your kitchen knives quite the same again after taking this class; but before you start sharpening your butter knives, keep in mind that Morgan and John teach a Dabble class every other week, and also have extra boxes of knives and made-to-order targets ready for any back yard. Or, if you’re feeling extra-DIY, you can try to forge your own wares at Dabble’s Sword and Knife Forging class right here in Chicago! Whatever you decide, decide on Knife-Throwing 101, and put a little danger in your Dabbling.
Oh, and be sure and watch this video below. I love you guys, man.