By ROBBYN MITCHELL
ORLANDO — "First position," bellowed Paul Harris, choreographer of wand combat for the film Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix.
Without missing a beat, more than 5,000 arms raised overhead pointing wands at the stage as their knees sunk into deep pliés.
It's what most of this crowd had been waiting for all day as they took in the sights and sounds of a Celebration of Harry Potter at Universal Studios Theme Parks in Orlando Saturday.
I, especially, wanted to learn how to look cool casting fake spells — even if I don't know exactly when I'll pull that trick out of the bag. Harry Potter came to me as a high school freshman, feeling adult but not enough to attempt wading through Tolkien to get my fantasy fix. At first, it was a way to pass time, a light series with the typical tragic orphan backstory, and a whole new magical language and universe. J.K. Rowling aged the books with the readers, steadily increasing darkness and cranking up the action until an addiction had formed and I found myself standing in Barnes & Noble lines at midnight waiting to pick up my preordered books.
So just the idea of having a Celebration of Harry Potter was enough to get me out of the house on what would have been an otherwise lazy Saturday.
Harris was one of several guests to headline the event. Cast members Evanna Lynch (Luna Lovegood); Devon Murray (Seamus Finnigan); Matthew Lewis (Neville Longbottom); and James and Oliver Phelps (ginger twins Fred and George Weasley) held a Q&A in the Toon Lagoon Amphitheatre, packed to the gills, inside Universal's Islands of Adventure Park.
People seemed jazzed when Lynch talked about how she would change Luna's future from Rowling's vision ("I never thought she was the type to be tied down with children.") or Lewis, who admitted which spell he'd probably use the most ("I get road rage a lot. Avada Kedavra would come right out.")
But it wasn't until Harris took the stage for the last event of the day that the crowd reached its highest intensity. Most, like me, had stood for hours in the line to get into the Harry Potter Expo at Universal Studios, and practiced against a video of Harris while looking in the mirror.
Here it was — the opportunity of a lifetime. Everyone who'd invested at least $92 in park admission, and stood in line for a half hour or more until the amphitheater opened, would get the chance to learn something their friends had only ever seen on film. Fully robed adults squealed.
Harris gave some background about how the five positions of spell-casting are related to ballet's five positions, then the crowd was called to its feet.
"Who has a wand?" Harris asked and thousands of wooden sticks shot in the air. "Everyone with wand stand up. And everyone who wants to pretend they have a wand also stand."
He slowly took the crowd through the first five positions and the five corresponding blocks before he said why they were learning so quickly.
"I'm going to call up six people and we're going to have a duel with someone you don't know about yet," he said.
The final round of practice ratcheted up in intensity as people speculated among themselves about who the guest would be. During the selection, the class was asked to hold first position and cast as Harris' eyes scrutinized form and picked out eight dedicated wizards who were all adults.
Mark Williams, who played Mr. Weasley in the Potter films, took the stage and quipped for a bit before the battle began. The two groups, half costumed, half not, spastically shot invisible spells at each other, moving and jumping and blocking as if their lives depended on it. Chris Burdette, 27, of Jacksonville, who was called up to join the battle as simply "dude with the beard," was the best sport in the fight.
While casting, he tangled wands with Harris and in a moment where he found himself too slow to block, he conceded, collapsing on stage and remaining supine until the battle was complete.
"He had me," said Burdette, who works in graphic design. "I knew that I had been beaten so I went down."
It was the high point of his day. "I wanted to come to this ever since they announced it last year," he said. "I never thought I'd be called up on stage."
As the teams gathered their breath, Williams remarked upon the feeling of fighting an imaginary fight with that kind of vigor.
"Feeling a little bit of adrenaline, aren't you?" he asked. "It's strange … it's the wand. It just gives you the energy."
The rush was incredible. I knew no magic was emanating from my body, all the same, I felt powerful.