Beginning Swordplay

In November, I started classes at Academie Duello. It was a long time coming as most of my friends have either attended in the past or are currently attending, and I had recently begun working there. I decided, for the sake of the full experience, that I'd have to see the school as a student as well as a staff member. So I signed up for Warrior Fundamentals. I had it on good authority (my boyfriend), that it was a lot of fun and a good way to build fitness. This is a department I'm sorely lacking in, so it seemed like a decent choice.

I went in to my first class on a Monday evening, not entirely sure what to expect. I had seen these classes go down from a distance at my post at the front desk, but I had never taken part in any kind of martial arts, or anything like swordplay. Heading to the changing rooms, I was feeling excited, but also slightly apprehensive. When I emerged, I was greeted by my instructors, Selman and Bernd. Both were friendly and jovial, introducing themselves to each of their students with a warm handshake and small chatter. This helped the rest of the class recognise who they'd be training with for the next few weeks a bit before the class started, in a more casual setting. It also greatly set aside any beginner-night nerves amongst the group, before we had even made it to the training floor. Bernd and Selman made sure to find out everyone's name before the class began, and remember it from that point on, which was a nice touch that succeeded in making us feel welcome.

The class was full of these small, personal touches that really laid aside any worries or concerns about awkwardness I had about taking the course. After explaining the core tenets of the school, and the meaning of the salute we do at the beginning of every class: arte, adore, honore – skill, passion, honour (concepts I can get behind) – it was time to pick up our swords. Warrior Fundamentals is primarily based around the longsword, a sturdy two handed weapon. One of the first things Selman asked after we each picked a longsword was if anyone in the class was left-handed. Sheepishly, I raised my hand. I had wondered if it would affect my classes in any way. Years of being elbowed whilst trying to write at school desks flashed before my eyes. I had gotten myself worked up over nothing however, as once more both instructors proved themselves to be consummate professionals, demonstrating all grips and stances both right handed and left handed (to my glee).

As I write this, the bulk of the classes I've attended have been on longsword (unsurprisingly). At first, I wasn't sure if the weapon was for me. It was something new, that I'm not used to, and my body is definitely not accustomed to the positions it requires from me. By the end of the first class I was thinking of it as clunky, unintuitive and unyielding. It was the workout I was looking for, though. Longswords are heavy. Not so heavy that they're uncomfortable to use, but heavy enough that if you spend an hour in class practicing cuts with one, your arms will know it. It was also apparent from the very beginning that longsword was a weapon that required the use of your full body. It isn't as simple as swinging it around with your arms, the power behind it can come from your legs, your hips, and your core (abdomen). Stance is all-important.

The second class may have changed my mind about the weapon. Obviously, first impressions change, and mine was made rather quickly. Also obviously, I don't expect this new thing to be super easy. I'm here to be challenged, and longsword is certainly doing that. I hadn't realised just how much finesse it required. The second class went into a bit more detail on one-on-one fighting rather than the basic fundamentals of the weapon. This was a hell of a lot more interesting than just practicing cuts.  After all, I'm here to learn how to swordfight, and night two felt a lot more like I was building toward that. I  realized I was quite looking forward to next week where we would be looking at defensive use of the blade, having only covered attacking motions at that point. The overall goal meaning  building towards actually getting to fight someone (yay!).

Update: the proper translation for arte, adore, honore is skill, passion, honour and not strength, passion, honour as originally written. This has now been corrected. Thanks to our own Roland Cooper for pointing that out! - Jan 30th, 2015

This is part one of a four-part series. You can read part two here.

Devon Boorman is the Co-Founder and Director of Academie Duello Centre for Swordplay, which has been active in Vancouver, Canada since 2004. Devon’s expertise centres on the Italian swordplay tradition including the arts of the Renaissance Italian rapier, sidesword, and longsword, as well as knife and unarmed techniques.
Read more from Devon Boorman.