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In the beginning was the (s)word…

One thing I have never done before is keep an exact record of what I (and others) teach over the eight weekly sessions of a beginners’ course at the Helsinki branch of my school. Of course it is never exactly the same twice; every group is different, and as we usually have only two such course a year, there is time for my opinion to change about what are the essential first steps. The two critically important things are these: that I show them a clear and accurate picture of the Art that I serve, and provide a safe welcoming environment in which to learn. That way, if someone comes to try this path, and finds that it is not their thing, then the Art has not lost a potential exponent, but gained one more person who has seen and done, and knows that this is real and alive.

This year’s Autumn course was fully booked; we cap it at 24, and thanks to two cancellations being matched by two late registrations, we were able to accommodate everyone. I always get there early for the first class, as one or two students, not wanting to be late and having made an unfamiliar journey, tend to arrive very early. Our first arrived at the same time I did, a full hour before class. All I tend to do is point them to the changing rooms, and if they start extending fingers towards swords they don’t own, gently steer them away.

At 6 on the dot (by the salle clock, which is and has always been five minutes early to discourage lateness), I called them together, and gave a short speech of welcome, in which I a) praised them for finding the place; b) pointed out that salle time is different to Helsinki time; c) told them what I expect and require from them: that they behave at all times as reasonable adults; and d) explained the one rule: EVERYBODY MUST FINISH TRAINING HEALTHIER THAN THEY STARTED IT. No macho bullshit allowed. If your knees won’t do squats, leave them out. Then we went for a short walk around the salle, where I pointed out things like the kitchen, the office, which rack they should take weapons from, etc.

This introduction took about 5 minutes. I then had them spread out for the warm-up, in which I went through everything slowly, and taught the more complex exercises (squats, push-ups, starfish, roll and up): I included a very brief demo, and one thing to watch out for when practising.

This segued nicely into the basic falling exercise, starting on their knees. We were very full so I had them pair off, with one student spotting for the other, and giving a gentle nudge to indicate a safe direction to roll into.

This was followed by “how to NOT fall”, starting with finding the best part of the foot through which to root the weight. One student stands with their weight on their heels, feet shoulder width. Their partner gently presses in the centre of their chest, to check how stable the position is. Then the weight is shifted a little forwards on the foot, and check again, etc etc. After five minutes everyone in class has some idea of where their weight should be for maximum stability. And the idea of checking everything, and finding what’s right for them, is established. I could just tell them where to place their weight- but this is much more effective at getting the message across, and the correct technique is learned without ever being taught.

From here we grabbed an imaginary Ken’s throat to create posta longa (I got to grab the real Ken’s throat, of course!), and passed back and forth across the salle. Then a quick trip to the book to see that this extended -arm position is “historical”; a short word about how the guards are the ways by which we define and measure movement, and I gave them the other three guards; first zenghiaro, then porta di ferro and frontale as a pair.

Having given them four guards, it made sense to give them the four steps; one they already knew, the pass, plus tornare, accrescere and discrescere. I spent very little time on the terminology, and plenty on having them actually do the steps.

I finished off this section (it was almost 7pm by now) by giving them 2 minutes by the clock to practice and remember what they had learned. A nasty trick, as it proved beyond reasonable doubt that they could practise on their own, unsupervised, for two minutes— and so could do that easily every day between now and their next class.

I then took them to the rack and showed them how to take a sword down without blinding anyone, and when they were all armed, lined them up and taught them the salute. From there, we split up into two groups, one watching and the other doing, and had them swing the sword from shoulder to shoulder, relaxed and easy. While they were doing this I directed them to swing the sword at head height. Once both groups had a few minutes of this, I took the first group four by four up the salle, swinging the sword and allowing a step to follow it. Pretty quickly this segued into the whole class swinging four by four up the salle. There was the usual mix of initial errors, of course. By far the hardest part of my job is to shut up and let them get on with learning, rather than badger them with corrections. It was rewarding to see some of them start out and get their feet mixed up… then correct it themselves without my intervention. I stopped the class to give them all one extra thing- the line the blow should pass through, slicing with the edge from jaw to knee. And then carefully did not make any corrections while they absorbed all this.

With about 7 minutes to go I brought them back to the book and showed them that they had been doing mandritto and roverso fendente, from posta di donna through posta longa. I saw a couple of light-bulbs go off. And noticed that the first time they had come to the book I was given a wide berth, lots of personal space; by this time they were more relaxed, and were crowding in to see the book. They then had another five minutes to go back to the swinging/cutting drill, knowing what they were actually practising.

We finished with the salute at 7.30, of course.

In all it went very well, not least as 23 out of 23 (the 24th emailed in sick and will join us next week) filled out their course membership papers and handed in our half of the form that very night. Several stayed and practised until about 8, the last one was out the door a full hour after class had ended.

A very promising beginning!

I'm sure you have an opinion: do share!

6 Responses

  1. Thanks for sharing this. I appreciate your willingness to outline how you are thinking about the first class of the season.

  2. I might point out that six (!) of these brave souls actually showed up on Thursday for the basic Fiore class. Very impressive.

  3. Great to here that it’s still going strong with the beginners’ course & the school. Being trained a couple of years ago by the school’s syllabus, it was delighting to hear compliments about my footwork here in Durham, England, during my first sport fencing sessions. So the beginners’ course definitely worked out well back then – no doubt it still does!

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