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¡Viva España!

I spent the weekend 13-14 October in El Escorial, Spain, attending the Asociación Española de Esgrima Antigua annual meeting, as an invited instructor. It was a welcome opportunity to catch up with  their chief instructor, an old friend (and a fellow full-time professional colleague), Alberto Bomprezzi, and to see how things are done in Spain.

La primera cosa que quiero decir es que fue un placer e un honor estar invitado a este evento; y quiero agradecer a todos los instructores y estudiantes por darme la bienvenida a mi, y su paciencia con mi español. Me alegría mucho encontrarme a tantos nuevos hermanos y hermanas del espada. ¡Gracias a todos! Y he aprendido una nueva palabra importantísima: ¡Porrón!

The event was well run, and organised in a way I haven’t come across before. Each day began with an hour of free fencing, in which everyone who wants to take part, finds a partner and fences fro three minutes. A whistle is blown, and you change partners. After three such rounds there is a five-minute break. After an hour, there has been a lot of very happy chaos, and everyone is nicely warmed up. I spent the time watching the students fencing, which told me (in the first five minutes) what to cover in my classes.

Alberto is very upfront about what he is doing- he teaches fencing, with historical weapons, taking his theory from Spanish rapier sources (Pacheco y Narvaez, and Carranza, if I recall correctly). This is very different to my own approach which is very much by the book.  Indeed, one of the reasons Alberto invited me was so that his students could experience a different way of doing things.

In my first class I covered entering into measure and attacking from wide measure, and what to do when you get very close. This is because almost every action I saw in the longsword freeplay was done after the fencers came close enough to cross swords, then played from there. So they know how to bind and wind, but mostly they didn’t know how to attack with vigour without exposing their hands. So we took one parry and riposte (from first drill, so second play second master of the zogho largo), and worked in a tempo before the attack, and before the parry. We then took the pommel strike from the 8th play of the sword on horseback, and played with that as the attacker’s back-up if the strike fails. It was a very interesting class, clearly somewhat outside the students’ experience- and also outside mine as I taught the whole thing in Spanish, for the first time ever. I learned Spanish growing up in Peru during the school holidays from ’87 to ’92, which makes it 20 years since I last spoke the language regularly. But with plenty of goodwill from the students, we got by.

There were only two class slots per day, with four classes running in each slot. In the afternoon I watched Chris Chatfield teach pugilism based on Saviolo, and Alberto teaching rapier and dagger. I also got to talk to Rob Runacres, who had asked his colleagues to suggest whatever tips they may have for his improvement. So I took him aside and taught him the basics of establishing a groundpath from the sword to the feet. (I’ll cover this in a blog post next month.) It was a pleasure to teach him, as he was very open to correction, and willing to learn.

The second day began predictably late, but with so much free time built into the schedule it didn’t matter. When in Spain, chill out! I had originally been asked to teach one longsword and one rapier class, but Alberto asked me to teach a second longsword class instead, so I did. This one focussed on one basic drill (first drill again), and looked at how the blows create the guards, what the guards are for, the difference between zogho largo and zogho stretto, and making your actions work despite your opponent’s best efforts to stop it.

In the afternoon, after another short lesson in the mighty porrón, I got to spend about half an hour in Manel Avrillon’s knife class. I adore martial arts of just about any type, and after an unrelieved diet of European food, the occasional Indonesian curry or Japanese sushi is very welcome. But I spotted Chris Chatfield waiting for me, and I had asked him to take me through his interpretation of the first set of plays from Vincentio Saviolo’s His Practice.

Back in 2000 at the second annual meeting of the British Federation of Historical Swordplay (which I helped to found in 1998) I saw a demonstration of this form that has stayed with me. Duncan Fatz was reading the treatise aloud, while Chris and a chap called Alistair O'Loughlin performed the actions. It was a perfect example of by-the-book historical swordsmanship. Yes, it was probably mostly wrong in terms of the specifics of execution, this was 12 years ago after all, but the approach was perfect. The spectators could see the words of the book come alive. So I was very curious to see how Chris’s interpretation had changed. And changed it has- the footwork alone is a very interesting set of mechanics that echoes both 19th-century pugilism and T’ai Chi Chuan. Chris walked me through it for about an hour, and while my left heel stubbornly refused to plant itself the way he wanted it to, the mechanics made perfect sense. I look forward to trying them again- perhaps at a weekend seminar in Helsinki next year…

Anyway, you couldn’t ask for a better host than Alberto, and his students were keen, enthusiastic, open to alternative approaches and fun to teach. All in all, a great weekend.

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