Not long ago I braved the North Passage and flew to Seattle via Iceland. This was about my twentieth trip to Seattle, but my first to SwordSquatch. The event is run by a group of Lonin students who got together a few years ago to create the event that they would want to go to. This is its third incarnation. I can’t speak to the first two, but if my Facebook feed is anything to go by they were awesome. My expectations were very high, and increased by the instructor line-up, which included the likes of Jake Norwood and Jess Finley, as well as a host of less well known (for now) faces.
From outside HEMA these included the legendary Ellis Amdur, who taught a fascinating polearms mechanics class, and Da’Mon Stith, who taught a variety of African sword arts, the first time I’d ever seen any. Let me put it this way: it’s a good thing Da’Mon is a nice bloke, so I never have to fight him.
The organisers (Beth, Shanna, Erik, Aidan, Leigh, Olivia, Shane), clearly think outside the box- as well as core HEMA subjects, such as wiktenauer maestro Michael Chidester lecturing on Liechtenauer, there was also Mary Mooney lecturing on European magical traditions and how they relate to swordsmanship. No wonder the event was magical. They booked a magician! (She also gets props for the best class handout ever.)
But it wasn’t really the instructors and classes that made the event for me. Nor even the three hour open session in the flying trapeze tent. (I went three times. It is very frightening.)
It was the atmosphere. I saw a diversity of people there, on either or both sides of the teacher-student divide, all of whom were getting on with each other. For such a large event (over 150 people) it was remarkably free of politics and ego tripping. As Aidan Blake, one of the organisers, put it on his Facebook wall:
From day one, our goal for Swordsquatch was to create an inclusive, safe space where people could experiment, fail without judgement, and grow from it. Play, Fight, Learn. We wanted a place where everyone, regardless of their level of experience, gender, orientation, religion, race or anything else, was welcome. We also wanted to throw an event where tournaments were not the most important thing, but workshops are.
I’ve never been to an event with more prizes awarded- mostly paper plates with drawings on, also some medals, and a pink plastic unicorn, but also a few seriously good sharp swords. And I think that’s part of the secret sauce. The organisers have given themselves permission to reward the behaviour they most wish to see, regardless. And it works. It tells everyone what is valued in that community.
The Open Tournament was deservedly won by Jan Deneke. He got a medal and much congratulation. Yay!
But Sihong Fu, who came third, won a brand-new Angus Trim sword. Because in the opinion of the organisers and staff, he earned it through the way he pushed himself, without pushing anyone else. As I would put it, in their view he best represented the spirit of the Art.
I enjoyed my three classes; the students were bright and engaged, even in the post-prandial slump (teaching at 2pm is the hardest slot, I think). I revelled in Neal Stephenson’s Indian Clubs class, though had to bow out of the heavy stuff thanks to my still-recovering back injury. Ellis’ polearms mechanics was fascinating; it’s quite different to how I’ve been doing things, and he freely and clearly taught the inner mechanics that are often buried behind mystic bullshit or clan secrecy.
SwordSquatch brings out the good crazy.
This is me playing flaming tetherball with Alex Hanning.
You read that right. A roll of toilet paper soaked in what Americans call “white gas” (something a bit like diesel, I think), fixed to the end of a chain, and set on fire. Then you bat it back and forth. It is oddly very very hard to see the ball of fire coming towards your face…
It’s also the only event at which nail-painting is strongly encouraged. I got into the spirit of things and let Kaja Sadowski loose on my cuticles.
Normally my nails only get a bit of bling when my kids want to play beautician. But one gay friend of mine at the event told me that my teaching in painted nails sent a kind of welcoming bat-signal to the non-heteronormative students in a really clear and unambiguous way. So don’t be surprised if you see me wearing it more often. It’s not really my style, but it’s a very small thing to do to encourage students who might otherwise feel automatically excluded.
If I had to define the event in three words it would be these: Kindness. Community. Quirk. I was right at home. And proud as hell of my Lonin crew for pulling this off.