I Tried This: Swordfighting at Academie Duello

Writer Kate Wilson samples the weirdest things in the city

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      Think of “martial arts,” and you probably imagine two huge men throwing each other around on sweaty mats haven’t been washed for several years.

      Not at Academie Duello.

      Part training gym, part sword-fighting museum, the sleek studio specializes in Western martial arts. Or, to put it a different way, all that really cool sword shit that Jon Snow pulls off in Game of Thrones.

      Temporarily restraining my inner Brienne of Tarth, I’m first led on a tour of the studio by Academie director and maestro d’armi, Devon Boorman. A guru of every Western weapon used since 1000 BC, Boorman takes a scholarly approach to sword-fighting. Travelling the world to study Medieval and Early Modern swordplay texts, Boorman has brought back a number of original and facsimile books to display at the Academie. Imagine a kind of Swordplay for Dummies. Or, given that everyone is drawn naked, a weird form of medieval porn.

      Boorman hands me a replica sword from the Bronze Age display. I nearly drop it.

      “Not heavy at all,” I say, desperately wishing I’d managed to master at least one push-up before our session.

      Sensing my struggle, Boorman passes me a vicious-looking multi-tooled killing stick.

      “Try this instead,” he says. “This is a poleaxe. The strange thing about this weapon is that its classes are mainly female. I don’t why, but women seem to love big axes.”

      It’s true—the poleaxe has a weird kind of nerdy charm, but I’ve spent enough time idolizing Lord of the Rings’s Éowyn Dernhelm to have my heart set on sword-fighting. Luckily that’s no problem for Boorman.

      “We’ll start with the rapier,” he says, giving me an ornate steel sword that stretches a metre long. “When that weapon is sharp, just 4lbs of pressure can cut right through a person. Everything here at Academie Duello is as authentic as possible, so that’s real steel. But don’t worry—it’s blunt, so you’re not going to be killing anyone with it. We at the Academie like to train more than once.”

      I laugh nervously and point my sword at my instructor. He seems slightly more confident. Running me through the basic steps and movements, I start to get a grasp of the fundamentals.

      “Great,” Boorman says. “Now strike me.”

      I’m apprehensive. Yes, there is a little piece of cork on the end of my blade. And yes, it does have a bit of flex in it. But it still feels weird poking a piece of metal into another human being. Boorman senses my hesitation.

      “I’ll do it to you first, then,” he says. “Don’t worry, it doesn’t hurt.”

      I brace myself as I’m struck in the chest. He’s right. No pain. We start up a game of lunging and evasion in fencing masks, and I’m sweating profusely.

      “I like that you go for it,” Boorman says as I wildly jab my point into his underarm.

      Thirty minutes later, I seem to have earned Boorman’s trust. Graduating from the rapier to the longsword, I feel as if I’m making swift progress. Sure, I’m a little suspicious that my promotion is mainly due to time constraints than actual talent, but I’ll take the compliment.

      And here’s the good news, Lord of the Rings geeks: contrary Sean Bean’s fervent thrusting, longsword-fighting is not about brute strength. It’s about physics. Swords, I quickly learn as we practice our cuts, are basically giant levers that you use to manipulate your opponent into submission. And, like other things I could mention, the longer it is, the better.

      Picking up our lets-hack-the-crap-out-of-each-other metal weapons (still not plastic) I can feel my muscles tense. It’s heavy—but in just a few minutes, Boorman coaches me how to disarm his sword, grab his blade, and thrown him over my hip. Here’s some context. I’m 5 foot 6. He’s 6 foot 4.

      “Victory for the nerds,” I silently cheer.

      At the end of our session I’m expecting to be covered in bruises—but I’m surprisingly injury-free. In fact, I’m told by the receptionist as I finish my lesson, the most serious damage at Academie Duello doesn’t come from the weapons at all. It’s from the people who forget to watch the step on the way in.


      Think you can do better? Check out Academie Duello’s website to book a free lesson.

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