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Most of you who know me know I’m a LARPer (those of you who don’t – welcome, please read the blog to find out what I do!). What you may not know is that I am also learning actual swordplay through Historical European Martial Arts (HEMA)  and am a proud Hotspurite (a Fellow of the Lance and Pennon Chapter, don’t you know?). It’s rare that I choose to share personal stuff beyond the tutorials and LARP updates I write, but I’d like to share this with you.

I feel like I’m a major newbie to this – I’ve barely been doing it 6 months (!) but I love it. I love the regular routine of going to training, of mixing with a group of people who are at various stages in their own development as martial artists, of spending an hour or so learning the arts of sword fighting. I’m lucky in that I’ve covered a range of stuff so far – a bit of Longsword in various forms, some German Messer, lots of fundamentals – but what I like is the learning.

Studying any form of martial arts is more than just learning how to beat your opponent, it’s also about learning about yourself; how your body moves and how to work with it; how to play the mental games of chess that we play when we engage in drills or actual combat. It’s about learning respect. It’s also about the companionship and friendship that exists between us and following the traditions of chivalry – sure, five minutes before you were trying to knock your opponent to the floor; or outwit them; or generally just best them because they’re your opponent, but now you’re back to just being training mates and having a laugh.There’s nothing more alarming than finding a length of steel running down your fencing mask or being pressed into your throat as you find your fencing partner deflecting your strike and closing with you (but it’s also pretty satisfying when the roles are reversed) but you know you’re in safe hands because they are respectful of you. None of it is personal. Nothing is directed at people in particular when you’re fighting. Because if you’re fighting angry, you’re not actually fighting; and you might be quietly asked to take a breather.

I started with the Hotspur School of Defence on a whim that had taken a couple of years to go from “that looks cool” to “I really want to do this”. I knew of the HSD, having seen them at Nerd East a couple of years before, but I’d not chosen to make the time to commit to the training. Then my OH and I moved and I found the sudden freedom of losing my old routine didn’t sit well with me at all. So I got in touch with the Marshall of the School and went along for a taster and came away knowing it was something I was going to enjoy.

At first it was awkward – I felt ungainly and slow; striking the face masks was (and still is) a challenge because I’ve trained myself not to aim for faces over the last 6 years of LARP; getting struck in the face mask can be really alarming; and in all honesty I felt a bit like a lump. I could see the grace in the others and was jealous. Watching the fluid movements and the calm counters that would flow from guards to blocks to strikes to counter-strikes was like visual poetry – in a grandiose way of trying to describe it – and I doubted I would ever get there. Watching some of the other women in free play, I was struck with how determined and feisty these women were – these ladies who had no qualms pitting themselves against some of the blokes, taking their blows, smoothly turning strikes aside to become a threat to their opponent. But I’ve found that by donning the face mask you become almost gender-less and it doesn’t matter who you’re fighting; tall or short, male or female, its all a game of wits which in times past would often have a deadly end. Luckily we don’t seek to maim or destroy our opponents (at least I hope not!), but the knowledge is there for what could happen if we were not careful or respectful.

The more training I did the smoother things have become; and from switching from the sword training to the fundamentals class I am beginning to understand how my own body works to help things become better. And standing upright for an hour or so once a week provides a good core workout that definitely works a good number of muscles (I know, the aches tell me so!) – so who needs a gym when you can learn swordplay instead?

I can still remember my joy and surprise at actually catching an opponent on the shoulder during a warm-up drill for the first time – this is someone who is quick, agile and skilled and would often have me backing away just trying to keep my defences up (whilst directing me how to defend myself better). I had clearly improved! This joy lasted for about 5 seconds though, because I was not quick enough to stop the barrage of strikes that blurred at me afterwards as my opponent picked up the pace. I am grateful for the lessons this individual and others have been patiently teaching me, and can proudly see how much I’ve improved in these few short months. I may not be ready to take on an official challenge for a Prize Play yet, but I look forward to preparing for it and perhaps one day proving to myself that I CAN – that I am strong enough, quick enough, determined enough; that I am a competent safe fighter and able to match my opponent in wits and skill. I can. And I will – watch this space!

Over the last year the hashtag #thisgirlcan did the rounds on social media and with adverts on the television in the run up to the Olympics in Rio. The aim (I think) was to show normal women doing exercise and to normalise the effort of exercise – the sweat, the frustration, the exhaustion and all the fun – to encourage girls to take up and continue sport. So here it is, my own #thisgirlcan!

nicola-hema

Here are a couple of links to additional content that I recommend reading, written by the Marshall of the School and another member – Hello HEMA, goodbye disposable income and I fight like a girl? Tell that to my sword.

For more information on HEMA and to find a club in your local area, visit the British Federation of Historical Swordplay.

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