The dress code calls for black on black, or at least dark on dark, but I wear red pants. It sets me up as an outsider, which is exactly what I am - at least when I arrive. But by the end of the day, I'll feel like a fellow condottieri, a medieval mercenary-in-training living in a world that has forgotten how to fight with steel swords. And it will feel strangely nice.
Tucked into a Wheat Ridge business park near I-70, the Rocky Mountain Swordplay Guild teaches weekly classes on historical European martial arts (known as HEMA). If that's not obscure enough, on this recent morning, there is a special workshop based on moves in a 15th century Italian combat manual. So here I am, ambling into school founder and head instructor Roger Sigg's "sala" -- or medieval dojo - to see what the guild is all about.
Its exotic name aside, the sala is little more than a big concrete room. One wall is lined with dozens of swords and spears, a coat of plate mail, and pictures from the aforementioned Italian fighting manuscript, "Il Fior di Battaglia," or "the Flower of Battle." The back wall is adorned by a painting of a huge Spartan head (with a sword through it, of course), and a stylized Rocky Mountain range in the foreground: the school's logo.
Despite the concrete-warehouse look of the place, the vibe is more agreeable, thanks to the baroque music piped through an iPod. There is, for this rookie at least, an immediate sense of camaraderie with the other guys who had taken an entire weekend day to practice fake-slaying each other with medieval weaponry.
Siggs -- an imposing figure even swordless, and perhaps the only person in history to complete a Master's degree in Byzantine military history -- started this school in 2006. A long-time buff of history, martial arts and all other things medieval, Siggs chose HEMA over Asian fighting styles because of the comprehensive combat system and the cultural familiarity. (Despite having black belts in three different Asian martial arts).
"European fighting arts are culturally and ethically aligned with western civilization, so there's never really a case of trying to glom on a philosophical leaning that isn't directly within our realm of experience," Siggs says. "Additionally, the method in which all phases of combat, from the furthest distance to up-close-and-personal interactions are covered within a single system, and with no loss of effectiveness, even today."
As we move from warmup (volleyball with a 10-pound medicine ball) to sword drills, Siggs moves around the room gleefully directing the snippets of melee. We pair up and perform brief combat interactions known as "dances," which are outlined in the "Fior di Battaglia."
While the history is cool, the high lies in clanging one's sword against another's, then making a cut such as the "fendente:" a diagonal slash from the opponent's jawline down to his opposite hip.
"We're here for the martial arts," another student notes. "We're cutting and chopping and killing each other."
I pull on a pair of gauntlets, which give a satisfying leathery creak when I clench my fist. Gripping the sword with two hands and taking a defensive posture against my first opponent, I look into the dark face of his helmet and mask. I'm a noob, so we do everything in super-slow motion. But a slow-motion sword clash still makes that great sound, and scraping the blade (dulled of course) down the other guy's facemask is grimly satisfying.
This is one of several dances performed today: In one, you get your arm cut off as you are attacking, and there is no shortage of laughter shared about jets of arterial gore and shrieks of agony as imaginary limbs whirl off into the distance in bloody arcs. (Oddly, I hear only two "Monty Python and the Holy Grail" references the whole day; I would have put the over/under at 6.5). In another, you grab the attacker's sword with your gloved hand, and then you can either smash his head in with the pommel or crossguard or chop his face off with the blade. Warrior's choice.
Over the course of the day, I'm offered lots of friendly advice from the other eight participants. I'm told to channel my inner "Haughty Italian Noble," to get the right posture and attitude. Believe it or not, it works. And over time, the moves and the material get locked into my head. Five days later, I still can picture the different attacks and guards in my mind, and sometimes find myself thinking: "OK, so what if I was dragged back in time to the 14th century, or swords make a comeback after the nuclear apocalypse, and I have to survive? Could I?"
Actually, this is something I have thought that for a long time. And I still don't know the answer. But at least now I know I am not alone in the question.
At the end of the day, I'm invited back to take more classes. It feels good to be accepted by this warehouse of sword-swingers, odd as their obsession may seem. I think I'll be back. And who knows? I may even have to buy some black pants.
The Rocky Mountain Swordplay Guild in Wheat Ridge holds classes on Sunday afternoons and Wednesday evenings. For more information, visit www.thespartans.us
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