GW: Hello, sword people. This is Guy Windsor, also known as The Sword Guy. And I’m here today talking with Robyn Alman of the Athena School of Arms, a woman who you may know from the U.S. tournament circuit. Without further ado, Robyn, welcome to the show.
RA: Hi. Thank you. Thanks for having me.
GW: It’s very nice to see you. Now, just so we can orient ourselves, Robyn, whereabouts are you?
RA: Well, I live outside of the Boston, Massachusetts area of the United States.
GW: So what made you want to get started with historical martial arts? What drew you into the path of the sword, if I may be so bold?
RA: Well, so my interesting story is that, as an adult, I’ve kind of come into trying to figure out sports and martial arts later. I think for me as a kid, I was always one of those who’s the last picked, you know, on a sports team in school and was not usually very coordinated in certain things. So a lot of what I did in my youth was basically between dancing, and cheerleading later on. But I was always interested in martial arts. At that time, the only thing you had access to was karate. And although my parents were very good about being open to “these are things that only girls do and these are only things that guys do”, martial arts was not something that they were like, oh, yeah, we should totally put you in a karate class as a kid. So I never really tapped it into it, the thought of it until later on in life. And I was trying to be like, oh, I want to do something that is better physical fitness and something more engaging than going to the gym on a treadmill or something. And my friend had got me on the path of deciding to do kung fu. So I did kung fu for a few years in my late 20s, early 30s. Took a pause from it because life’s always gets in the way of work or whatever. And I was going a couple of years ago to go back to doing kung fu. And what stopped that path was that I went to an annual science fiction and fantasy convention.
RA: Yeah, exactly. Because everything ties to nerddom. It’s this big convention that’s called Arisia. And I’ve gone to it for a couple years and one year I went with a bunch of friends and one of my friends was like, I just went to this awesome demonstration that involves swords and it was really cool and they’re running another demonstration the next day. You should go take that that workshop. And I’m like, OK, sure, that sounds cool. So I went and did that and it was Athena that was running the workshop and they had demonstrations at the end. So you could actually pick up either a broadsword or a longsword and learn some basics.
GW: I’ve taught that kind of thing at roleplaying conventions and things like that.
RA: Exactly. Just to engage interest. And after the workshop, they were mentioning that, hey, we’re running an introduction to German longsword class that runs for eight weeks and you should sign up.
GW: That was Athena?
RA: Yeah. So I was like, you know what? I’m a person who just tends to like taking on, oh, here’s a cool, you know, crafting class or here’s a cool drumming class I want to do. So you know what? I’ll do this for eight weeks and this will actually help condition/transition me back to doing kung fu afterwards.
GW: So historical martial arts is a gateway drug to kung fu. OK. That’s a new one.
RA: It was basically going to be like, oh, here’s something fun and flashy. And it’ll be engaging. And that was the idea. And then the last week of the intro class, what Athena does is that they offer both a cutting night and a fight night. So like the cutting night is your first experience having a sharp sword and cutting through tatami and the fight night is where you would go with existing club meets and learn how to actually put in the skills you learned over the Internet.
GW: Really important to not get your nights confused for those two.
RA: No, no, they’re separate nights. Definitely. It would be bad to mix them.
GW: Those blunt swords would be useless on tatami.
RA: Yeah. So it wasn’t until that week of classes, having those two experiences was oh, OK, I’m hooked. Maybe there’s a way I can do both this and kung fu at the same time. I tried doing that for like a month or two and then just realized it was hard to juggle both at the same time along with a working schedule. So, yeah, martially, historical martial arts won.
GW: I’m very glad to hear it. Kung fu’s loss is our gain.
RA: Yeah, pretty much.
GW: Can I ask what branch of nerd or geekdom brought you to or even fandom we should say brought you to Arisia in the first place?
RA: So I’m very big into gaming. I mean, I’m very big into all kinds of gaming because I like tabletop board games, video games. As a kid, I grew up very much into videogames and especially in my late teens. I really got into more role playing, game based ones. So for those who were well aware of that area, if anyone understands Square Enix’s Final Fantasy series, that is my traditional go to RPG-style videogame of my entire life. So much so that I have a tattoo of one of the main characters from it.
GW: That suggests a certain degree of commitment.
RA: Especially when you have a dress code at work that doesn’t allow tattoos past two inches. So the fact that you have to commit to, yeah, I have to wear tights or pantyhose or pants. So that way I hide this huge sword wielding character from a video game. Yeah.
GW: So what work do you do that has such a such a strict tattoo policy?
RA: I work in banking. I work in compliance and internal audit within a community bank.
GW: So serious banking.
RA: Serious enough. And the banking industry has gotten better. You know, over time where it’s not like when I first started out of college working as a bank teller, I still had to wear a full suit going into work as a part time bank teller. And so the fact that it has the dress code has gotten better over time is an improvement. I have a lot of ear piercings, years ago I would not be able to throw that. But now they’re fine if they’re in taste. But tattoos are one of those things that still… a progression. And it’s trying to make its acceptance in very professional realms. So, yeah, that’s why sometimes it’s a challenge.
GW: Fair enough. So, I know you started out with German longsword, as you mentioned you did this eight week German longsword course. So is that pretty much where you stayed? Or what are your main sword interests?
RA: My primary interest and most of my training still remains in German longsword mostly. Liechtenauer. That’s the primary weapon system that Athena teaches. But the nice thing with Athena is that we have the ability of learning a lot of other different weapons systems. Back before the pandemic hit we would have what would be a rotational weapons study. So oftentimes, I guess before the pandemic, on Saturdays, for instance, for an hour and a half for two months, two to three months, we would train in a particular thing. So say for three months we would do a Saturday study on Ringen. And then right before the pandemic, we were actually working with spears, because social distancing.
GW: They are the most socially distanced handheld weapon.
RA: Right. Before the stay at home order happened in Massachusetts, that was pretty much where we were taking our weapons study, which was the complete opposite of Ringen beforehand. So through having that exposed me to a lot of different things. One of our other major systems is broad sword. I don’t deal with that regularly, but it is something that you get here and there. From a lot of travelling to tournaments and going to workshops, I’ve been exposed to a lot more things. Right now my strong love is sword and buckler, that’s what I do mostly.
GW: Are we talking 1.33, or Bolognese?
RA: Both. This is what happens with me sometimes because I’m just like, oh, this looks cool, let me look into it. There is a tournament that was happening on Long Island Point in 2018, I believe. And one of the tournaments that they were running was a sword and buckler tournament, I was like, oh, that would be cool. Let me let me try that on for size. I know I’m not going to do well, but it would give me motivation to learn something different on my own and kind of force myself into a little bit more self-study. And so I started trying to learn 1.33. It’s not easy for me for self-study to understand the sources at the first time around. So what would often happen if I would jump between sources.
GW: It’s not the easiest source.
RA: No, it is not. So I still find it one of the hardest.
GW: You’re using the Forgeng Translation, I take it?
RA: Yeah. Correct.
GW: All right, sorry, carry on.
RA: No, it’s fine. So I dabbled with that. But then what I learned is that I would ask from friends in the community to be, well, what are other, videos I could use? Sometimes reading direct translations is not my strong suit. And so, you know, some people are like, here’s the Obsessio video so you can watch this.
GW: This is like my whole career. I’ve written all these books so that people don’t have to actually be able to handle the manuscript from scratch or work just from a straight translation.
RA: Right. And I find that helpful because I feel like for those of us who don’t have that innate talent…
GW: It’s a learned skill. It’s not an innate talent. It’s a learned skill – I know because I had to learn it.
RA: I mean, that’s true. And it’s sometimes hard to make the time for it. No. And that makes sense. It takes time. And I admire those who really put in the work to make it easier for us to be able to digest it better. And so having those kinds of resources makes it easier for me to try to learn that stuff and do the best I can with it.
GW: Yeah. I think with the right sort of scaffolding to start with, what I’ve seen is that students who couldn’t possibly, for example, read Fiore straight off the Italian page, they see some of the videos, they read one of my books or whatever, then they get maybe my translation or Tom’s translation or somebody else’s translation and they start working with that. And eventually they’re working directly with the manuscript. But instead of going to jump from the floor to the third floor of a building, there are these books and videos that will take you there and say you can start working at that level, but you don’t have to just climb up the outside of the building with your bare hands.
RA: That exactly how it works for me. It’s just much easier to be like, can you bring this down to a level that’s easy for me to digest and then work my way back to the source as I can feel comfortable doing so. And I think that that’s an easier way for me to learn a lot of the historical sources.
GW: So you’re working with 1.33 and thinking about this tournament. And then I derailed you somewhat and went off topic. So bring us back.
RA: So basically through that experience, I did some self-study. I attended the tournament. People say I don’t give myself enough credit because I do that. But I managed to get fifth place in that for something that I studied on my own. It’s not a thing that’s taught at our school. And it gave me motivation towards doing more self-study where I can is a good practice for myself and can be enjoyable and kind of broadened my horizons of how is this applicable to my longsword study or how is this applicable to other things that I might pick up. So in the time like especially during the pandemic, I’ve actually dabbled quite a bit more with the Italian stuff. So I have like Manciolino’s and Marozzo’s books now and I’ve been trying to dabble into them and see where are the similarities between that and 1.33 and I’m tending to like a lot of the Italian stuff better. I feel it suits me better, but I’m one of those who picks things.
GW: They are totally different. The context is different, the weapons are different.
RA: What I tend to do is I pick pieces from different weapons systems that I think fit with how I fence or how I think and then do it. So I will probably never be the “I am the 1.33 girl” or “I am this”. It’s more like here is a blend of things I’ve learned from systems that I think will work best for me.
GW: Yeah, that’s pretty much how I started many, many, many years ago, sometime in the mid 90s. We were just grabbing oh, here’s a cool technique from this book. I’ll do that. Here’s a cool thing from that. I’ll try that. And yes, if you just want to learn to win fencing matches, it’s actually not such a bad way to go. I then developed into being kind of a purist when it comes to how I treat the sources. But even so, every source has bits that are missing. So you can be a Fiorist, but you ought to know the Meisterhau. And you might be a Liechtenauerian longsword fencer, but you jolly well ought to know Fiore’s close quarter plays and you ought to know things like the exchange of thrust.
RA: Right. I think it’s good to learn a source and understand like all the elements to it, but it’s also good to see related sources and see what are the similarities? What are the differences? If I’m going into a sparring match or a tournament with someone who does Fiore, they’re going to do certain elements that I don’t normally do, how should I be prepared to know that this is might be the tactic that they use because that’s their style.
GW: One of the most common questions I get asked is, so what is the difference between the Fiore stuff and the Liechtenauer stuff? And it’s like, well, okay. I’m sort of thinking about embarking on the extraordinarily ambitious project of actually writing a book on it because there is a full book’s worth of material that because a lot of it’s the same, a lot of it is different. A lot of it is the same, but presented differently. And that makes it very awkward for a modern reader, expecting things to be done a certain way. But. If you if you had to choose just one book, what book do you think you would go with?
RA: So it’s funny actually, right now with a pandemic, longsword is very limited to me because I live in a tiny apartment and actually whatever longsword training I’ve done has been with my Messer in hand, because that’s the only thing I can do to prevent scraping the ceiling or hitting the TV. So it’s good, but it’s limited. So during the pandemic, I’ve been working more with sidesword stuff because it’s been easier to work with one handed swords in my limited space. And I think lately what I’ve been looking at a lot more at through personal training and jumping in other online stuff is Manciolino’s Opera Nova I’ve been digging into a lot lately. And also Meyer. So those are the two sources that I’ve actually been focusing on a lot on my own the last couple of months.
GW: If you had to pick one, I’m not going to ask you just in case you leave the Italians and pick Meyer. So let us move swiftly on. OK. Now, I know this is tricky. You’re sort of stuck inside for much of this pandemic time. But in my experience, pretty much everyone has something they know they ought to be training more of but are not doing so. What would that be, given pandemic limitations, what would that be for you?
RA: I think for me in this stage of my life / fencing career, I like to joke that, you know, and it’s not necessarily true because a lot of it’s body conditioning and like how you treat yourself, but I like to joke I only have a good couple of years left of fierce tournament fighting.
GW: That’s horrible to contemplate!
RA: I’ve taken a couple of injuries. I know my body’s limitations. So it’s being smart that, you know, sure I could do this into my 50s, but that doesn’t probably mean I’m going to throw myself into any open longsword tournaments that I choose, I have to be mindful of this.
GW: I’m forty-six and I’m super careful of these things.
RA: Yeah, I’m forty-one. So I’m like, OK, be smart. I’ve had knee and ankle injuries that have taken me out of fencing for little periods of time in the way that I want to. So, I think for me right now, the thing that I wish I could focus more attention to is tactics in a tournament setting. And it’s hard for me to make the transition of say, you go to class and you learn these are the techniques that you need to do to break this guard, break this thing, be able to thrust. You drill those, then you go into your tournament and then seventy five percent of that goes out the window. And you go back to your, I’m going to show you my left Overhau then my right Overhau. And then maybe thrust if I get the chance to. And in the past year, I’ve started trying to work on that stuff. And the pandemic’s made it hard because you don’t have anyone for feedback to be able to, all right, I’m going to make this attack. If this person parries it and does this thing, how am I going to immediately respond? And it’s hard to practice and train without the feedback of a partner. And so it feels limiting. So I’ve been working on body mechanics a lot during the during the pandemic. And I’ve been working on techniques to drill in so that way I feel more comfortable doing it when the time comes. But it’s the application of them in the moment that I wish I could be working on more.
GW: Yeah, I think that’s what everybody’s missing during the pandemic. Dealing with that non-scripted, somewhat unpredictable, response that you only really get from a partner or from a non-compliant partner.
RA: Yeah, I mean, that’s what’s derailed my sword and buckler training, it’s like I need someone to be able to apply pressure with their buckler against my sword. So I know if that’s too much force, how do I work around it? I can’t do that as effectively as I want to. So then all I can do is like, well, let’s just focus on just like the side sword or the sword element of it. And what can I do to train that in the meantime.
GW: It’s hard. Now, everyone I talked to has to have strong opinions about protective equipment. I can tell from your face that that’s maybe pushed the button.
RA: Well, I think it’s more so the acceptance of trying to find the right balance of mobility and protection and how much pain tolerance. I was just chuckling because Athena has recently reopened under very limited circumstances in terms of all this social distancing rules and guidelines in play and for the first time in months, because also it’s summer so we’re dealing with 80, 90 degree weather round now, so it’s warm.
GW: I’ve been to your part of the world in summer. It’s hot.
RA: We don’t want to wear full gear. So it’s always the challenge of how much gear are you willing to deal with? And just this week from class I got a bruise on my arm because I didn’t block an attack correctly. And I was like, oh, I forgot what that was like. And I’m like, well, I could’ve worn heavier padding to protect it. But also just remember to block next time. Protective gear is very important. I mean especially in sparring and tournament things I try to put the most on other than you have a lighter weight jacket and just accept the fact that some hits are going to be like lingering from a bruise for a while and that’s fine. But I always want to be able to go back to my job. I don’t want to come in injured. I don’t want my fencing career to affect me being able to have the job that allows me to keep doing fencing.
GW: Yes, that’s really important. Any particular weak spots in the equipment that you would like to see fixed?
RA: I’m sure everyone talks about gloves. It’s not just the standard glove argument. It’s like gloves dependent on the weapons you do, so of course, everyone talks about optimal gloves for longsword. I think another issue I have is optimal gloves for, say, sword and buckler, because I’d like to be able to find the optimal, here’s a glove that just fits into the buckler comfortably, but still provides the most amount of protection, because I’ve had the case where it doesn’t matter how good you are, all it takes is one particular somebody thrusts into your hand. And I’ve had that happen. And it’s terrible. It’s a terrible feeling. So, trying to find how much can I protect my hand for my buckler hand while still having the mobility to rotate the buckler around as I need to. So, I think gloves are the worst.
GW: I think they actually solved this problem pretty handily in the 16th century. But most people can’t afford custom made, perfectly fitted, beautifully articulated gauntlets.
GW: So it’s not like the problem hasn’t been solved, it’s just those are a thousand dollars.
RA: Right. And in fairness, my hands are probably actually worth that amount of money. But it’s still hard to process, like, I want to spend a thousand dollars for this. I’m like, probably not.
GW: But they’re very pretty.
RA: There is something to be said about that, trust me.
GW: But there’s still there’s still no way to armour the palm. I mean, you do see fencing or dueling gauntlets, which have mail stitched into the palm so you can grab solid blades and you’re unlikely to get a puncture. But if you have a rubber a tip on the sword, you shouldn’t get a puncture through a glove. But it still hurts like hell. But I have seen the tip come off an épée bladed, smallsword type thing and the point go between the scales of the glove and into the hand. Two or three inches into the hand. It was quite unfortunate. Freak accidents will happen.
RA: Absolutely. I mean, we have to know that going into this. There is always going to be a risk of an injury. So it’s just trying to minimize that as best as possible. And yeah, gloves are a challenge in multiple formats.
GW: Also the thing about gloves, the first pair of steel gauntlets I bought. They weren’t great, but they were OK. But a couple of days after they arrived, I went fencing and I got my finger broken. Because my steel gauntlets were in my fencing bag and not on my fingers. So, yeah, having it is one thing, but how many times people get injured because the equipment they should have been wearing doesn’t get put on.
RA: Oh, yeah. No, I mean, I’ve done that where I’m going to assume low sparring, maybe I don’t need the chest protector. I could probably get by and then all of a sudden someone stabs you in the chest and you’re like, OK, I was wrong. Go and get that right now. I should’ve known.
GW: Do you have any words of advice for beginners? People who are thinking of taking up the path of the sword, and haven’t, you know, are on the edge and maybe a bit scared of the swords, scared of getting injured, don’t know where to start or whatever?
RA: Oh, yeah. I mean, a lot of it’s just being open to the idea that I think for a lot of people, especially those who aren’t coming from like, say, a super athletic background, I think a lot of people think I have to be super athletic to do this thing and if I don’t meet these standards, I’m not going to make it. And that’s not true. I mean, I’ve even encountered that in kung fu because it took me a while to motivate myself to sign up because I figured I’m overweight, I’m not going to fit in because you’re just going to look at me and be like Oh, I like she can’t hang with the rest of us.
GW: You took an eight-week longsword course to get back into training to get back to kung fu. I mean, that restriction is still there in your head.
RA: Because you kind of think like, well, I haven’t done this in years. I’ve gained weight or I’ve lost muscle or that kind of thing. How am I going to do this? And the whole thing is it’s literally if you find the right supportive club, they’re going to help work with whatever your body limitations are. If you have disabilities, if you have mental blocks of I’ve never been in a fight with somebody – I’m scared of either being hit by a sword or hitting somebody else with a sword. And we have all of these things that we think in our heads and then stop us from doing the thing. And I think the biggest advice is, it’s OK to have these feelings, but communicate that to the instructors to let them know here are the things I’m worried about. So that way they can address it appropriately and reassure you that you’re here to have a good time, whatever your goals are out of this, and the right club will support you in enjoying it.
GW: I think it’s a really good test of the club is how they treat beginners who aren’t natural athletes.
RA: Absolutely, I agree.
GW: I mean, to me it is the whole point of having a sword is you don’t have to be that fit and strong to kill somebody with it. It’s a labour saving device. It’s sort of like the Colt Peacemaker of its time.
RA: Right. We don’t all have to be like this, like this only works for you if you are over six feet and you have this muscle class. That doesn’t need to exist in this. It’s like we all have different capabilities and can use those to our advantage in learning that stuff.
GW: I think a decent instructor will have ways of working around whatever restrictions you might have and in time, often those restrictions move away like somebody who is not flexible enough to do rapier, becomes flexible enough over time, so long as they take it gently and don’t injure themselves in the process. OK. So what have been your main influences in historical martial arts, would you say? People, books, movies. You could interpret the question however you like to interpret it. That, in fact, is really part of the question.
RA: Movies-wise, a lot of a kung fu and martial arts things appeal to me, it’s funny because a lot of it is comedic based. A lot of the movies from Steven Chow’s Kung Fu Hustle has always been a major influence on me because it’s the right balance of comedic humour with really good fighting sequences and skill. So I tend to like a lot of Japanese and Chinese and Korean styled martial arts films to kind of motivate me in terms of what are the elements of fighting that are appealing and can work to one’s advantage. People influences: there is definitely a lot. I think, one person, I could definitely say in particular would probably be Jess Finley.
GW: There’s a reason I had her as my first guest on the podcast.
RA: It’s a no brainer. I mean, she’s just very talented and she’s done so much work for the community. And she’s just a very welcoming instructor that will adjust, again, based on what I said before, understand what makes you a person in terms of how you learn and how your body operates and works with that in a very encouraging environment. It’s like, I like seeing instructors be that where it’s not just, I know this historical reference and I can interpret it, but I can also bring it to your level and make sure it feels like something that also has value to you.
GW: And she understands physical disability better than most.
RA: Right. Which is, in fairness, again, it’s so many things in life. It’s like people, if they don’t have direct experience with others that have or themselves that have limitations, they don’t know until they actually proactively do the work. So, you know, sometimes when clubs start up, it’s usually a group of friends and you all kind of know what each other’s limits are. But as you expand as a club, then you might start figuring out, oh, we have someone who wants to join, who has these body limitations or we have somebody who wants to join that, you know, may have a sensitivity to sound. And so how does training in a space impact that? So as we grow as instructors and clubs, it’s having to be aware of that stuff. And you’re right, Jess is very good about that.
GW: That’s a good choice of main influence, certainly. Now, you know, we’re all still stuck in this ghastly pandemic which was supposed to have gone away. In those countries with where they handled things properly, it did go away. But in you over there in the U.S. and me here in the U.K. it’s like, no, no, this is not being properly handled. So I’m very glad to hear that you guys are kind of getting back to some sort of limited sort of training, but do you have any thoughts about where you see historical martial arts going in the next year or so influenced by the pandemic?
RA: Yeah, I mean, I think what you’ve already have seen in the last couple of months, which I’m sure many people have noticed, is that at least the community has come together a lot, in the sense that since we can’t physically go to a tournament or physically go to a workshop, so much content is being available online and not just within schools for their own students, but having the ability to offer it to other people across the country or across the ocean. I’ve been fortunate enough that during the pandemic, especially living by myself and trying to find ways to entertain myself and keep myself focused, a lot of my friends have reached out saying, hey, if you want to join in, we’re doing our online longsword class on Tuesday nights. If you want to join in through Zoom, you’re more than welcome to do so. And I’ve been fortunate enough that I’ve been able to join up with a couple of other clubs over time. I mean, I’ve even had, I think Memorial Day weekend, I had Monday off that I could actually take David Rawling’s sword and buckler class. And that was amazing. That’s probably not an opportunity I would get under normal circumstances.
GW: I’ve noticed that I’m seeing more of some people who I’d see every couple of years when I would be in the same country as them, but now I’m actually talking to them every few weeks.
RA: Right. I’ve made a lot more connections with people in Europe over the last couple months, and most people in Europe, I have never met them. But now I’ve made connections and it’s nice to know, when things settle down, when I travel to the U.K., for instance, I now have people that I can go and visit their clubs and hang out. And I have a nice social network with them. So I think what we’ll see is that as people start to continue to understand how being able to translate classes in person to classes online, I think there’s going to be a lot more online content available to the public, which makes it more accessible for people who may not be in distance of a club and want to get started in HEMA. They have now more access available so it doesn’t feel like, well, I could read a book and maybe there’s like only one video of Messer that I want to do. And now, there’s more videos of Messer, there’s more videos of sidesword. There’s more content is being made available, which is amazing. And I think that trend is going to continue as a means to balance out still trying to figure out how to keep everybody safe.
GW: Yeah, I have a solo course. So they’re turning my online school. And before the pandemic, we had about one hundred and forty people on it and now we have just under a thousand. Because people need it.
GW: So, yeah, we’re doing all sorts of things like, you know, every Monday, Wednesday, Friday mornings at 8:15am I’m doing a sort of 45 minute general training, flexibility, breathing exercises, sort of fitness strength stuff. Basically, my usual conditioning training, but I was getting lazy, so I did these classes and they’re only live so people can sign up and join them. And I’m putting the recordings into the solo training course so people who can’t make 8:15 on UK time in the morning. Which is, I think, quarter past three in the morning for you. So I don’t expect to see you there ever Robyn, it’s quite all right.
GW: Yes. So I’m doing that. And it’s actually it’s fun. It’s actually a really positive constraint. So, yeah, when the pandemic is over, I might just keep doing it.
RA: And that’s what I think a lot of people are recognizing, they may not do it at the full frequency or intensity as they’re doing now. But I think some clubs, more instructors will decide, maybe there’s a way that I can keep some part of online or video component going. Because then again, it just provides more accessibility for people who can have options. It’s like maybe I can’t get there in person, but there’s a video I can watch this weekend and I can get my training in that way. And I really think that that’s going to better the community. I also think it’s a really good way of, again, meeting people that you wouldn’t normally. I know for myself, I’m fortunate that I have a good job and because of my flexibility of going around, I can travel to tournaments, provided I can schedule it appropriately with work. Not everyone has the means to travel states or countries away for that. But by having online content, you now have better ways to connect with the people that you wish you could have trained with. And I think that’s really vital and helps build the community more.
GW: OK. So what is the best idea you’ve never acted on? Most people have one or two projects in the back of their head that they think, you know what, I should be doing. Could be designed for a particularly inspirational cookie cutter. It could not have anything to do with swords. I’m just curious.
RA: Well, OK, I could probably give two. From a swords thing, which I’m starting to work on now that things are calming down. I was starting to do before, but I want to build myself as being an instructor in a sense of creating workshop content to be able to travel it because, again, at a certain point I’ll probably scale down from tournaments and focus on that kind of stuff. So I was in the works of creating a workshop for Lignitzer’s sword and buckler source and that got on pause a bit because pandemic and I haven’t made the time to do it yet, to fully finish it. But that that will be a goal. But it’s like in general, it’s me motivating myself to work on workshops that I can feel confident teaching to people.
GW: Okay. So am I right in thinking you’ve not taught a workshop at a significant event or major event yet?
RA: I have not taught a workshop yet. This year is actually gonna be my first year doing that, and then, pandemic. So I had an opportunity to do the Lignitzer class at Swords of the North, which is a small kind of workshop. Sometimes there’s a casual tournament that happens in Maine, in Portland, Maine. So that was going to be the first time I taught a workshop. I was also going to run a panel discussion that talked about diversity and inclusion in fencing organizations, because I was going to do that and I was going to do that for a Audacia in Toronto.
GW: So the pandemic really kind of screwed your teaching at events schedule.
RA: Exactly. So, yes, basically this year was the year of “I’m going do so many tournaments and I’m going to start challenging myself to present.” Yep, those are both on hold.
GW: It gives you more time to prepare.
RA: That is that is correct. And that is how I’m looking at it. I figured as things settle down with the world around me, then it’s like I can actually start carving out time to be like, all right, let’s get back at this. Let’s do this and set this as a goal again.
GW: So excellent. OK. My last question which I ask every guest: if you were given a million dollars to improve historical martial arts worldwide, how would you spend it? You can’t just buy yourself pretty kit, that’s the only rule.
RA: I think… that’s a really good question. I guess one angle might be to be able to, with that kind of money, create training accessible training locations, throughout various places in the country. I’m fortunate where I am, where, even in the Boston area, we have three major clubs that so we have a little bit of accessibility. But even still, it’s hard to be able to find training space because, you know, you want something that has high ceilings and has protected things. And ideally, if you could store gear, that would be great and have it be accessible to people, whether they drive or don’t drive. And a means to make historical fencing more accessible to everyone. If we had more designated training locations that people could go to, that wouldn’t have to be impacted by, all right, we have to rent space from a library or a club or we have to go outside to fence and are limited by weather. So I think if we can build some more spaces and have more loaner gear available, so that way it’s another layer of accessibility to people that may not have the money to do this. Well, you don’t necessarily need a certain amount of money to do this. Here’s a helmet and here’s a loaner sword. Here’s things so that way you have that already available to you. Now you just have your love of learning.
GW: I can tell you from experience that that makes all the difference, because when I opened my school in Finland, when we moved to a permanent training location, a 20 minute bus ride from the center of town, right next to the bus stop. And people started leaving their gear and the rule was, if it’s dusty or rusty, it goes on the beginners’ rack and anybody can use it. So within six months or so, we had steel swords and fencing masks, enough to equip a 20 person beginners’ course. So people could come and the first class was always free. So it costs absolutely nothing. If they have their bus pass, it costs them literally nothing to show up and have a go and find out if it works for them and very often it did, so they would join the course and then have their training fees from then on. But there was no necessity to ever actually buy any equipment. And really, it just makes the whole thing so much more accessible, particularly to kids from poorer backgrounds, people who don’t have jobs. People who just don’t have the spare cash to drop five hundred dollars on a training sword and a fencing mask. So, yeah, I can tell you that’s a good idea because I’ve seen it work. So where would you build the first one?
RA: I’m not sure if I would have necessarily exact locations, but I’d like to put them in places that would, I know this will sound funny, or not funny, but I would like to put them in locations that are accessible to a more diverse group of people. And I think that if there are ways to have these, say, in inner cities or really remote locations that, again, people don’t have the means to travel as easily. I think that if you can make it accessible to minorities and if you can make it accessible to people who are in the LGBTQ community. Things that just further grow, this can be a diverse group. And here’s more ways to make it accessible for that is.
GW: Forgive my ignorance of American demographics, but does that tend to be about geographical location?
RA: It sometimes can. The U.S. is very interesting because each state has its own makeup of geographic population density. And you might have certain states in the Midwest that you may not see another person for miles, and then again, I live outside of Boston, Massachusetts, where it’s an extremely diverse location. So the variety definitely depends on the state you live in and even in the state different regions lend themselves towards very few people. A lot of people. A lot of diversity, very little diversity. It varies. It’s not consistent.
GW: So You’d have to do a bit of research to figure out where to put this first place.
RA: Yeah, I would have to think, because I think, again, a lot of the major cities have access to it. I think it’s smaller towns or things that do not have major metropolises that makes it harder. You see all the time people asking, I’m looking to join a club and the nearest club is two hours away in this state because there’s only two clubs. So if there is ways to put more clubs in regions of people that want to do it, that would be great.
GW: It would make good use of the cash. Excellent. If I had it I would give it to you, but I don’t have it, sorry.
RA: That’s fine. Story of my life!
GW: So Robyn, thank you very much for joining me today. Do you have any parting words, anything you’d like the listeners to go and do before we say goodbye?
RA: Absolutely. I think for me, I just like to offer myself as like a really good example of the whole idea that anybody, if they’re interested, can do historical martial arts. I think a lot of times, again, people are afraid I have to be a certain athletic level or I have to meet this certain class. I’m 41, I’m black, I’m a woman. I’m all these attributes of a person that someone might not think, oh, she’s a sword fighter. But I’m proof definitely anybody can do this and enjoy it and engage in it in the way that is the most meaningful to them. So it’s why I encourage everybody and I’m a huge advocate of trying to get people to put swords in their hands and have fun with that.
GW: Yeah. One of the most meaningful things you can do for some people is just put a sword in their hand for the first time. It’s like flicking a light switch.
RA: It’s magical.
GW: That’s a perfect note to end on. Thank you very much for joining me, Robyn. It’s been lovely.
RA: Thank you for having me. It’s a pleasure.