GW: I’m here today with Anna Beard, who is a historical dancing and ballet and historical fencing instructor at Austin Historical Weapons Guild. That’s a lot of “historicals”. I think we’re going to get into the history of things a little bit. So without further ado, Anna, welcome to the show.
AB: Thank you so much for having me. I’m really looking forward to this.
GW: Well, thanks for coming. And just to orient everybody whereabouts in the world are you?
AB: I am currently in Austin, Texas, though I originally hail from northern Michigan.
GW: OK. Well, I’ve never been to Austin and I haven’t been to Texas since 2006, has it changed much?
AB: I first came in 2017, and it has changed a lot in even that time. It is growing like crazy. I’m sure people have read the news to see that we’ve got Tesla, everything here now and everybody wants to move from California to here. So even in the short time that I have resided in Austin, there has been a lot of physical change as well as cultural change.
GW: OK. And what brought you to Austin from northern Wisconsin?
GW: I’m sorry, Michigan. It’s all America, it’s all the same.
AB: Oh my gosh! You’ll find that people from Michigan in particular, I feel like, are quite proud. We’re just sort of that northern peninsula on the top, you have to choose to go there. You don’t really drive through because of the lakes. So I feel like that sort of breeds a real sense of community that maybe comes out of wintry isolation. But people from Michigan are super enthusiastic about being from Michigan.
GW: Also, Michigan is the first English language speaking government to outlaw the death penalty.
AB: Oh, I didn’t know that.
GW: Oh, and you’re even from there. It’s true. I was in Michigan a little while ago and some of my Michigonian friends that were like, Guy, you really should know this about Michigan. But also a really funny thing is, having lived in Finland a lot of my life, an awful lot of Michigan feels like an awful lot of Finland/Sweden.
AB: It’s funny that you say that because we have, in the upper peninsula of Michigan, there is a very strong Finnish community because a lot of Finns came over to do lumber and mining. So you will still hear people who have thick, thick upper peninsula accents. It kind of sounds a little bit like that.
GW: So I just threw all that out there to kind of make up for getting Wisconsin and Michigan confused in my head. I’ve been to both those places many times and they are actually quite different. And Wisconsin has the cheese.
AB: Wisconsin has the cheese.
GW: Yes. And they’re very proud of their cheese.
AB: They’re super proud of it. Where I come from in northern Michigan, we’re super proud of cherries.
GW: Cherries? OK. Yeah. Next time I’m in Michigan, I shall have to try some Michigonian cherries.
AB: Yeah. Well, you’ll only find them like up in the “pinkie” area. So if you look at Michigan, like it’s a mitten, like a hand, I grew up in the pinkie. And so that’s where a lot of cherries are grown and where we have the National Cherry Festival.
AB: Yeah, we’re super fancy up there.
GW: So why would you ever leave?
AB: I left Michigan because at the time I was married to a man who thought he found his dream job in Austin, and maybe he did find his dream job in Austin, but yeah, it was hard to leave Michigan. It was not my first choice. I’ve lived overseas in my life and loved it, but I really didn’t want to leave Michigan. So that was very hard to leave a kind of well-established life. But that transition and move and kind of upheaval when you’re seeking, how do I connect to this new place in this new community, is what drove me to HEMA?
GW: OK, interesting.
AB: Yeah. So my background is I am a dancer. I’ve been a dancer since as, according to my mother, as soon as I was able to toddle around, I was dancing. So I’ve been dancing since I was four. I went on to get my Bachelor of Fine Arts and Dance from the University of Michigan and have taught in studios and done my own projects and performances and small dance companies. And so I left all that when I left Michigan, and when I came to Austin, it’s sort of hard to drop right into the community that you left when you’re feeling that sense of loss. And it’s not always easy to try and find true love twice in the same thing. So I wasn’t ready to launch into the dance community in Austin. And a friend of mine who lives in the UK and does HEMA was like, you know, maybe you should look into this sword fighting thing because you’re a giant nerd. You’re a dancer. It seems like a good fit. So I was like, OK, I’ve never done that before. I’m sure that dance is somehow useful, and I’ve always wanted to do a combat art. Never done anything like that. So I was like, sure. Let’s see what Google turns up. So Google turned up Austin Historical Weapons Guild, and here I am now a co-owner of a space and promoting HEMA every which way I can.
GW: So it’s fair to say you kind of liked the whole sword thing when you found it.
AB: Yeah, I mean, I grew up reading Lord of the Rings in The Hobbit and all kinds of fantasy books. My brothers got me seriously into Dungeons and Dragons at a really young age, so I’ve grown up with that fascination and that romanticism around being a sword fighter. I’m a huge fan of old school movies like Ivanhoe. Tyrone Powers and Basil Rathbone are heroes, my favourite, favourite old school fencers. And then, of course, The Princess Bride, like all of that, culminated in me going like, yeah, I wanna be a sword fighter. That sounds cool. I was super nervous, but after my first class, I was like hooked. I was like, OK, yes, this is a new thing.
GW: Dare I ask who that friend in the UK who put you onto is? Can you give them a shout out? Or do you want to keep it secret?
AB: Yeah, he’s a man named Steve Emmett. He is an avid LARPer. He also does HEMA. He works at a really cool comic book shop. He lives outside of London. So, yeah, he is totally responsible for this new direction in my life.
GW: Well, well done, Steve. Excellent. Yeah, I know what you mean about not wanting to go straight into the culture that you left because I lived in Finland for 15 years, started my school there. Kind of started the historical martial arts scene in Finland. And when we moved here to the UK, I was like, I am not starting another school. I just don’t want to do that. That’s like, no, I’ve got enough schools. There are some local sword people that I hang out with every now and then. But it just it would just feel kind of almost like going backwards. But it’s hard, and nice that you found a new home in Austin.
AB: Yeah, it’s the biggest city I’ve ever lived in. But with that comes a lot of opportunity. And being able to tap into lots of different unique events that we’ve been doing, before the pandemic, we were definitely doing fight nights at a local bar. A friend of ours owns a gaming pub here in Austin called Vigilante, where they have a super dedicated Dungeons and Dragons group. And so we were going in and doing fighting demonstrations and what I call “weapons petting zoos” where people just get to like, can I hold this? You can give facts about it.
GW: That’s a really good name for it, by the way, a “weapons petting zoo”. I know exactly what you mean, and it describes it perfectly.
AB: I can’t take credit for that. That would be in my child’s elementary school band teacher that used to do instrument petting zoos to let kids kind of decide what they wanted to play.
GW: That’s a good idea.
AB: So I stole it. And so we would do petting zoos, and we would also do a little 15 minute mini lessons of like, learn to fight like your DnD character. What does your DnD character fight with? And just kind of giving someone what I what I sometimes call is like weapon speed dating. It’s just 15 minutes for me to give you my pitch on why this weapon is fun, what you can do with it. And so we were doing events like that. And sadly, Covid shut those down. But we’re starting to slowly get back to things like that that a bigger city affords because there are tons of people who are always walking through the doors, always googling, always looking for fun stuff. So now we do things called the Dagger Date Night. So we encourage people on your date night, go get dinner and then we will meet you. If you want to do like a picnic, we’ll meet you in a park and we will teach you in your date how to stab each other for an hour or you can come to our school.
GW: That is genius.
AB: Yeah. Nobody steal my idea. That’s me. But a larger city lets you experiment and try these things because you simply have so many people that you’re allowed to be a bit more free in finding a system that works for you, rather than when you’re in a much smaller community you have to tailor yourself so much to try and figure out what that smaller group of people wants. So in that sense, I do enjoy living in Austin and having a bigger playground, essentially.
GW: Yeah, and connecting it to the role playing. I used to just a bit of Dungeons and Dragons when I was a kid and me and my friends, we were living in Botswana at the time, and we would be sitting around the table and rubbing dice and whatever. At some point we’d have to fight. And rather than rolling dice to fight, we would go outside and fight and whoever won, your character won. One person would be the troll or whatever that you’re supposed to fight and you’d be your character and you’d have the closest we could approximate, being 11 or 12 years old, to the weapons. And yeah, I found it much more satisfying than rolling the dice.
AB: So you were a LARP a hipster. You were doing it before it was cool.
GW: It was the 80s. Everything was cool in the 80s.
AB: I understand what you’re saying in that whether somebody has that skill set or not, the very act of holding a sword is delightful, right? Like to see someone’s eyes light up when they hold a sword is kind of the best feeling. And then when you teach someone, you get to teach someone, even if you’re just with them for 15 minutes, you’re like, this is a historically accurate cut. And that person walks away walking a little bit taller because they know something that is real that’s now connected to this super romanticised, fantastical thing that they can hold. And being able to share that with people and transport them and empower them is like, oh, it’s the best.
GW: Yes. I mean, that’s why I’ve done it for a living for the last 20 years. Like, why would you do anything else if you can? You have a so classical dance, background, ballet and whatnot. I’m just curious. You show up to your first swordfighting class, there’s going to be a difference in class culture and teaching culture and teaching approach between historical martial arts as you found them and the dance you were used to. What was the difference?
AB: I would say the biggest difference between the HEMA training experience that I initially had versus my ballet background was the intense appreciation for repetition in ballet. You are just doing the same thing for your entire life. And in fact, there’s a famous ballerina named Julie Kent, who in an interview jokingly said that she was talking to a friend of hers who was like, hey, let’s go out. And she was like, Oh no, I can’t. I have ballet class. And the friend was like, you’ve been doing that your whole life now. Like, why aren’t you good at it by now? And so that is like hard baked into me that repetition, repetition, repetition. And Anthony, who is the founder of Austin Historical Weapons Guild, I would work with him and I would just be asking questions and he’d be like, OK, let’s try the thing, and I was like, no, I need to go in a corner and do this eight times. And then I will do the drill with you. I kind of found myself structuring myself in the way that I was in ballet class, which is like, no, I need to do this a few times and I need to figure it out and I need to feel comfortable with it on both sides. And then I will do it in a more advanced drill situation with someone. One of the things that Anthony and I really connected on was he was very interested in my training background and my teaching experience. And so it’s been really fun for us to kind of meld these two things together as we’ve continue to build Austin Historical Weapons Guild together. But ballet is really super structured, which some people love. It’s a very binary thing. Nobody’s kind of like, yeah, ballet is OK, whatever, you know, it’s very much like, oh, I love ballet or like ballet, ugh. Because it has a very polarising effect on people because it’s hard, because it’s repetition.
GW: Thing is, I don’t like ballet.
AB: OK, Guy.
GW: And let’s be honest with each other, I’ll just tell you the truth. I figured out why I don’t like it. I have never actually taken a ballet class and actually the way ballet is taught, I really like that kind of thing, repetition, formality. That’s not how I tend to teach much these days, but it’s my preferred sort of learning structured environment. But you know how when you watch somebody move, your mirror neurones tell you what it feels like to move that way. A way of moving indicates a certain internal state. You can tell when somebody’s depressed by the way they move, you can tell when somebody’s stuck up by the way they move. OK. When I see ballet, my mirror neurones fire and they tell me what I would feel like if I moved like that and I don’t like the person I become if I were to move like that.
AB: OK, I understand what you’re saying. I’m taking this as a big ole challenge accepted.
GW: That’s not the way it was meant.
AB: That’s the way it was taken, Guy.
GW: Oh, shit, I’m in trouble now.
AB: I very much understand what you’re saying. You do have that kinaesthetic sense of, I’m watching this and it’s supposed to elicit reaction. There are so many striations in ballet that I think that you definitely have. Because you don’t like it, so why would you seek out to explore more of it, right? And so chances are you have a very limited exposure sample and most likely, it’s super classical ballet.
GW: Yeah, I mean, I’ve been to ballet performances by world class ballet troupes.
AB: But you’re probably seeing, for the most part, you’re seeing things like maybe Swan Lake or Sleeping Beauty.
GW: Yeah, that’s fair.
AB: So those ballets are deeply rooted in the tradition that comes from Louis XIV. So the reason it probably gives you this sense of like, “oof, I don’t want to be that guy,” is probably because the classical ballets that we associate the most with it, so Swan Lake, The Nutcracker, Sleeping Beauty, all of these ballets are happening in the latter half of the 1800s, and this is like ballet’s heyday. It’s the height. It’s when the real groundwork for what we see today has been laid. This is like when ballet is like, whoa, what you think of ballet someone on their toes and everything is happening then. That tradition, though, is super rooted all the way back in Louis XIV, who was just a ballet nut job even before he becomes king. He’s like, I love ballet. I train and ballet all the time. I sleep, dream, eat, ballet. He was in a 13 hour ballet. It was literally 13 hours meant to recreate one evening in Paris, which has like witches and some weird stuff that I’m not entirely sure actually happens in Paris at night. However, he brings this sense of ballet to his then own brand of ruling, which is I kind of joke about Louis XIV, being the originator of like Patreon. He starts creating such a overly structured social hierarchy in his court that he’s like, “Hey, would you like to pick out the shirt I’m going to wear today? Cool. Pay me money. Would you like to watch me eat my dinner tonight? Cool. Pay me money.” That was what he was creating with these underpinnings of ballet because ballet was so important to him. As he went on through his rule, ballet became less of his own focus as he was able to do it less. But ballet also starts really thriving and moving in its own direction because it’s been given such an infusion of attention, money and status. And it kind of becomes its own beast, which he starts to resent a little bit later, actually. But in the beginning how ballet is is directly entangled with social hierarchy and privilege. And it’s all about being seen, presenting, like he even had special shoes that people wore if they were invited to court. If you got to wear shoes with red heels, you were like, oh, that person’s at court. So he just starts pitting his courtiers against each other in these horrific kind of high school cafeteria scenarios. And that is where ballet is rooted. So I understand why when you watch these things, you’re kind of like, it feels so poncy and like I don’t want to be that person.
GW: But at the same time, late 18th century small sword. Love it. I absolutely love it. And it’s got an awful lot of ballet DNA in it.
AB: A lot. A lot a lot a lot. OK, so let’s make a pact, Guy. Next time we are at the same event, and I’m teaching my class, Ballet for Sword Fighters, I would ask that you give me that hour and a half of your life and we’ll see what you think about ballet after that.
GW: OK, so long as I’m not scheduled to teach against you, you’re on. I’m happy to try it. It’s just I have never seen a ballet that I like, but there are other dances that I’ve seen that I do like and my kids are completely addicted, and my wife too, to the British show, Strictly Come Dancing, which is like the American Dancing With the Stars. We don’t watch it live because there’s all that boring talking stuff and the judges going on and on about rubbish. But we fast forward and watch the dances and they’re brilliant. Not all of them are brilliant but some of them are absolutely fantastic to watch you watch and mirror neurones firing and I go, oh my God, I would love to be moving like that. That would feel awesome.
AB: I think maybe you’re a modern dance guy, a modern dance guy, Guy.
GW: The only dance training I’ve ever had was when I was single a long time ago, I went to an Argentinean tango class. I thought it would be great place to meet girls. Totally failed on the meeting women. I mean, there were plenty of women there and I met them but it was never going to work, but I stuck around because the tango itself was great. I really liked Tango. But the moment that really kind of cracked tango for me is when I realised it’s much more like horse riding than it is like wrestling. Because I had an idea that, OK, yes, you’re supposed to lead, so you move the person around. And you know, I am fairly strong and I can do wrestling stuff. And so these poor women were getting manhandled by this young idiot. And then I realised, hang on, no, it’s like riding a horse. You just give the signal and then they do the thing. And when I figured that out, I got a lot more popular in the class. People were much happier to train with me after I figured that out.
AB: One of the best cues I ever heard for leading in a ballroom class is for the gentleman, the lead, to think of driving a wheelbarrow. You can’t justmake sudden decisions with a wheelbarrow. You have to plan ahead and think, oh, we’re doing this turn and we’re curving around. But you’re definitely correct in that. It has to be that symbiotic relationship. You have to invite your partner, or your horse, to like, do the thing that you want to do.
GW: You don’t actually hip throw them. That’s wrong.
AB: No. That’s something else entirely
GW: We’ve touched on pedagogy a little bit. And you direct the children’s programme at the Austin Historical Weapons Guild. I have never taught children other than the kids that are old enough to join in the grown up class because living in Finland, my Finnish wasn’t good enough to do it in Finnish. So I have children and I’ve taught my own children stuff, but I’ve never taught historical martial arts in a formal way to kids. So my question is, what’s the difference?
AB: So currently, I’m teaching kids from ages 12 to 15 because our adult class starts at 16. We’ve done smaller workshops with little kids and Covid has definitely impeded our ability to launch that programme to its fulfilment. But that’s my background in that I’ve been teaching movement to kids as young as three since I was, oh my gosh, 15 is when I first started teaching kids. To speak in broad generalisations, the biggest difference between adults and kids is that kids are inherently fearless about trying new things. So my approach to kids is they want to see all the things, they want to try it all. They don’t come in with that baggage that adults tend to, insecurities or worrying that they’re they will fail or that they won’t be good enough. That kind of sense of failure is just sort of like a foggy thing in the background when it comes to kids, like they just want to get in and do it. They’re enthusiastic to the extreme. So the biggest difference in my teaching style with kids and adults is that I try to meet that enthusiasm head on and maybe even top it because I want to keep them engaged and going. Whereas adults, it’s kind of like, oh, let’s see where everyone is today, how are we feeling, do people really want to be picked on? No, we just want to have an easy place where I just kind of show you stuff, OK. So there’s a lot more of an emotional intelligence when you’re teaching adults in that you’re trying to assess where is this group of people today, because they have so much more going on. Whereas a kid walks in the door and they’re like, I’m here, I’m ready to go, oh my gosh, let’s stab stuff. They are just so enthusiastic. And so I’m I try to be that enthusiastic. I’m like, oh my gosh, we’re going to do the thing. We’re going to pick up the dagger and we’re going to do this, it’s is going to be awesome. You’re going to love it. And they’re just like, yeah! The other thing about kids, though, is that while their enthusiasm rides high, they need these hard stop breaks. And so you need to give a kid a break and just be like, depending on the age group, usually three to seven, I’m going to give kids wiggle breaks and you’re like, OK, we did a thing for a solid 10 minutes, literally go run around the room until I say stop. OK, come back. So it’s having to manage the fact that their brains, that’s the difference with adults. Adults are like, I have a concept and I’m going to focus on it, I’m gonna make my body super small and I’m just going to obsess for like the next hour because I want to get it right. And a kid is like, OK, I focused for 10 minutes. I’m done. I need to do something that’s completely different. And so giving these children these sort of like wiggle breaks, with really young kids, I like to play games that are still geared towards the skills I want them to learn, which is going to be listening, using their eyes, listening to directions, and so playing games that don’t necessarily feel like, “ the work of the class”, but are still keeping them in a space where they’re aware and in the moment. So you play games with kids where you’re like, I want you all to walk on your tiptoes to the red carpet. And so it’s just giving them directions and things to do that’s still cueing them up to the mental place, you’re going to need them to be. But as far as they’re concerned, it’s not work anymore, it’s a game. So those are the kinds of things I try to incorporate with kids that aren’t present for adults because their needs are completely different.
GW: Although I actually do similar things with adults. I don’t call it a wiggle break, but when it feels like it’s starting to be more effort than it should be, I change the pace and we do something completely different for a little bit and then they come back refreshed. So like it might be, we five minutes of cardio type stuff, which I frame it such that it feels like a natural next stage of the class, but actually it’s just they’ve been perhaps thinking too much and now they just need to move for a little bit or they’ve been moving too much now they need to have a kind of a calmer thing. And so I’m constantly adjusting what I’m doing to give them those effectively wiggle breaks. Particularly for a full day seminar you need that kind of thing.
AB: Yeah, I think for adults, it really depends. If you’re teaching the same group of people for two hours you need to have structured breaks in there and it depends what you’re teaching. For me as a ballet teacher the breaks are kind of already in the ballet class structure in that you do barre, you have a break, you’re doing stretches, you come out, you’re doing something else, it slows down, it speeds up. So the traditional ballet class structure takes care of itself in that way. I think as far as teaching swords, I think it really depends on your chunk of time, like our classes run for an hour. So an hour is a pretty short time. It’s not a lot of time. By the time you get someone warmed up, you work through a concept, you’re moving to another concept.
GW: Most of my seven hours are like five or six hours. I’m flown from a different country to come and teach that for like two days. And so I’m thinking more in terms of a full day.
AB: Oh, absolutely. Anybody needs that break. But if I’m looking at an hour chunk of an adult class versus an hour chunk of a kid’s class, an hour chunk of a kid’s class is going to have like three wiggle breaks in it, because that’s that sort of like hard stop. They they’re literally like a puppy who is now chewing your sock. You have to snap them out of that with a command to say come here, stop what you’re doing. And not that children are puppies. But they do share some similarities. An adult has an ability to I’m going to straight on focus on this thing for 15 minutes, and that’s great and then we switch to another concept. But a kid literally like they may want to keep going, but their little brain is just starting to like, misfire and melt.
GW: What do you do with the kids who are a bit overawed and shy? Because with the kids who are naturally enthusiastic, you kind of have to rein them in to the things you want to see. But what about the kids who clearly really want to have a go but they’re really shy, and they’re basically left to their own devices that just sit on the side and kind of watch with their eyes on the ground.
AB: So with those kind of kids I try to engage with them in ways that do not feel like I am overly focussing one on one with them in a situation where they feel watched. Because that’s hard, that’s hard for anyone. And if you’re insecure and shy and you feel like someone is just staring at you, waiting for you to mess up, that’s a lot of pressure. A couple of ways I’ll work with them is either I’m not looking at them at all. So we’re facing the same direction and they’re behind me, which is a traditional dance class setup, so they can follow me. We’re doing the same thing. No one’s watching them and it feels very safe. The other way I’ll do is I’ll come and stand literally side by side with a kid like, we’re doing this together. You and I are both on the same playing field. I’m not watching. We’re in it together, we’re a team. And then just the normal things that would you assume like, I’m going to talk more quietly with them. I’m not going to correct them as much, because like insecurity doesn’t do well with overcorrection. And I do that for both adults and kids. I also really quickly try to pick up on how does this child or adult best receive information? So if I’m asking them to do a cut, sometimes people are great with giving left and right direction. Right hand, left hand. Great. For some people they are like, what? I’m trying to learn something new. I don’t even know if I have hands anymore. I don’t even know which is which. So then switching to giving cues like “your hand closest to the door”, “your foot closest to the window”. These are like physical pinpoints that someone can go, oh, that is literally on that side of me. Oh, this is what they’re talking about. So trying to assess very quickly how I can best give information to that person to give them cues is another way that I try to mitigate insecurity and a student being unsure.
GW: Hmm. Yeah. And, you know, when parenting, when I’m talking to my children, then very often the best way to actually get them to talk is when they’re doing something else, like maybe drawing a picture or going for a walk, where you’re not actually looking at each other, you might be doing the same thing, you might be doing different things in parallel. But isn’t this face to face. Sometimes with my oldest, we will go for a walk. I hope she doesn’t listen to this. She likes going on quite long walks. So maybe after about 45 minutes of not really saying anything, she’ll just start talking. She’ll tell me all sorts of stuff about what’s going on in her school, what her friend group is doing, all those sorts of things. And I’m not going to say any more because she’s a very private person. But it’s like, after just enough time of basically facing in the same direction and moving, then she just starts to talk. I need to figure out how to adapt that for students in class.
AB: I mean, everything comes down to trust. Being a ballet teacher, I feel like trust is paramount because someone walks into my class in tight fitting clothing and is asking to be critiqued. On paper, that’s a horrible pitch, right? Do you want to come to my class where you’re wearing somewhat revealing clothing and then I tell you what you’re doing wrong? Doesn’t that sound fun? Let’s do that. So I keep that very much at the at the forefront. And so my job is to build trust with someone, whether they’re an adult. And I’ll often tell students where I say, “Hey, you feel like you’re struggling with this right now because this is hard. Be gentle with yourself. You’ve been doing ballet all of, let’s say, maybe three weeks. Why should you have this yet? There’s no reason you’re in a learning process. So what I need you to do right now is, trust me as the ballet teacher that I see where you are three weeks from now and you’re on the right track. So let’s keep doing this.” And so building that trust with adults, that’s usually the language I use. Whereas with little kids, I’ve even had situations with a kid where they’re just getting so frustrated in their head. And I would very kind of gently try to say like, “Hey, wait a minute, who’s the ballet teacher right now?” And they would say, “Oh, you” and I go, “Oh, I am the ballet teacher. You’re right. So that means I probably maybe know a little bit more about ballet than you do right now. And I’m telling you, as someone who knows, you’re doing awesome.” And so trying to build that trust and create that sense of, I’m going to trust my journey to this person. They have my best interests at heart. They want me to succeed. And so even though I feel like this is a total flop right now, they say this is exactly where I should be right now.
GW: Yeah. The sort of internal judgemental voice that’s going, “You’re so fucking stupid.” I see this all the time. And it is one of the hardest things to turn off. Because it feels like if you turn it off, you don’t have that kind of feedback mechanism to tell you whether you’re getting better or not. So yeah, I think I think they feel a bit lost without it. So I try to do is to create an environment in which there is natural feedback occurring so they don’t need to worry about judging whether something they did was good or bad. They can see, did they hit the target or not? So they don’t need to figure out, did that blow feel right or not, they could just see whether it worked or not.
AB: Yeah, definitely when you’re doing something that requires a muscle memory, that horrible, ephemeral space of I don’t know if it’s correct or not because I have nothing to base this on. This is my dance training in that there is a whole section of training in ballet called Floor Barre. So you’re laying on the floor, doing regular ballet exercises, but you’re not having to deal with the fact that you’re balancing upright anymore. So a lot of muscles are shut off because you’re not having to stand upright and so you’re able to focus and isolate a lot like you do in pilates on one muscle group on am I doing this correctly. Using the floor and using the wall are two things that I love to bring to my dance training, as well as my sword training. Because the wall and the floor, like I tell people, they don’t lie. And they’ll immediately tell you if you’re a cheater.
GW: And you know, when my kids were learning to walk, I would tell them that Mr. Gravity is their best friend because he will never lie to them. So, you know, if they get it right, they don’t fall over. And if they get it wrong, they fall over. And that’s fine. Mr. Gravity is helping them learn to walk.
AB: Yeah. When I’m trying to get people to understand, like I love Meyer. That’s where my sword teaching is rooted because I think he’s fantastic and I could go on forever. But when trying to get that stance where you are sitting back in your hips and not leaning forward like an action figure, I make people go up against a wall, bend over. Make sure that they butt bump and then stand up and I make them butt bump the wall because they can immediately feel it. If you action figure bend forward you’re never going to get your butt closer to the wall. So giving people things that they can take home like that and find a wall in their house and do butt bump drills. Or I also give people what I call toothbrushing moments where I’m like, hey, you’re standing twice a day for two minutes at a time, brushing your teeth. When we all say as adults, I’m going to train, I’m going to make 15 minutes a day. That’s easier said than done. But here’s this ready made moment for you to practise footwork while you brush your teeth, or if you are lucky enough to live with a training partner, maintain a certain distance while you guys brush your teeth, find things that you can do that augment your training and build up that muscle memory.
GW: And attach to an existing habit. Attach it to an existing habit. I prefer to have it like before or after the toothbrushing because I’m a bear of little brain and I can’t do two things at once. And if I do footwork while brushing my teeth, I’ll probably stab myself in the nostril.
AB: You could also just hold stance. You could just hold stance when brushing. But I try to illuminate for people that you have this time in your day, it doesn’t have to be this huge thing that you set aside. It’s just about building habit, like you said. So attach it to something that’s already happening in your life and you’ll see a difference.
GW: Yeah, we’ve mentioned the 18th century, and I said that smallsword fencing of the 18th century has a lot of ballet in it and you did not say, no, it doesn’t. So I’m assuming that I’m not wrong on that point. But you do ballet and you do Meyer and Meyer pre-dates what we think of as modern ballet by a couple of centuries and you don’t tend to see what we think of as ballet positions so much, perhaps in Meyer. Well, the turnout perhaps. But anyway, to your mind, what is the connection between the two arts?
AB: OK. Buckle up, because it’s something I love to talk about.
GW: Go for it. Go for it. That’s what we are here for.
AB: Ballet as we know it elicit certain ideas, right? We’re thinking of the sugar plum fairy or whatever. But ballet was a term that has been attached to dance that happens way before that sort of modernising of ballet and codifying of ballet happens with Louis XIV. So we’re starting to talk about Renaissance Dance. Renaissance Dance you have “ballets” that are happening at court, right? So you have social court dancing and then you have these more structured ballets which aren’t at all what we think of now. They are a lot more free form. They have some spectacle, courtiers are sometimes featured in these ballets and they’re entertainments, but not what we think of as now. Renaissance Dance is the root of the ballet that starts to happen with Louis XIV, so everything goes back to that. Why I think ballet, renaissance dance and sword fighting are so closely knit is because they are really at the core of cultural and social interactions. Anybody who’s anybody is dancing, everybody’s dancing. If you’re a farmer, you’re dancing. Whether you’re doing maypole dances, you’re doing English country dancing, everybody is doing that. Then you have these super structured renaissance dances that people have seen at ren fairs and stuff, and that is more relegated to the court because it’s attached to status. In Renaissance dance manuals, and I have one that’s by an Italian Fabrido Caroso, he actually has a whole section about how gentlemen and women should behave at parties. It’s really entertaining to read, but one of the things he addresses is OK, guys, when you’re wearing your cloak, for the love of God, please don’t look like an idiot. Don’t drape it over your shoulder and let it drag on the floor because that’s what women do with their dresses. So please don’t do that. But then he also says, don’t swaddle yourself because you will be unable to access your sword should a need to use it arise. And then basically, he says, everyone will laugh at you and you’ll be super embarrassing. Why I love this reference is because a dance manual is literally telling you how to wear your sword. So it’s assumed that you’re dancing with a sword. So people who know how to sword fight are dancing. That’s just there. The reason people dance it literally in the manual says this is a chance to see if that person you have your eye on is healthy. Right? Are they? How long can they dance before they’re out of breath? Kind of a thing. It’s a chance to demonstrate your health because you don’t have a lot of intimate social interactions between men and women. There’s no touching. There’s no hand-holding. Like even walking next to a man would be like, whoa, if you’re not permitted to. So court dance is an opportunity to get close and in the manuals that literally says you can check to see if their breath is bad or if they smell like bad meat. Dance doesn’t hold the same cultural place as it does for us now, which is kind of fun. I go with my friends, we get silly, we dance around. It’s joyful, whatever. This is like integrated into the cultural way that you interact, how you possibly are checking out potential partners, how you’re having these little flirtatious moments. It’s an opportunity to get close to your sovereign because Elizabeth I loved court dancing like, loved it, loved it, loved it. So if she’s dancing and you’re a good dancer, that means you have an opportunity to get close to her, to be seen, to be noticed. There is a guy called Christopher Hatten, who is said to have been elevated to court purely because Elizabeth I was like, that guy’s galliard is great so I guess you should just be at court now. It opens doors. So with that kind of social importance centred around dance and the assumption that if you are a gentleman of a certain status, you should know how to use a sword. If you’re carrying a sword on your hip, it’s implied you know how to use it. So therefore you’re training in it, so you’re training in both. And so the athleticism of both are therefore going to inform each other just because you’re learning them at the same time.
GW: OK. It strikes me as likely that in the training of, shall we say, a courtier, for want of a better word, it wouldn’t make sense to have to utterly distinct ways of moving. It would make more sense if they are related. Like learning two different languages at once. It makes more sense than just the one language and learn how to argue in it and learn how to seduce somebody in it but it’s the same language.
AB: I see what you’re saying, and I think that it comes down to there’s only so many ways that you can move a body, which is why you see such similarities in certain things between even western and eastern martial arts. I think that I would take your language analogy and liken it to learning two romance languages. So they are still different, but there’s enough similarities that once you learn one, you’re probably going to be pretty proficient in the other. It’s so hard to know because we don’t have enough information. The only clues we get in the sword manuals, the few fighting manuals that we have, like in rapier, you have direct references to Renaissance Dance steps in some rapier manuals. Like you said, by the time you get smallsword, they’re using all the same language. You’re doing a reverence before you fight, which is something you do before you dance and that is in renaissance dance since way back. But I try to take these clues from reading the dance manuals and how he literally has a section that says how a gentleman should wear his cape and sword at a ball and elsewhere, then a ball. That’s the title of a section. So yeah, I think to learn one was to learn the other. If you wanted to be seen and important, it seemed socially advantageous.
GW: But also in any given culture different aesthetics apply. And there’s an awful lot of fashion and aesthetics as applied to fencing styles and dance. Dance, obviously, is primarily aesthetic, whereas fencing has a more practical application. Even so, there is the fashion as to what kind of sword you’re wearing that’s not 100 percent the practical choice, that is mostly about what’s cool. Witness the shift to smallsword in the mid-1600s, it wasn’t because it was some fantastically better technology. It just became fashionable.
AB: Yeah. And I think that part of that is going to be tied to where are we pulling these inspirations, so we’re seeing a lot of French and Italian culture starting to be blended in as we move away from Meyer, who’s like, whataever, use a sword, it doesn’t matter, it doesn’t need to be fancy. It needs to cut people. And then you start having like that heavy influence of French and Italian culture and how they move and how they dress. And what their weapons look like. And you’re right in that at a certain point, people are like, I know how to dance or I know how to sword fight, but now I want to look damn good doing it.
GW: So do you do a lot of work with the historical dance styles?
AB: I don’t have much occasion to, sadly, currently and then Covid has totally … a lot of opportunities. I first started doing Renaissance Dance when I was 17, and we performed at the Michigan Renaissance Festival. And for whatever reason, once I moved away from my hometown, I found that this was not something that everybody did, but we had a lot of madrigal dinner fundraisers where I grew up, it was just a thing, everybody did it. So when I went away to college and I was like, yeah, you know, like at Christmas time, when you do like your madrigal fundraisers and people are like, what are you talking about? And then I was like, hmm, maybe where I grew up is weird. But I did Renaissance dance heavily. It took a backseat during my college education, but it’s always been something that I’ve kept with me. And definitely since really digging into HEMA it’s refreshed my excitement and joy for it.
GW: OK. It strikes me as one of those things which I really ought to have studied more than I have, because a lot of what we’re trying to do when we’re recreating historical martial arts is recreate a way of moving. And it does differ significantly from style to style and period to period. Somebody who’s fencing as Cappoferro would fence is moving quite differently to someone who is, say, doing Meyer’s Dusack is moving differently to someone who’s doing Vadi’s longsword and so on.
AB: Yeah. You can see in the Renaissance dances, like earlier dances, like there’s a very early dance called the pavane, which is very stately. It’s kind of a processional. It was the thing to do, and then it became more of a traditional entrance rather than the main event. Because then we start to get really exciting dances like the galliard, which is all about stamina and flash. And they would actually have galliard dance offs where a guy’s like, oh yeah, because you have these moments of improvisation built into the dance where you do a structure and then you can kind of like riff. But the Pavane keeps in as more of a traditional thing. But if you just look about how these two things move, the Pavane is very slow and you’re brushing and you’re very upright, which if you very loosely decide to draw lines, Meyer is a lot more functional versus aesthetic. He’s like, I don’t want to get knocked over and I want to hit people so he creates a style that is rooted in that. And the earlier Renaissance dances are a much more like, well, the point of this is to be seen. So I’m just going to be slow and stately. And then as things progressed, no, I want to bounce around, I wanted to jump, I want to do turns, I want to do all these things. And then you get to like the Volta, which was considered like lewd and disgusting when it came out because the man actually grips the woman’s waist.
GW: Shocking. It’s like the lambada of the 16th century.
AB: It literally was. But the thing is that Elizabeth I thought this was a shit hot dance. So she was like, yeah, I love the Volta music.
GW: If she’s into it everyone’s into it. So what exactly is a galliard, for listeners who are not familiar?
AB: Oh gosh. How to describe a galliard? In a very practical sense. You’re at the beach and the sand is really hot and you find yourself going “ha ha ha ha” on your feet. It is on the ball of your feet, constantly shifting weight and bouncing, bouncing, bouncing like it is. This is how you get great gams is by doing the galliard. Like when you’re looking for, huh? What did they do for cardio? This is it, because you’re just bouncing about on the balls of your feet to a very quick pace the entire time.
GW: Wow. OK. So I should definitely incorporate some galliard into my morning training routine.
AB: You will have an elevated heart rate and your calves will start to be shorts-worthy amazing.
GW: Are you saying my calves are not already shorts-worthy amazing?
AB: I can’t see them! This is from the waist up.
GW: Fair enough. Now, obviously, when I’m preparing for these interviews, I do a lot of internet stalking and looking into people’s backgrounds and you’ve taught classes on pedagogy and pedagogical methods. So we’ve discussed it a bit. If there’s anything you’d like to say about pedagogy that we haven’t already covered, then this would be a great time to do so.
AB: One thing that I feel like I’m an evangelist for an artist called Liz Lerman. You can look her up. She has a book called Critical Response. And what happened was Liz Lerman was like, I’m in a very subjective art form. She’s a modern dance choreographer. So the way I got introduced to this was they did a residency at the University of Michigan when I was a student there, so company members of hers actually came in and we took class with them over a few months and we practised this critical response and I fell in love with it. And so I’ve been an advocate for it for literally going on 20 years now because it made such a huge impression on me. So the core of it is, cool, I make a dance about bumblebees and I show you, Guy, my dance about bumblebees and I say, “What did you think?” And you go. “It was nice.”
GW: Oh, I would never say that to an artist, ever.
AB: OK, so the very grainy Unsolved-Mysteries-recreation Guy says, it was nice. That’s not helpful information. It doesn’t give me any kind of feedback. It doesn’t tell me about the successes or failures of my art. So part of what happens with when we give feedback is that there’s ego attached. For some people, I want to be right and I’m going to enlighten this person with my input. And that’s kind of the crux of that interaction, which isn’t again super helpful. So she created a system where I show you my bumblebee dance, and then you’re only allowed to tell me things that you saw. You’re not allowed to tell me what you think about them. So all you’re allowed to do is say, “Oh, I saw that you were very fast. I saw that you were jumping up and down. I saw that you were using the lights.” OK, cool. I already have really good information in terms of what was successful, what wasn’t. I really wanted that light exchange to happen, so I’m glad that my audience noticed it. I already have great feedback. Then what happens is I’m allowed to ask questions where I’ll say, “Oh, did you see where the two bumblebees fell in love?” And you can say, “Oh yes, I saw that.” You still don’t tell me whether you liked it or not. You don’t get to say, “Yeah, I saw that they fell in love. And I think that’s stupid.” Then you can ask me questions and you can say, “So why did you choose to put your dancers in blue if it’s a dance about bumblebees?” and I can tell you, like, “Oh, I wanted it to represent the sadness that bees are dying. So I picked a sad colour.” Whatever, you know. So we have really good information exchange, based on how we’ve discussed so far. At the end of it, you can say, “I have an opinion, would you like to hear it?” If through our entire exchange, I feel you’ve been dismissive or rude or anything like that, I get to say no thank you. Or if I feel you’ve been very invested in the process, I can say, oh yeah, I would love to hear it. And then you can launch into like, “I don’t think Bumblebee should fall in love. I think it’s really dumb. I think bumblebees should be yellow and black, blue is dumb.” So what it does, though, is it sets up an instance where a lot of information is being exchanged purely in that, did it work, did it not work? What was seen? What was not seen? And then I get to hear what your feelings are. And to me, that’s a brilliant system. And she also, in her book, discusses how you can do this in a peer to peer situation.
AB: And so you can translate it to HEMA very easily in training because a lot of times the training, if you and I are doing a drill together and I’m like, “Oh, hey, Guy, would you mind watching me do my Meyer figure?” And you can say, sure. And then you watch me do the Meyer figure, and you could be thinking like, “Oh, you know, her cut lines? That’s what’s really important to me.” So you can be like, “Oh, your cut lines were all over the place.” And I can feel really upset because I’m like, “Oh man, I was really thinking about my stance.” So we’re not on the same page for the goalset. So with training, I’ll say, “Guy, can you please watch my Meyer figure?” You’ll watch it, again, you’ll just tell me what you saw. You’ll say, “I saw your arm straight. I did see your body twisting.” You’re not telling me whether it’s good or bad. Again, you’re just telling me what you saw. Then I can say, “Oh, I’m really working on my stance. Would you mind watching me again with that in mind?” Cool. Now you know what I’m thinking about you watch again with that in mind. Again, you tell me what you saw, but now just related on that small thing. And then at the end of it, you can say, “I have some training advice for you. Would you like to hear?” Based on our previous interaction, I can say “Yes, please let me know,” or I can say “No, thank you.”
GW: Interesting. One of the things that is quite difficult, particularly when training teachers. I mean, it’s quite easy to train fencers because there’s an explicit success/fail outcome, so if I’m giving a student an individual lesson, if they’re doing well, they’re hitting me a lot. And if they’re doing badly, they’re getting hit and they know immediately they’re doing badly because they’re not hitting and they’re getting hit. And so they’re adjust what they’re doing to hit me more. And by controlling that interaction, I can lead them into being better fencers and the success state is really easy to define. But when teaching, it’s much harder to define the success state because it’s partly about, well, does everyone want to come back to class again? And it’s partly about did they actually learn anything, but how do you know? I mean, somebody might have had this absolute revelation, which will be in their training for the next five years in your class, but they’re not even going to realise it till next week. And so finding ways for trainee teachers to get feedback about how well the class went, I mean, the system I come up with is the their peers. I expected to give them feedback after maybe they have taught a 10 minute section of the class of maybe a whole class or whatever, but their peers who are on a similar training programme will say something along the lines of, well, they have two positive things, like “I really like the way you spoke clearly, and the class was very well structured.” To give some sort of encouragement, and then if they have anything, one suggestion for further improvement like “You might want to talk a bit less and move the class on.” But that’s all still very subjective. This idea of saying, “Well, I saw I heard you speak clearly. And I saw the structure of the class.” I’m yet to figure out how you would apply it to having a kind of a formal structure for figuring out how to get feedback without it becoming an ego fight. Yeah, interesting.
AB: Yeah, it’s a very inexpensive book. I think it’s only $8. She started this with dance, but now the easiest lateral shift for her was into academia and going in and doing these seminars on how training people to give feedback in terms of papers. Like how do I tell someone about their paper? So I have a teacher training programme at Austin Historical Weapons Guild that we have a system that people work up through. And but when I teach my class, one of the biggest things that I ask people, which comes from me teaching dance composition, when you’re going to make a dance, the very first question you should ask yourself is, “Do I care if people get it or not? Do I want people to really know this dance is about bumblebees? Or am I just making this dance and whatever they walk away with is what they walk away with?” That’s a huge decision and it impacts everything. So when you’re teaching, you should ask yourself the same question, “What am I trying to do here? Do I want to create a competition focussed technique, drive, drive, drive? This is my goal for you, which is to achieve a medal in two years or whatever.” Is that my goal as a teacher or is my goal to create a complete hobby space where I just want people to come and have fun and build community and do fitness? Or is it a hybrid? And so once you can answer that question, it just answers a bunch of other questions for you in how you structure your class, what you teach, how hard you push.
GW: OK. What sort of feedback do you give when you’re teaching teachers?
AB: So the kind of feedback that I give teachers when I’m teaching them is, for lack of a better way to say, “What is the motivation for you talking to a student? Why are you stepping in with this correction right now? Purely because it’s wrong?” Well, of course they’re learning, so chances are 80 percent of what they’re doing might be wrong on any given day. So you have to separate your desire for something to just be right. And what is good for the class and then what is good for that student? Because as you know, we talk, we touched on before, you have a variety of people in class, you might have someone who’s like, “Make me do it again, make me do it again. Hit me in the head again, Guy. Hit me in the head again. I want to learn this. I want to learn this.” And you have someone’s like, “If I get hit, I’m going to cry” or whatever, right? Like, you have a wide variety in there. So for a teacher, I say, “Why are you giving this correction? What is the goal set? What are you hoping the end reaction of this is the end point of this is and really?” What I tell people, the root of the culture at our space, it’s going to be different other places. The root of the culture at our space is that I’m trying to make good ambassadors for HEMA and for my school, and so that shapes everything I do in my class because it means I need to mix enough candy and enough spinach to make a class fun, right? And that’s what I call it. So it has to be enough candy because we live in a world of instant gratification. Being a ballet dancer, there is nothing fun that you can Instagram about your first day of ballet class.
GW: You can take a picture of your feet and then everyone will feel sorry for you.
AB: That doesn’t happen on the first day, that doesn’t even happen in flats. This is why next time we’re at an event, we’re going to have a talk about ballet. But there’s not a whole lot because ballet is all internal, so you can show a picture of you standing in first position with your arms in preparation. And you’re going to be sweating, but everyone’s going to be like, “Great, you’re standing there. Who cares?” Whereas if you go do something like swords, or if you’re doing like an aerial circus class, you’ve got Instagrammable fun crap on the first day to show. Here I am holding a longsword. Here I am hanging from a trapeze. So when you’re running a business and you’re trying to create an ambassador for your space, you have to kind of think about that. Like, How can I make it fun? So here’s a little bit of candy. Here’s a sexy Fiore disarm and dagger you need to walk away with. And we’re also going to do Meyer structure forever. Like, you have to find the mix. So for my teachers, I really make it my responsibility to break down and tell them this is the culture of our space. These are your motivating factors. These are your roles and responsibilities. These drive how you talk to your students. If the end goal is, you’re supposed to be enthusiastic, empathetic, accurate, keep them safe. That’s how I talk to them. So when I do with teachers, I’ll observe and I’ll give feedback. But what I really try to do is enrich and educate and let them find their own teaching voice because I don’t want to make a bunch of mini mes, right? So it’s more about I ask a lot of questions, more than tell them this was wrong, that was wrong, unless I see someone screaming at a kid or whatever, then I’m going to be like, Oh, let’s talk about a better way to do that. But really, I just try to ask a lot of questions and say, “Why did you give that correction? Did the student respond to the correction? What was a different way you could have given that correction? Do you think that was better? Do you like the way you did it originally?” Those kinds of things.
GW: Yeah, I find that I hardly ever give any verbal technical corrections at all. So if there’s a problem, let’s say people are fencing too close. I don’t tell them to fence from further apart. I would change the game that they’re playing so that it rewards acting from further away and then they get used to being further away. Or if you have a beginner and they’ve got the wrong leg forward and they need to have the correct forward to do this particular drill otherwise, it’s just not going to work. And they’re getting stuck and they don’t know what’s wrong. Rather than saying, you’ve got the wrong leg forward, I’ll say, why don’t you try it with the other leg forwards and see what happens? Make suggestions that change the environment because I find that the bit of the brain that handles the verbal correction isn’t particularly good at making changes to how the body is moving. If you have a student who has a habit of doing something wrong with their left arm, maybe they lift a left elbow when they shouldn’t. And they’re doing it, rather than tell them they’re doing it wrong, I just touch their arm, maybe with a stick, right? But it’s just a touch. So the elbow is brought into that awareness. They know to move it, but there’s no language involved, so they don’t change phase. They didn’t go from physical moving to language processing. It’s all done in the physical movement.
AB: And I think that’s like teaching style, because definitely from my ballet background, there’s a right and a wrong.
GW: And there is in historical martial arts too. Yeah, absolutely. There’s a right and wrong. But the wrong is wrong because it gets you hit and the right is right because it works. So if I could create an environment in which every single time the student was doing it wrong, they were automatically hit and their action would fail, they would learn so incredibly fast.
AB: I mean, from a teaching point of view, like from a training point of view, ballet says that’s wrong. This is the way it should be. So from a teacher point of view, a ballet teacher could choose to just touch arms or whatever. I had a ballet teacher that would take away our arms from us when we were using the wrong arm to lead for a turn, he’d be like, “Well, your other arm is dead, you don’t get to use it,” and you’d be like, what? And so then it’s what you’re talking about. Then you remove that crutch and you have to explore the correct way to do it. I think I like to give explanation purely because that’s how my brain works. And so that’s where my teacher voice resides in that if I see someone at the incorrect leg forward, I will say, you need to switch your feet, but this is why, because now you’re cutting across yourself and you can’t recover easily. So what happens when someone swings at your head? I tend to do that because that’s just how I enjoy processing, because I like to know the why. I used to drive Anthony insane because he’d teach me a drill and I’d be like, “OK, what do I do with this now? Am I supposed to spar with this? What is this teaching me? Am I just taking one thing away from it?” Some days I think he would just be like, “Oh my God, just do the drill.” That obviously didn’t bother him too much because we’re married now. We got married last summer.
GW: Oh, congratulations.
AB: He’s stuck with me now.
GW: Yeah, see, my wife has absolutely no interest in swords at all. And that’s very good because if there were other sword nuts in the house, I would never get a break from work.
AB: Yeah, that’s fair.
GW: OK, so you’ve done quite a lot of stuff in your life, I’m sure. And you told us about quite a lot of it, so I do have to ask, what is the best idea you’ve not acted on?
AB: Oh, the best idea I’ve not acted on. I have tons of ideas. I love site-specific work, so this is a thing that is in modern dance that comes from the modern dance tradition, which is I craft a work that is only to be formed in one specific spot.
GW: So site as in location, not sight as in vision?
AB: Correct. So you take into account the physicality of the space and props and whatever. And there’s a spontaneity to it in the experience that I’ve had, which is sure you’ve worked and choreographed in this space. And then it’s a little bit like flash mobbing, right? Like all of a sudden I’m in the space, I’m just going to start dancing and performing. I feel like we should have like a flash mob, HEMA breakout, Romeo and Juliet style.
GW: Yeah, could be a little risky with the police carrying guns and somebody pulls out a sword and starts trying to hit somebody.
AB: Ooh, but it’s open carry in Texas, you can carry swords in Texas. I think for me, something that would be really fun. A great idea, if you will, to act on, is blending the two things that I love together even more, which is creating art and fun that incorporates swords along with movement. That would be super fun and not like stage combat.
GW: Like more like that Taichi sword form, but historical martial arts sword form.
AB: Well, at one point I was working on a dusack tango for fun. A Messer tango.
GW: Wow, is there any video of this?
AB: I don’t think Anthony and I actually took a video. We were working on a piece for a performance that we were unable to do. But yeah, I started choreographing a tango that incorporated attacking each other with Messers.
GW: OK, that would be quite something. If you do record it, just send me a link and I’ll pop it in the show notes. Because I think that everyone should see that. Tango is awesome and Messers are great and putting them together. I mean, tango is a naturally combative sort of dance, it has that aggression to it. OK, so the idea you haven’t acted on so far basically is to have a Dusack tango. OK. I think you should get on that, to be honest.
AB: All right.
GW: I really want to see that.
AB: I think because really it’s like by creating fun and unique and exciting things like this creates curiosity in people, and if I want to draw attention to HEMA and dance, doing something bizarre and unique like that makes people go, “Whoa, where’d you learn how to do those things?”
GW: Yeah, absolutely. That’s great. All right. So my last question. Somebody gives you a million pounds or dollars or whatever to spend on improving historical martial arts worldwide. How would you spend the money?
AB: Maybe it’s a boring answer. I would put a lot of money into enrichment, right? Can I publish manuals that are not published currently and make them more accessible? Can I make teaching methods available to more people so that teachers can enrich themselves? They can become better teachers so they can propagate more HEMA so they can create more HEMA enthusiasts and nut jobs? I think that’s where I would want to put money, into study and enrichment and create better teachers because they’re only going to go out and become better ambassadors for HEMA, which is going to just spread it out. Because if we look at how ballet started to take over the world in Louis XIV, why is that? Because he threw a lot of money at it and he made a he brought in a lot of teachers to start teaching all kinds of places and start sending out books about French ballet. So I would follow that and say, how can I make more quality HEMA teachers that can make more HEMA enthusiasts?
GW: OK, so how exactly would you spend the money to do that?
AB: So number one, I would buy myself a private plane so I can go all these cool places, no I’m just kidding.
GW: A million dollars is not going to get you a very good private plane.
AB: I would get maybe a Wright Brothers little flyer. I think that making texts more widely available because we’ve all been in that spot where we’re like, Oh my gosh, this book is being sold by this person who I know so oh, they’re sold out. I didn’t get it. So trying to make books more readily affordable and available would be a big chunk of where I’d spend my money. Just getting sources out there into people’s hands.
GW: Well, we’ve got Wiktenauer.
AB: I know, but I’m a nerd, I like to hold the book.
GW: Oh, you mean like physical reproduction?
AB: Physical printed books, yes.
GW: Yeah, OK. Yeah. I’ve produced two facsimiles because I wanted them. They were cheap enough for me to buy to give to people and also cheap enough that I can just write in them if I want to and throw them in a fencing bag and what have you. So I’ve got Vadi and I’ve got Fiore, the Getty Manuscript done, for exactly that reason because it’s better than having it on a screen. What sources would you start with?
AB: Oh, my God. See, this is where my sword nerd is a lot younger than my ballet nerd in that you’re going to go over my head quick with like specific sources that aren’t already available. I know that The Art of Combat is not always easily accessible.
GW: Forgeng’s translation of Meyer.
AB: So making a whole lot more of those, and that’s kind of selfish too, because I just want more people to read Meyer and fall in love with him. But I would love collections of even the small, odd ones that you can’t find anywhere else, like the Glasgow Fechtbook, which is like very tiny and feels throwaway for a lot of people, but for some reason I really like it. And it feels like the narration of a bar fight gone wrong from start to finish with these little cocktail napkin ideas of Messer things that work.
GW: It’s got like 11 plays in it, I think.
AB: Yeah, it’s very short. But even mish mashing a bunch of those things together in a book, with perhaps commentary and clues and how you can interpret those, right, because I mean, you’ve seen it, they’re teeny little, if this happens, you could try this. But more information out there is better. So even making little things like that accessible, so if someone is like, wow, I really like Messer, what can I go read? Ooh, here’s a wider breadth of things that are accessible that sometimes people find Wiktenauer intimidating and they don’t know what to go look for.
GW: And also, the physical book thing does make a difference.
AB: It does, being able to just hold it and flip it and look. So that’s what I would do. And then the other thing would be to produce quality teaching method enrichment courses. So not at all in a way that this is like an authority over HEMA because I don’t think that’s what we need. But making it easily available for people to enrich themselves as a teacher if they want to, because a lot of times with martial arts or dance or whatever, you fall into that habit of like, you’re a senior student now, go teach. With no skill set, with no toolbox, with no guide on how to form their own voice or culture or anything. So producing accessible teaching methods classes.
GW: One of the best investments I ever made in my own teaching education was I went on a five day immersive 12 hours a day Sport Foil Coaches course, run by the British Academy of Fencing. And it was brutally hard, but it completely changed the way I teach, and it has been super useful and brilliant. But the reason I could do it is because I had a background in foil from the 80s and the early 90s. So if you didn’t already have some kind of foil coaching qualification, you couldn’t go on that course. And if you didn’t know foil really pretty well, the course would be useless to you because it assumed all of that prior knowledge. So it was great for me, but I couldn’t just say to whatever student of mine go on that course because I’ll have to teach some foil first, and that might take a couple of years. I got the teachers of that course to come over to Finland and do a weekend seminar on pedagogical methods and a condensed version that wasn’t too style specific. But yeah, something like that actually could be really, really useful. It would need to be sufficiently general, that it doesn’t depend on you knowing a specific style, and it doesn’t depend on you having a specific interpretation of a specific source, because that’s where everybody gets into arguments. You can’t have instructor qualifications unless you have a syllabus to examine them on and you can’t have a syllabus to examine it on unless you have a stable interpretation of the source. And if somebody doesn’t agree with every point of your interpretation of the source, then they do not want to learn your syllabus to then be examined in it, and to be trained to teach it and so on. And it’s known as the certification problem, which we have been dealing with in martial arts for years. How do we separate teacher training from that kind of nation building certification sort of programme?
AB: So the class that I teach it focuses on culture, how to break down making lesson plans. So I come from it like I have people who take my class who aren’t sword fighters at all. I had someone when I was at Swordsquatch, who took my class because she’s like, I do a tall ship school for kids. And she was like, I just wanted to get some ideas on how to be a better teacher. So she wasn’t sword or movement at all.
GW: Which Swordsquatch were you on?
AB: The last one before the pandemic ruined everything.
GW: 2019? I was there.
AB: I know, we met each other super briefly, in passing.
GW: Damn it. I could have got a ballet lesson off you.
AB: You could have!
GW: I didn’t know enough to ask. All right. Fingers crossed for Swordsquatch 2022. Let’s hope they invite me back.
AB: Yes, either that or I’ve applied to CombatCon again, so we’ll see if that happens. But that’s my goal as things open up is to run around and maybe even internationally, Guy, just saying, really expand and be able to take my brand of crazy as many places as I can.
GW: Well, people listen to this show from all over the world, so who knows?
AB: Awesome. Hit me up, people. With that million dollars and that private plane I’m going to be buying, I’ll be able to go a lot of places.
GW: That is true. And you know, I’ve been stuck in the same little island for the last two years and it has been driving me completely insane. I normally would have been travelling a lot. Since teaching historical fencing for a living in 2001, I guess I average about 60 days a year out of the country and to be in the same place for two years in a row, that’s just weird. This will been going out in like February, I think next year, OK, but November 2021, like this is no use for advertising in Finland and if you’re listening to this everyone, I’m sorry this has already happened or it hasn’t because of Covid, but I am booked to go and teach a seminar in Helsinki in November, and I am so looking forward to getting back out on the road.
AB: Yeah, I bet.
GW: So you’ve taught CombatCon before and did you teach Swordsquatch? Yes, you said you ran that.
AB: I taught at Swordsquatch. I taught at SoCal Sword Fight twice. I did the virtual Swordsquatch this year.
GW: We need to get you out of America is what we need to do. Yeah, OK. All right. You heard it here, people. Get Anna on a plane.
AB: I mean, that was before Covid was really dumb. That was Anthony’s and my honeymoon dream trip, which was we were going to just like couch surf because we both know enough people in Europe. We were going to couch surf and sword fight our way across Europe and then the stupid pandemic ruined it.
GW: Well, hopefully this will open up soon some more opportunities for you. Well, thank you so much for joining me today, Anna, it’s been lovely to meet you.
AB: Yeah, nice to be able to chat with you and really nerd out. So thank you so much.