GW: Hello sword people this is Guy Windsor, also known as The Sword Guy, and I’m here today with Kelley Costigan. Kelley is an actor, director, pole dancer, fencer, performance combatant, adventurer and pirate. That’s what it says in her bio. She is also narrating my book, The Theory and Practice of Historical Martial Arts. You can find her online at kelleycostigan.com. So without further ado, Kelley, welcome to the show.
KC: Thank you very much for having me.
GW: It’s nice to have you here. So let’s just get started with whereabouts in the world are you and how did you get there?
KC: OK, I am in the lovely, picturesque town of Stratford-Upon-Avon, the birthplace of William Shakespeare. And how I got here, actually, I owe to having a near fatal scrap with cancer. I was twenty nine and I had had a massive sunburn several years before, which was about three quarters of my body and a very bad first and second degree sunburn. And that all went away after a really horrific experience. I ended up with a red dot on my thigh, which over time I paid attention to and nothing ever happened. I went to a dermatologist because I had a rash. My mother actually said, have him look at that, because that was probably not right. So we did, I had a biopsy. I got a phone call saying, I’m really sorry to tell you this, but you have a chronic level two malignant melanoma. And now that I’ve disturbed it, we should really do something about it. So in terms of cancer treatment, it was a complete non-event because they cut it completely out. I didn’t have to have any other chemotherapy or any other therapy. And five years after that, I was declared cancer free. But in that period of, oh, my God, I could have died, I thought, what do I want to do with my life? And one of the things I’d always wanted to do as an actor was actually go and study Shakespeare from an academic point of view. So that would feed into my acting. So I looked at various places and there was the Shakespeare Institute, which is located in Stratford-Upon-Avon, which is part of the University of Birmingham. So I applied, I went for an interview and because I was an acting student, not an English major, I was offered a place on what was at that time a diploma. So essentially I’d be in Stratford for a year studying Shakespeare, and then I would go back to New York and resume my theatre career there, although that didn’t happen because I met the chap who has since become my partner and essentially I didn’t leave. So that is what brought me to Stratford. And eventually I’ll be leaving Stratford because my partner will be retiring at the end of the year and we will be moving to Oxford, which is where he is from originally. So, yes, my life is kind of split between the two places while we finish moving.
GW: Yeah, there’s nothing quite like an abrupt awareness of your mortality to make you figure out what you actually want to do. So would you say that your core thing is acting?
KC: Yes, that’s right. In terms of ideal jobs, that is where I am the happiest and most in my element. After that, I’m a performer. So it would be acting and then I’m a trainee stunt person as well. So swords, pole, anything where I’m actually slightly showing off of it is where I’m happiest. It’s actually where I go into my flow, when I’m acting or if I’m performing in any way. That is my flow. And hours and hours can go by and I will not notice.
GW: That’s like me and teaching. When I’m teaching a class, it doesn’t matter if I’m sick or injured or tired or whatever I can always bring out, because it is my best state. So I imagine there’s not an awful lot of acting going on during the corona year.
KC: Sadly, theatre at the moment, I mean, live theatre, that is definitely on hold completely for everybody, but a lot of very clever and innovative people have managed to do live theatre things online through Zoom and various other platforms which are available. I myself, just to keep my brain going every day, have been posting a sonnet. Most of them have been Shakespeare. And what I’m trying to do is finish all of Shakespeare before the end of this month. By the end of November, I will have finished Shakespeare. Within that, I’ve been doing other sonnet tiers either of the period or of different periods, but I do those every day and they get posted every day, just really to keep my brain going. And also, at one point I was going to stop after the first lockdown was finishing, I did put a thing out saying, does anybody still care about these anymore? Does anybody still want to hear these? People were like, no, no, no, no, you still must be doing this because this makes my morning, because I try and put them out early in the day. So I was like, yeah, I will keep doing this as long as you people want them and as long as I can find stuff to read, it doesn’t matter.
GW: It was actually how you got the job of the writing my book. Because what happened was I was thinking about producing the audio book version. Most of my books are not very well suited to audio at all, as they are full of pictures and the Theory and Practise book I thought, you know what, that would actually make a decent audio book, because a lot of it is text. And so the text can be read aloud. So I thought, OK, I need to find another reader or I thought about doing it myself, but I would need to go to a studio right now with someone who knows what they’re doing to direct me through the process because I’ve never done audio properly yet. But everything is shut so I thought I should probably hire somebody to do it instead. So I had to think about who I want to do it. And I put the word out to my mailing list and I got three or four blokes who put themselves forward. And sure enough, they’re perfectly competent and would have done a lovely job. But that made me realise that actually the thing I’m working on at the moment, the kind of the problem I’m currently attacking, is the diversity within historical martial arts, which obviously this podcast is part of that, because the whole point of the podcast is I get people from all sorts of backgrounds, all sorts of demographics with all sorts of angles into swordsmanship, so we have a mediaeval historian who doesn’t actually do swords at all, we have tournament fencers and people who are mad about the research and just really broad so we can literally get a more diverse view of the arts that we are practising. And that made me think that one of the key areas regarding representation is we need more women doing this. They are underrepresented, generally speaking, in historical martial arts. So I’ve always put women in the photographs so that it’s really obvious and clear that women can do this because there are women in the book actually doing it, and doing it well enough to point a camera at her and put that photograph in a book. And I thought, well, why don’t I get a woman to read? So I thought, OK, I need to find a woman who has the skills in performance and narration, the acting skills to do it. And ideally, part of the wider swords family. It’s always better to keep it in the family. It’s a lot of money. So I want that money going to someone who’s going to spend some of it on swords.
KC: Oh, yeah, right. Right.
GW: I was literally just idly fiddling about on Twitter and I came across one of your sonnets. And so I had a look at your bio and you’re an actor and a woman and mad about swords. And also here’s the thing. When you’re working with somebody on a project, you need to know that there’s going to be a certain compatibility, and there you were, in the middle of an international coronavirus crisis where theatres are shut, so you’re not getting any work and you’re showing up and, as Neil Gaiman would say, making good art anyway. I thought, right, OK, let’s see if she’s interested. Only after that did I realise that you’re actually already in the acknowledgements for the book because you had read it already and you were a beta reader of one of the chapters. So that worked out really well. But yeah, it was that process of just producing a sonnet every day that made me think she’ll do that, because that’s the key thing, isn’t? Not, you must have the experience to do audio books or whatever. The key thing is, do you actually care? And will you actually show up and do the thing even though you’re not getting paid, you know? Of course you are being paid. That would be outrageous to do it for exposure. I’m not in the habit of hiring artists and paying them with exposure. Definitely not. But it’s that attitude. Here’s a thing I can do, and you just put it out there and see what happens. So that’s how you ended up getting asked to do the book.
GW: Yeah, because when we first started talking about doing the audiobook, I heard your podcast with Fran Lacuata. It came out and I thought maybe Fran recommended me. So I actually contacted her and I said, did you recommend me? And she said, no, but how awesome. How absolutely awesome. I said, I’m not telling anybody yet because we have this thing in my family that if you tell somebody something is happening, something happens and it doesn’t happen. So we’re all very circumspect about when we’re doing stuff. I’ve tried, because I have a lot of friends who are like, yes, I’m doing this and I’m doing that. And every time I’ve done that, it’s like fizzled out like a wet firework. So I’m like, yes, I’m going back to the family plan, which is you don’t say anything until it’s finished. And then you could say, there it is.
GW: Do you know when I told people I was doing a PhD? It was right after I passed the viva. I mean, obviously my family knew and a few friends when it had come up in conversation or whatever, but I didn’t tell people for exactly that reason, you don’t know what’s going to happen. And you don’t want to jinx it.
KC: No, that’s the main thing. That is the main thing.
GW: So, you know, Fran, so I take it you know her through swords?
KC: Yeah, I met Fran through actually one of her YouTube videos, one of her HEMA Hack videos about gloves. Because when I first started doing HEMA, I also as a woman have small arms. And also because one of the things I do in my survival job, because all actors have to have survival jobs, I’m a fully qualified sports and remedial massage therapist, so I earn my living when I’m not acting by using my hands, so my hands need to be protected. So I came across one of her videos about gloves and glove hacks and what she’s done over the years about gloves and I contacted her. So it became this very girly conversation about the accessories of gloves and things in HEMA. And we just then got to talking about HEMA in general and then I learnt about By The Sword and I went to the second one. So the one in 2018 was my first event and it was amazing because I actually took up this very late in life. I was in my 40s when I started HEMA, because of the time I grew up in, the idea that I would have even wanted to have done modern fencing would have been frowned upon. There was a display, one of the Boy Scout things, it was a fencing display, and I was allowed to take part in that because it was family night, which is something they did. And I fell in love with it. It was amazing. And I wanted to do it. And my parents had to say, no, I’m really sorry, but you can’t.
GW: Why not?
KC: Well, one of eight children on a schoolteacher’s pay. So you didn’t really have the money for fencing equipment. But that’s not something that you tell to a small child. So I was given the lie of that’s not something that girls do.
GW: Oh, my God.
KC: Yeah. Which came from my mother, not my father. Yeah, it’s complicated. There were all these things that it seemed to me the boys were allowed to do that girls were not allowed to do. Boys were allowed to go camping. But that was because they were part of Boy Scouts. And where I grew up, there was not the girl equivalent. So when we found one that was technically the equivalent, they didn’t do the same things. I mean, I didn’t get to go camping until I was like in my early teens. And that was a bit meh. But getting back to Fran and By The Sword. So I was just amazed by the range of people because it’s an all women event and people who identify as female. And I’m really bad with all the terms because I’m so ancient, so pretty much, By The Sword is a girls’ only event. And I met the most phenomenal women from all different backgrounds who took it up for all different reasons from cosplay and LARP to fencing and somebody just seeing swords and just going there. And while I was talking to Fran about that first By The Sword, she actually invited me to teach on the next one. So 2019. Now, by this point, I was not doing HEMA for very long, maybe four years, I think for four and a half years maybe. And I had never taught at all. And but Fran said, I know you can do it, so I thought, OK, what would I be interested in that I would want to share with somebody else, because I’ve directed people before. So directing is not too much different from teaching. I was doing Fiore and I was doing quite a bit of dagger work, and I thought, you know what? That might be something that I can do because the weapon is small but no less lethal. There are a lot of really cool things in terms of keeping people interested, because there would be people who had never picked up a dagger before, let alone any kind of weapon. So you had women who just wanted to see what any of this was about. You had genuine enthusiasts who were already doing Fiore dagger in their clubs, but just wanted to see what somebody else was doing with the material. And it was the most phenomenal thing that ever happened. I went away, because I’m a very good student, I went away and I poured over the Fiore manuscript with different versions that I have and chose very simple things. And don’t quiz me right now because I’m no good at the numbers. My brain has problems processing numbers, things like that. If I have a visual picture in my head, yes, but if you just say the words to me they mean nothing. But anyway, I had a little PowerPoint display thing just so that they could see the pictures. It was not a lecture of any kind. And we did first master. It was dead simple. I was to do a basic one and then an advanced workshop – two different workshops. So I think we maxed out at 20. I think I had about 17, 18 on the first. And almost all of them came back for the second because they all said, I want to know what happens next. But I set them to these tasks and I did lots of little happy dances because I was terribly excited that they were excited by it. And to me, that’s the best thing, because one of the things I said was my main purpose in this today is that you take away one thing and that you have a good time. And if you don’t do both of these things I have failed, so I was really thrilled when I said, has everybody learnt something? Yes. And I said, did you have a good time? Oh, yes. And then I did the happy dance again. And then then I did probably my favourite Fiore dagger play, which is the yes, I’m going to stab you between the legs and lift you up and flip you over. That’s my favourite one. But I’ve never found myself in a position where I could use it. But it’s so much fun to teach, to teach that is so much fun. And my lovely assistant for that one was Masha Makarova and she had no idea what was going to happen. She mostly does rapier as her main weapon. So she was game for anything and I did not flip her over. I just took it that far. I said, “And then if I do this, she will go over.” Because we didn’t have mats to work with because they were all being used for wrestling. And it was the most hilarious thing ever. Some of the other girls were in the thing who were doing Fiore elsewhere. We would talk sometimes about how I demonstrated something in terms of hand placement was slightly different to what they did. And we did both of them and they both equally worked. In a lot of Fiore the illustrations on the most part are really brilliant and incredibly easy to work from, I find that sometimes the language that goes with it isn’t always. It’s very descriptive but isn’t always clear to me. So I’m one of these people who have to take both. I have to study that picture. And get that in my head and then read the translation, because my Italian is not good enough for me to read it in original Italian. I have to work back and forth, and I then have to do it on one of these people who also needs to do a thing a number of times. Rather than some people, friends of mine, they could just look at the picture and boom, they can do it. I can’t do that. I have to work through it and get it physically in my head. So it’s all muscle memory by the time I have to do it. So that’s me and weapons.
GW: Bless Fran for the “I know you can do it.” It’s a really powerful thing when someone who you look up to says that to you. Pretty powerful. So you train with Fran’s group?
KC: Yeah. So I train with the – well, at the moment I’m not training at all – but I am with the Oxford branch of the School of the Sword and so I train with Emilia Skirmuntt, who is an Amazon. She does everything.
GW: Maybe I could get her on the show.
KC: I think you really should. For one thing, she’s just incredible. I mean, pretty much you give this woman a weapon and she can fight with it. And she has no fear, she’s also an amazing theorologist and scientist, so she’s really incredibly nerdy on a lot of things like that and in a good way I say nerdy.
GW: On this show, nerd is considered a compliment.
KC: Oh, yeah. But I mean, in various areas that you may or may not want to go into. But she both she and Fran are huge influences on me. And part of the reason I’m not training, forgetting the pandemic, is because I had a shoulder operation just over a year ago, and I’m still in rehab for that. So there are bits and pieces, like in the earlier lockdown when the weather was not really horrible, I would take my longsword out and my feder and just go out into the back garden and then stopped because people were saying, oh, my God, your garden is atrocious. Oh, it is. It is. The triffids live in my back garden.
GW: That’s why we have swords! You just take a sharp sword and hack away at the bushes until you’ve got space to swing the sword.
KC: I did. These were non-swordy people. They were just like, oh my God, you can’t, it’s awful.
GW:I have a question for you, Kelley.
KC: Go on.
GW: Why on earth do you give a flying fuck what non-swordy people think?
KC: Oh, I don’t. I don’t actually, there are swordy people and there are non-swordy people. But it was just like, “You don’t have to watch my videos of me swinging a sword around,” “But I like to watch you swinging a sword around.” “Well, then don’t pick on my garden, OK? Just leave it alone.” But yeah, so now that the weather is not good at all, at the moment I live in a very tiny house, so that was the other reason to play with daggers because you don’t need as much space. One of the things I still do, which was a habit that I started when I was first doing stage combat, is I will practise my footwork in my kitchen. Continually. Because they’re all linked so other than the fact that in modern fencing, you only go in a linear fashion. So I do practise my going forwards and backwards and things, but I will practise other footwork steps because two of my favourite weapons are Italian rapier and smallsword, which at the moment with School of the Sword in Oxford, we start off with the Fiore longsword and do bits of grappling and dagger. So pretty much all non-horseback Fiore. So at the moment I haven’t really picked up a rapier or smallsword other than to go to somebody’s workshop in a few years. And I do miss it because I quite like the elegance of both those weapons. Not that Fiore’s long sword can’t be elegant, but there is something about a single handed weapon, particularly a thrusting weapon, that, for me anyway, there’s an intricate beauty like filigree when you use those weapons.
GW: Filigree. That’s a good word for it. I know exactly what you’re talking about. And that’s exactly it.
KC: Particularly with smallsword. I’m an épée fencer and not a foil fencer, which is interesting because smallsword and foil have great similarities. I didn’t take to modern foil when I first started. And the reason I didn’t take to it is because for me, there are too many rules. I don’t like to say, oh yes, you have straightened your arms, so by all means hit me. It’s like I’m sorry, somebody is presenting a sword at me, bang, boom and it’s gone and I don’t care if we move at the same time, but I’m not going to let you hit me because you could kill me, or the light will go off in that horrible buzzing noise. So I became an épée fencer and in competition, because I used to compete, I don’t feel that need anymore, I did this move. It was like my third competition, it was early days. And I was up against this girl who was a young teenager with a very high ranking. And I’m scraping the bottom of the barrel, I don’t even think I have a ranking. And she comes at me and I present her with a rapier preen with my épée. And so she looks and she came to a dead stop and she was like, I could feel it exactly through her fencing mask, like, “What the fuck is that? What do I do with that?” And she stood there and the seconds are ticking down and ticking down because she can’t figure out what to do. Because she’s never been presented with that before and she got really angry, she got so angry. I mean, I didn’t win. I did not expect to win, but it actually made her lead much less than it could have been because she couldn’t hit me. But it was ridiculous because I look at that and I know exactly what I could do to hit that. But she was completely thrown. And at the end of the bout, the épée coach wasn’t there, but one of the foil coaches from my club was there and he was like, oh my God, that was so awesome. He said I love watching you fence because you are completely unpredictable. He said, I know I never know what you’re going to do next. And I said, Dan, neither do I. Neither do I. I seriously don’t. One of the reasons I gave up fencing a competitive level was I cannot plan tactics myself. It sounds really stupid. I just see something coming at me and I react instinctively whether for good or bad. And several times I’ve been taken to task by my coach about you need to plan these things, and I would watch the other fencers fence. So I knew how they fenced, but when I came up against them anything that made any sense went out the window, I would perform the various things that one does when one épée fences and occasionally I would get some very good hits because I was very lucky. One of the things I needed to do as an épéeist is actually slow down because I had a habit of just very quickly reacting to things, because you can take a moment, you can make them wait, and it took me a long time to learn that. I’m still not a phenomenal fencer. I now fence because I enjoy it.
GW: Which is the only reason anyone should fence, really.
KC: Absolutely. And when I fence people who do compete, there’s a guy in our club who was a pentathlete, his name is Ed Norton and he’s absolutely brilliant. And as a fencer, he has come a long way from somebody who was only doing it because he was a pentathlete. But he’s now an incredibly good all round épée fencer. He does still try to hit to one because that’s what you need in pentathlon. But he has this habit of flèching at me. You know what that is. And I cannot stand flèching. I personally don’t flèche because I’m like, why, why. And there have been times when I’ve been lucky once or twice and I’ve been able to pick them off, but he knows I don’t like it.
GW: Which is a good reason to do it.
KC: Yeah. So he will try to fake me out and then he’ll come up to me and it’s like oh damn. But I will occasionally do things that give competitive fencers something to think about because it’s not something that they probably are going to encounter in a competition. But it does give them something else that they could use, if anything remotely like some of the crazy things I do show up. It’s all perfectly legal. I’m just stressing that. I don’t do what you can do with other sword weapons. I don’t go offline and attack from time.
GW: A long time ago, one of my students was a serious competitor fencer, and he was quite good. And we have a smallsword class. And he challenged me to a bout. It wasn’t an aggressive challenge. And this kid flèched at me. It was the funniest thing. So I threw him on the ground. A fleche for anyone who doesn’t know, is basically strictly speaking, it’s not a running attack but an attack where both of the attacker’s feet are off the ground and you have that kind of leap forward. It sort of replaces the lunge. It is longer and a bit faster than a lunge. So, he flèched at me, which I sort of expected because I had a read of his character. I stepped out of the way, grabbed his wrist, threw him on the ground and stabbed him, and said don’t do that again. And he was like, OK, I won’t do that again. But you can’t do that in an épée competition.
KC: As tempting as it is, no, you can’t. Although, I mean, I will. I have come en garde in various, all perfectly legal guards, but not one that,
GW: There are no illegal guards in épée.
KC: I mean, some people will come on, a lot of people just come en garde and in sixte.
GW: Yeah, carte or sixte are the standard.
KC: Yeah, but I mean, yes, I have come en garde in prime and things like that.
GW: The thing is though, is that if they trained classical fencing, they would know prime and they would know what to do. And funnily enough, Johan Harmenberg who won the gold medal at the Olympics in 1980 in épée in both the men’s individual and the men’s teams for Sweden, he’s the guy is credited with basically making fencing the jumping up and down, bouncing back and forth thing it is today. He strongly recommends getting a thorough grounding in the breadth of fencing. Everything that you would be taught by a sport fencing coach, but with a classical background. And then from that broad base finding the things that you want to focus on. So really, there’s no there’s no excuse for a tournament épéeist to never see prime before, because it’s kind of a standard technique in classical. So, yeah, it’s just the way they’re taught these days, that is taught to competitions rather than taught the art.
KC: In early 2019 I actually did my level one épée coach training with Professor Pete Northam from the British Academy of Fencing. And part of the reason I wanted to do that was to give myself another way of looking at épée fencing, because, like I said, I started épée fencing late in life as well. So I started that in late 2011, early 2012, where you did a six week course and they took you through. You started with foil and then you we did épée and then sabre. And I thought I don’t ever really plan to become a modern fencing coach, but it was something that I thought as a fencer would be useful to know how that half of it works. And Pete Northam, who is a teacher, looks a bit like Father Christmas, and he is just elegant in the way he teaches and explains everything. And he explained the difference between you do something that would be classical fencing. And he said, of course, nowadays we do it this way and stressing the importance of knowing fencing history, modern fencing history and how it evolved from what we now call classical fencing to the more modern. Personally, I don’t like all the bouncing around stuff. I hate it. What I find is that if you don’t properly warm up your Achilles and your calves, you just get pain. I have an excellent lunge. It’s a very long lunge and I can recover from it. My problem is I have a tendency to fence too close in so I don’t get to use this magnificent lunge that I have. I keep forgetting that I do have this lunge so I can actually play out of measure and I don’t. But some of that is now fed over into the longsword work as well. I mean, granted, you don’t really lunge as deeply, but all those lower positions. I have a tendency when I fence longsword to be quite low to the ground, I like to keep the knees not just soft, I mean, they are they are bent, but I’m still springing off them. And my very first competition that I did, which was the Albion Cup in 2018. I didn’t really know anybody there, I mean, I knew Fran. And I met so many more people, just phenomenal people, but one of the girls came up to me and said, you just have the most amazing entry, because they would liken it to a crab, like crab walking, but it was really speedy. Like this fast crab. Yeah, but I tell you, the first time I got whacked in the side of the head, that was quite something. And the thing is, as an épée fencer, I’m used to being hit in the front of the face always, but to be hit on the side of the head. I mean, I had the complete competition level gear, but that knocked me for six for a moment. I was like, oh, you can be hit on the side of the head. Yes, of course you can. Wake up! Yeah, in my very first tournament I did learn all the bits that I did not have enough padding. I ended up with an enormous, beautiful bruise on my right bicep where I where I got clocked. And I couldn’t lift my arm. It was hilarious. I was just like, wow, this is just amazing, but oh it hurts, it hurts so bad.
GW: It’s like a hangover after a really good party. There’s something kind of special about bruises to say that was such a good hit. It reminds you of the fun you’ve had for days afterwards. It’s funny you mention the British Academy of Fencing. Probably the best thing I ever did for myself as an instructor was the week long immersion advanced foil coaching course. I had already done the intermediate years and years and years ago. It was so useful, even though I have no intention of ever teaching foil. I mean, I can do it if somebody comes up and says Guy will you teach me foil, I’m not going to say no, but it’s not something I have any particular interest in doing for myself. But the process of here is this fully understood, fully articulated theoretical body of knowledge about how the style of fencing works. And here is this perfectly clearly defined environment in which we have to make it work. And then here is this teaching process to get a student from one to the other. It’s brilliant. I mean, you can tell I’ve been working on it for one hundred years. I should maybe call up Phil Bruce, who’s a professor at the British Academy of Fencing, who ran that course when I was on, and maybe I should get him on the show. I remember I brought him over to Finland to teach a coaching workshop for my students and for fencing coaches in Finland. And that was really interesting. I shall make a note. So I need to talk to Emilia. I need to talk to Phil. This has be one of the best things about starting this podcast. I’m interacting with people of some of my old friends who I just haven’t spoken to for ages because of life. And some people I’ve never met before. And yeah, because I have this pretext of having a podcast and needing to interview people. I get to talk to people like you, obviously, also I interviewed Rory Miller last week. I have interviewed Elena Janega, the historian, and now I have a good reason to call up Phil and say, “Phil, do you fancy being on the podcast?” And he may very well say no, it may not be his thing, but, it’s still just a good pretext for getting in touch with people more often. Now, I know you’re an actor and I know you’re a fencer. So obviously, particularly for a Shakespearean actor, there is plenty of opportunity to swing swords on stage. So have you found so much connection between those two sides of yourself?
KC: I haven’t been able to actually swing a sword on stage in Shakespeare, though I have actually used a sword during a pole routine. It was a Samurai sword, because I did a routine from a film called Sucker Punch and there’s a character, it’s very anime and it’s a character called Baby Doll in that. And I thought there’s a really cool song in there. I would like to do a pole routine to that in this character and her character has either a Sig or a Glock pistol and the samurai sword. And I thought, well, I need one hand for the pole. So we’ll ditch the pistol and we’ll just use the samurai sword. So I had the little sailor outfit and a blonde wig and all that and the sword was on the floor and I did a cartwheel into it, picked up the sword and then leapt onto this pole. You have different kinds of pole. You have what’s called a static pole. That does not move, but you move around it, too. If you do a spin on a static pole, you are the one who’s generating the spin. Then you have a spinning pole, which once you move that pole, momentum and centrifugal force and all that keeps it going.
GW: Is it fixed to either end?
KC: Yeah, you can either have a free standing pole which doesn’t attach anywhere at the top, but it fits into a base so it looks like a little platform stage. Or you can have ones that are attached to the floor and the ceiling and the competition type pole is roughly 14 feet tall. Then I got on to this spinning pole with the sword and I learnt how to spin the sword as they do. I actually learnt that from I met a guy on YouTube who is a martial arts practitioner who I became friendly with, and he taught me how to spin the sword. And that was totally awesome. So I was spinning the sword and spinning on a spinning pole at the same time, which was quite something, because I’m all about performing.
GW: Is that on video somewhere?
KC: Yes, it. Yes, it is.
GW: OK, will you send me a link so I can put it in the show notes?
KC: Yes. OK, yeah. So I did that, and this is coming back to the pirate thing, actually, one of the pole routines that they did, I think it’s the same show. I wore about five different outfits. They did a group routine to Pirates of the Caribbean, the theme to Pirates of the Caribbean. And I came out towards the end in full Johnny Depp outfit. In fact, I came in through the back because where I trained was in a warehouse. So they had the big roller door and you had some of the audience just sort of milling around there. And I actually had it timed to the second because the idea was I was the big surprise reveal. So we didn’t want anyone to see me. So I came out a few seconds before my thing and made my way through the crowd. And people freaked out because they couldn’t tell if I was or was not Johnny Depp. Because I had the full everything, and they sort of backed up and everything. And I came through and all I did was open the treasure chest and took some treasure out. And that was it. But yeah, that was that was my main more recent pirate thing is the full Johnny Depp, Pirates of the Caribbean. Which people still talk about people still?
GW: Yeah, I had no idea that there was like pole dancing competitions.
KC: Oh yeah. Yeah, oh yes. There are all over the planet. They’re international competitions. It’s like competition season like any other… I don’t want to call it a sport because it’s not. Some people are trying to make it into an Olympic sport. I personally am not interested in that. I don’t know if you know the history of pole dancing?
GW: I know absolutely nothing about it, I’d say, except for I saw some on my stag night, that’s about it.
KC: Yeah, OK. Well, that’s a certain branch of pole dancing.
GW: Definitely poles involved, I remember.
KC: Yeah. So there are several schools of thought about the evolution of pole. In the Far East it’s a very male dominated sport. It shows off strength. Some of the things that these blokes do on poles there, they are shows of strength. And there is one theory that some Western men had seen what the blokes do and thought, wow, this would be great. Why don’t we get semi clad women to do similar things and make some money? That’s one school of thought. One is that it completely evolved from strippers who then as part of their equipment came up with a pole, which they then just danced around and then the moves became more athletic. In the last 20 years and more recently, you’ve had ballet dancers join in, so you get what ballet brings too, so a lot more dance. You have contortionists who have now come in. So you have a lot of floor work. So not so much on the pole, but lots of floor work, lots of gymnastic things like that. And then they also do some incredible things on the pole. You also have a lot of circus which is now intermixed with it. You have poles that can be spirals. They look like spirals and they hang from the ceiling. So they are acro-pole. So that’s in alignment with aerial silks. And then you also have pole silks where you have a pole and you have aerial silks at the same time, which is another permutation, there’s been so many permutations. I’m what they used to call hyper mobile in certain joints and but not all so I’m not a contortionist, but I can have a fairly bendy back and things like that. So the type of pole that I personally like to perform is, is what would be called old school. So that’s to heavy metal, hard rock, that kind of thing. Very big, very high heels, very big boots, lots of hairspray and eyeliner and all that kind of stuff. Knocking out the big rock actions. One of the things that all my routines, my very first solo routine was to a Miley Cyrus wrecking ball thing. And then my main one, which I’ve done now three times in different versions, was Metallica’s Enter Sandman. So that song is five and a half minutes long.
GW: That’s a lot of work.
KC: Yeah, the first time I did it, I only did half of it, so I did three and a half minutes, which was still quite long. So somebody said, oh, I would love to see the whole thing. So then I finished choreographing the whole thing and did all five and a half minutes of it. More than once. And that is probably still my very favourite routine, but my teacher at one point said, I would like to see you do something really feminine and fluffy and no shoes, a ballad and no shoes. So I did and I did a pink song. And then at the end that, I put on a pair of shoes. I have to end in a pair of shoes. But I do strength moves rather than dancey flowy moves. That’s my strength. So they’re always quite dynamic and the shoes, so every time I’m going to do one people are like, oh, my God, what are you going to do now?
GW: I had no idea we were going to be talking about this. That’s one of the great things about this sort of interview format, is we end up in really interesting places. Now I know stuff about pole dancing that I never knew before.
KC: And I will tell you one other thing about pole dancing. One of the questions that people always say, why do you wear so little clothing when you do pole dancing?
GW: I would imagine it’s so you don’t get caught on the pole.
KC: Well, the thing is, you need that skin grip. That is what keeps you on the pole is your skin. When you are first learning, you have a tendency to wear like longer shorts and things like that, because what you are learning, you don’t need as much skin contact. So you’ll notice with the evolution of a pole dancer, they will be in leggings and everything like that to start off. And then they end up they start wearing shorts and then shorts get shorter. And then it is more flesh exposed just so they can hang onto the pole to do some of the crazy-ass upside down stuff and spinning pole stuff. Otherwise you get thrown off. If you don’t have this contact, you get thrown off.
GW: OK, all right. So you’ve clearly done an awful lot of things. But I’m curious, what is the best idea you haven’t acted on?
KC: Oh, OK. I have had a lot of thought about this. I used to study Russian years ago when I was at uni and I started in a class of 30 and by the end of the four years, it was just me and the teacher. And she turned to me one day and she said, “You should become a spy because when you speak Russian, you have no accent,” and I was just like, oh my God. But she wasn’t the first one to approach me, nor was she the last. So, yes. So who knows what I would have been doing if I had chosen to become a spy. But that was something that was mooted to me and I did not take them up on.
GW: Who knows indeed. Well, actually, we don’t know that you’re not a spy. You just said that.
KC: I could have. I could be a highly in demand assassin, and you’ll never know.
GW: All right. So my last question. If you had a million pounds to spend improving historical martial arts worldwide, how would you spend that?
KC: First of all, I would say that a million pounds to do this worldwide is probably not enough, but there are two things. One, I think that people should have the opportunity to be exposed to it at a younger age. Now, this might be controversial. Like other martial arts. You get kids going to karate, judo or whatever. Why shouldn’t, you know, historical martial arts be taught earlier?
GW: You know, one of the best students I ever had showed up at the age of 10. I don’t teach children’s classes because living in Finland, my Finnish was never going to be good enough. And also my area of expertise is not teaching children is doing the research and coming up with the historical syllabi, that sort of thing. But various of my schools around the world do have children’s programmes, so some kids can do it. But this kid is still training today and he’s now twenty four. In his first class, it was a room full of mostly men aged between, say, eighteen and twenty seven. That’s just how it happened to be in that particular beginner’s course. We have this exercise where you hold the sword out and you move it up and down and around a bit and everyone has the same sorts of swords. Just to see what would happen, I just kept going a bit longer than usual and fairly quickly most of these grown-ups were leaning on the sword, going “Oh God.” And this 10 year old was just doing the thing, and he wasn’t going to stop until I told him to stop. When he was a bit older he needed to do some strength training, whatever. I gave him an exercise and said do this for five minutes, four days a week and he would do it. On the days when there weren’t classes so he couldn’t come, he would train for an hour at home anyway. So yeah, I absolutely agree that it would be brilliant if there were there ways for kids to get into martial arts earlier. It’s not my area, but it’s something I’m entirely in support of. So how would you spend the money to do that? How would you make that happen?
KC: Yeah, that’s a good question. I would have to make sure that I had the right people to do the training because, as you say, not everyone likes to teach children anyway. But I think some kind of displays would have to be set up, you know, introductory classes.
GW: And special equipment, perhaps?
KC: Oh, yes, you definitely have to. I mean, a lot of things go back to the equipment always because as I’ve chatted with Fran about, children’s sizes, small people sizes. It’s like in modern fencing, you have size zero foils for the little ones, once they are allowed to use weapons, moving up to a size five. So things like that.
GW: Plastic foils that go beep when you hit them, which are perfect for kids.
KC: Yeah, to be taken through all the disciplines, but then again, which master do you study? Which way do you do it?
GW: Or do you study a master at all? Might it not be more appropriate to teach attributes like safe weapons handling and fitness and wrestling and some sword tag with buffers. And that tends to be how my students who do these sorts of things approach it.
KC: It’s the whole idea of breadth versus depth. So give them a breadth of knowledge and they can then choose what they want to specialise in. So then you have the depth that way. When I learnt modern fencing, it was on the six week course, you don’t really get it. I mean, I knew what I wanted going in. But, you know, six weeks to me doesn’t seem an awful long time to get a feel for any weapon. You just get the basic, the gloss of it, and then you need more time with it. But definitely, you expose them to the attributes, so they get a flavour of the whole thing and then they can specialise later on, right?
GW: So you’d put the money into developing ways for children to enter into historical martial arts earlier?
KC: Yes, I think so. Yeah.
GW: That’s a really good idea. So the problem is everyone I interviewed has these brilliant ideas for how they would spend their money. And I keep saying, well, if I had the money, I’d give it to you. And by now I have given out something like one hundred million pounds of imaginary money. And this is a brilliant idea because just think how long it takes to get really good at anything. And wouldn’t it be great if you were starting to get really, really good right at the point where your body is at its peak?
KC: When you think about it, because you’ve had your medieval historian on, if you think about how young boys were when they actually started on their manly arts journey or whatever, they were starting at eight years old, sometimes depending upon their physical size they might have started earlier. But they learnt all of that and then that became what they did over decades and the best knights, how old were they? It was a progression, I think what I’m trying to say is it was a progression. It wasn’t like, hello, I’m 18 and now I’m going to pick up a sword. They had all of that already and then they found their best weapon and they worked with it, really.
GW: Well, that seems like an excellent place to finish, Kelley. Thank you very much for joining me today. That’s been great.
KC: Thank you.