All Summer Longsword

Take a stab at stage combat and Medieval martial arts this summer 

Gladiator. Braveheart. Kill Bill. Pirates of the Caribbean. Here’s a chance to live out your most swashbuckling fantasies with Argent Combat’s 16-week longsword course offered Tuesdays and Thursdays starting next week. This is serious stage combat  — there’s even a certification exam at the end of the course.

But it’s not just for actors, it’s also a wildly unique and exciting workout. And a partnered performance art, like a badass kind of ballroom dancing, with forged steel and leather instead of sequins and ostrich feathers. Fascinated by the class description we read online, we reached out to instructor Oliver Donahue and “administratrix” Brittany Holdahl — both East Falls neighbors! — for all the skinny on sword slinging for fun and glory.

Google says the European Longsword is a Medieval weapon known for sharp taper and fine point that can pierce/slip thru armor. Does that sound right? 

OLIVER: That’s a very good summation of a very complicated answer.  For our specific purposes, it’s enough to say that a longsword is a double-edged, straight-bladed, cruciform sword wielded primarily with both hands, between four and five feet long.

Do you practice with real longswords? 

OLIVER: We use steel swords specifically made for use in theatre by professional swordsmiths.  Depending on the piece, they’re only three or four pounds, and an average person gets used to things after two or three classes.  It’s much, much less about how much the sword weighs versus how you move the weight.

How physically challenging are classes? 

OLIVER: Swordplay uses a lot of muscles in ways people don’t usually expect. It’s definitely a full-body workout, and you can expect a lot of odd aches to start, as your brain tries to understand the signals your body is sending it.  Specifically, you’re going to notice the muscle underneath your shoulderblade for probably the first time.

BRITTANY:  The interesting thing about stage combat is that it is a collaborative art as opposed to a competitive sport. So, actor combatants must work together to build a successful fight as opposed to working against each other:  Like all types of performance art, if you are working against your partner as opposed to with your partner, the performance just isn’t going to work.

What makes stage combat dynamic is good communication and collaboration as opposed to competition.  Sometimes stage combatants will spar, but even that is a cooperative exercise to help them understand each other’s biomechanics and the motivations in a fight scene.

Will I have to buy my own sword for training? 

OLIVER: We provide all the blades necessary for class, no one needs to run out and get one (if you want to, though, we know some people).  BYOS is possible, provided it passes our safety examinations. There are a lot of pieces out there intended for decoration — we usually call them “wallhangers” — that are staggeringly dangerous to fight with.

BRITTANY:  We have swords of our own and some colleagues have been kind enough to loan us some from their own personal armories, for which we can’t thank them enough. All of these are SAFD-approved. If a student is serious enough about pursuing stage combat, they are welcome to invest in swords (at larger SAFD workshops, there are often vendors).

One thing you will want to buy: GLOVES!  Very important. Gauntlets are great. Leather gloves are great.  Even batting and gardening gloves are great. I personally used batting gloves when I studied.  You’ll need gloves that are a good fit, not too thick, and can keep a good grip.

What are some real world benefits of learning longsword combat?

OLIVER: For everybody, it’s a good workout with an unconventional regimen. For those of us in the arts, it’s another set of skills to add to the toolbox and another way to explore performance and storytelling.  For everybody who grew up loving things like the Arthurian legends, Dungeons & Dragons, or *cough* Game of Thrones *cough*, it can be another way to enjoy the stuff that you love.  Also, you can tell people you’re going swordfighting, and what’s not fun about that?

BRITTANY:  Oh, there’s a bunch!  Not just specifically longsword theatrical swordplay, but all disciplines of stage combat. I’ve made a list!

  1. Teaches safe techniques for performers and enthusiasts
  2. Gives artists and enthusiasts some of the tools they need to develop confidence in their autonomy
  3. Promotes communication and informed consent
  4. Provides aspiring writers/dramatists/filmmakers/etc a way to tell their story with physicality and historical detail
  5. Expands theatre’s influence by engendering new students and audiences
  6. Encourages collaborative synergy — fantastic for relationship and team-building
  7. Helps non-dancers to express themselves creatively through movement (we’ve seen first swordfights as first dances at weddings!)
  8. Creates an immersive historical experience

And, the best thing of course:  you get to swing a sword and look cool doing it!!

What exactly does this 16-week course cover? 

OLIVER: This course takes you from fundamentals to advanced moves, culminating with the SAFD Skills Proficiency Test, a performance of choreographed fight scenes in front of one of the organization’s Fight Masters. Students who pass with be a certified Actor Combatant with the Society of American Fight Directors.

For an actor, having an SAFD cert on your resume tells directors a very specific thing: that you know how to perform with a weapon. You know how to be safe with it, how to move with it, and how to convince an audience that you know how to use it. That piece of knowledge saves directors the thing they like to save best: time. Casting actors who can already fight means that the show’s Fight Choreographer can just build the fight, and they don’t have to drill in all the basics.

Are you saying there are actual jobs available today for sword fighters? 

OLIVER: Longsword skills are sought for productions of Shakespeare’s Histories, the Scottish Play, anything from King Arthur to Joan of Arc… But we won’t just be talking longsword during the course, we’ll also be covering all the basics of theatrical violence (and really, there are a lot more shows with violence in them than most people realize).

BRITTANY:  Absolutely! Classical pieces, background work, industrial films, historical reenactment and Renaissance faires, and theme park shows—just to name a few.

Outside of studying and teaching stage combat, our students and colleagues are able to apply their talents to many different roles in the film, TV, and theatre industries: wherever there is a performance of violence, there are actor combatants performing it, thanks to the fight choreographer who built it and to the certified fight instructor who taught them all.

Where can I see live local longsword battles? 

OLIVER: All are welcome to come out for a day of dramatic combat when students take their certification exams at the course’s end. It’s a test, yes, but also, these are performances! Students get to be center stage, all eyes on them, the stars of the scene. We often have spectators cheering them on — usually friends, colleagues, and industry professionals.

Our current class is being taught at St. Mary’s Hamilton Village in the Parish Hall on UPenn’s campus (an easy bike ride from East Falls, right up the Schuylkill River Trail and Schuylkill Banks boardwalk). We’d would love to bring more opportunities to East Falls and NW Philly! The most recent NW Philly stage combat production I can think of was The Rover with Jackpine Theatre in Germantown — it wasn’t longsword, but it was a stagefight-heavy show.

Is there a minimum/maximum age for students taking Argent Combat’s longsword course? Beginners ok? Any requirements or caveats?

OLIVER: Beginners are great!  Students must be at least 16 years old, and minors will of course need consent of their parents or guardians.  There’s no real upper limit on age, and the only caveat is that it is a movement class, so you should be comfortable exerting yourself for a couple of hours.

BRITTANY:  Our minimum age for this particular course is 16.  Again, all folks under 18 will need a form of consent signed by a parent or guardian in order to participate. Beginners are enthusiastically welcomed!

What do students wear to train in longsword combat?

OLIVER: We’re a very movement-oriented class, so comfortable workout gear is the best.  Sweats and sneakers good, evening gowns and tuxedos bad.

BRITTANY:  I’ve had some prospective students contact me recently asking if they need masks, helmets, and even plate.  None of these things are necessary. If you’d wear it to the gym, you’d wear it to a stage combat class. Form-fitting is also better than loose, as swinging swords catch much fabric.  Few things destroy a good death scene more than a tent pitching out of the victim’s back and, because they catch, baggy clothes are also a safety issue. Longer sleeves and pants are also recommended.  Shoes with good traction, like running sneakers; please, no boots or tennis shoes.

Is there any extension for the May 3rd registration deadline for the course? Any room for drop-ins or trial classes?  

OLIVER: Drop us a line, we’ll work something out.  The sooner the better, though, as the first few weeks are foundational elements so we can work up to the more advanced stuff.  Anyone looking for a one-off, or to just try things out is also more than encouraged to get a hold of us and we’ll work it out.

Philadelphia is actually one of the best places in the entire country to learn theatrical violence and swordplay.  In addition to Argent Combat starting a longsword course, Jacqueline Holloway of Arte Violenta is just beginning a course in Single Sword (think classic Hollywood Swashbuckling, very Errol Flynn and Basil Rathbone), and Ian Rose of The Rose Academy of Armes is beginning a course in Quarterstaff.  So there are lots of flavors to suit lots of tastes.

BRITTANY:  Yes, reach out and we’ll see what we can do. We originally planned on just having a Tuesday night class, but surpassed our maximum occupancy and had to open Thursday nights as well! There’s been more interest than we’d originally anticipated, which is really exciting!

There are a lot of classes going on this summer around the Philly area. Please subscribe here to our student mailing list to stay in the loop about other workshops we may offer and cool stage combat stuff happening in the area. Not just longsword fighting but also knife, sword and shield, quarterstaff, rapier and dagger… just to name a few (even unarmed).

Engage your inner warrior with a badass workout that might open new doors for dramatic expression. At the very least, you’ll come away with sculpted shoulders and special skills you can whip out to enliven a dinner party or scare the bejesus out of Halloweeners.

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