Vancouver's Academie Duello: En garde!
So how’d I do today?” I asked. “I thought you did well,” he said, his eyes looking down at the wood floor.
“Yeah? Is there any chance I could beat you in a duel?”
His eyes moved up, looking at me directly in the eyes this time.
“No, definitely not,” he said somewhat apologetically.
This was the conversation I had with my instructor Clint Fernandes following my very humbling first lesson in rapier duelling at the Academie Duello, the conspicuous building on West Hastings. (Curious, you’ve probably peered in through the big windows, but maybe never have ventured in.)
Part museum, part training space, the school immediately impresses once you walk in through its doors. In a large open, well-lit room, the school is contained by bare brick walls that are adorned by almost every medieval boyhood fantasy imaginable — Arthurian long swords, shiny suits of armor, ancient-looking scrolls, regal crests and broad-headed axes.
The idea for Academie Duello was born in the underground parking lot of a Surrey apartment building where founder Devon Boorman and other teen sword enthusiasts would gather at night to practise and teach the art of European sword fighting.
But as the numbers of aspiring swordsmen grew to about 30, the building management became concerned (and probably confused) and eventually kicked the group out.
“It was very Highlander,” said Boorman with a laugh. “The interesting thing was that the parking lot had a really hard time with burglaries and the only night of the week that they didn’t have burglaries were the nights we were there. And as soon as we were gone, they started to get burglaries again. Really, what they should have done was to try to get us to come out on more nights.”
But from that rag tag group of urban swordsmen came a growing buzz about the Boorman’s unique lessons and soon after, connections began to build, leading to much more official Academie Duello in 2004. With a roster of close to 200 students, the Academie’s curriculum focuses on the weapons and martial arts of Northern Italy during the Middle Ages and Renaissance between 1400 and 1600. In addition to the muskateerish rapier, the school provides instruction on a wide range weapons including the two-handed long sword (think Conan the Barbarian), the shield-compatible side sword (think Gladiator), the bow and arrow as well as the Vancouver-friendly umbrella, which utilizes the Victoria-era martial art of bartitsu for self-defense (think Sherlock Holmes or a drunk Merry Poppins).
My lesson in rapier fencing focused on proper posture and footwork, different lunges to hit my opponent as well as defensive moves against the same lunges directed at me. I was surprised, afterwards, how tired my arms, legs and mind were after the one-hour lesson — the feeling was comparable to the mild fatigue after a light yoga lesson. The more intense periods of the instruction required me to be alert on a number of levels, while engaging specific muscles not often used. It’s not as easy as that Zorro makes it out to be.
“Sword play is definitely a thinking person’s art,” Boorman said. “So you have to be somebody who wants to be mentally stimulated while you get a workout. And that’s who we get — we get people who don’t want to go to the gym because they think it’s boring, they want to do something that’s both physical and mental.”
Speaking to the animated Boorman, who has been practising Western and Eastern martial arts for more than 20 years, it’s clear in his eyes that the man has found his passion. He has extensive experience not only teaching martial arts and swordplay, but also a lot of years studying and researching the area, becoming a well-known authority in the area.
“I’m a pretty diverse martial artist, but I’ve found that working with the rapier has made me a better martial artist in everything I do because of how intricate that weapon is,” he said. “Now, when something falls off my counter at home, I catch it. I’ve had students tell me that when they’ve tripped, they just do a roll. Or a lot of people tell me that when they stand on the bus, they don’t hold onto anything anymore — they’re a rock because your core gets really strong and your balance is really powerful. The real-world benefits are learning what you’re capable of, of balancing your body and getting more fit and developing grace and dexterity — those are the things you want to get out of it.”
So based on this deep knowledge of sword combat, could you take on an orc?
Boorman laughed — although quite confidently.
“Well, certainly, as they’re depicted in movies, I think that orcs tend to be pretty unsophisticated in their sword fighting,” he said. “So yeah, I think so — I could take an orc.”
Swordplay enthusiasts from around the world will be take part in the Vancouver International Swordplay Symposium February 15 to 17. Hosted by Academie Duello, this public event brings together instructors, practitioners, writers, and lecturers for an exciting series of events .
A press release says, "History buffs, writers, researchers, fans of fantasy and historical fiction, actors, and directors will be entertained and inspired with lectures, museum tours, and performances. The public can audit a wide variety of swordplay workshops taught by internationally renowned masters, cheer on the combatants in tournaments, and dance the night away at a sparkling gala evening.
"Authors CC Humphreys (A Place Called Armageddon, Shakespeare’s Rebel), Neal Stephenson (The Mongoliad, Snow Crash) , and Joseph Brassey (The Mongoliad), will be on hand to give lectures, sign books and chat about history, fantasy and the role of swords in both. Drs Robert Rouse and Noelle Phillips of UBC will discuss Chivalry, Knighthood, and Mediaeval weapons; and stage and screen fight choreographer David McCormick will examine some of the most famous film fights of all time."