Musings on Light Sabres, Sabre: Lite, and the Implications for HEMA
I started fencing in 1987. This was of course what we might now refer to as sport-fencing or modern fencing, but it was so long ago you could make a case for it being historical. Well, not quite. But certainly it’s been a long time and things have changed radically.
Some of the changes were for the better. Back in 1987 there was no women’s sabre or epee. Our club was unusual in that we taught everyone all the weapons, and when they tried to run the first women’s sabre competition in the North-East, we entered. Actually, we were the only club that entered, and with just one entrant the event was cancelled. So yes, some things are better now.
However, other changes were less palatable to people like me. The electrification of sabre fencing led to the same sort of changes that took place in foil and epee; it was no longer necessary to use classical technique to win, all you had to do was activate the scoring mechanism. The priority rule, invented to force people to fence more ‘properly’ (i.e. as if with sharps rather than just jab-o-matic) became something to be exploited rather than a guide to good fencing.
All the (sport) fencing coaches I know still teach classical technique, and the older generation fence that way too, but for competition success it has become necessary to sail closer to the wind. Rather than fencing classically, what is needed to win (at foil and sabre) is to establish priority according to the current interpretation of the rules and to activate the scoring mechanism. Some ways of doing this do not resemble classical swordplay in any manner.
Flicks, sabre strikes that involve nothing more than tapping the opponent with any part of the blade or brushing a single molecule their jacket with the blade… this isn’t swordplay. It’s highly skilled and technically demanding, but it is not swordsmanship. At the same time, the electric judging apparatus has allowed hits that move too fast or are too marginal to be seen by most people to score.
Since the mid 1990s, as I recall, I have seen numerous debates about how to make fencing more accessible and television-friendly. Colourful clothing, masks that light up, national colours emblazoned on jackets and masks…. Lots of interesting ideas. But none of these actually addressed the real issue – that modern fencing is largely incomprehensible to most potential viewers.
The technology to rectify this currently exists. Much of the drift away from classical technique that happened in the 1990s and 2000s was due to the limitations of the electric judging apparatus. These limitations could now be rectified to force a return to more classical fencing. However, I have gained the impression that this is not seen as desirable.
Yet at the same time British Fencing (and presumably other national bodies) are concerned that participation in fencing is dropping off. The reason is obvious – fencing is no longer accessible, and lacks widespread appeal. When I started, fencing had no need of a ‘gateway’ activity – it wasn’t pirate-movie stuff like some people wanted it to be, but it was sword fighting and it was accessible to people of low to middling physicality. You could do well using a variety of styles, so even if you were not very athletic it was still possible to compete without being summarily destroyed by someone with greater athletic ability.
These days, this isn’t the case, and so British Fencing has introduced Sabre:Lite as a gateway activity. As chance would have it, at the same time SSS (Durham) was investigating opening a class at the University of Sunderland, they were considering implementing Sabre:Lite as a means to reintroduce fencing to the university. There used to be a club – I coached it from 1989-2008 – but it lapsed that year and previous attempts to reintroduce fencing failed.
We saw a possible convergence of interests and agreed to run Sabre:Lite in the hour before our historical fencing slot. In due course the kit arrived and we took a look. As might be expected, most of it is standard sport-fencing kit. The weapons are Size 2 sport sabres, slightly shorter and lighter than the standard sport-fencing sabre. Yes, you read that right. We’ve taken to referring to these as ‘training sabres’ to avoid confusion.
It is possible to teach correct technique with these weapons, though they have virtually no momentum which can make it difficult to make students ‘feel’ some aspects of swordplay. There is little impact risk, but being so light the training sabres can lash in a way that a military sabre does not, so heavy-handed students can hurt each other quite a lot even if they cannot do much real damage.
The teaching materials are…. interesting. They are intended to be used by someone who has never fenced before (!!!!!) let alone taught, after a brief training session to be an activity leader. I personally find this highly questionable, but in our case the Sabre:Lite course was being taught by fully qualified people so the issue did not arise.
According to the version of the teaching materials I was given, Sabre:Lite is intended to reach two, err, ‘tribes’ in particular. These, err, ‘tribes’ are the Creatives and the Gamers. They are described in the materials for some reason, but I didn’t recognise either. I am a creative, I guess (I write books for a living) and the description is marginal at best. The description of the gamer, err, ‘tribe’ was… well it was kinda weird and did not match any sort of gamer I’ve ever met.
Other parts of the materials raised eyebrows as well. The terminology was rather inconsistent in the version I saw (we’re suddenly told to guard in Terza for some reason, and there is an activity called ‘singlesticking’ that really needs a less confusing name), and there is a lot of emphasis on fun and accessibility. Apparently we’re supposed to take a ‘sabre selfie’ at the end of the first session. Yeah, right.
Readers may have come to the conclusion that I consider the Sabre:Lite materials to be flawed, and I really do not like the idea of people using metal weapons under the supervision of someone who has no depth of experience. But actually Sabre:Lite isn’t bad. The weapons are a lot of fun, especially for those of us used to something a lot heavier.
Sabre:Lite is intended as a fun and accessible introduction to fencing, and it does deliver that (well, it did when we ran it). The emphasis is on the culture of swordplay (I got that verbally straight from the programme director, and I approve wholeheartedly) and on a quick-and-dirty fun introduction. I don’t have a problem with that, either.
I do consider the idea that students can figure a lot of it out for themselves questionable. One taster session we ran threw up several reasons why people should receive significant instruction before being allowed to flail at one another with pieces of metal. Whilst the emphasis on fun rather than strictly disciplined drilling is fine with me, a gateway activity should not drive people away, and there is a real risk of that.
The two, err, ‘tribes’ that Sabre:Lite is apparently aimed at tend to include a lot of people who are not very physical or confident, and who might be driven away if they get hurt or intimidated. Someone who figures out they can ‘win’ by storming forward swiping wildly is going to drive away the very people Sabre:Lite is designed to attract.
I feel that tighter control is necessary to protect those who are unsure of themselves from those who are inclined to be excessively aggressive. This is particularly the case with such light weapons. It is possible to throw endless swipes without the gaps that would occur with a heavier blade, so the less aggressive fencer can do little but defend until something gets (painfully, perhaps) through their parries. Tight control is not likely with inexperienced activity leaders who have never fenced before – indeed, they might be the ones doing the swiping!
However, if run properly Sabre:Lite can and does deliver what it is supposed to. When we ran our taster session, we had a one hour session. I kinda ignored the teaching materials. And by ‘kinda’ I mean ‘completely’. Essentially we did an introduction to sabre as taught by Hutton and Taylor, though informed by my many years of sport fencing sabre. By way of example, cuts were taught ‘as if with sharps’, but we did emphasise one cut that is little used in HEMA because it is common in modern sabre.
What I did was this:
- Introduction to swords of all kinds and how they work. This included a shameless display of HEMA weaponry.
- How to hold a sabre, how to stand, how to step forward and back.
- The Five Key Defensive positions (Prime, Seconde, Tierce, Quarte, St George/Quinte) with emphasis on the First Defensive Triangle of Tierce, Quarte, St George/Quinte.
- The Four Main Cuts (One, Two and Six, plus Seven because it is used a lot in modern sabre)
- How to defend the Four Main Cuts using the First Defensive Triangle and how to follow a parry with a riposte
- A tightly controlled semi-freeplay session.
This was accomplished in an hour, largely because I had enough experienced fencers from SSS (Durham) to pair up all the new starters.
Did it work? Yes, for the most part. Despite the promised advertising from the University apparently not materialising, we got a handful of interested parties and a few others in later weeks. Some have come back repeatedly. One in particular has some real promise as a swordswoman – the first time she got hit you could see the penny drop. It wasn’t a hard hit of course, but she didn’t like it – in a good way. Her posture and intensity changed in that instant, and she stopped trying to do the stuff we’d showed her and started fencing. It was a wondrous thing to behold.
Has it worked as a gateway activity? Nope, not as far as I can see. Nobody has inquired about moving on beyond Sabre:Lite either to sport-fencing or HEMA, although we have mentioned that either or both are available. It seems that the people attracted to Sabre:Lite like it as it is. There’s nothing at all wrong with that; it’s fun. I wonder if there will eventually be more Sabre:Lite clubs than competitive sport-fencing clubs?
We ran Sabre:Lite as a sort of HEMA-Lite, leaving out anything specific to electrically judged competitive fencing. We specifically disallow marginal hits even if they would activate the scoring mechanism. In short, we’ve been teaching Sabre:Lite as quick-and-dirty swordplay and having a fun time with it. I think that’s the underlying ethos and it’s a worthy one. But will it achieve its goal of creating a gateway into the world of fencing?
I’m not sure about that.
My experience may be coloured by the lack of advertising by the University. Maybe it did appear and we just haven’t seen it, but my suspicion is not. So if Sabre:Lite was properly advertised then maybe it would attract more attention, but what we’ve seen is a level of interest no greater than the old University of Sunderland Fencing Club attracted prior to 2008. Those that come along seem to enjoy it, but they also don’t seem that interested in progressing into either HEMA or sport-fencing, or both. It’s early days, but so far I’m not seeing the hoped-for response.
Not that this really affects us in the HEMA community. We have what sport-fencing had when I started back in 1987. You come along looking for something that resembles a sword fight, and you get just that. It’s also accessible to a variety of physicality levels. We don’t need something like Sabre:Lite as a gateway activity – but we are vastly better positioned to run it than an activity leader with 12 hours’ instruction, or even many sport-fencing instructors.
That’s not a dig at the latter – I attend a local sport fencing club and I’ve known many of the region’s instructors for a long, long time. They’re good at what they do. It’s just that Sabre:Lite is so different from where modern sabre has gone that it’s much closer to what we teach out of the pages of Hutton, Taylor etc.
So, running Sabre:Lite is an area where the HEMA community can work with our sport-fencing counterparts. We’re better positioned to run Sabre:Lite than most of those likely to do so. We don’t need it, but sport-fencing does and we can do it well on their behalf. Fencing comes in many flavours and one of my goals is to build bridges between the segments of the fencing community. Maybe HEMA clubs would also pick up additional members this way, maybe not. But certainly this is an area where HEMA and sport-fencing can work together to mutual benefit.
And as I keep on saying – they’re not exclusive. In the end it’s all fencing, and there is much to learn from those taking a different approach.
Speaking of a different approach… we have also recently encountered light sabre fencing. I originally typed ‘fencing’ in quotes but decided against it. It is fencing of a sort… kinda… I guess. A bit. Maybe. I remain, as you may have inferred, unconvinced.
This is another promotional activity run by British Fencing, who provided the University with twelve light sabres that light up and everything. Certain of our members (actually, most of our members, so maybe my viewpoint is the minority) were terribly excited and wanted to play with them, so we had a go.
Yes, they’re kinda fun, though the combination of lightness and air resistance causes them to behave strangely. Playing with light-up light sabres in the semi-dark is visually impressive, and everyone seemed to enjoy it. Well, other than me. I experienced a strange mix of amusement and embarrassment for the most part. Maybe I just don’t like fun….
You really need gloves with these things. Hits to the joints and knuckles are common, and it hurts. It turns out I have an unanticipated talent for being struck on the thumb, resulting in what I’m told was some not-very-inventive cussing.
But yeah, okay, light sabres are fun to play with. I’m really not very sure how that leads into either HEMA or sport-fencing though. The University ran two light sabre classes, which were apparently well attended (we were not involved, though at least one of the people who’s been attending our HEMA class at the University went along), and as I understand it there was supposed to be advertising for those and the Sabre:Lite classes. I saw the light sabre advertising – colour posters and everything – but nothing for our Sabre:Lite class. So maybe my conclusion is influenced by other factors.
However, here it is:
Sabre:Lite: Attracted an interested handful. Nobody has yet shown an interest in progressing to HEMA or sport-fencing.
Light Sabre: Attracted a larger audience. Other than those already involved with the HEMA class, there seems to have been zero crossover to metal-sword fencing.
My conclusion about the light sabre fencing is that it’s a fun thing in its own right and yes, it might attract interest and publicity, but the gulf between this and sport-fencing is so huge that it’s hard to see many people making the jump. Sport-fencing these days caters almost exclusively to those wanting to be serious competitors, so even if light sabre fencing garners interest, the gap is a bit wide. Can Sabre:Lite bridge that gap? I really don’t know. My experience thus far suggests that it could, if the marketing were handled well.
How does this affect the HEMA community? Well, it doesn’t, not if we don’t want it to. Other than having to fend off the occasional inquiry about light sabre fencing, it doesn’t really change anything for us.
However, as noted above the HEMA community is uniquely well suited to delivering Sabre:Lite. This is an area where sport and historical fencing overlap a little, and thus represents an opportunity for cooperation to mutual benefit. I intend to continue the experiment into the coming year, and will present my conclusions at some suitable point.