Academie Duello, Vancouver BC
Academie Duello is a school of European swordplay located in downtown Vancouver. The core curriculum includes rapier, dagger, sidesword and shield, longsword, and some unarmed combat, but workshops and focus classes extend this with a variety of more or less related subjects, so that skills on offer also include quarterstaff, polearms, mounted combat, archery, falconry, and so forth. The newest offering—starting this weekend—is Bartitsu.
As with my other review (GB Vancouver), this one comes with the caveat that, first, I am not a very experienced student; and second, that I have not practiced anything similar anywhere else. Keep that in mind as you read on.
Rank and class structure
You can attend the Academie Duello in many different ways—as an occasional visitor of workshops, or by attending focus classes in things like longsword, or by attending the Swordfit classes which combine circuit training with heavy weapons (e.g. longsword and quarterstaff). However, the bread and butter of the Academie is the Mastery program. This is also what I do, so I’ll delve into it a bit further.
Most students start off by taking the Taste of the Renaissance course, which consists of a series of 8 classes (for $99), over the course of a month or two depending (obviously) on whether you attend once or twice a week. This will introduce you to the main components of the curriculum, including the weapons (rapier, sidesword, and longsword), and core concepts like footwork, cutting and thrusting, gaining the sword, measures and tempos. Having completed this (or alternatively, done the intensive intro workshop), you’re awarded the rank of green cord (a little cord you can tie to your sword, or sew onto your [non-mandatory/$30] rank bracer) and attend regular classes.
The rank structure runs from green to blue, red, silver, and gold cord. This is significant because the curriculum is somewhat structured around your current rank. When you attend regular Mastery classes, some drills will involve the entire class, but some will split the class into rank-segregated groups, where green cords work on the very basics, blue cords on somewhat advanced material, &c.
At green cord level, the focus is vastly on rapier. The core concept (I believe this was invented by the instructors here) is the “true fight”, referring to a basic combat concept of a very orthodox fight: You try to gain the sword; if you gain the sword you advance and press your advantage; if your opponent wins the crossing, you retreat and attempt to regain control. This is my own current rank.
The general rule is that, when you are at level N, you’re supposed to get a basic familiarity with the material for the next level, and display sparring competence with the material from the last level. Thus, as a green cord I will be expected to be able to demonstrate, in drills, some familiarity with cuts, off-hand stringere, and so on; in sparring, I should be competent with the concepts I learned in the introductory course.
At blue cord level, you will start to work a lot more on the “adaptive fight” (i.e. not the “true fight” as above). Weapons include single rapier, rapier and dagger, and sidesword and shield.
At red cord level, you start working more with the longsword (alongside the other weapons). Beyond this, I don’t really know.
All levels work unarmed combat. More on that later.
The chief bases for the Academie Duello curriculum, as I understand it, is Ridolfo Capo Ferro’s Gran Simulacro (rapier and dagger) and Fiore Dei Liberi’s Fior dei Battaglia (aka. Flos Duellatorum) for longsword, sidesword, and grappling. Some of Marozzo’s cut-and-thrust also seems to be part of the blue-cord-and-up curriculum. However, the focus seems to be less on a picture-perfect imitation of historical masters than on interpreting these sources and turning it into a functional system.
Instruction and sparring
The typical Mastery class begins with a warmup, then grappling, followed by some basic partner drills, like lunging for targets, stringere and lunging, cuts, and simple movements. Later, the class moves onto instruction for new material, and virtually all classes end with sparring—sometimes slow work, but usually full speed sparring.
Now, the quality of the material may come to vary a bit with the weapon in question. Rapier sparring is frequent, and because the rapier is a pretty safe weapon, it is fairly intense—all for the good. You’ll be required to wear a cup, a fencing mask, and a gorget; you will be encouraged to wear gloves (and it’s a very good idea). You will emerge from this sort of sparring with the occasional bruise and some good experience.
Sidesword and longsword sparring is much less frequent, and something that the instructors are working on increasing and improving. The fundamental problem is simply safety. Stabbing someone with an unsharpened rapier with a rubber blunt is pretty safe; it’ll hurt and maybe bruise, but the sword bends. The more cutting-heavy sparring necessary with longsword and sidesword is more dangerous, and of course if you thrust with such a sword it won’t bend much, so people need a lot more protective gear—not a lot of people have this yet. Still, a few people do and do go at it.
I have no basis for comparison, unfortunately, so cannot very well evaluate this relative to any other school. What I can say is that I am thoroughly happy with it, that sparring is practiced with aliveness, and that the instructors are not afraid to mix it up with students.
The grappling curriculum is the one part that so far fails to impress me—not because the instruction is bad, but because unfortunately, there seems to be no free sparring at all. Most of the drills are entirely co-operative, excepting some push-pull stuff. (Oh, the time I have lost to stance work and push-pull stuff.) Some people don’t even seem to know to tap out when working keylocks (some people think I am very rough because I go to far in applying joint locks, even though I do so slowly and safely, because in my mind it is natural to go until a tap…).
On the other hand, it’s often important to consider context before judging some of this material. For example, if you attend a grappling class that involves knife work, you may occasionally think that the material is idiotic because we are taught techniques that leave the knife-wielding attacker free to cut you open (just not to stab). However, these are techniques from mediæval manuscripts, intended for situations where both people are wearing some form of armour, and daggers were intended and effective purely for stabbing.
I know that students at more advanced levels do more keylocks and even some takedowns, though again, all the drilling I’ve seen looks co-operative.
My take: Most of the material is sound; some doesn’t make sense in a modern context but does make sense when you keep in mind where it is from and what it is for; sparring is missing. (Of course, to incorporate proper sparring they would also have to get proper mats. The floors are hard wood; they have some puzzle mats, but those aren’t great.)
This August, Academie Duello is starting up a Bartitsu program on Saturday afternoons (following a very popular workshop lead by Tony Wolf). It hasn’t started and I may or may not attend, but damn it, someone should go and review it.
The maestro d'armi of Academie Duello is Devon Boorman, one of the school’s co-founders. As his various online profiles have it,
Devon personally teaches a lot of classes and many workshops. I lack the ability to evaluate his skill (he can kick my ass, but so what?); all I know is that if you can come into a class wearing a mail byrnie (no time to change after a TV interview) and still do burpees, you’re not a sedentary from-on-high sort of instructor.
Devon Boorman has been playing with swords since he was a small child. His formal education in swordplay began with the Society for Creative Anachronism (SCA), an organization devoted to the study and recreation of medieval and renaissance arts. Through the SCA, Devon had the fortune of meeting and training with Braun McAsh
, Swordmaster from Highlander: The Series
and a long-time practitioner of Western Martial Arts. Over the last ten years Devon has studied with North America's premier scholars of European martial arts, including Tomasso Leoni, Bob Charon, and Bill Willson. Devon also has the distinction of being a member of the Order of the White Scarf, the highest distinction awarded by the SCA for Renaissance swordplay.
A highly accomplished martial artist, Devon has won more than 30 European martial arts competitions, and worked on both stage and screen as a stunt person and choreographer. Devon recently trained actors on the television series Smallville and served as a historical combat consultant for the Discovery Channel.
Devon is an outstanding sword fighting coach and has been internationally recognized for his instruction and competitive ability.
The other head instructor, Adam (Lein?) is one of the senior students and teaches most of the Saturday Mastery classes (these are what I attend).
Both of the above are excellent instructors. Some other classes may be taught by other senior students or assistant instructors; generally I have preferred classes taught by Adam or Devon.
Facilities, equipment & misc.
The school itself, located in downtown Vancouver, is a big and very pretty sort of place with room for 40 or more people to practice rapier at once—which is a good thing, because this happens. Devon recently talked about a conference which will include and invite instructors of WMA schools from places as far-flung as Finland, and mentioned that as far as he knows, ours is by far the largest school of its kind in the world.
The front area is a store where you can buy practice swords, equipment like masks and gorgets, and school-branded t-shirts; also other things like armour, maces, axes, and such. It should be noted that while some protective equipment is required (mask, gorget, cup), some is recommended (gloves), and most people choose to wear an Academie Duello t-shirt, last I checked you were not required to buy anything from the store except your membership.
There’s also a museum area with an array of swords from different periods of history, from a bronze sword up to a 19th century cavalry sabre. I tell you, the two-handed sword is a heavy bitch to take down and swing.
On the subject of swords available, there is also a pretty generous amount of loaner gear. Lots of people don’t own their own swords—I don’t, until I can afford one nicer than a regular Cas Hanwei. There are also plenty of masks to borrow. There are gloves and gorgets to borrow as well, but the gloves get kind of nasty; the gorgets are fine but there aren’t enough of them to go around. I would recommend that gloves and gorget be your first pieces of equipment, as you won’t want to borrow gloves, and won’t always be able to borrow a gorget.
This school is great. The premises are great, there’s equipment galore to borrow if you don’t have your own, the people are nice, the instructors are good, and the rapier sparring at the very least is done with aliveness. Of course there aren’t that many external competitions, so the competitive aspect is what it is—but that’s hardly the fault of anyone here. The one potential weak spot is the grappling part of the curriculum, which suffers from a distinct lack of sparring.
But never mind that. It’s a swordfighting school in downtown Vancouver. Come down and stab a friend today!