Humble Beginnings: How To Start a Sword Fighting School

Academie Duello started in August 2004 at a defunct outdoor skating rink in the heart of downtown Vancouver, Canada. The space cost us nothing, other than the time and effort it took to get permission from the province, who owned the rink. It was covered, lit at night, and centrally located.
We had enough money to purchase six rapiers and we assembled some wooden longsword waisters as well as using some shinai that myself and co-founder Randy Packer had in our personal collection. We had no extra protective equipment, save for an old mask or old jacket we had around.
We advertised with two sandwich boards we put on the street by the rink. To make them I designed posters in Word, printed them at a local print shop, and glued them onto particle board I had connected with hinges and chain I bought at Home Depot. We sent out emails, created flyers, and spread as much word of mouth as we could.

The First Academie Duello Class

Our first class had six people at it. It was mostly made up of students I was connected with through my teaching in the Society for Creative Anachronism as well as a few who had got word through our meager marketing efforts. The class was offered for free.
We had the proto-beginnings of a curriculum based on Capo Ferro’s rapier (that I’d been studying and teaching in workshops for several years before) and we would soon have a Fiore curriculum to offer based on the publicly available Novati and thanks to the inspiration and teaching of Bob Charron.
Though we had lots of experience to offer—both Randy and I had been practicing and teaching martial arts since we were young—this was uncharted territory based only on dreams we had hatched over many a late night drink after our own fencing practice. We knew of no other professional schools and had no idea if anyone beyond our little fringe of the world had any desire or interest to learn.
That night we signed up our first member, Roland Cooper. Within the first year we had expanded to teaching three nights per week and had classes with as many as 40 people. Shortly after, we began looking for a proper home. The rest is a story for another time.

From Humble Beginnings

To create something doesn’t take much. Just a start. From that start, with some love, rhythm, and resilience, you can create something really special and notable, over time.
Neither Randy or I had very much going for us financially before we started. In fact we had both come out of some pretty serious life changes and challenges. Looked at from the outside it was a terrible time to start a business. But as with so many things there is often no perfect time and neither of us felt like waiting any longer.
I don’t know much about giant start-ups with thousands or hundreds of thousands of dollars. I’ve always been more of a grassroots type person. In those early years I kept my expenses low, worked other jobs, sought out tons of help, and worked at nurturing this little club, simply because I loved teaching and swordplay.
There were times when Duello was a life raft out of the storms of our lives and there were times when I’ve felt I’ve had to do everything in my power to keep it afloat. Such is the way with things that are worthwhile. And every step and struggle has been worth it.
To all those who have been brave enough to start: a toast! To all those who are thinking about taking that leap, no matter how small, I can guarantee no chance at success. In fact I can tell you that most fail. However, I can also say that no one has succeeded who hasn’t started.
Tell us about your dreams or your attempts to make them happen in the comments.

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  1. I’ve been doing martial arts since I was about 12 years old, (and am now 30). I began like many kids do, in traditional Eastern styles, which evolved later into pursuing Filipino Kali and modern combative course like Krav Maga. After that, I began to pursue martial skills with more of an eye toward health and biomechanics, and began to focus on Baguazhang and other “Neija” arts.
    When I learned about and became interested in “classical education” for my personal development, I sought a way to incorporate movement/exercise into learning that would harmonize with this education system. As “classical education” heavily emphasizes the “great books” which have helped to shape the Western world, I thought I would look into Western martial arts. I was surprised to discover that there was so much available for those interested in learning the knightly arts, etc, and I was delighted to discover the SCA, HEMA, etc.
    My dream now is to become skilled enough in late medieval fencing skills and their complementary arts as to be able to teach them. Fencing is a great door into history, geometry, music, and latin, amongst other things- all of which classical education places heavy emphasis on. Also, the logical educational progression utilized in fencing mirrors the core principles of classical education, known as the “Trivium”: grammar, logic, and rhetoric. Furthermore, ethical concepts embodied in fencing practice, and codified the idea of chivalry, lend themselves to character development. Character development lies at the core “telos” of classical education- which seeks to develop virtuous citizens.
    In a world that has become increasingly sedentary, and yet scientifically is becoming increasingly aware of the multifaceted need for human beings to move, fencing provides a timely remedy. And for those who are interested in classical education: I cannot think of a better force-multiplier to a student’s scholastic pursuits than that of historical fencing. So really, my true dream, beyond that of simply becoming an instructor in historical fencing, is to help integrate historical fencing into the classical school tradition.

    1. Thanks for posting Brian. I also spent time doing Filipino martial arts. I still love the combination of flow and directness that is embodied in their form. I have on a few occasions delivered workshops for instructors of FMA schools into Western arts. One comment that routinely comes out of this is “There are many shared principles but the Western arts seem to make what is implicit in FMA teachings, explicit.” That combination of thoughtful scientific study along with the physical arts is something really special within the Western traditions. Being able to not only execute but deeply understand the principles and techniques behind execution is a real joy and a real power as a martial artist. I have brought this same approach back to my eastern practices to great effect.
      Thanks again for sharing your story and good luck on your path to become a competent and educated instructor for Western arts. I hope we can help you along to that.

      1. What you said about FMA’s relationship to Western traditions resonates very well for me. I’ve recently signed up for the intro classes of your online program, (I’m not local). Do you have any of the workshop material from teaching Western martial arts to FMA practitioners available anywhere? I would be very interested to see it.