My Weekend at Dante’s

The last week in January Gawin and I headed up to Maestro Dante’s for some one-on-one intensive training. Ben helped. Snow covered the ground and the wind chill had us in the single digits, but our love of Atlantia kept us warm.


We expected drills, and Dante delivered in spades; there were nine. These were generally focused on simple actions inherent to basic Italian rapier, but there were a couple completely new things I’d never seen before. The default demand was 20 perfect repetitions in a row.

This was tough, but exponentially more effective than demanding 10 or 5. For one, there’s a real sense that you’ve begun to develop a new long-term habit after 20 repetitions. For another, fatigue quickly becomes a factor. This is good. If your brain has learned a given action (say, a disengagement/cavazione) in an inefficient way, one of the best ways to make it rework the action is to make yourself too tired to do it wrong; your body will naturally give up the inefficient method and move towards the efficient one. One more point in support of swords with historically accurate weights and balance.

One particular sequence popped up in a few drills, and has reshaped how I think about defending myself. The actions go like so:

Agente: find in 4th; straight lunge to neck/face
Patiente: stesso-tempo counterfind and strike by raising the forte, leaning, and extending in 4th

Edit: This is a variation of drill 3, in the comments below

Patiente’s response is, essentially, a lunge sans the foot motion. It seems simple but after years of ingrained habits, it’s deviously difficult to pull off. Every instinct fights that response. A gained blade sets off alarm bells in my head. A point coming at me makes me want to do something to that point so it doesn’t hit me. The instinctual response is a simple parry or a void, and done in the right tempo, these will keep Patiente alive – but they won’t get the kill.

In order to get the kill, Patiente has to ignore “common sense” and actually move towards Agente’s point. This is because he is moving to a position where he is safe from that line of attack. What position is safe from an attack to the high inside? The extended fourth, of course – that’s why we go there when we lunge.

This is the epiphany, then: defending is not about moving the opponent’s sword, but rather, moving oneself to a position where one is safe against the given line of attack. It takes faith. It takes automaticity. It takes good form.

Something we all know, but which is worth repeating: the goal is that, if an opponent gives a tempo in measure, he dies, every time. Performed properly, almost every counter can be single-tempo once we’re at measure (unless we’re facing a “bestial man”, when two tempi may be needed), and that’s what we should be aiming for. But if you have to think, you can’t react quickly enough to pull off a clean single-tempo counter. Drilling is the only solution.


I had wanted to fix up some details of form, and so that’s what we worked on Sunday. The revelations were expected: lots of details to correct. 100-lunges-a-day will have to wait until we can properly stand in guard for more than 30 seconds straight.

For a well-formed single-sword Italian guard, here are my major notes:

– we talk about having no weight on the front foot. What do weightless things do? They float. In a properly formed guard, the front foot will, in fact, have the sense of floating. My ad-hoc test for this is to give the student’s front foot a quick kick from below. In a proper guard (no weight on the foot), it will pop up; if it doesn’t move appreciably, he’s got too much weight there.
– being mostly-kinda-sorta in an Italian stance is demanding on the quads; being in a bona fide Italian stance is utterly devastating. It’s easy to mistake the former as “good enough”.
– ditto for the abs, although they’re easy to forget.
– this was less a problem for me, but it bears repeating: weight is through the heels. Putting energy through the toes grants mobility at the cost of explosivity (since you break the straight line of energy transfer from heel-to-hip-to-shoulder) – perhaps good for a melee situation, but not necessary in singles, where we’re looking for those tight, quick, violent single-tempo actions.
– I am reminded of the chapter in the Book of Martial Power about the “sense of powerfulness” vs the “sense of effortlessness” and the primacy of the latter. There’s almost no need to practice basic footwork (aside from lunges) in a well-formed guard; it happens automatically simply by lifting or straightening the front leg. Passing is a little less automatic, but still very natural. Voids are similar – the timing is tricky but the motion itself flows easily.
– the lunge itself feels very different when performed from a good guard – rather like flipping a light switch up and down. The body “wants” to be in one of those two states, and it takes relatively little energy to move between them.

Looking Forward

All in all I’m happy with the direction these drills give. We need to finish building up the strength and stamina necessary for standing in guard, but after that these nine drills (and endless lunges) cover a lot of territory, and we’ll perform them as often as we can.

7 comments to My Weekend at Dante’s

  • Wistric

    but there were a couple completely new things I’d never seen before

    Like what?

    Passing is a little less automatic, but still very natural

    Damn near automatic: Increase weight on front leg, let front knee buckle, fall down and forward, catch yourself with your back foot.

    What were the other drills?

    What were the specific details of your form that need improvement and the prescribed means for improving them? How will you assess your progress?

    How would you instruct a newcomer to the SCA so that they can bypass some of these issues?

    • Ruairc

      The specifics of the stesso-tempo response were new (drills 3, 5, 6, 7 below). I was under the very distinct impression that one of the essential tactical consequences of closing the line (perhaps the most important) was that it prevents a stesso-tempo response. This isn’t quite true.

      Passing is pretty close, sure. I think this will improve with practice. Muscle isolation is totally a thing.

      Other drills: this requires a reply of its own. See below.

      The specific details, as far as the physical body position goes, are “all of them, but only slightly”. One wrong thing pulls a half-dozen other things out of alignment. I know where I’m supposed to be, and I know why; what needs developing is mostly proprioception – knowing when I’m there and when I’m not – and the strength and coordination needed to stay in a correct guard. Mirrors. Pictures. Film. These all help.

      Andy has asked me point-blank how to bypass these issues. I think any reasonably intelligent and observant fencer, guided by a reasonably experienced and knowledgeable instructor, can quickly figure out what the “right” body alignment looks like and the “right” movements to get from one place to another. Developing strength is relatively easy. Developing the proprioception necessary to self-critique and self-correct … I’ve got very little. Anyone seeking advice from me about fencing historically gets the “go slow and be mindful” advice, and I haven’t really got anything else.

      I’ve considered doing yoga and t’ai chi to develop my sense and knowledge of proper alignment, muscle isolation, etc. Following a recent epiphany, I’ve decided to try ballet instead. Basic ballet shares a great number of movements and positions with Italian rapier, and intro classes specifically focus on musculoskeletal alignment, strengthening, and flexibility foundational to the practice.

      To my knowledge nobody else has explored this; I’d be overjoyed to be able to add something to our understanding of the art. If this pans out, it will also provide a suite of invaluable teaching tools.

      • Tibbie Croser

        I’ve heard that Lily of Stierbach is a dancer. Do you know whether she does ballet? I believe that she’s taught University classes on applying dance to rapier.

        • Ruairc

          Lily does belly dancing, AFAIK. Muscle isolation is hugely important there, but muscle isolation is a big thing in any form of dance. Ballet seems to be, in many cases, EXACTLY the same movements and mechanics as those found in Italian rapier. It took Guy Windsor years to discover the “tucking the tailbone” detail of good Capo Ferro; if he’d taken ballet, they would have covered it within a week.

      • Dante di Pietro

        I bypassed those issues by rereading the manuals and doing what they said. That was really the big thing.

        • Ruairc

          The issue is thinking you’re doing what the manual says when you’re not.

          I talked to two different people at Gulf Wars who had read and played around with CF. They were making the same mistakes I was.

    • Ruairc

      Student: finds and lunges to hit.
      Master: Stesso-tempo counter if not found.

      Master: Find in wide measure inside or outside
      Student: Cavazione in contratempo to hit.

      Master: Find the sword inside or outside. Lunge.
      Student: Stesso-tempo counter.

      Student: Find and feint
      Master: Parry / don’t parry
      Student: cavazione to hit / lunge to hit

      Master: Feint (arm extension)
      Student: Stesso-tempo counter.

      Student: Feint
      Master: Stesso-tempo counter.
      Student: Cavazione with a retreat to strike. (Might be demicavazione with voiding the head)

      Student: Feint
      Master: Stesso-tempo counter and lunge.
      Student: Counter-counter by regaining control of the centerline. (A motion identical to the stesso-tempo counters practiced above)

      Master: Feint
      Student: Retreat (or void by moving the body backwards, per Fabris plate 11, etc).
      Master: Lunge to hit, fall short (hopefully).
      Student: Retake the line, lunge as teacher recovers to hit.

      Student: Find to the inside
      Master: Cavazione, lunge
      Student: Turn to second and pass with a head void to strike, keeping the line closed.

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