Sept 2005: Kids Learn Art, Discipline Amid Chaotic Swordplay

By Matt WooSpecial to Collierville Appeal

Before the class began, the youngsters chose their padded weapons wisely.

The hopeful sword masters then raised their multicolored, foam-covered sword over their heads before slashing downward at an imaginary opponent. After a quick, diagonal swipe, the youngsters stepped forward and continued the hacking motion.

"Pass, forward, change sides," said instructor Tom Knowles, who is teaching an introduction sword masters class at the Collierville Arts Academy. On a recent Wednesday evening, the youngsters were learning the basics of the European longsword and group battle sequences. Three nights a week, the would-be, foam sword-wielding warriors turn the wood floor classroom into an open battlefield.

Started in January, the sword masters class teaches the students the fundamentals of European and Japanese swordplay while also giving them hands-on experience of what real weapon combat was like in medieval Europe or feudal Japan. Differing from the more traditional art of fencing, the hourlong classes, open to both males and females of all ages, focuses more on group battles than the standard one-on-one meetings found in modern fencing.

"What we're doing is more of a battle where you really have to move all around the place with multiple attackers, weapons and it's about as close as we can get to a true combat encounter but without the pain," Knowles said with a laugh.

And the battle sequence is best described as organized chaos, lasting only a few seconds at a time but often involving multiple fighters and a frenzy of swinging swords and staffs. It's an adrenaline-pumping exercise to students, and that's what keeps 16-year-old Michael Campbell coming back for more.

"(Sword fighting) is more exciting than other sports," Campbell said. "Just having the sense to go around, even though it's fake, pretending that it's real and attacking and being attacked." "I like it because I think it's more of a defining sport than all the others because it's more unique," added 13-year-old Sebastian Norrdahl.

Along with teaching the basics of sword fighting, Knowles said the class also provides a good workout for the students -- often burning as many as 500 calories per session. But sword fighting doesn't just improve the student physically, it can be good for the mind as well, Knowles added.

"Physically, you're working on balance issues, hand-eye coordination and sense of timing. Mentally, I call it dynamic problem solving because the challenge is to hit the person but not get hit. That works your analytical skills, you have to be able to gauge your opponent's strengths and weaknesses and your own and how you need to fill in the gaps," Knowles said.

"It's challenging, it's fun but it works all of you. It works your mind because if you're not engaged or not really thinking when you do it you're going to lose, so you can't be thinking of anything else."

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