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En Garde! Milwaukee Swordplay Academy on the Cutting Edge

Jun. 13, 2017
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Photo Credit: Luis Torrefranca (Flickr CC)

It’s an unusual sight for power walkers at the Grand Avenue Mall—a group of people in protective gear thrusting and parrying at each other with plastic swords. The Milwaukee Swordplay Academy is in the Milwaukee Cooperative, a collection of entrepreneurs that share space in a storefront above TJ Maxx. The corridor is now mostly abandoned storefronts, and the academy is the liveliest thing going on at this end of the mall. In a corner of the shared space, academy founder Karl Jacobs has set up a small office with a collection of plastic training swords hanging on the wall. Students begin to show up. There are about five instructors and five students on this night who will practice grappling, tumbling and combat with a dagger. 

“OK guys, it’s a dagger night again, so grab a dagger and a gorget,” an instructor calls out. Each student grabs a replica of an actual dagger from medieval times and a gorget, which looks like a leather studded bib, designed to help you keep from getting your head cut off. 

Jacobs is one of the head instructors here, and he says his love of sword fighting goes back to absorbing stories like Arthurian legends and the adventures of the Three Musketeers when he was young. And the romance of the sword hasn’t diminished over the years—look no further than “Game of Thrones,” which revolves around the art of sword fighting. 

Jacobs eventually found a way to follow his swashbuckling fantasies when he joined the Chicago Swordplay Guild about 10 years ago, who train in what are known as “Historical European” or “Western martial arts.” There is a training scale where you earn titles like “provost” and “scholar,” somewhat like the color belt system you find in Eastern martial arts. Swordsmen and swordswomen (Jacobs prefers the gender-neutral “swordspeople” or “fencers”) compete at events around the country. Jacobs and a partner eventually founded a Milwaukee branch of the Chicago guild but decided to take things in a different direction.

“I thought it was time to do things a little more formal, professionally rather than just training out of our bag wherever we could get space,” Jacobs explains.

The academy currently offers Introduction to Italian Longsword and Introduction to Rapier classes, which meet twice a week for four weeks and run $100. After that, students can continue to learn on two different tracks—one that follows medieval combat and one that teaches Renaissance style. Unarmed combat, dagger, spear, arming sword, and sword and buckler are also options for further study as students progress through the ranks. 

What kind of students does the academy draw? “Game of Thrones” fanatics?

“I think there are some people who come into it from pop culture, but some come from more of an interest in history, or an interest in European martial arts,” Jacobs says. “We get people from all kinds of different backgrounds in this Western martial arts community. We have doctors, lawyers, fitness instructors and professors of linguistics who have helped find books and helped with translating them.”

Swinging a sword around might sound dangerous, even if it is just a plastic facsimile (the swords have just enough heft to make you feel powerful), but Jacobs says safety is a high priority for the academy.

“What we do is less dangerous than a high school football game. We are very concerned about our training partners’ safety,” Jacobs says. “One joke we say is, ‘If you break your training partner, you don’t get a new one.’ It’s our responsibility to be sure what we’re doing is as safe as we can make it while at the same time making it martially valid.”

Most students enter the academy with no prior swordplay experience, so Jacobs and his colleague, AJ von Tauffkirchen, encourage interested people to give it a swing.

“A willingness to learn is really all you need,” says von Tauffkirchen. “It’s excellent exercise; it’s a very good mental discipline—like any of the martial arts, you have to learn to control yourself.”

“You just need enthusiasm and an ability to walk and chew gum at the same time,” Jacobs adds.

The Milwaukee Swordplay Academy is on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, and you can email mkesword@gmail.com for more information as well. 


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