Interview with Longtime HEMA Instructor Steaphen Fick: Sword Fighting and Teaching, Part II

Steaphen Fick was always interested in sword fighting, fighting at any chance he could get when he was a child. As he grew up, he found a touring fighting company in 1989, proceeding to participate in almost 2,000 duels and battles. It was not until the 1990s, where he found himself traveling all around Europe, looking and studying historical fencing manuals. By 2000, Fick took the jump into instructing historical fencing full-time and has not looked back since. Today, Fick discusses his early fencing days, the formation of the American HEMA revival movement, and his school, Davenriche European Martial Artes School. All images provided by Steaphan Fick. This is the second of a two part interview. Read the first part here.

MAYTT: I understand that history is always complicated; it comes with the interest! [Laughs] How have you seen the HEMA community grow in the United States in the years you’ve been an active member? Where do you think HEMA will grow into in the next decade or so?

SF: One of the things that I’ve seen that I really like is much more – as it grows – it’s bringing in people from all aspects of life, ages, and giving people a sense of empowerment as well as competitiveness. At my school, we are about thirty percent female. We have a large LGBTQ+ community. It is that inclusiveness that people who have grown up reading sci-fi and fantasy or watching movies realize that they can do, regardless of their age or skill level or background. And it’s just grown into this inclusiveness that I really like.

I think that it’s going to keep growing because we keep ending up more and more into mainstream media. I mean, Henry Cavill – Witcher, Superman – he’s a total nerd, and I love it! [Laughs] He likes to paint miniatures. He reads. We are becoming more common. When I was young, it was not uncommon to take a Dungeons & Dragons book to school for protection, because they were big enough that you could fight with it; because you would get jumped for being a nerd! And nowadays, nerds are cool. I think that has helped grow our community as well. My goal is that when I’m talking to someone and they say, “I do martial arts,” I then want to say, “Cool! Eastern or Western?” That’s my goal. In fact, since you like history, do you know where the term “martial arts” comes from?

MAYTT: It comes from Mars, the God of War.

SF: Right! It’s actually a European term from the Renaissance period. During the renaissance of England, they would talk about warfare, and it was the recreation of the idealized roman society, so anytime you would talk about warfare, you would talk about the god of war – the Arts of Mars. But in the 1950s, after World War II, we had all the GIs coming back from the South Pacific and they brought all these fantastic fighting arts with them. But most Americans were untraveled and so you had kempo karate, taekwondo, judo, jujutsu, all these different things that didn’t make sense. So, they put it under an umbrella that they recognized as martial arts. In Japan, they call it budo; in China, they call it wushu; in Vietnam, they call it Vo thaut. In Europe, they call it the Arts of Mars or martial arts. And that’s why we now refer to everything as martial arts here, to fit under our umbrella of our understanding. I just always find that interesting.

MAYTT: Throughout your time learning different sword systems, you had the opportunity to participate in over 1,900 fights, including taking part in four international rapier and dagger tournaments. How important do you feel the competition aspect of HEMA is important for practitioners to participate in tournaments? Are non-competitors missing out on an important aspect of the art or does competition not fully capture the spirit of the art and/or movement?

SF: I think it’s important to the people that want it. I have students that have no desire whatsoever to compete. They don’t even want to do free play and sparring. They just want to learn the art and the mental side of it, as well as becoming active and not sitting at a desk all the time. But for those that want to test it, I think competition is very important. And tournaments serve a role, but they can also be a danger. Whatever the system is, if we start looking at winning over technique, I think we lose an aspect of the art.

I helped run a tournament – one of my favorite tournaments, a rapier tournament – where when you registered, you could list one to three masters and had to fight in those styles. And if you fell out of the style that you were fencing in, you lost points. It was about cleanliness and showcasing your art, not about winning a prize. I think that competition is important if you want to stress test your art, whether it’s in a tournament or a free play session.

Steaphen Fick participating in a group fight at St. Gregory’s Faire.

After I retired in 2013, I tell people, I’ll fight anybody and I’ll fight you with anything you want, but I have no desire to do tournaments anymore. Because I want to, for me, focus on the fun of the fight, not the desire or need to win, if that makes sense. In fact, I was in one fight in the UK and there were four of us. We were all reenactors, so everybody had armor, except for me because I didn’t have it with me at the time. We were at a barbecue, and somebody said, “Hey! Let’s suit up and play!” So, I grabbed my sword, one guy put on a full suit of armor, one guy had about three-quarter of a suit of armor, one guy had a padded jacket, a helmet, legs, and gauntlets, and I was in a linen shirt, woolen pants, and leather boots. And we’re playing and having a good time, then somebody yells, “Get the Yank!” So, I did the only thing I could; I took off running! [Laughs] And on the way passed, I grabbed a lawn chair. I have pictures of me in my school fighting three people with polearms with sword and lawn chair. I did not win, but I made them earn that win that they got. I liked that challenge. That really allows me to stress test what I’ve been learning. Because without a stress test, you never know if it’s accurate. We wouldn’t be having this conversation if Thomas Edison didn’t stress test his lightbulb idea.

MAYTT: To back up a bit; you mentioned something about wanting to focus more on the fun of the fight than looking for a win. How did you get to that point in your thinking and your training?

SF: I think I got tired of feeling like I had to go out there and perform. I lost the fun of it in the performance. I still have a good time fighting, but now I can fight without a need to win. And it was very difficult for me in tournaments also because I would fall into teaching. As a teacher, I would fight and push my students so I would be just a little bit harder than them so they would have to push themselves to get there. Because if you go out and beat them into the dirt, they don’t have any fun, they don’t learn anything. It might make you feel good for a few minutes, but when your doors close, you no longer feel good about it. But I found myself doing that on the tournament ring too. I wasn’t going out to clean the ring with them – I found myself teaching and that would cost me wins. And I didn’t like the idea of thinking that if I wasn’t true to who I was becoming, it was going to cost me, I’d rather be true to who I was becoming.

Still, I’ll fight anybody! I was in Mexico two weeks ago [April 2022], and I had a spear fight, a longsword fight, and two sabre fights with four different people.

The end of the 2013 tournament Steaphen Fick (center right) where he announced his retirement to tournament fighting.

MAYTT: Since you say all that, there is nothing holding you back to get to this thing that you may or may not want anymore. You’re doing this because you find enjoyment in it.

SF: Yes. And I’ve gotten to the point in my career where I prefer teaching over fighting. I got a lot of fighting under my belt, and I really enjoy the teaching aspect. The thing that makes me love is when I see that light come on in somebody’s eyes, or when I open the door a little bit and I let them see the new room with all the stuff in there – they’re not ready for it yet, but they know it’s there now and they’re excited to learn how to open the door and move into the new room. I guide them. I tell them that I’m on the same path as them; we’re both on the same mountain. We are on the same path, I just happen to be up a little higher than them, but we’re both climbing that same mountain.

MAYTT: What is your preferred method to teach? How do you approach the material that would be most beneficial to the student?

SF: I spent a long time working on the curriculum. It’s constantly evolving. It’s a living art that’s constantly growing and changing, which drives my students nuts because I’ll go to a workshop and learn something new and go, “Hey! Remember how we did this? Yeah, we’re going to alter it slightly.” [Laughs] And they’re like, “I just spent a year and a half learning this!” Hey, I did it for twenty-five years, so they’re lucky. [Laughs] So I spent a long time working on this curriculum. We have it for every weapon system that we teach – we’ve got a full curriculum. So, I use it like a guidepost. We’ll start on the curriculum, but no two people are the same. So, I use this to listen to what they’re saying to me, both physically and verbally, and then I take the information that I want them to have and try to tie it into their life experience. When I want to throw a cut, we all want to lead with our edge, but that breaks and bends my wrist. So, a good way to do it is to give your cup to somebody – that keeps my wrist straight. And if I do that cut, I’m now structurally behind by weapon. So that protects me offensively as well as defensively. I want to do a disarm, it’s just like opening up a cupboard, reaching in, taking a cup, and closing the cupboard. I now took their weapon away from them. Find everyday activities that I can translate into the martial action, then everyday they do whatever they do, they are martially training. How can you do anything but improve if your martial training becomes your everyday life? That’s the way I like to impart the information.

I was working with one gentleman, brilliant guy – computer guy – and I couldn’t get him to do this footwork that I wanted him to do, which is a pivot, called a volta stabile. I couldn’t get him to pivot like this. I kept thinking about it until I suggested this: “What I want you to do is imagine yourself working on this computer screen. Now you’re just going to turn your chair to this computer screen, and then back to this computer screen.” And then he had the pivot. That’s how I like to teach; make it their everyday life.

MAYTT: That is some great teaching advice! Given your time in HEMA, who would you consider as instrumental or crucial to the modern HEMA revival movement in the United States? What set these pioneers apart from their contemporaries?

SF: So, movers and shakers. First and foremost, convention organizers. Because they bring people together. Having people that are willing to step up and create a convention that will bring people from around the nation or around the world, is phenomenal. I ran a workshop once and that was good for me. All my friends who run workshops asked me what I was doing. Their advice was, “Run! Don’t do this!” “Ah! I can do this!” and then afterwards, I realized I want to go teach at these; I don’t want to run them anymore. Those convention organizers are definitely movers and shakers.

One of the things that I enjoy doing the most is going to schools and libraries and doing demonstrations. To introduce it to new people and I think that is fundamental to the growth of the martial art. I like to think of myself as a missionary of violence. I’m going to share it with everybody I can. But when I go to schools and I get a class that comes in, I’ll ask the kids, “How many of you like history?” I look for that one kid that doesn’t raise their hand and they go, “Not really.” “Yeah, 1487. Who cares? They’re all dead!” They agree, and I pull a knife out and point it at their face. They’re startled at it, and I ask, “How can you be bored with history if you’re looking down history? Are you bored right now?” “No!” And then I put the knife in their hand. “How can you be bored if you’re holding onto history?” And then I go into my demonstration. So, I bring it to life for them.

Fick (right) teaching swordsmanship to children at a Renaissance Faire.

When I do it at libraries, I bring in a bunch of different weapons then I pull books off the shelves. Treasure Island, I put that with the cutlass. Three Musketeers and I put it with the rapier. Lord of the Rings and I put it with the longsword. Luis and Clark and I’ll put that with the tomahawk. So now when we’re talking about the demonstrations, I can ask, “Have you read any of these books or seen these? Here’s what you’re reading about.” I get to make it real for them and take it off the printed page. I’m not the only one that does this. So, I think that anybody that takes it out to the new people are fundamental to the growth to our revival, our renaissance.

One of the things I stumbled on by accident was in the nineteenth century, there was a renaissance of HEMA, but they didn’t call it HEMA then. Other writers of the nineteenth century. One of the people that was instrumental in the revival of renaissance in the nineteenth century was a Swedish fencing Olympian – he competed in the 1902 and 1906 Olympics for fencing – his name was Emil Fick. So, I love the fact that I’m related to somebody that was a mover and shaker of the first renaissance of the HEMA world. Now I get to do it in the second renaissance. And I love that fact; tying history to what we see today.

MAYTT: It is amazing that you found an ancestor through this journey that you are still going through! There are many activities and martial arts for the average person to choose from in today’s society. In your experience, what makes HEMA unique compared to other physical activities and weapons-based martial arts?

SF: I think one of the most unique things that HEMA offers that other weapons-based martial arts don’t offer is the competition. In a lot of martial arts, there’s great competition unarmed, but all armed martial arts are formed based, not competitive. I think that’s a unique thing that HEMA offers is that we take the techniques and tools that we are studying and stress test them when somebody tries to use the same things against us. I think that’s something that really separates this study from a lot of other martial arts. You have it in kendo, but with kenjutsu with the bokken, you almost never see full speed competitions, man to man, woman to woman, woman to man. When we look at wushu, most of the weapons competitions are formed based, not competitive. I think that’s a unique thing that we offer. And I also think that’s because we are still in our infancy. It hasn’t been sportified. HEMA is safe, but we’re still able to compete with it physically.

MAYTT: You bring up the sportification in which many martial arts seem to go after a time, like kendo, Olympic fencing, and judo to some degree. In the future, do you think there is going to be striped-down HEMA, something akin to kendo or Olympic fencing?

SF: One hundred percent. But I think there’s also going to be people that don’t. Bruce Lee didn’t compete in tournaments, but he had a great martial art. Like a coin, you have heads and tails. You have people that want to go to the competitive side because it’s not 1368, we are not trying to kill each other, we have to put in a set of safety rules to make sure we can all go to work on Monday. It has to be there.

You’re going to have one side that tends to go down that path and one side that wants to keep it as close to what we think it might’ve been. I think there’s going to be the two faces of HEMA – the competitive and the non-competitive. And that’s not to say that the non-competitive side is not going to fight. There will be some that don’t want to fight, but I don’t think it’s going to follow the tournament half. In tournaments now, one of the most commonly used swords is called the feder, which is a German sword. It’s called a federschwert and it translates to “feather sword.” It is a foil for longswords. It’s a training sword, not a sword. And you lose a lot of the aspect of geometry in the fight by losing the design of the tool. And so, I think we’re going to see both sides of this and there is going to be a difference between them. You can do one or the other or both, but I think we’re going to see the path diverge.

MAYTT: Do you think that split is going to happen, and it is going to have these profound effects or they will split and not really mind each other?

SF: It’s already started. But, again, since we are in our infancy, there’s still a lot of HEMA drama. Anytime you have a group of people, you have drama. It’s human nature. But it’s already started. Even when we do tournaments, we still have classes going on, so we can get both sides of it and still get under the same roof. If that makes sense.

I know I’ve had people come out of one of my classes to go into a tournament and then come back after the tournament and say, “I took one piece of advice away from your class and it helped me win.” So, we can see them working together. The class influences the tournament, but the tournaments are the stress test of the class. That’s why I say heads and tails; they work together.

With the heads and tails, it’s the same thing I do because I choreograph for TV, movie, and stage. I tell people I do theatrical violence, not necessarily combat. But I base it on the martial actions. That heads and tails we’re seeing in the media with The Witcher and Lord of the Rings. We’re starting to see more things that are historically based moving into modern media. The movie Kingdom of Heaven with Orlando Bloom, that was the first movie that used a real historic guard from a longsword manuscript called posta di falcone, which is up high. And then they completely butchered after that, but they got a real guard from a medieval manuscript in that movie. It was two and a half centuries early, but it was there. And so, we’re starting to see this come in. One of things I like with what I do is that I get to bring the historic side to the media side in a safe way, so the actors can do it over and over again for takes or multiple stage shows per week.

With heads and tails, the audience is becoming more sophisticated. And as they see these things on stages, in the movies, or on TV, “I want to go do that.” And it’s a great way to bring new people into our world. We saw it in the 1970s with Bruce Lee and breakdancing. A lot of the breakdancing actions from the late 1970s and early 1980s were based off Bruce Lee moves. Media and martial arts are tied together. The original choreographers of ballet were fencing masters. When you look at ballet dancing, you’re seeing eighteenth century sword fighting foundations in their footwork. It’s not something you think about. What I like to say, with the longsword, footwork and movement is like the waltz. The side sword, cut and thrust single handed, think of it’s kind of like the rumba. The rapier is like the cha-cha – forwards and backwards, more on a line. And knife fighting is like a modern rave dance. But you can see the similarities in all the different dances and martial arts.

MAYTT: I think I can see it! Thank you again for taking us on your journey through sword fighting!

SF: It was my pleasure!

This is the second of a two part interview. Read the first part here.

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