Swords Clash and Knighthood Flowers in Greensboro
When Sir T-hawk’s sword strikes Sir John’s, a metallic RING! echoes through the gym. “You can always tell someone’s into this by the way their head turns at that sound,” says Sir T-Hawk with a grin that wouldn’t look out of place under a dented helmet in a muddy medieval melee.
The two Knights wear tunics and safety gloves, but not the armor necessary for Live Steel (sparring with real weapons). They carefully demonstrate techniques, calling out movements beforehand. The edges aren’t sharpened, but their steel blades could kill. Behind us, Dame Jennifer drills less experienced students using safety swords made of fabric-covered heavy-duty foam over high-tensile shock-absorbing bushings.
Dame Jennifer is Jennifer Perry, founder and chief instructor of Greensboro’s Ancient Combat Enthusiasts School (ACES), which is devoted to reconstructing and practicing medieval and early renaissance European martial arts. She explains the terminology.
“In ACES, Sir and Dame are honorifics awarded Knights, which students become the way someone studying Asian martial arts becomes a black belt, training and testing in the required curricula. A student must complete twelve different weapons courses and create an individual study before knighthood is awarded. It takes about four years.”
She nods at the two men demonstrating the steel swords.
“Our Fightmaster, my ‘Second in Command,’ is Sir John (T-hawk) Gray. Our senior Knight is Sir John Varney and his daughter is Dame Susan Varney. Lady and Mister are the honorifics used for Squires.” These are the junior students who’ve not yet completed the curricula required for Knighthood.
Dame Jennifer has been doing this for over a decade. “The original school started in Cary. Somebody at the Raleigh Renaissance Faire contacted the Taekwondo school because a senior student also did choreographed sword-fighting. The head of the Taekwondo school and the sword-fighting gentlemen created a school teaching actual sword combat rather than choreography.” This was based on the illustrated teachings of the fifteenth century German instructor Hans Tallhoffer and other European Fightmasters of the Middle Ages and Renaissance. “They built a curriculum using modern understanding of how our bodies work, based on the historical European texts and their own knowledge of Eastern martial arts.”
“I began teaching classes in 2004 and started the Greensboro school a year later. In 2007, the founder of the Cary school closed it in order to focus purely on Taekwondo. The chief instructor and I didn’t want to stop teaching, so we formed an LLC together, becoming our own business.”
Attendance dwindled during the recession, but improved in 2011, when Dame Jennifer and Sir T-hawk joined with Octagon MMA. “Our reincarnation of the Greensboro school has been here ever since. David Stacey is an excellent person to work with and we always take good care of his facility. He’s a terrific landlord.”
She explains that her Western martial art, like many Eastern ones, has a spiritual and philosophical component.
“We address questions like ‘What is courage?’ How can you display it in modern society? Courage might be helping someone you see getting bullied. Not just doing something good or honorable, but doing it even though you’re scared. Standing up for somebody else even when you wouldn’t have stood up for yourself.”
It’s time for Dame Jennifer to drill students in using spear and a small circular shield called a targe (from which is derived the modern word target). As the facility fills with sounds of safety spears on targes, I talk to Sir T-hawk. The nickname that distinguishes him from the other Sir John goes back to his biker days. “I was always good at throwing axes, and carried a tomahawk in my saddle bag. They started calling me Tomahawk John and it got shortened to T-hawk.”
Sir T-hawk makes it clear that what he does is not historical reenacting. “We are not in any sense reenactors, we are recreators of old arts. We had a live steel team, doing non-choreographed combat wearing full armor. Currently, there are only three students, including myself, actually certified to fight, which makes the live steel demos kind of tough.”
He shows me his collection of real weapons. “This is my favorite sword of all time. It’s called the Blade Breaker. It’s actually made to capture an opponent’s blade. Used properly, it can snap it. It’s the most impressive weapon in my collection, and it also has the best voice of the blades I carry. The ring of its blade on another one is very distinctive.”
Sir T-hawk has done some form of martial arts for most of his adult life, and has been teaching at this school for six years. “I can’t see doing anything else. This is my weekends. If I’m not here, I’m at an event somewhere.”
He says that he and Dame Jennifer are totally committed to their art. “We’re not going anywhere. If we had to teach for free, we would. We have a great deal of loyalty towards our students.”
Classes at the Ancient Combat Enthusiasts School meet Saturday and Sunday afternoons at Octagon MMA and Fitness at 18A Wendy Court (off Guilford College Road right before it intersects with West Market). Call Dame Jennifer at 336-337-1869 to schedule a visit or check out the website at www.ancientcombatschool.com for more details. Classes are $70 a month, with the first month free. Students and instructors from the school will be giving demos as the Wake Forrest Archery Renaissance Faire on Waterford Field at Wake Forrest University in Reynolda Village on April 8 from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. More details at www.wakearchery.com/renaissance-faire.html