David Ito is a sport épée fencer, Kendoka, longsword practitioner, and a fire eater. He also does 100 burpees first thing every morning.
In this episode David tells us how he got into both fencing and fire eating, takes us through his somewhat intensive training regime, and shares good advice for anyone looking to get into teaching fencing as a career.
In the podcast you will hear David talk about a footwork training machine, and if you are interested to see it in action, here is the video:
We also talk about the effect of the covid pandemic and what we might expect a post-covid world to look like for martial artists.
To find out more about David and his work, you can find him on Instagram @ittofireshow, or at www.illuminair-entertainment.com. He also works at www.swordplayers.com and has taught at www.aemma.org, both of which are in Toronto, Canada.
GW: Hello, sword people, this is Guy Windsor, also known as The Sword Guy, and I'm here today with David Ito, who is not only mad about swords, but also eats fire. So we'll be talking a little bit about swords and training and circus training and fire, lots of fire, I hope. You can find his Instagram at @ittofireshow and also on Instagram at @ittoswords. I watched it today, the promo of the circus skills at the place where he works for www.illuminair-entertainment.com. It's an absolutely stunning, stunning circus demonstration. So do not miss that. I'll link to everything in the show notes, of course. So without further ado, David, welcome to the show.
DI: Thank you very much for having me, Guy. It's a pleasure to be here.
GW: So just to orient everyone, whereabouts in the world are you?
DI: I live in Toronto, Ontario, Canada, and one of my fellows is Kimberleigh Roseblade, who is one of your previous guests.
GW: You know, you Canadians are heavily overrepresented on this show. What is it about Canada that produces such interesting people?
DI: Land of immigrants, the opportunity and the openness of a society willing to accept others, especially in our major metropolitan areas.
GW: Wow, that's a really good answer to what was actually a hypothetical question. Good job. Well done. All right. Now, I usually ask everyone, what made you want to start historical martial arts and how did you actually get started? That's kind of how I tend to start these things. But actually, we will get onto that. I am more curious as to what made you want to put burning things in your mouth.
DI: So it actually is related to swords that got me into wanting to play with fire and eating fire. Years ago, long time ago, I saw Kill Bill and I saw the rope dart, the ball and chain used by Gogo Yubari and I started practising that and then I learnt I could light that on fire. From there, spinning a ball of fire got me into this wider community of other responsible pyros and I ended up learning about the art behind playing with fire and that path inevitably led to things like breathing fire, lighting myself on fire, and of course eating fire.
GW: Well, you know, I've done a little bit of work with flexible weapons and getting it under control is already massively more difficult than with a rigid weapon like a sword. But the notion of doing it while it's actually lit on fire fills me with shock and horror. How do you manage that without setting fire to yourself and everything around you?
DI: Well, there was a lot of practise, much like any other martial art. We repeat actions correctly thousands of times, so we build up muscle memory and awareness of an object in space in relation to our body. The other ways to mitigate the risk associated with playing with fire involves engaging in certain practises, like understanding the physics behind your fuel when it ignites, how volatile it is, and then making sure that any fuel that you work with is properly contained, stored, and that when tools are prepared, you spin them around or use centrifugal force to make sure that excess fuel doesn't go flying into the audience.
GW: OK, yeah, I recently interviewed Tony Wolf for this show, who has an extraordinarily broad background, not unlike yours, and he's done a lot of work in professional wrestling and he was very careful when I started asking questions that would lead to the unveiling of professional secrets, he would very politely steer me away from that. So if we get into that area, do feel entirely free to say, well actually, Guy, that's a trade secret, or something like that. But I am really curious about these darts. So how did you even find the right equipment for doing the dart thing from Kill Bill?
DI: I put a padlock at the end of a rope.
GW: OK, that would do it. So you sort of improvised, as we all did in the early days of historical martial arts and came up with something with about the right handling characteristics.
DI: I don't know if it had the right handling characteristics, but I did know when I made a mistake.
GW: Yeah, being hit by a padlock on the end of a rope. I've done quite a bit of bullwhip work, and yeah, after my first bullwhip lesson, I came home so stripey my girlfriend at the time thought I'd been to see a dominatrix. You just hit yourself over and over and over again with those flexible things. So what was the key to really getting it under control?
DI: Drilling basic motions thousands of times, and then eventually you begin getting an awareness of where this object is in space in relation to your body because of the pressure that it exerts as it pulls on the rope, because as you're spinning around, sometimes you don't have a visual reference for where that object is. It’s all tactile. So you have to have a certain feeling for where it is, like fighting in harness.
GW: Right. OK, I know exactly what you meant when you said that, but I'm guessing some of the listeners might not want to expand on that a little bit.
DI: Which part?
GW: About the knowing where everything is in space, because you can feel the weapon moving in your hand and the sense you get of it in your hand and how that relates to fighting in harness.
DI: Oh, well, certainly so as I was using the rope, my body would eventually memorise where the object would be during the swing and what I found that when I fought in harness, after a while, I would be able to get a very good idea of where my opponent's sword might be, even though it's not my line of sight, simply because as I'm holding my own weapon in contact with someone else's weapon, I know usually where their weapon is. Either I have contact or I don't have contact with their weapon. I know that if I have contact with someone's weapon and my one hand is about the height of my hip and one hand’s at about the height of my shoulder, I contact the other person's weapon, their tip is probably around the height of my torso. And that's the kind of tactile sensitivity we all strive to develop.
GW: I actually had a look at your Instagram and I see you wearing armour in a supermarket, holding a beer, so clearly, you're quite keen on the armour. I mean, I'm not actually sure that it is you in the armour because you've got a helmet on, but it is you, right?
DI: That is my harness.
GW: Yeah, so how did you get into historical martial arts in general, harness fighting in particular?
DI: I started getting into harness fighting through the work that I did with the Academy of European Medieval Martial Arts. The decision to join AEMMA, as we normally referred to it as, came from the same place we all do. A deep-seated desire to learn how to play with swords. As a child I did see Star Wars and that did have a big influence on my decision.
GW: You and me both.
DI: Yeah, I saw Star Wars and I knew as a child I want to fight with swords. So that journey actually began when I was 15 in sport sabre fencing. But one of the frustrations that I ended up having when I initially did sport sabre fencing was how priority and right of way was explained in a manner that did not make it obvious as to how it was martially applicable. Rather, it was taught in a fashion that made you aware of the technicalities required to score points. But I had a hard time understanding why someone got a point when they hit me with priority, but they committed suicide to do it. But they were awarded a point. And so that was the beginning. I grew up in Halifax, Nova Scotia, so that's where I first started learning fencing and then when I turned 18, a Kendo club opened in Halifax. So I started doing Kendo to get in touch with my parents’ martial culture. And I did Kendo for a very long time as well. And I did Kendo for about nine years. The last two years of doing Kendo, I was going anywhere from 20 to 40 hours a week.
GW: Wow, that's a lot of Kendo. I've never actually interviewed a Kendoka on the show before, and I'm guessing that most of the people listening have never experienced it and probably haven't even seen it live. They may have seen YouTube videos of it, or seen it in movies. So would you mind describing what Kendo is really about, how it works, how it’s scored, that kind of thing?
DI: Of course. So the modern incarnation of Kendo was designed to make it acceptable to the American occupation force towards at the end of the Second World War. And it was presented as a character-building exercise, which it definitely is. But the Kendo that we're used to seeing on mediums such as YouTube is the exact same as modern Olympic fencing. It is a game of stylised tag where your objective is to hit first within the technical guidelines of the game. And what is always curious to watch in these types of sports is that it can be hard to understand why people are not being punished for allowing themselves to be hit. And Kendoka are trying to hit very specific targets when they play. And the specific targets they're usually trying to hit is above the right hand, the forearm above the right wrist, the head above the crown line. The only thrust is to the throat. And there is a cut that would be across the abdomen area, above the hip, below the ribcage. This is done with the bamboo sticks. And so as you watch players they are trying to strike each other to those specific target areas and they have technicalities on how you must display that you hit someone in order to achieve a point where you have to strike the designated target area, as well as calling out the target area. And then you demonstrate a zanshin which can be translated as “awareness”. That's the best translation that I've been taught. And after you strike your opponent, you run past them and you turn around to face them. Ready to fight again.
GW: So you keep your head in the game.
DI: Yeah, to be able to demonstrate the control over the sword, yourself and your mental state, to be ready to continue to fence. And there's a lot of willpower associated and concentration associated with this exercise. And that's why it was they emphasised that character building through the discipline of trying to do the act.
GW: So at what point do you call out the strike you're about to make or that you are making?
DI: You do that as you're trying to hit the target. The target area for the head is called Men. Or the wrist or forearm Kote, the adomen is called Do and the thrust to the throat is called Tsuki.
GW: OK, so while you're actually in the process of striking to these targets, you call out the name of the thing that you're hitting, so you can't change your mind.
DI: No, you can't change your mind as you're doing it. One thing that does is, if you are successful, that is a display of personal control. And it makes it easier for judges to interpret actions. This was the year I was actually going to go back to sport Kendo after leaving it, because I actually did my first sport HEMA tournament. And one thing that dawned upon me was that sometimes human error occurs and people end up missing things. So I figured that if I started actually calling my target as I'm hitting them in a HEMA competition, it would actually facilitate the judge’s ability to perceive what I'm doing.
GW: That’s brilliant. It’s well known that every sport fencer in any style, whether that's foil or longsword or whatever else, you know that the judges are blind drunk and biased against you. So you have to make it super easy for them to understand what's going on and make it impossible for them to make the wrong call.
DI: But sometimes judges are overworked and tired.
GW: Oh, yeah, sure. It’s often not their fault that they make these mistakes, but it is extremely hard to judge it correctly. But I think actually the best attitude going in there as a competitor, is to assume that the judge won't see anything you don't show them really clearly. So you have that extra pressure not just to do it, but to do it in a way that makes it really easy for the judge to award you the hit.
DI: Of course. And I always wondered when I watched a lot of HEMA tournament videos why people got so close to each other and why they were hitting these deep targets. And after that first experience of having some of my hits not recognised that I started to understand why some of these sport HEMAists are getting so close to each other, hitting those deeper targets.
GW: Oh, so you mean going for pommel strikes to the face rather than cuts to the arm?
DI: Yeah, because it's easier to miss an armpit, but there's a lot of crashing in the sport of HEMA. It looks like they're crashing into each other. But I've just realised that they simply need to get out of range where there is no mistake in the judge's mind that a hit was landed.
GW: But also, if the longsword tournament, if we're talking about longsword, is intended to be a place where you can go to practise things like Fiore’s longsword or the Liechtenauer material, and that includes grappling and throws and poll strikes and things like that. So the correct thing to do if you're practising in that sort of discipline is, if the blades have come together and you can't get a clear strike, moving in so that you can get around their sword and hit them on the other side. That's part of the art isn’t it?
DI: It is. And I'm glad when rule sets do choose to include grappling. The lack of grappling is actually what made me want to explore the historical martial arts, because there are many things that happen in sport fencing and sport Kendo, a lot of hits the athletes receive for which they are not punished, or they do techniques that they would never do if there was punching, kicking or wrestling involved.
GW: I have a simple litmus test for a martial art: if there are no kicks to the balls, it’s not a martial art. It's some kind of combat sport.
DI: That's true. The sport fencers that I work with here in Toronto, they're aware that they would never do what they were doing with a sharp object. They're totally aware of the fact that they're essentially running on to ends of swords in the pursuit of points. But of the four major sword sports, I chose épée because it is the most likely to punish you for allowing yourself to be hit, because in épée you could get a double hit. And that's the only reason why I practise as extensively as I do.
GW: OK, so you mentioned that you did sports sabre in your teens and then you took up Kendo and did a lot of Kendo and you then came back to sport fencing?
DI: I did. I decided to go with épée because I found someone in Toronto who coaches sport épée. And technically he's the last champion of the Soviet Union. He was an Olympian for the Soviet Union. He went to us in 1988 and he even went for Canada in 2008. Twenty years after he first got into the Olympics for the Soviet Union. And he's the last champion of the Soviet Union because he won the last Soviet tournament. His name is Igor Tikhomirov. He runs the place where I work. He gave me a job actually starting in 2007 because he was getting ready for the Olympics and his son was still a minor and he needed someone to help run a school. So that's how he started giving me employment. And after his Olympic run, he realised that I was competent enough that I was able to walk away from a boring office job and then effectively just do nothing but fight with swords as well as fight with fire.
GW: You are living the dream, sir. You walked away from the boring office job and you're making a living with swords. Now, I know that my listeners will not forgive me if I don't ask you to unpack that a bit, because it's something that a lot of people would like to be able to do. So could you go into a bit more detail about exactly how did you get the job? How did you prepare for it? What was it like going from an office to a salle?
DI: OK, because I had a boring nine to five office job, I would go to practise every day, I would take lessons, I would train hard. I was simply available. I was available to be instructed, I was available to help, and that is a very important part of anybody who wants to make that transition. There was also another very conscious decision that I had to make when I decided I was going to go into the sword arts and as well as supplement my income with my fire performance. And that is the conscious decision and understanding that I was going to be poor. You have to understand that you're going to choose poverty if you are going to do this.
GW: You and me both. That's the thing, really, if you're addicted to a decent paycheque, then giving that up to be poor and play with swords is going to be really hard. But, yeah, I was lucky I got into this as a professional early enough that I'd never actually made any money. So I wasn't used to having any money. So basically, I was basically still living like a student. So I was living on a student levels of income anyway. The fact is that it didn't really change much for the first, I guess, 10 years that I was teaching professionally. Simply not needing a lot of money is probably the most useful life skill you can have if you want to be a swordsmanship instructor. But please carry on.
DI: True. And in terms of sport coaching for fencing, I have no designations from Canada, like no coaching certificate from Canada. But I think the endorsement of a Soviet Olympian is way more than the Canadian system could have ever provided. That a Soviet athlete thought I was competent enough to teach their sport in their school is big.
GW: That's like having Einstein say you're actually quite good at physics, old chap.
DI: And that was a very big deal for me.
GW: So did he actually teach you how to coach?
DI: No, I actually went to university to be a high school teacher, so I already had an idea about how to manage a class. I do have a post-secondary degree in history and in education so that I was going to be a high school teacher. But I discovered after graduation that my lack of STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths), and in Canada, not being able to teach French meant that I am not a priority.
GW: Fair enough. So from 2007, you've been teaching professionally sport fencing at Sword Players in Toronto. So how did you get from there to AEMMA?
DI: Well, what I ended up doing was, I knew the limitations of the sport. My decision to play sport épée was, as I said, the likelihood of punishment for being hit. But I had this awareness that a lot of the motions I was doing in the sport of fencing, the things that I had done in Kendo, were sport. And I started looking for a place that might be able to teach me medieval swordsmanship. So that's how I came across the Academy of European Medieval Martial Art and began historical martial art because I wanted to learn longsword. And that's usually why most people get into historical martial art. They want to fight with swords and they want to do it soon. What made me want to pursue historical martial art was the fact that they had a surviving manuscript. So it was the Getty manuscript for Fiore and that they had taken the time and research to be able to explain to me very clearly why the wrestling and dagger components matter, because of how they would apply to harness and the potential of being able to participate in this activity and actually learn how to fight in harness. That's why I stayed, even though I didn't necessarily sword fight as much as I thought I would. I got to do wrestling. I got to do dagger. And I'm glad I did because it helped the harness fighting. Grappling has been very helpful in fencing because of the tactile sensitivity I gained from it.
GW: That’s bringing us back to the essence of being able to control a flexible weapon too, is that sense in your hand of what's going on far away from you.
DI: Exactly. It's not in my line of sight, and yet I can control the situation.
GW: So obviously you train a lot. I know a little bit about circus life for two reasons. Firstly, my cousin is a professional aerialist, and she actually gave me a trapeze lesson once, which is absolutely epic.
DI: My wife is an aerialist.
GW: OK, so you know all about it. And the school I teach regularly at in Seattle, Lonin, they practise in a circus school. They have a space inside a circus school, which is brilliant. It means that literally before my classes there on a Friday night, they have an open flying trapeze tent where you can go and pay 10 bucks and have a go on the flying trapeze, which is so frightening. It is so much fun. But also, there we are swinging swords around and feeling all, you know, physically competent, and then this person just appears to be defying all of the laws of physics simultaneously. And you go, hang on, I thought I knew how to move, but that person, dear God, how on earth did they learn to do that? So I imagine you have all sorts of insights in training, how to train, that sort of thing. So could you describe how you train and what your training sessions look like?
DI: Well, my morning usually starts, I wake up, I have a bowel movement, and then I do a hundred burpees. That's how my day starts.
GW: Right. That's a good start.
DI: Yep, I got one hundred burpees down in under six minutes on a regular basis.
GW: OK, that puts you like 10 times fitter than most people I know.
GW: And then I do some admin work for myself, related to either swords or performance for a few hours. And then, due to covid, there are currently reduced hours for fencing schools. So then I go to the fencing school where my instructor, Igor at Sword Players, modified an industrial machine and programmed it. And all it does is goes backward or forward. It changes direction randomly and at various speeds. And I will do footwork for anywhere from 30 minutes to an hour.
GW: OK, do you have that on video anywhere? Because that sounds fascinating.
DI: I will take a video of it. I will probably be back there on Monday. I'll take a video and I'll be able to send it over to you before you publish this.
GW: Brilliant, I'll put a link in the show notes. That would be fantastic. OK, so you've got half an hour to an hour of footwork on a machine, OK?
DI: And I just go backward, forward. And the nice thing is the sets are three minutes and 30 seconds where a fencing round is only three. And then I give myself a minute’s break. The intensity and speed that I have to move is slightly more than would actually be necessary for an épée bout. So it's very good exercise. I do that multiple days a week. With covid I've been doing it five days a week. I did it closer to three days a week before covid. And then before covid, between AEMMA, sport épée and then reaching out to friends, I would probably get to sword fight and fence seven days a week. And that has been going on for pretty much a decade now where I try to make a point of exercising and fighting seven days a week.
GW: Wow. I very much admire your dedication. Your fire eating practise, I assume you keep up those skills even during covid times?
DI: Well, I do, because I will go into the fencing school on a day when it's not open and I'll practise in there because I want to make sure that I don't have to deal with a change in wind direction which could actually make it dangerous. And I also have a weekly gig. But the thing about fire eating is realistically, the fuel that I'm using is poisonous, so I don't need to do it that often.
GW: Right, but you do need to practise swinging the things around, I assume.
DI: I do regularly practise swinging things around as well for fire performance. I often work that into my training day along with sword drills or any fencing that I have to do that day. So the practise never stops.
GW: Amen to that. Yes, just a quick technical question, when you say “burpee”, there are there are several variations of a burpee, what kind of burpee are you doing?
DI: I squat, hands to the ground, feet go out, I do a push up, jump back up - 100 times.
GW: OK, so when you jump back up, are your feet coming off the ground, when you jump up.
GW: OK, so it's a kind of classic burpee like they do in, for example, Spartan Fitness?
DI: Yes, and it usually takes me under six minutes to do it because I can think of no exercise that inflicts as much misery in as little amount of time.
GW: I have a variation for you, if you want to play a little bit. I use this if I've got a class full of students - we can start with, OK, you just get yourself down on the ground, you do a push up and then you stand up again. And for people who can't do burpees yet, that's a good way to get into it. But for people for whom that's easy, you add the jump. When they do the push up, they sort of squat thrust their feet between their hands and jump up. OK, but a little tweak, which makes it just horrible, is as you jump up, you bring your knees to your chest, and then the next level from that is as you jump up, you bring your knees into your chest and turn 180 degrees in the air, so you're facing the other way. And you drop down, do the push up, jump up, turn 180 degrees the other way, so you jump right, jump left each time.
DI: That sounds like a wonderful idea.
GW: Yeah, you might find it speeds things along. It increases the pain. The absolute worst of all, I find, is you breathe out completely and you see how many of those you can do before you have to breathe in again.
DI: I would try that.
GW: It is really nasty. I have a horrible suspicion, that without ever having done one, you're probably much better at these things than I am. But I thought I'd share that with you because I think you're the sort of person who would appreciate it.
DI: Oh, yeah. And my teenagers this weekend are going to get a taste of that. The teenagers that I coach are going to get a taste of that.
GW: Tell them sorry from me in advance. OK, now what are your thoughts on protective equipment, training, tournaments, at events, that sort of thing?
DI: I have never regretted wearing any kind of protective equipment. When I fence for myself, I wear my mask, a gorget, I wear leather gloves with metal plates on it, you know, Milanese mitten gauntlets. So I wear a couple of plates that would be in the style of the Milanese mitten gauntlets over my fingers and the back of my hand, and then I've got metal plates on my thumb. And the reason why is I found that some of the older incarnations of HEMA garments restricted people's movement.
GW: Even the modern ones do too.
DI: You couldn't hold the sword in a manner to get the full extension of the weapon, so I found that these gloves, reinforced with the plates, allowed me to hold the sword in a manner for maximum extension because, it does have to be bespoke and customised. And it was a topic that was brought up by a lot of the other podcasters earlier because they were women and they were smaller and there was nothing for their size.
GW: That's right. I've often wondered, lots of money and time and intelligence has gone into trying to make modern HEMA gloves to protect against longsword blows and what have you, and I've never understood it because to my mind, this problem was solved 500 years ago. A well-fitting pair of steel gauntlets will do all of that and require none of this modern technology and plastics. And nothing's perfect, you can still get your fingers broken through them if you aren’t careful and if you're unlucky. But I've just never understood why this whole plastic mitten thing became an area of research. Why would you bother when the problem's already been solved? But I think it has something to do with the tournament rules, where some tournaments don't allow steel gauntlets for some reason, I don't know why.
DI: But not everybody can afford to get bespoke steel gauntlets.
GW: Sure, there is that. But then these modern ones aren't much cheaper.
DI: Nope, they aren't. And I just find that they impede the range of motion in the hand.
GW: Absolutely. I can't stand them.
DI: But, you know, I think the best protective equipment are fencers who have bodily awareness and control.
GW: Training is the best safety equipment by a mile. I agree entirely.
DI: People start fencing sooner than they should, there are tons of foil manuals from the 19th century which talk about this idea of waiting a fairly long time before you even get to fence. And I understand why they would make people wait. It was to develop that control over the body. To be able to execute the motions without unnecessary force.
GW: Yeah, that was certainly part of it. OK, so. Now, I know you train a lot, but everyone, literally everyone I've ever talked to about this has something that they know they should be training more of. Do you have anything like that?
DI: Well, yeah, but as I mentioned earlier, this was the year I was going to return to Kendo because what I wanted to do was to really get in practise of doing the controlled strike while calling the target so that it would be easier to then manifest and illustrate to potential judges that I am exercising control. That was the thing that I was hoping to do.
GW: OK, so you'd go back to Kendo to practise calling your targets so that you could then go to sport longsword and do that same thing there. That's a genius idea. OK, you have nine years of training between 10 and 40 hours a week in Kendo and so your Kendo skills are maybe a bit rusty, but they're probably pretty solid.
DI: Well, I still regularly use my Kendo skills when I do longsword. Most of the time when I fence longsword, I just get into the guard that I used in Kendo. The most common hit I land is to the outside of the right forearm, which is the kote hit from Kendo. And I've probably done that strike over 10,000 times now. And I jokingly like to call that move the “Skywalker Special”.
GW: Yes, you are you are Darth Vader. Excellent. OK, so what have been your main influences as a teacher, researcher, practitioner? I imagine Igor gets pretty high billing in that, but there must be others.
DI: So, of course, Igor gets high billing because he taught me a lot about épée. He reprogrammed my body. The other major influencers in terms of martial artists would be my instructors at AEMMA: Brian McIlmoyle, Kelly Rekuta and Aldo Valente were my instructors at AEMMA.
GW: I know Brian, Kelly and Aldo quite well. So if they're listening: Hi, guys. Nice to almost see you.
DI: And when I started at AEMMA, I had a Ken Jitsu instructor that I found and he moved to Japan. I have not seen him in about a decade. He is returning to Canada and his name was Reg Hardman. And he did Ken Jitsu and I practised extensively with him. He was probably one of the most terrifying persons that I ever did drills with, and I am grateful for it.
GW: Could you unpack that a bit, what was so frightening about it?
DI: Now, there's this intangible thing that the Japanese martial arts talk about, where you have a certain presence, the way you stand, the way you look. And he had that. The way he stood, the way he looked, and also because I know that he had been in the army and he had been in one of those airborne units in the Canadian forces that got disbanded. And so I know that he had been involved in military operations where he had been shot at and had to shoot back.
GW: Right. Yeah, that does change things a bit.
DI: Yeah, so this is a man who was actually had firsthand experience with lethal violence.
GW: Right. I have students, friends, colleagues and teachers like that. It's not experience I ever want to get for myself, but I totally recognise the value of it.
DI: And having an instructor like that was extremely useful because, after a while of feeling that type of energy, it does harden the person a little bit and it has definitely been valuable when I go out and do any of the other fencing that I do, because let's face it, I'm just playing tag by comparison.
GW: Right, it puts it in perspective.
DI: It does, and it was very helpful, it made me much less afraid any time I would do any of my other fencing-based activities. And so those are my influences. Those are the people that have been influences. And then, of course, the other influences my life, obviously Star Wars and I like to make Star Wars jokes when I teach classes, like the Skywalker special being hitting the right hand. And also playing too much Dungeons and Dragons. I always like to joke with students that I am the result of playing too much Dungeons and Dragons.
GW: I have to pull you up on that one. I don't think it's actually possible to play too much Dungeons Dragons if you actually still eat and sleep.
DI: Oh, I guess you're right there. And the other thing, because we do get a lot of people who have played Dungeons and Dragons, they're nerdy people. Whenever I would introduce important historical manuscripts that inform our study, I would pull out the Fiore manuscript first and show them that. I would show them the George Silver, because we like to use the brief instructions, because there's a lot of information in the brief instruction about the grounds and governors that I absolutely love in trying to summarise and explaining to people what we're doing when we fence. And then the last two historical manuscripts I always pull out are the gag ones. One is Monty Python and the Holy Grail and the other important historical manuscript that I'd like to introduce students to is the Player's Handbook for Dungeons and Dragons. It helps put people at ease.
GW: I do the same sort of thing in a beginner's class. The first time I gather everybody around, we have a lectern in my salle with Fiore open on it usually. And the first time the beginners who have never been in the salle before, they gather around and I show them the source. They are usually about six feet away from me, it’s like they're practising for covid long before it ever happened. But if I do my job right, when we circle back around to it about forty five minutes later, they're all shoulder to shoulder and almost nudging me out of the way so they can get a better look at the source because, with enough humour and what have you, it breaks down the barriers of it. They relax, they become more comfortable and then they're actually able to learn stuff.
DI: Exactly, and it's important to be able to set up that kind of environment for them.
GW: And DnD jokes will really help with that, of course. We brought up covid a couple of times - what effect has it had on your training and practise? I imagine that your school was closed, at least for a while. And what do you see happening in a year's time?
DI: The Academy of European Medieval Martial Arts was in a space called the Fighting Arts Collective, and we actually lost that space. So AEMMA is currently a vagrant and is going to be looking for new space and they're waiting for the second wave to clear.
GW: Oh, my God. Yeah, I've actually been to that space and I seem to remember that you could actually set up paintball, softball, airsoft, close quarter battle stuff. Military things. That space is no longer there?
DI: Yeah, exactly. That space is no longer there. My wife, before my wife, was the circus programmer there. While I was swinging swords she was running her circus programme there. And so that's gone. The Sport Fencing school where I work at reopened at the beginning of September. And all we can do is actually we can't really do any free fencing because the Ontario Fencing Association, which is the governing body for sport fencing, has decreed that that it's a risk to have people actually doing free fencing. So there is a very large chunk of time between March and August, when all I did was burpees, push ups, squats, and now I can do a pull up from a dead hang. And then I was able to start fencing outside wearing facemasks under masks starting in August when at a certain stage of re-opening. But I believe that, post-covid, when we actually manage to get to a point where schools can try to reopen, I do worry that the potential students may not necessarily be in the economic position to sign up, and if they do, they're probably going to lean towards those types of schools that will allow them to engage in free fencing sooner. AEMMA’s programme is excellent. I believe it created controlled fencers where I feel comfortable fencing in a mask and a t-shirt and gloves with other people at full speed and intensity without being hurt. But if the average person who wants to get into historical martial arts might have to wait one to two years to be able to fence, they may not be able to wait that long. They may not have the financial security required.
GW: Yeah, I'm familiar with that problem from a student motivation point of view. But yes, now, of course, there is that additional financial issue.
DI: Because of what this disease has done in terms of layoffs, furloughs, reduced incomes, people having to be on some kind of assistance, the fact that businesses have closed, stop hiring. So this means that anyone who is going to try to enter this may not be able to, for lack of funds or for lack of funds and instability, are going to gravitate towards what allows them to access what they want, which is the sword fighting component of this.
GW: It is possible, I think with offices closing, there should be a massive dip in real estate values, particularly in the centre of cities, and there may be cheap opportunities to hire bigger spaces, which will enable clubs to perhaps lower their entrance fees or have a sliding scale of fees where people who can't afford the full price because they don't have a job can pay a much lower fee to still train. I see some possible germs of hope there.
DI: Oh, you are right, because there will be retail spaces all of a sudden available with high enough ceilings. And the thing is that the wait to see what this second wave will do and to see what scientists and medical professionals will be able to do to help either to either immunise us against this or to make cures easily available is going to be key. But even before the covid ends, if inexpensive, accurate, fast tests become commercially available at pharmacies, I believe that would go a very long way towards helping most martial arts schools reopen at a brisk pace. Because if we can just spit into a cup and know within five minutes that we're good to go, we could do that. You show up at the class, spit in the cup and then, you know whether you should be there.
GW: Like the opposite of dope testing in sports.
GW: Wow, that's actually a really good idea. Speaking of good ideas, what is the best idea you've never acted on?
DI: You know, every once in a while, I sometimes want to break free and try to set up my own school and be fully independent and go through all the terror, the joy and deliberation associated with it.
GW: What would you teach?
DI: I would probably teach to my strong suits. I would probably teach things like épée, foil and how they're martially applicable to things like the longsword. I would probably teach, to the best of my ability, the aspects of grappling that are extremely useful for things like fencing. Because if I were to do this and I need to pay rent and feed myself, I would end up having to look at the students as customers as well, where the appetite for most people coming into martial arts is the sword fight.
GW: Let me share with you the probably the best bit of advice I ever got when I started my school, and this came from a guy called Jari Renko, who is a very senior martial artist in Finland, where I started my school. I happened to be at the shooting range and he was there and we got talking and he said, I've never forgotten it, “Never water down your art for the sake of getting more students, because if you do, you will end up with no art and no students.”
DI: Right. OK.
GW: So I totally get where you're coming from, but Jari proved correct, in my experience. There are plenty of thriving schools that don't do freeplay at all. Not that I'm recommending that, I think that freeplay is an essential part of training. But if you clearly communicate the value of what you're doing, in my experience, students are willing to wait. Because they're not just waiting, they're training towards something. Rather than just giving them a crap version of it at the beginning, you can give them a much better version of it later on because they have the depth of training to actually really do it well. To my mind the proof of the pudding was when I started my school, I think we started the first batch of students doing freeplay type stuff about a year and a bit after they started, and about two and a bit years after my school started, one of my senior students, a guy called Topi Mikkola managed to take my sword off me in freeplay.
DI: You must have been so proud.
GW: It is still maybe one of the top five fencing moments of my entire life, because it proved beyond reasonable doubt that I could teach a student from scratch. He had no fencing or martial arts background before. I could teach a student from scratch to be a properly competent, longsword fencer, because if he could take the sword off me, he knows at least something, right? I think if you do decide to do this, obviously, I've been there done that if you want any help or advice just email me, we can talk about it. But my top thing would be just to repeat Jari Renko’s advice that you never water down the art for the sake of getting more students or you will end up with no art and no students.
DI: Thank you.
GW: You're very welcome. I'm talking a lot more in this interview than I normally do, and I'm not sure why that is. I think it's just because I'm so excited by all the fire eating. OK, so my last question and something I ask everyone: Somebody gives you a million dollars or a significant chunk of money to spend improving historical martial arts worldwide. What do you do with the money?
DI: Wow, what would I do with the million dollars with the art? So I know I initially emailed you my response, but I thought about it and changed it. And I really do have to echo one of the earlier ideas I heard on your podcast. I would probably want to actually help people develop, start building the templates for people who might be smaller or their bodies are different shaped because my initial response when I emailed you, has evolved as I listened to the podcasts. And historical martial arts really are for everyone, but sometimes stuff is simply not available for them in their size for multiple circumstances and it would be nice for the research and development to go into producing that equipment that allows people to participate on a wider scale. I mean, protective equipment.
GW: I've forgotten which of my guests first floated that idea, but I think that's a really good use of the money because the whole point of this show is to encourage people who might think that, well, they're not the right body type or they're not from the right background or whatever. Actually historical martial arts are for everyone who actually wants to do them. And getting the equipment in their hands is a really good way of demonstrating their welcomeness, I guess.
DI: Well, yeah, it means that we acknowledge that that they exist and that we want to be able to create a space for them, so essentially we have to make equipment not just for the tall athletic body type, but for all of them.
GW: OK, so that's where you put the money.
DI: That's where I put the money. The HEMA equipment out there is built for my body type already.
GW: Yeah, me too.
DI: Now, then, there are other people who want in and we want to bring them in.
GW: Right. I think that's an excellent, excellent use of the funds. Well, thank you very much, David. That's been a really interesting conversation. I've enjoyed it very much. It's nice to connect with you again. I know we met very briefly at a seminar I gave in Toronto many years ago. But I hope we will get to meet again in person. Tell you what, I’ll do you a deal: we’ll do a little bit of longsword and a little bit of fire eating. How about that?
DI: I'll definitely teach you how to eat fire if you make your way over here or I'm over there.
GW: Brilliant. Thank you very much. Well, thank you, David. It's been lovely talking to you.
DI: Thank you, Guy.