British Columbia

Swordplay academy revives lost art of knighthood in downtown Vancouver

The clash of ancient weapons inside a Vancouver swordfighting academy might intimidate those walking by — but its owner says anyone can be a modern-day knight.

Academie Duello brings ancient weapons swordplay to modern-day knights in Gastown

Devon Boorman, Director and Maestro d'Armi at Academie Duello, stands for a photograph in Vancouver, B.C. (Darryl Dyck/Canadian Press)

The flash and sound of ancient weapons clashing inside a swordfighting academy in downtown Vancouver can be intimidating to people on the street.

But those with the courage to enter will discover that anyone can become a modern-day knight, says Maestro d'Armi Devon Boorman, the master of arms at Academie Duello.

"It's something they really can do," said Boorman, who is passionate about reviving the lost art of swordplay.

"The big barrier to breakthrough for people is to not just see that it's something performers do, but that it's a real martial art."

From the streets of Gastown, passersby can hear the sounds of ancient weapons clashing inside the Academie Duello. (Darryl Dyck/Canadian Press)

Game of swords

Global interest in swordsmanship has exploded over recent years, beginning when Hollywood released the "Lord of the Rings" movie, said Boorman. The blockbuster inspired a multitude of historical epics that was crowned with the TV series "Game of Thrones" based on books by George R.R. Martin.

Boorman's 6,000-square-foot academy attracts about 250 students in classes seven days a week. Academie Duello started with only six students in an outdoor arena in 2004.

Students are guided to thrust and parry with the rapier, longsword, two-handed sword, and sword and shield, imitating the old-world rhythm of nobility and soldiers.

Boorman's lifelong zeal has taken him around the world studying with masters, reading historical texts and collecting weapons and armour.

More than 200 gleaming swords rest in custom-made racks and repurposed wine barrels inside the brick-and-beam studio. Ornate shields adorn the walls.

Boorman said people are drawn inside by the storybook fantasy, but stay to learn a technique that European warriors lived and died by in the Middle Ages.

"It's beyond what you did as a kid in your backyard, hitting swords against each other, going "chh-chh-chh,' " he said. "There is an actual system here, there's a real rich tradition and history."

Boorman, right, and Roland Cooper, a lead instructor and Provost, spar at Academie Duello in Vancouver — where movie The Princess Bride is frequently quoted. (Darryl Dyck/Canadian Press)

'Arte, ardore, onore'

Students don protective gear during practice, such as neck protectors called gorgets, fencing masks, padded jackets and athletic protectors. They often begin lessons by raising their swords for a salute in Italian: "Arte, ardore, onore," which means art, passion, honour.

About 30 per cent of students are women, a higher proportion than most martial arts, Boorman said.

"Everyone from really big guys to really tiny women come in," he said. "Swords are the great equalizer."

Instructors take pride in imparting the disciplined fight craft, while their enthusiasm and in-depth knowledge keeps students returning. "The Princess Bride," a movie featuring an unforgettable sword-fighting sequence, is probably the most quoted film at Academie Duello, Boorman said with a smile.

Boorman's studio was among the first out of the gates, but he said similar schools have now opened around the world. In Vancouver, the Valkyrie Western Martial Arts Assembly offers swordplay among other activities and calls itself the first of its kind to be owned and operated by women.

Ornate shields adorn the walls of the downtown Vancouver studio. (Darryl Dyck/Canadian Press)

Backyard Zorro

At Academie Duello, instructor Roland Cooper, 31, got a tattoo of three swords after passing the second-highest rank exam last year. He said that like learning chess, rookies should expect to get beaten often.

"If you're just getting started, you get hit in the face a lot and you don't know why," he said. "That's just how it happens."

But that shouldn't discourage newcomers from pursuing swordplay, he added.

Reviving the lost art of knighthood started with the magic of make-believe for Boorman. The now 37-year-old played Zorro in his backyard as a boy.

He said he didn't always feel like a "super-physical person," which is another reason he strives to awaken others to the potential of their own body and its mastery.

"I think that's really compelling, to learn you can get good at stuff," he said. "And to get over the movie-training-montage view of reality and connect with the real one."

Boorman has been interested in swords and knights since he was a boy, and used to play Zorro in his backyard. (Darryl Dyck/Canadian Press)

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