The one thing you need to know about sword fighting is how immensely satisfying it is to hit someone in the head with a sword.
I’ve never been prone to violence, and sword fighting as an activity ranked fairly low on the list of activities I’d willingly undergo for fun. My reflexes are slow and bad; if you were to throw a bag of chips at me with the hopethat I’d catch them, I would prove you wrong every time. But years of watching Game of Thrones coupled with both a deep-seated desire to be Mulan and a startlingly high threshold for embarrassment led me to a dojo in Harlem, where I spent an hour and some change sweating profusely with a sword in my hand, clanging it with all my might against the weapon of my enemies.
Consider Arya Stark, pint sized hellraiser with a vindictive streak on Game of Thrones, who cuts people who have fucked with her using Needle, a tiny and seemingly ineffectual blade that she wields with devious alacrity, darting around her enemies who swing giant, hulking longswords, missing her every time. It was her image that I held in my mind as I embarked on this journey.
My guiding light down this dark and treacherous path was Tristan Zukowski, the instructor at Sword Class NYC. Zukowski specializes in a style called Liechtenauers Kunst des Fechtens. In his class, students use a real longsword, and the focus is not on making moves look “cool” or flashy or like they do on TV, but on proper body mechanics and placement.
Like karate or judo, sword fighting is a martial art, under the umbrella of Historical European Martial Arts (HEMA). HEMA practitioners study old Western European methods of combat using swords, and translate that arcane knowledge to modern times. The way Zukowkski described his methods to me sounded more meditative than anything else. The skills are defensive, but what you’re really learning is how to best anticipate your opponent’s next move. During the sparring portion of the class, which I feel was tailored to my ineptitude, I spent a lot of time gazing into the eyes of my sparring partner, anticipating how to block their next move as if I were actually engaged in combat and not standing in a basement in Harlem, sweating profusely for no discernible reason. If you think hard enough, there’s some sort of life lesson to be drawn from this—be in the moment, Zen something something, meditation, vanquish an enemy.
Despite the fact that I was inadvertently wearing leggings that screamed FEARLESS in purple letters down my left leg, I was full of fear. During the first exercise when I was practicing my Twerhaw—a horizontal strike to the temple and neck of my enemy—I found myself aiming not for the throat, but somewhere in its general vicinity. Every time, my sparring partner corrected me, telling me that my intent was to aim for the neck. “You’re not going to actually hurt me,” he said. “This blade isn’t actually sharp.” Touching the blade confirmed as much—both edges were dull, and given my weak arm strength, I was probably not going to hurt anyone even if I tried my hardest. Still, I was reluctant to really put my back into it, only because the thought of what would happen if I actually did somehow hurt someone stressed me out enough to take my head out of the game. I had to focus on swinging a sword like a warrior princess or wronged Stark child over my head and towards my enemy’s throat as if my life depended on it.
By the time we got to the final exercise—Hende Trucken, a move that, if executed properly with an actual sword, would’ve sliced the wrists of my enemy so that they would bleed out and I would win —I felt like I actually knew what I was doing. Even though Arya Stark was technically my #fitspo for this particular challenge and I was using a sword and not a bamboo stick or whatever, I felt more Mulan than anything else—maybe because I’m half-Taiwanese, or maybe because sometimes, when the light is right, I resemble Shan Yu, the film’s ruthless villain. The spirit of the scrappiest Stark child was not lost entirely, though. If I ever encounter Ed Sheeran dressed in chainmail, gnawing on the corpse of a roasted rabbit and singing a dumb song about hills and vales, I will know exactly what to do.
Video Producer: Phoebe Bradford
Associate Producer: Zoe Stahl