CAMPTON HILLS - With a swoosh and a woosh, a click and a snick, swordsmen of today sought to learn the killing art of 15th century Italy. That is, they faced their teacher at LaFox Martial Arts and Family Fitness in Campton Hills to learn the ancient technique without bloodshed.
Instructor Jesse Kulla led the class as they held the hickory longswords with two hands and followed his lead.
"They are learning their ABCs," said Greg Mele, who also teaches the once-a-week class in Campton Hills, as well as classes at College of DuPage and in Chicago.
Mele is also a co-founder and board member of the Chicago Swordplay Guild, a nonprofit group that promotes the study and practice of European martial arts. Kulla is an officer of the guild, as well as a teacher.
"The ABCs of swordfighting is how to stand, how to walk and how to hold and swing a sword, how to attack and defend," Mele said. "It becomes essentially a chess match as you try to outsmart each other. It's a very difficult skill. It takes a lot of discipline to learn."
It was all labor with no glamour: No capes, tights or hats with feathers. Kulla's class from age 12 through middle-age with one girl wore sweatpants and T-shirts.
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"Nobody ever gets dressed up," Mele said. "But they do learn sparring."
Campton Hills resident David Cutkosky, 44, participates in the class. His fascination with swordplay started when he read "Lord of the Rings" in 2000.
"So as I read the books three or four times, I said I have got to find somewhere that does this rapier or fencing-type style in the movies," Cutkosky said.
Greg Derylo, 41, of St. Charles, and his daughter, Sarah, 13, also go to swordfighting class.
"It's a way to get exercise, and it's a fun thing to do with my daughter," Derylo said. "I've always been a history fan, and I do this and have fun and learn more about history."
Taking swordsmanship seriously
Mele, who co-authored "Arte Gladiatoria," a translation and analysis of 15th century Italian sword techniques by Master Fillipo Vadi, takes his swordsmanship seriously.
"At the time these arts were recorded, around 1400, they had been practiced for hundreds of years. They were a living tradition," Mele said. "There is this connection to the past. People are drawn to it. There is this romance to the sword."
They use a replica of a weapon called a longsword which was used between 1300 and 1500. With Europe ruled by an aristocracy during this era, training for those in the knightly class would begin probably at age 12, focusing on riding and practicing for years with wooden swords before graduating to the real thing, Mele said.
The swords weighed from 2½ to 4½ pounds, the same weight swords as the class uses.
"It was the jack-of-all-trades sword. With a long hilt, you could use it on foot with two hands or one hand on horseback because it's got a long reach," Mele said.
And a true swordfight would not last like it does in the movies: It is over in three seconds or less.
Mele and Kulla demonstrated the truth of it. Facing off, they took swords in hand and, almost quicker than a blink, it was over.
"Whether we are talking about judo or boxing or swordfighting, it's about combat, and once you add a weapon into it, it's about killing," Mele said. "And we have the luxury of not needing to use it for that purpose today. We have the luxury of being able to do it because it is art."