Advance! Retreat! Advance! Back-crossover! Lunge!
It's a Tuesday night at the University of Southern Maine gym and Rob Tupper is leading a small group of fencing students through an exercise that looks like a cross between a line dance and an army drill.
"It is the gift you give your opponent to fence well," he tells them. These amateur sword-fighters are part of USM's Blade Society, a student-run organization that welcomes members of the general public to practice various types of fencing (with foils, epees, rapiers, and sabers) as well as "heavy combat" — a sport developed by the Society for Creative Anachronism (SCA), the international living-history group, to resemble medieval duels or melees.
Basically, "anything with a sword is good," says Tupper, a USM alumnus who serves as rapier-instructor-in-charge at the Tuesday night practices. The group has an active membership of about 40 people, though it has swelled in the past to 60; the majority of participants are not current USM students (they pay $5 to get into the gym).
Off to the side, apart from Tupper's instructional session, Mandy Campbell duels with her instructor, John Wilson. They are dressed in more traditional fencing gear — masks and white jackets that snap between their legs. Campbell, a 2009 USM grad who now works as a social worker in Biddeford, hopes to rank nationally this year.
For her, the Blade Society offers the opportunity to hone a nuanced skill. "You have to learn your opponent's subtle motions in order to anticipate and react," she says. "It's a game of control."
Meanwhile, on the other side of the room, an entirely different scene is unfolding. About half a dozen men and a couple of women are donning armor. Aluminum plates, titanium cuffs and gauntlets, leather-scaled ("lamellar") vests, steel helmets, chainmail. Some of this gear they've made themselves, some has been handed down to them, and some is modified modern athletic protection (such as plastic shin-guards). It takes quite a long time to suit up.
When I ask these men and women for their names, they ask, "Mundane or SCA?"
I stare at them blankly.
Turns out, these folks have adopted alternate SCA personas, complete with different names. Their "mundane" names are associated with the "mundane" modern world. So Kevin LeBlanc, a recreational therapist who lives in South Portland, becomes "Alaric Godricson" when he walks into the gym every Tuesday night. He's the one, incidentally, who hand-stitched together hundreds of leather scales to create the breathtaking lamellar that protects his torso from attacks.
Once the fighters are ready, they pick up their shields and their weapons — a wooden or foam practice sword, or maybe a polearm (or "glaive," essentially a long, wooden stick).
Then, even as Tupper engages in civilized training in the back of the gym, these fighters go at it. Right underneath the basketball hoop. They whack each other's bodies, the thwack of their instruments against armor echoing in the high-ceilinged room. They regularly disengage to offer affable analyses of technique and strategy. And occasionally, a fighter will step back to make sure that he or she hasn't seriously injured an opponent.
That risk seems to be part of the fun.