Martial Art or Stage Art? HEMA and Stage Combat


My interest in HEMA was piqued at The A-Town Throw Down, a stage combat workshop in Atlanta.


Two of our instructors were stunt choreographers for Vikings, and as we worked through choreography, two things popped out.


First was their frequent mention of the "martial purpose" in an action either fueling our moves OR as a contrast to the choreography we were creating.


The second was an incident where the primary instructor mentioned that we should step slight after our cuts for more power. Later, a much younger session leader laughed at the notion as nonsense. Given the experience levels, I was intrigued and wanted to know who was "right."


After I got into HEMA (Historical European Martial Arts), I discovered the primary instructor was! *Surprise*


As I've progressed in HEMA and work to incorporate both disciplines into my teaching, here are three differences in single hand and longsword that I see in my novitiate.


1. Differences in Angles

In stage combat, the cuts are thrown more horizontally or completely vertically to aim for the arm/legs or head. Arm cuts are directed at the defender's bicep; leg cuts are at the defender's thigh.



Diagonal moves are clearly telegraphed and are inspiration for interesting and compelling avoidances.


While the moves can be quick (and dangerous once close to speed), the angles focus on the outside of the body.


In a martial context, the angles tend to be more diagonal with a focus on the centerline followed by a thrust to the face/torso. Middlehaus do exist, but (in our school, at least) are not as emphasized.


The differences in angles makes the guards change a little, but only in the fight. In stage combat the parries/guards are more set because the attack is predetermined, and in an actual fight, the defender has to determine the angle of the guard based on the angle of attack.


Differences in Energy

The differences in intention determine different energies for both disciplines.


The purpose of stage combat is to provide character development for the duelists and give the audience a good show. That won't happen if the actors are hurt!


The energy of blows is directed past the actors. I've had several instructors liken the energy to casting a fishing line--the energy goes up and out, not into. This keeps the fighters safe so that even if someone forgets to block, the energy of the weapon doesn't go into her body.



In HEMA, the energy is going into the body. While it's controlled (this is a martial art), it's aiming for some impact (this is a martial art).


"You're going from guard to guard," my longsword instructor has said. "Bones just happen to get in the way."











Differences in Attitude

This particular difference was the most difficult to overcome for me when I first started HEMA longsword.


In acting setting, fights are about safety first then audience enjoyment. The defender leads, and it's the job of both fighters to keep the other safe and feeling secure while putting together a fight scene that's usually longer than a tournament fight.


The angles and energy are safety mechanisms along with the awareness and intentions of the fighters.



HEMA, on the other hand, does focus on safety, but the purpose is, overall, to hit the other person as quickly and efficiently as possible while keeping yourself defended The offense is NOT concerned that the defense stays safe from an actual blow!


It took a good six months before I was able to really hit someone else in the (helmeted) head even when my instructors stood there without a guard. Because of my training and personality, I did not want to strike another person even when he was protected!


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I'm sure many more differences exist between the two different movement forms, but these are the three that I currently view as the most important to notice for a person moving between the two worlds.




Interested in HEMA, literature camps, art classes, or a September Gamer Experience? Check out this link!

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