ST. LOUIS — Martial arts instructor Ken Harding calls it his dream job, running St. Louis School of Arms and teaching historical European martial arts five days a week, including swordplay.
“It’s actually an Italian martial art and being part Italian myself I found a strong attraction to that,” said the 53-year old Harding. “This is something not run of the mill. It’s something that when you step in here you really feel that you’ve stepped outside your ordinary life.”
Harding has been a martial arts teacher for three decades, much of it as a full-time instructor for swords, daggers, spears, and empty hand fighting. According to the St. Louis School of Arms website, Harding has spent 30,000 hours studying combative arts.
“Our source material comes out of 16th century Italian manuscripts, translated into English,” said Harding. “The people who wrote these manuscripts used these techniques for actual combat.”
The cost for the St. Louis School of Arms classes is $70 a month, with unlimited attendance. The first lesson is free and loaner equipment is available for beginners. Harding said he is currently working with 20 students, including an auto body shop retiree, a husband and wife, and a Shakespearean actor.
62-year old Jerry Hanft of Freeburg, IL said few people know he’s been studying swordplay for more than seven years.
“I don't tell too many people. Maybe they’ll find out,” said Hanft. “It's challenging physically and mentally. I mean, you really have to think about what you're doing, and it is a physical workout. But it's fun and I'd rather be swinging a sword than a golf club.”
Since movies are the swordplay frame of reference for most of us, it seemed to be a logical question about how often motion picture sword fights get it right in movies like “The Adventures of Robin Hood,” “The Legend of Zorro,” even the light saber scenes in the “Star Wars” franchise.
“Not a thing like what we do here,” said student Michael Pierce, referring to movie sword fights. “But as an actor I love it because it tells a really fun story.”
Pierce’s story is that he performs with St. Louis Shakespeare. He wants to use his sword training to become a combat choreographer for onstage fight scenes.
“Which is obviously way different than this (sword class) because you don't want to hurt someone, but I definitely take a lot of inspiration from the work I do here,” said Pierce.
Husband and wife Clark Asher and Elizabeth Kroes-Asher from South St. Louis are among the newest students.
“I took some fencing in college,” said Elizabeth Kroes-Asher. “Which is kind of similar but not really.”
Clark Asher said the classes appeal to him because of the variety.
“Because it's not just swords. As we do a two-handed sword, we also do daggers and grappling pugilism. So, it's something new, but sort of the basics carry over on each one, how you stand, how you move, that sort of thing,” said Clark Asher.
The stance of these sword students is, if you’re tired of the same old thing, pick up a sword.
“I get fulfillment out of it, like to further my own career, but I also love this for its own sake,” said Pierce. “It's fulfilling in that regard too. It's a fun time.”