Armed and Dangerous


A couple of decades ago one of my room mates press-ganged me into taking a class with her.  She was already taking fencing, but her teacher had decided to offer stage combat, and needed more students.  “It’ll be great!  You can write it off as research!” Since I was then working on The Stone War, an urban fantasy that takes place in New York City, circa 2018, I didn’t see any present use for such research, but I love me a good swashbuckler, so I signed up.  And it was love at first swash.

Stage combat, which can comprise everything from Elizabethan fencing to West Side Story-style knife rumbling, is a cooperative effort by partners, to create the appearance of terrific peril.  Unlike combat forms from fencing to tae kwon do, the goal of stage combat is to look dangerous while remaining entirely safe.  Not so easy to do when you’re hefting an eight-pound broadsword at a friend.  You start by imagining that your partner has a six inch bubble, or halo, around her, that must on no account be broken.  That means even if you’re bring that eight-pound broadsword over your head to crash down on the head of your partner, you should be able to lock your elbows and stop the blade six inches from her head.  You also want to be sure that your partner will do the same for you.  I saw a guy dislocate his own shoulder to pull back on a broadsword cut when his partner had forgotten the choreography and zigged when he shoulda zagged.  First law of stage combat: do no harm.

Stage combat is in part about visual misdirection:  if I have my back to the audience as I draw my right fist back (think John Wayne and you’ll know what I mean), the audience won’t see the six inches between my partner’s jaw and my fist.  And if my partner sells the punch–rocks his head back and looks like he’s just been slugged–then the illusion is complete.  Turn the positions by 90 degrees and the illusion is blown.  Which is another reason this stuff is so carefully choreographed.  And that big drawing back of the fist?  That’s my partner’s cue that I’m about to throw that punch, so he knows to react–and not to lean in to the point that my fist might actually connect.

So I took one class, then another, then another, and got hooked in with a group of people (including the room mate who had dragged me in in the first place) doing stage combat scenes, May Day celebrations, Renfest performances.  We’d do floor drills, advancing and chanting in unison: “Hello, my name is Inigo Montoya.  You killed my father.  Prepare to die!”  I got certified as an actor-combatant by SAFD (the Society of American Fight Directors) in rapier, rapier-and-dagger, broadsword, quarterstaff, and hand-to-hand combat.  I was briefly a part of a company that did Shakespeare-with-mayhem performances for high schools.  And I was, not at all parenthetically, in the best shape of my life: I could do a running dive with a rapier in my hand and come up on my feet and on point.  Sadly, I shall not look upon those days again.

What happened next?  Well, I had a child, which cut back on my available run-around-with swords time.  And I got swept into other things, had a second child, and…while I am still in touch with many of my stage-combat buddies, I drifted away from the business.  Then, when we moved out to San Francisco, I started taking fencing.  No choreography, no fakery, no safety.  And I was terrible at it because, despite  experience which you’d think would help, all my instinct is not to hit the other person–who isn’t my partner but my opponent.  Still, for about two years I kept at it, until a cyst in my wrist made it hard to hold a foil, let alone do damage with it.

Well, my SAFD certification is long lapsed, but I still love sword-fighting.  Give me a well-choreographed fencing sequence in a play or movie and I’m in heaven.  Give me a stupidly choreographed fencing sequence–and, alas, Sturgeon’s law applies to stage combat as well as anything else–and I will blow raspberries and mutter darkly until the cows come home.  Don’t get me started on the stupidity of 360° turns when fighting with a rapier–while you’re swooping around all pretty, the other guy is cutting your spine.*  I am either a delight, or a pain in the neck, to go to swashbuckling movies with.

And what about research, the ostensible reason for my foray into combat?  As it happened, stage combat has been useful for me in damned near everything I write.  I can choreograph a fight between one or more people, walking through it, figuring out the angles and the timing, and thinking of all the intangibles like mud or fog or furniture or bystanders, that might effect the fight.  I have a greater appreciation for the compression and expansion of time during a fight–that feeling that it all goes too fast to know what’s happening, and the feeling that time suddenly slows to a crawl.  Also an appreciation for the sweat and bruises and exhaustion that comes along with getting good at a physical activity.

A dozen years or so after I started taking stage combat I started writing Point of Honour, the first of my Sarah Tolerance books.  Miss Tolerance is a fencer, and when I write about her I get to dust off my rapier technique and whirl around in the backyard stepping through a fight, to the great confusion of the dog.  My room-mate was right: it was good research.


*don’t get me started on Highlander, which is one of the most egregious offenders in the 360° turn department.  Snarl.


Madeleine Robins is the author of Point of Honour and Petty Treason, swashbuckling Regency noir mysteries.  She blogs regularly at;; and bi-monthly at here at the Book View Cafe Blog.


About Madeleine E. Robins

Madeleine Robins is the author of The Stone War, Point of Honour, Petty Treason, and The Sleeping Partner (the third Sarah Tolerance mystery, available from Plus One Press). Her Regency romances, Althea, My Dear Jenny, The Heiress Companion, Lady John, and The Spanish Marriage are now available from Book View Café. Sold for Endless Rue , an historical novel set in medieval Italy, was published in May 2013 by Forge Books


Armed and Dangerous — 5 Comments

  1. Oh, how wonderful, Madeleine. It sounds like such a great thing to do. I have been tempted by stage combat classes over the years, but I have never followed through. I always had the idea that I wanted to learn to choreograph fights scenes — in part because bad fight scenes drive me nuts, too, and in part because my body isn’t as flexible as it used to be (I can still fall down fine, but getting up is a lot slower than it used to be). And maybe in part because I’m a writer, not an actor.

    Though I’d probably have trouble learning to stop short of hitting people, after spending 30 years in martial arts. (You can’t actually master Aikido or karate techniques unless your partner is really trying to hit you.)

    As for Highlander: Are you talking about the movie or the TV version (which, heretic that I am, I liked better than the movie)? It’s been too many years since I saw the movie (and I only saw the first one), but I recall that the empty hand fight scenes on the TV show were amazingly good, possibly because Adrian Paul had a background in Chinese martial arts and the guy who played Charlie (whose name is escaping me at the moment) was a fourth dan in Aikido. (Can’t remember names, but I can remember ranks.) The sword fights were more mixed, I admit.

  2. I’m talking about the movie. In a situation where the only way to kill your opponent (or be killed by the same) is decapitation, then turning your back on said opponent for a 360° turn is just plain stupid. The only rationales for such a turn are 1) you’re hefting a really heavy broadsword at someone wearing such heavy armor that the only hope you’ve got is either to slice through the armor at a weak point or bash the armor so badly that you break the bone underneath and render the armor unremovable, so that the opponent dies (unpleasantly) at some later time of sepsis; or 2) because you’re knocked off balance and it’s the only way to recover. But clearly the 360°s in the Highlander movie were for pretty, not for any sensible reason. Pretty is nice, the 360° turn is the dumb blonde of stage combat.

    The TV series, as I remember, didn’t make as many of the egregious errors as the film. Also: take a Scotsman and have him play an Egyptian, then take a Frenchman and have him play a Scot? Huh?

    You want to see really good duelling, rent anything choreographed by William Hobbs, or (later) by Bob Anderson. But Hobbs, in particular, is a genius.

  3. Yeah, I’m not much for turning your back on an opponent. And while I really liked the concept of Highlander (except for the “there can be only one” bs), Christopher Lambert left me cold. I much preferred the TV series — in fact, I think the underlying idea lent itself nicely to the serial format, of which I’m very fond.

    I’ll start looking for movies by fight scene choreographers, per your suggestions.

  4. My best friend in college took a fencing class while she was in law school. At the time she was taking public transit and said it really cut down on the number of men trying to hassle her, pick her up, whatever, to be waiting at the bus stop on the street with her mask and sword (probably her epee?)

  5. Heh.

    I used to tromp around NYC with a bag that contained my foil, broadsword, dagger, and miscellaneous bits of equipment. Aside from the people (and there were several) who thought I was lugging a musical instrument around town (“How do you get to Carnegie Hall? Practice!” Honest to God.) at least once I had someone try to steal the bag.

    I was in a stall in the ladies’ room at Macy’s (if you’re ever looking for a bathroom in a major city, go into a department store), with my bag standing by the partition. As I was doing what I was doing, a hand snaked under the partition and grabbed the bag. Understand: the bag was three feet tall and weighed 30 pounds, and was no way going under that partition no matter how hard the felon tugged. So I didn’t panic.

    She tugged again. And again. Then I hear a muttered “what the @#&!%! you got in there?” to which I cheerfully answered “Swords!”

    There was a pause, then the same voice came back: “Sorry I bothered you, ma’am.”