Planning a HEMA Demonstration for the Public

Ben Kerr in his harness, giving a demonstration of medieval armoured combat at Glasgow University.

One of the best ways to advertise your club and what you practice is to go out into the world and perform a demonstration. This can have the advantages of attracting new members for your club, of educating the public about Europe’s martial history, and it can be a fun and positive event for everyone involved. However, it can also have disadvantages: if a demonstration is poor, then the public can walk away with an incorrect but negative perception of what HEMA is about, and it may generate bad publicity for your school.

This article will address a few points to keep in mind when planning a demonstration so that you can have the best possible chance of making a positive impression with the public.

What are you Trying to Achieve?

This is the first question that you have to ask yourself. What are you trying to achieve when you run this demonstration? The answer to the question will then dictate how you must go about organising and planning the event.

For example, if you want to attract new members to your club, then you need to make sure the event catches the attention of new people, you need to make sure it looks inviting and welcoming, and you need to make it easy for people to sign up on the spot and shortly afterwards.

If you want simply to raise awareness of HEMA in the local populace, then you maybe need to plan a slightly more scholarly approach and make sure that you have enough staff members for people to demonstrate as one person gives a speech about what is happening. Showing books and discussing the weapons themselves might be a good idea.

If you want to entertain a crowd without necessarily recruiting or educating them, then every part of the event should be visually impressive and engaging – but you have to remember that what impresses and entertains you (someone who already knows something about swords and HEMA) is not necessarily what is going to impress or entertain an audience.

Once you know what you are trying to achieve with your event, work towards achieving that goal, and only include activities in your demonstration that work towards achieving that goal – do not include anything that distracts from the goal or that works against it. For example, if you are trying to entertain a crowd without necessarily educating them, then giving a long spiel about the dry and “boring” parts of HEMA (such as perhaps an in depth comparison of how different masters describe the Krumphaw, or showing a ten minute footwork lesson for smallsword, or standing in a hanging guard for ten minutes with a broadsword for strength training)[1] is not going to achieve your goal and in fact may bore your audience. You need to make sure your chosen activities are appropriate for the audience and for your goal, and that everything works towards achieving your goal by the end of the event.

Sparring

Sparring is fun, and it is very easy to use as a time filler during a demonstration. For people involved in martial arts, who are used to watching and participating in sparring, it is very easy to overlook the bigger picture and to focus on the details of the sparring. This can be very interesting to those “in the know”. However, to an audience who have no experience with the martial art in question, sparring often just looks like two people flailing about and trying to hit each other.

Sparring can be very boring to watch if the combatants play carefully and defensively. While more knowledgeable practitioners may watch in approval, maybe even with baited breath to see what happens next, a public audience will simply grow bored and wander away. There needs to be constant action in order to maintain the attention of the audience.

However, if you have two aggressive combatants who provide constant action, then the public may take the opinion that sparring is messy and dangerous, and that it bears no resemblance to the “refined fighting found in Eastern martial arts”.[2] Having constant action that is not pretty to watch is just as bad as having careful and deliberate actions that do not maintain the interest of the audience.

Sparring is an activity in which the participants are trying to “win”, or at least trying to improve their skills. It is a personal activity, for your own benefit,[3] and is therefore not conducted for the benefit of an audience. Therefore, it is often a poor choice of demonstration activity, since it may be performed for the benefit of the performers and not for the benefit of the audience.

Tournaments

Sometimes the idea surfaces to use tournaments as a showpiece for a public demonstration. What must be remembered is that tournament fighting is an even worse spectator sport than normal sparring, because the participants are not even willing to try the more interesting techniques in their repertoire, they stick with just the techniques they know and love, and often go for “cheap shots” to score points.

If sparring is a poor choice of activity for public demonstration, and if tournaments are even worse for spectators than normal sparring, then it really should be obvious why tournaments are a poor choice of activity for a public demonstration.

Demonstrations

Choreographed demonstrations are one of the best activities to include in a public demonstration of HEMA. Show off the weapons and talk about them. Show off the books and talk about the written history of the art (if appropriate). Pick some sequences from the sources and demonstrate them slowly and at speed, talking the audience through the interesting points.

The sequences presented in our sources are wonderful items to demonstrate in public. Performed slowly, they look interesting and technical. Performed swiftly, they look exciting and cool. It is worth spending some extra time practicing the sequences from the sources before running a demonstration, so that you can give an impressive demonstration of the system that you study and teach.

Maybe even demonstrate some choreographed or semi-choreographed sparring – but do it for the benefit of the audience. Participants will have to suppress their desire to win, they will have to refrain from “seeking the touch”,[4] and they will need to make every action technically correct yet also large enough, slow enough and exaggerated enough for an untrained audience to see and understand what is happening. It will be more like putting on a show and less like “proper” sparring, but this is the point of running a public demonstration.

Clothing, Equipment and Look

Another question that is very closely related to the first question of what you want to achieve is this: how do you wish to be perceived by your audience?

Your audience will form opinions about your group and also about HEMA in general based on their perception of your demonstration. Depending on the visual cues you give, this perception can be modified one way or another – sometimes in a more positive fashion, sometimes in a more negative fashion.

First of all, consider the issue of clothing.

Does your group have a club uniform? Do your people look like a cohesive unit when standing or training together? If you look professional and uniform, then this will help to convince an audience that you are professional in your approach, and so you will be perceived more positively.

Do your members turn up in jeans and t-shirts, or wearing whatever came to hand first thing in the morning? If you look chaotic and dishevelled then people will not perceive your group or your approach in as positive a light, and may retreat quickly to denigrate the group as “roleplayers” or just “sword geeks” or whatever derogatory terms come to their minds.

Secondly, consider the equipment that you will use.

Synthetic swords are cheap, cheerful, and they allow people to participate without having to go to the expense full training gear for using steel. However, synthetic swords look like what they are: plastic swords. It will be much harder for an audience to take your group seriously as proper students of a legitimate martial art if it looks like you are playing with toys.

In terms of your protective gear, do you look like you are re-enactors, with steel plate or chainmail? Do you look like you are LARPing with all kinds of wonderful pieces of fantasy themed protective gear? Do you look like Olympic fencers with the full white protective suit? None of these options are necessarily bad.[5] If you are doing something like smallsword or rapier then perhaps the Olympic fencing white is the most appropriate gear and look for your group. If you are simply looking to entertain an audience of tourists, then perhaps dressing in period armour or fantasy inspired armour will achieve your primary goal by providing the best entertainment.

However, if you want to be taken seriously as martial artists, then you probably want to look like serious martial artists. Bear in mind that most people today perceive anything historical as linked with re-enactment or LARP, and perceive professionalism as supported by modern looking gear. I will not say that wearing modern looking gear is the one and only correct way to look, but that is what most members of the public will perceive as modern, professional and serious for martial arts.

Finally, the general look of the demonstration will help to shape the perceptions of the audience.

If you involve new students in the demonstration, then the performance will not look as good as if instructors or advanced students are participating. If the performance does not look very skilled then the public will naturally assume that the club is not very good and may even decide that HEMA is rubbish compared to the good demonstrations of Eastern martial arts that they have seen.

If the demonstration is athletic, technical and impressive, then the audience will be impressed and will probably believe that HEMA can be a reasonable martial art and a good athletic activity.

If the demonstration is poorly organised or poorly choreographed, then the public will struggle to perceive the group (and HEMA) in a positive light.

Decide how you want to be perceived, and make sure the clothing, equipment and general look of the demonstration works towards building the desired perception amongst the audience.

Conclusions

Public demonstrations are a wonderful way to recruit new students and to spread awareness of HEMA amongst the populace. They can work spectacularly well to develop the name of a club in the local community. However, they also have the opportunity to build negative perception and bad publicity for a club and for HEMA in general.

When planning a demonstration, there are two questions that must be considered:

1) What are you trying to achieve when you run this demonstration?

2) How do you wish to be perceived by your audience?

Once you have an answer to these two questions, you can plan and construct a demonstration to achieve these goals, and it will be more likely that you deliver the correct message to your audience.

I hope this article has been helpful, and I hope it stimulates thought and discussion within clubs about how members wish the club to be perceived by the public. If you have any notes or suggestions, please leave a comment below – I would love to hear other points of view on the subject.

Notes

[1] – Discussing the Krumphaw is fine, if your audience is interested in the longsword, already knows something about the Krumphaw, understands that it is a complex and divisive subject, and knows something about the different masters. Otherwise anything you say will go over their heads and it would be a silly activity to include in a demonstration.

A ten minute footwork lesson for smallsword may be perfectly reasonable – in a fencing class, where students need to practice to improve their footwork. If footwork is often perceived as boring by the participants, then it is going to be perceived as even more boring by an audience!

An exercise of strength is cool, but it is meaningless if people have no point of personal reference. Yes, strength and stamina training has a place in HEMA training. No, it does not necessary have a place in demonstrations, because it is an area of personal development and is not for the benefit of spectators. An exception would be examples of “feats”, such as those performed by the Victorians during public exhibitions:

http://www.fioredeiliberi.org/phpBB3/viewtopic.php?f=31&t=17662&p=314312

[2] – This is a common public perception, often held by people who have seen poor quality HEMA performances and who have not been impressed with these performances. If someone sees a good karate performance but a poor HEMA performance, then naturally this person will assume that karate is better than HEMA. To give HEMA the best opportunity to be recognised positively by the public, HEMA demonstrations have to be just as good as (if not better than) demonstrations of Eastern martial arts.

[3] – Sometimes it is for the benefit of your partner, sometimes the sparring exercise can be tweaked to achieve different goals, I am aware of this. However, the way that most people undertake free sparring outside structured class time is for personal development, and this is also how beginners participate in sparring until they learn how to use sparring to achieve different outcomes.

[4] – Being able to refrain from “seeking the touch”, being able to tolerate “losing” repeatedly, and having the skill to make even motion correct yet large and exaggerated enough for an audience to see means that this activity may be beyond the skill of newer or less able practitioners.

[5] – It is not a problem if you look how you wish to be perceived. If you want to look like Olympic fencers because that is most suitable for what your group does, then this is not a problem, and you should strive to meet this goal.

If you do in fact engage in live action role play and merely inform some of your fighting practice using the historical European treatises, then it is of course most reasonable to look like you engage in LARP! It would be unreasonable to look like anything else, since then it would be misrepresenting your group to people who might want to join.

However, if you do not want to be perceived as a particular group of people, but dress like that group of people, then this will be the problem when an audience naturally assumes that you are in fact the group of people from whom you would wish to distinguish yourselves.

For example, in our Academy of Historical Arts in Scotland, we do not want to be perceived as historical re-enactors. We have no problem with historical re-enactors, but we do not put on massive encampments or battle re-enactments for the entertainment of the public. We practice historical martial arts for the purpose of developing our own abilities as martial artists. Therefore we take pains to look different from historical re-enactors – we do not use chainmail as protective gear, we use modern padded gloves rather than steel gauntlets, we use fencing masks rather than closed steel helmets, we wear a uniform of modern clothes rather than allowing people to turn up in medieval tunics and large, baggy, colourful trousers. As a result, people in Scotland are beginning to distinguish that HEMA exists as a separate activity from re-enactment, and people treat us as martial artists who practice for our own personal development rather than expecting us to drop everything and put on a show for the public.

Visual cues are important, and you have to look the way you want to be perceived.