On one side of the dance hall, twenty five men with swords. On the other side, twenty five women with swords. Whispered talk slowed to a halt, the few spectators moved safely up on the stage, out of harms way. Both sides were tense, waiting for the signal to begin.
It didn’t happen overnight. It took a lot of work to get our numbers up. The thursday fencing class had faded over time, down to a low of only four regular students. The only reason we were able to make rent was that those of us with good jobs were kicking in big chunks of cash, way over the $5 drop in fee. I was making good money, so it was a habit to just drop a handful of twenties in the cash box.
But it was no way to run a practice. We needed to pick the numbers back up. Yvonne Delory and I were the ones currently in charge of the practice, and it was our responsibility. The previous guys running the practice had dropped it on us as a favour, oddly enough. It was a chance for us to prove to the fencing community that we had leadership ability.
So we took up the challenge and ran with it. We spent weekends and dinners hashing out plans, and stretching the patience of our spouses, but we hit on some good ideas. We started to offer a more focused training program, something more than just the show-up-and-fight it had turned into. We made a concerted effort to bring back the old fighters, people who had dropped out and moved on. Yvonne knew all of them, so she started phoning up and harassing people to come back.
We kicked things into gear by hosting a championship tourney…which still continues today. It’s kind of amusing, since we made up the format of the tournament for the sole reason of giving the two of us an opportunity to practice our tourney mindset. It worked pretty good, leading Yvonne to a provincial level championship, and me to a string of second-places. A lot of other people went on to bigger and better championships. It was a hell of a training environment, and I miss it dearly.
We started to notice a funny thing happening as things started to roll into gear. It was subtle at first, and then more noticeable. The more organized the classes got, and the more professional the fighting and fighters got…the more female students we got. There had always been a small core of women fighters at the practice, but now there were new faces…and lots of them. I kept track of the numbers. It wasn’t unusual for our classes to hit fifty students on a busy night, and we were easily averaging 30 a night. We were getting closer and closer to a fifty-fifty split of male and female students, too.
It was a summer night when it finally happened. We had the doors open and there was a lovely light shining in. The heat was almost bearable. I went over to the cash box to do a head count part way through the evening, making sure everyone had paid up and signed their waivers. Fifty students. I looked up, and counted out the students in class…and realized it had happened. Twenty five men, twenty five women. We had achieved true sexual equality in our fencing class! Obvious this called for war.
It was the only way to celebrate our achievement…a melee. An open field battle, men versus women. It wasn’t really a fair fight. Most of the men were experienced fighters, and the women were mostly new. But, still…there was a definite, serious kindergarten rivalry feeling in the air.
The masks went on, and the battle started. There were speedy charges, lines of fighters shoulder to shoulder holding their ground, brilliant displays of technical prowess, bravery, and self-sacrifice. More than a little stupid blind luck, good and bad. The fight swirled all around the hall. The men started with a three to one advantage in skill, and should have rolled the women up easily, but it didn’t happen. Things sometimes don’t happen the way they should, but eventually the sides were winnowed down to five men and two women, then three men and one woman, and then one man and one woman…Me and Yvonne faced off, the last survivors of our sides.
Want to know who won? Ask someone who was there…
We managed to successfully attract and keep so many female fighters by following a few simple guidelines. The first was professional conduct at all times. That meant making sure our classes were challenging and well planned, and our instruction clear, confident, and responsive. Having a strong woman in a leadership role was key, and we made sure to promote other women as leaders when they showed the ability. We did make an extra effort with female students, but only as much as was needed to counter the disadvantages they came into class with. Feminism made a lot of good changes to our culture, but women still have a lot of societal baggage to deal with. We accepted that for a lot of women, just coming through the door for the first class was meeting us half-way, so we put in the extra work that was sometimes needed. But once the initial hurdles were dealt with, everyone was treated the same.
Those were good days, and the lessons seem to have carried forward to most of the local school and practices. I should probably try to get out to some of them, one of these days…