Today we’ve got a treat, a guest post from the talented and dangerous Kaja Sadowski! Enjoy! -David R. Packer

Not long ago, Randy approached me with a request for a guest post “either on being a female fighter or on being a left-handed fighter — whichever one you’re more comfortable writing about.” As I tried to sort out which of the two had had a greater impact on my experiences as a fencer, I realized that they were simply two sides of the same coin. Instead of focusing on one aspect of what makes me unusual, I’d like to use this space instead to talk about the importance of integrating the things that make me different from other fighters into my practice.

I’ve been very fortunate not to be on the receiving end of much overt sexism within the WMA community, but what I have noticed is that my fighting tends to be judged on an aesthetic level that is rarely applied to male fighters. Where a man might get singled out for being aggressive, or intimidating, or a hard hitter, or a “good” (meaning successful) fighter, I’ve developed a reputation for “pretty” fighting and good form (wink, wink, nudge, nudge sometimes included). People talk about watching me fight because I move in ways they enjoy watching, not because I win lots of fights or pull off hard moves.

This used to drive me crazy. I wanted to be known for my aggression, my drive, my ability to win, goddammit! “Oh that’s pretty” was something I thought of as denigrating my performance, of shifting focus from the martial side of rapier to the formal.

It’s only recently that my perspective has changed. I’ve come to realize that the “prettiness” of my fighting can give me some interesting advantages.

I’ve been working on my cutting game recently, and one of the key abilities to develop with cutting weapons is the building and breaking of rhythms — pushing your opponent to develop certain expectations of what you will do next, and then defeating them by acting otherwise. The same thing happens on a broader scale in any fight, with any opponent. When our opponent steps up to fight, we size up their shape, their stance, how they move, how they hold their weapon, and use these and any other physical cues we can pull together to build our expectations of how they will fight. A few passes in, this mental picture develops further, and we start to have a clear idea of how Fighter X fights (the best among us can do this far faster). If we can anticipate them, understand their habits and rhythms, we can win. If our mental picture is incomplete, or inaccurate, and they can surprise us, we’ll find it a much harder fight.

In my case, I can use my reputation to build certain expectations in my opponent. If they think that my primary strength is formal, “pretty” (especially if pretty brings up gendered connotations of passivity, weakness, non-competitiveness, etc), then it’s going to be one hell of a surprise if I turn out to be an aggressive, hard-hitting fighter. If someone expects flow, but gets speed instead (or, better yet, as well), I can throw them off their game for the split-second I need to score a hit.

One night, after a good sparring session with a friend of mine, she admitted that I’d gotten in a few of my hits because she’d been so distracted by the aesthetics of my movement. I suppose it’s the corollary of the boob advantage for those of us more endowed in the leg department. In any case, that aspect of my fighting that was driving me crazy for not being “martial” enough had given me a serious martial advantage. Since then, I’ve actually started working deliberately on enhancing the “pretty” factor of my fighting.

Being a lefty has been a training challenge since I took my first class at Academie Duello almost 3 years ago. In a group lesson, your instructor and the majority of your fellow students are going to be right-handed, and you (or they) will constantly have to translate guards, cuts and other movements into shapes that are useful to you. This gets particularly interesting during drills, where some actions that work beautifully with two right-handed fighters just don’t work at all if you throw a lefty into the mix. Having you or your opponent switch hands to make the drill work “the way it’s supposed to” works in a pinch, but ultimately makes it useless for combat — I’m just never going to have the time to switch my sword to the other hand and swap my stance on the fly if I see my opponent setting up an action I’ve learned to counter.

As frustrating as it could be, the most valuable lessons came when my partner and I toughed it out and tried to adapt the drill to our asymmetric configuration. Sometimes we’d make it work, and others it didn’t work at all, but in either case it forced us to think not just about what we were doing, but why we were doing it. What principles of force, or direction, or momentum made the action or the counter effective? What body positions did the drill exploit? Depend on? In order to adapt a drill to work with different sword hands, we first had to understand the principles of what made it work.

In the end, I think I internalized the foundational concepts of what I was learning a lot faster and more thoroughly because I had to think my way through every drill that way. I’ll never be able to perfectly replicate a plate of Capo Ferro’s Gran Simulacro in my natural fighting posture, and fighting left-handed in the first place makes me a poor historical recreationist, but I can work out why the figures in that plate are doing what they are doing, and how I might apply those principles to my own practice — and that makes me a better fighter.

Whether it’s been my femininity or my left-handedness, I’ve had to take an aspect of myself that made me different, and that I initially saw as a hurdle to my development, and to integrate it into my swordfighting practice in a way that strengthens me. These are not weaknesses, they are not really (or not only) problems: they’re tools that I can use to improve my own learning and my combat effectiveness, and I’m grateful for them.

I’ve spent the past year learning to listen to my own body and to develop a fighting style that, while it integrates historical principles, ultimately has its foundation in my own body mechanics. I’ve still got a very long way to go, but I’ve come to realize that a critical component of my development is taking the things that distinguish me — for good or ill — and integrating them into what I do. It’s hard enough to accept an aspect of yourself that frustrates or challenges you; embracing it and building it into your practice is even harder. It’s also absolutely vital to learning to fight not as some idealized combatant from a technical manuscript, from the pages of a historical text, or a favourite fantasy novel, but as yourself — only faster, stronger, and better at hitting people with a pointy stick.