“This is what’s happening: I’m going to hit this guy.”
Listening to Tanya Smith talk about her longsword fighting strategy is like hearing a battle-scarred general talk tactics. But looking at her, it’s kind of hard to picture how she executes it. She’s five foot two and, in her own words, has “stubby little arms” and “miniature hands.”
Outside the ring, the special-education administrator is bubbly and boisterous. But once she suits up as a real-life (albeit indoors) Brienne of Tarth, deftly wielding a fifty-inch steel sword — i.e., almost as big as she is — it’s clear she means business. Whether it’s against a six-six man or a woman her own size, she empties her head and focuses on just one thing: kicking ass.
Smith is a Historical European Martial Arts, or HEMA, fighter, part of a small circle of women who battle in ancient disciplines including German longsword, rapier, saber, and sword and buckler. They practice at the New York Historical Fencing Association (NYHFA) in East Harlem, where male fighters outnumber the women four to one.
Smith is on a mission to change that disparity. On May 14 and 15, she’s hosting Fecht Yeah, the nation’s first-ever HEMA tournament created exclusively by and for women (for those who’ve forgotten their Old High German, “fecht” means “fight”). Experienced warriors are traveling in from Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Massachusetts; on Sunday, an instructor flying in from Canada will offer lessons to introduce a batch of new women to the way of the blade.
While the tournament offers multiple disciplines, the highlight is longsword sparring, an art that resembles foil fencing but is more difficult. Long, blunted blades and armor-like black gear replace the thin, bendy swords and white cotton uniforms. As in traditional fencing, a longsword fighter lunges, thrusts, and lands blows with her sword, beating an opponent by racking up the most points in about two minutes. In this case, however, the sword weighs around three and a half pounds instead of less than one.
The fighting is fast and brutal, which makes for excellent spectating; Smith hopes that by offering something for everyone, even visitors too timid to take up arms, Fecht Yeah will be popular enough to become an annual event that inspires others like it — and, ultimately, creates a wave of women-only programming across the country. “This is one way to assert ourselves and really just say, ‘This is what I’m doing and this is how I choose to do it,’ ” Smith says. “We’re going to do it because we can.”
Until now, no U.S. tournament has guaranteed women-only matches, so if not enough women show up, they either battle men or don’t battle at all. This “false choice,” as Smith calls it, means that some women, especially those new to the sport, choose to withdraw from the competition rather than go up against men who might be twice their size. Smith wants to give those women a space to compete. “I think creating opportunities is more important than anything, whether people want to fight in mixed or women’s,” she says. “I have made a personal choice to champion women’s events. I still fight men, but I go out of my way to participate with women.”
Excitement at the prospect of an all-women tournament has spread far beyond NYHFA, across the U.S. and Europe. There’s even a guy in Serbia who’s been enthusiastically sharing posts about Fecht Yeah on social media, hoping to get women fighters near him motivated enough to start their own tournaments.
Not everyone welcomes Fecht Yeah’s feminist implications, though. Throughout her HEMA career, Smith says, she’s run into (mostly male) opponents of women’s tournaments who think that because HEMA is about technique, not brute force, women-only events threaten to destroy the integrity of the art. Male HEMAists have routinely written her privately with warnings to keep “politics” out of fighting. The messages are peppered with obscenities and threats of violence — the routine trolling that women with opinions are subjected to on the internet.
Rather than discourage Smith, though, the bile spurred her to action: “I just got to a point where I was tired of constantly being pulled under by these people who don’t educate themselves or listen, and figured I’m capable enough to plan my own tournament.”
Of course, Smith isn’t doing it on her own. The tournament is volunteer-run, mostly by NYHFA members. One of them is Tiby Kantrowitz, a fighter who will be helping out at Fecht Yeah. Kantrowitz started her HEMA training after being hit by a minivan in a crash that broke both her legs. Instead of going the traditional-sports route for her recovery, the onetime yoga instructor turned to longsword fighting for support and quickly fell in love. “It’s the flip side to yoga,” she says. “It’s easy to Zen out with twinkly music, incense, and soft light. But can I maintain the same equanimity when there’s some six-foot guy” — she’s four-ten — “with a sword who’s trying to brain me?”
At the beginning of her fighting career, Kantrowitz made a point of studying her much larger male opponents to copy their technique, but it rarely worked. One match, against a much younger and much taller male opponent, changed the tide: Instead of trying to fight like him, she says, she followed her own instincts, using techniques like explosive lunges that put smaller competitors at an advantage. She won, leaving both her and her opponent stunned. “I’d just realized that I can win if I stop trying to fight like other people,” she says. “Being me, even at my size and my age, and fighting like me, can mean I win. It was a big moment. I fight my own way, and I never give up.”
This is what draws women to HEMA: the feeling of walking out of a spar and knowing, no matter how long the odds are, that you can take on the world. Even better — you get to do it with a big sword.
The Fecht Yeah tournament runs May 14–15 at 101 Ellis Street on Staten Island. Classes are offered to women beginners on Sunday, May 15; spectators are welcome all weekend. Sign up at www.hema.events