Diet By the Sword
By MARY TANNEN
I am trying not to think what Freud would say about this roomful of mostly women brandishing big sticks. At Equinox on Broadway and 19th Street, we stand in rows facing a mirror, eyes trained on our wooden swords as well as on our leader, Ilaria Montagnani. Moving to the beat of music that sounds like rhythmic jackhammering, we squat, lunge, slice and slash. The class is called Forza. The footwork is simple, and there are only 13 sword moves. The difficulty comes in making each cut precise, putting the whole body behind the swing and controlling the stick.
Montagnani’s weapon and body move as one. Although I try to mimic the harmony and economy of her motions, I can’t help noticing that my stick is on its own trajectory. There’s an alarming amount of flailing, and I even strike some shelves behind my head. Montagnani has cautiously taken aside the neophytes before class to watch as they practice. There are no “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” acrobatics in this class, I was disappointed to discover. Montagnani explains that the movie featured an intricate Chinese style that extends over time, with much jousting. The traditional Japanese swordsmanship, iaido, on which Forza is based, is “linear, precise — one stab and it’s over,” she says. “It’s very calm, and then quick.”
Forza, Italian for “strength,” is the creation of Montagnani, who is in fact Italian. That said, there is no dolce far niente in her demeanor. With her fair hair, hazel eyes and military stance, she looks like a small, feminine Prussian officer.
“I’ve been a martial artist since I was little,” she allows, but since she was a proper Florentine young lady, she was not sent to karate lessons but for ballet and piano instruction. All that she learned about martial arts came from books until she left for the States at age 19 to study. “I was driven,” she says. “It was the entire focus of my life.” She earned her black belt in karate, then took up the sword, attracted by its “beauty, grace and power.” She had to train with a wooden sword for 11 years before graduating to the real thing. “And then you inevitably cut yourself,” she says. Because of the terminal nature of this kind of fighting, you do not practice with an opponent. You judge your skill by the sound of the blade as it slices through the air.
As her training in martial arts required that she spend hours executing the same moves over and over, Montagnani hit upon the idea of setting moves to music and of fashioning the moves into aerobic routines. She hatched Powerstrike, kickboxing against an imaginary opponent, which is now registered all over the world. Forza came next, with the idea that students could begin with one-pound swords and graduate to heavier weights. (Montagnani trains with a four-pounder, but after an hour of lifting and swinging, I felt one was plenty.)
In addition to teaching 20 hours of classes a week, Montagnani trains instructors worldwide. The sport is a hit in Scandinavia: “They’re good athletes, not soft. They like regimentation. South America and Italy don’t have the correct frame of mind. It’s not for everyone. It requires focus.”
Montagnani has made a DVD, and the wooden swords, called bokken, can be obtained in Chinatown, so theoretically you could become a sitting-room samurai (after carefully clearing the area of bric-a-brac and kids). But there’s nothing like being with other grunting, sweating, slashing acolytes to keep your mind on message.
Outside the glass studio at Equinox, people are trudging on StairMasters and lifting weights. They probably think we are the frivolous ones, but Forza, if done right, is supposed to burn 500 calories an hour, while working arms, legs, back and abs. And you can imagine lopping off heads and disemboweling enemies, which adds a certain passion you can’t bring to weightlifting.
Later, over cappuccino, I tell Montagnani that if accosted in a dark alley, I think I’ll be able to defend myself, as long as I have access to a big stick. Looking a trifle discomfited, she confesses that she was accosted by a man in a crowded subway recently. Though armed, she did not use her sword: “It would have been devastating for him.” Instead she yelled and shoved like any civilian, and no one even looked up.
Well, at least I am burning calories; I’ll be able to eat a doughnut. But Montagnani, who has no discernible body fat, is drinking a small skim and looking wistfully at the pastry selection. “I’m in training,” she explains. I’m beginning to see that it will take more than a couple of hours a week of stick waving to get to look like her. You must live by the sword.
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