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Forteza Fitness teaches modern and medieval martial arts (Part 1 of 2)

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The goal of this DIY article series is to prepare readers for either the next renaissance or the next apocalypse. The Forteza Fitness Center, a martial art/self-defense school located on 4437 N. Ravenswood Avenue, is a location that fulfills both those goals. It's classical western swordsmenship classes and modern self-defense courses teach skills that would help people trapped in a grim apocalyptic future of leather and motorcycle bandits defend themselves. These self-defense courses also include dueling techniques from the actual Renaissance, embodying a rich culture of self-discipline, moral guidance and artistry equal to the Eastern martial art traditions.

The Forteza Fitness Center is located in the back of a parking lot by the Lillstreet Art Center, and has an unassuming exterior. Behind this exterior lies a large wooden practice floor filled with modern and antique weapons and exercise equipment, a strange combination of gym and museum.

Wooden and polymer practice swords are stacked in barrels near the entrance, used by the medieval swordplay students for drills. Actual steel blades and spears are stacked in racks around the practice space with gentle reverence: spears, knightly longswords, tapering rapiers, small dueling shields, and more. Framed diagrams from old Italian swordmanship manuals line the walls, and in the farthest corner lies a collection of antique weight machines, medicine balls and dumbbells that are still used on a daily basis.

Forteza's not just about antique defense styles and equipment: the back section of the school has an elevated space with foam mats, modern exercise equipment and punching bags. It's in this space that instructors like Keith Jennings teach stripped down brutal 'combative' self-defense methods geared for survival in a unpredictable urban era.

Anti-terrorism inspectors, police officers, and civilians alike attend Keith Jenning's 'Edged Weapons Survival' course, which teaches stripped down, practical knife fighting techniques based on the 'Martial Blade Concepts' system created by Michael Janich, a renowned self-defense expert. Jenning's drills use a practice version of the classic fold-out pocket knife, equipped with a blunt, spatula-like wedge instead of an actual blade. Jennings demonstrated several drills with this fortunately safe knife that involved slicing at limb muscles and tendons.

The emphasis of 'Martial Blade Concept' defense, as Jennings explained, is to quickly respond to an ambush with ingrained instincts, repeatedly slice at the arms and legs of the attacker to cripple him, and then deescalate the conflict by either retreating or intimidating the enemy into retreating. To that end, Jennings paired off classmates with each other to practice Sambrada, a combat drill derived from the Philippine Silat school of martial arts.

The Sambrada is a drill that visually resembles the 'push hands' exercise of Wing Chun and Tai Chi Quan. The two participants face each other with prop folding knives and attack each other at three different angles; they take take turns blocking each other's attacks, then slicing at biceps and forearms exposed by the block. The two participants switch between attacker and defender roles in quick, flowing sucession, but to keep things realistic and unpredictable, Jennings encouraged the drill partners to occasionally lash out with a hard, fast strike or suddenly shift to the side and practice slicing at the legs.

Keith Jenning's 'edged weapons survival' course is worlds and eras away from the chivalric sword styles that other instructors at Forteza teach. At the end of his class, though, Jennings had all his students salute each other with the same gesture of respect the swordmanship classes use: they held up their training pocket knives to their face, then their chest, and then near their waist in an outward flourish.

(Next Week: a review of the Introduction to the Knightly Arts course)

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