[Mark Donnelly]  
Three Bartitsu Workshops taught by Mark Donnelly at Steampunk World's Fair 2011
report by Rachel Klingberg

I. Introductory Bartitsu

My first and much-anticipated experience with Bartitsu was at Steampunk World's Fair in May 2011, under the masterful guidance of Professor Mark Donnelly, who taught three workshops over the weekend. The first was the "intro" session. Despite pouring rain and several location changes (which was the trend for all SPWF events that weekend), there was an excellent turnout when we ended up under the awning of the driveway in front of the hotel. I am not exaggerating when I say that people are simply champing at the bit to learn more about this elusive martial art, for which there are only a handful of instructors with in-depth expertise.

Given the time constraints of a 90-minute workshop, Professor Donnelly presented a brief tasting menu of the four primary aspects of Bartitsu: savate, Vigny cane, pugilism, and ju jutsu, while somehow managing to also explain what Bartitsu is and share some background information about its history. He also conveyed a basic principal of Bartitsu: to disturb your opponent's equilibrium while preserving your own. It is clear that he is a highly experienced instructor with an innate sense of the progress of his students and the proper framework and timing of each segment. He employed a Victorian bobby's whistle to draw our attention to the next topic with historic flair. It was a real pleasure to watch him and his assistants demonstrating. Any possible misconceptions about Bartitsu being a dainty and foppish form of stage combat were quickly erased as Professor Donnelly demonstrated several brutal takedowns, savate kicks, and painful locks with the cane. His assistants gamely took their hard knocks and fell onto the wet concrete with good cheer.

When learning a new martial art, previous training is both a burden, in that it's hard to avoid using the techniques of what you already know, especially when you've spent thousands of hours drilling them, and also an advantage, in that you already have the basic biomechanical knowledge of human anatomy and movement. As I expected, the savate kicks were not terribly difficult for me to grasp, given my previous Systema training. Although the kicks are delivered from a greater distance than a typical Systema kick, there is a similarity in the posture and the sort of pendulum movement that keeps the spine aligned with the kicking leg so that the torso is never bent.

The stick work, predictably, was the hardest for me to grasp. I expected that and didn't feel disappointed at being so rubbishy at it. In some ways it was refreshing to have a martial experience in which I was completely clueless; being a more advanced student of Systema has made me less absorbent than when I was a rank beginner. The main differences with Systema stick work are distance – Systema, as mentioned, preferring to keep a closer range rather than a ‘lunge and parry' rhythm – and the footwork. The Systema principle of "flying center of gravity" in which the feet are never firmly fixed and balance is constantly shifting from one foot to the other, is a bit different from the Vigny cane stances and lunges. The feet are wider apart and the body structure much more firmly fixed than I was accustomed to. I found it extremely challenging to keep my rear foot on the ground during a lunge, instead of constantly shifting weight in the light-footed Systema way. I began to think it might have to be beaten out of me but I've spent years learning Systema, so I expect it's going to take years to learn Bartitsu as well.

There wasn't enough time for more than a tantalizing taste of Vigny cane before we moved into pugilism. Once again the common element of human biomechanics with which martial artists are familiar provided a little background for me. In the 19th century pugilism, the arm is not turned as the strike is delivered; the knuckles remain parallel to the body rather than turned upward. Backhanded strikes can also be delivered with the knuckles parallel. Professor Donnelly explained that this makes it easier to keep the fist aligned with the wrist to prevent breaking one's own hand or wrist as the strike is delivered. This makes sense and Systema strives also to keep the wrist straight and aligned with the fist, although turning the fists as the strike lands is perhaps the more usual method of delivering a Systema strike, we certainly make use of strikes with knuckles parallel to the body as well.

I had to dash back to my friend's car to pick up the postcards advertising the NYC seminars, so I unfortunately missed a bit of the pugilism segment. Shortly after I returned we moved onto the Ju Jutsu portion, with simple wrist lock as defense from a one- or two-handed grab to the lapel or wrist. This was familiar terrain for me; many different martial arts employ joint locks and I daresay this wasn't new material for any other martial artists in the group. Naturally it's easier to do something with which you are already familiar, and it's often more satisfying, but my true goal was to learn the unfamiliar material, no matter how clumsy and incompetent I felt with the cane work, that was what I was most anxious to practice. But the workshop was over all too soon; further study would await.

(no photos of introductory workshop because my camera isn't waterproof!)

II. Bartitsu for Ladies

Bartitsu for Ladies, and Men in Frocks, was restricted to women, although transgender women were also welcome, which was a nice inclusive touch. My male Systema friend was so keen to learn more than he attended as an observer and took many notes. For the introductory session, I had worn a loose striped blouse and knee breeches for maximum mobility, but for the Ladies' workshop on Saturday morning, I dressed in my longest and most restrictive skirt – the one that I regularly trip over simply going up and down subway steps. I carried a ruffled umbrella rather than a stick – an inexpensive repro that I would not have minded getting dinged up.

[Mark Donnelly]
Mark Donnelly, Professor di Armes, taught three Bartitsu workshops at Steampunk World's Fair 2011. Here he is beginning the workshop for ladies with his assistant Alex.
  [Mark Donnelly]
A demonstration of defense against hair grabs. If memory serves, the instruction was to clap your hand over your attacker's to prevent him pulling out your hair, then apply a lock.
  [Mark Donnelly]
At first glance it may seem as if Alex has the Professor, but a closer look reveals it is the Professor who has Alex in a tight joint lock. In fact he can throw him at his convenience. Notice the position of the right leg and its extension which prevents the Professor's spine from being bent.
Professor Donnelly explained the differences between attacks on men and those upon women. Statistically, men are more likely to be struck, or grabbed and struck, whereas women are more likely to be grabbed, held, and sometimes these methods are used for abducting or conveying to a secondary crime location (a very dangerous place to be, and one which any woman should avoid being taken. If you are going to be hurt, better it be in a semi-public place than hidden away where no one can find you). Once again he showed us several exciting demonstrations. The first technique he demonstrated was shifting the weight back into a firm stance and shouting "stop" at an approaching assailant and extending the palm as a barrier. As he explained, this wasn't necessarily going to stop an assailant, but would in all likelihood cause him to hesitate for a moment.

These are the first two of Barton-Wright's three fundamental principals of his method of self-defense: "1. To disturb the equilibrium of your assailant. 2. To surprise him before he has time to regain his balance and use his strength." In this way, Systema and Bartitsu are alike in affecting the assailant's psychology as well as his physical movement.

The next step was taking advantage of the few seconds we gained by rotating left and right foot to move in and apply leverage to the chin to take the assailant down. We practiced on our partners, without actually taking them down. I don't think most participants had martial experience so the overall approach was fairly gentle.

We also practiced savate kicks, and he demonstrated how such kicks could stop an assailant in his tracks. We practiced kicking to the shin, lightly of course, but Professor Donnelly explained that we'd want to kick to the knee or ankle. "Kick upward to the knee, downward to the ankle," he instructed. One of his assistants, clad in Irish riot gear to protect his shins, walked around to let us try delivering powerful kicks to his protected shins. I asked if such kicks would be felt through leather riding boots and he assured me that they would. In fact, they had to upgrade their shin guards to the riot gear because catcher's shin guards, which can stop a 98-mph fastball, were not sufficient protection against savate kicks.

[Mark Donnelly]
Hair grab from behind, demonstrating covering the attacker's hand with your own to save yourself from being controlled by the hair, a painful grab against which no-one with hair is invulnerable.
  [Mark Donnelly]
The biomechanical principles of breaking a wrist hold.
  [Mark Donnelly]
It takes a surprisingly little amount of torque to control a man with his wrist, demonstrating Barton-Wright's principle of applying pressure to the joints in such a way as to render the assailant unable to resist.
Professor Donnelly demonstrated why the parasol or umbrella, unlike the stick, was a poor weapon for striking along the edge, demonstrating in an amusing fashion how an old lady at a bus stop might ineffectively beat a young whippersnapper with her brolly. The fabric and flexible metal spines simply collapse and a beating with a parasol would hardly stop anyone. Instead he showed us how to use our parasols as bayonets, holding them like a rifle to thrust into the soft parts of the body. "Use the walking stick against the bony parts, the parasol tip against the soft parts," he instructed. We couldn't practice this too intensely, as obviously it would be far too painful, but we did get a good sense of how the parasol point could do a lot of damage. He also demonstrated how the hooked end of the parasol could be used to trap the joints.

Basic joint locking principles, as found in many martial arts, were demonstrated to defend against grabs to the wrist and the lapels. These were designed to be easy to learn and employ. Little strength is needed to lock the wrist as compared to the shoulder or elbow. I found it helpful to use the turning of my body to apply pressure to the joint, as suggested by my Systema training. However biomechanics are not unique to Systema. As Barton-Wright described as the third essential principal of his system, "If necessary, to subject the joints of any parts of his body, whether neck, shoulder, elbow, wrist, back, knee, ankle, etc. to strains that they are anatomically and mechanically unable to resist."

The last technique he showed was a very nice way to use the parasol as leverage against the shoulder, elbow, and wrist, to defend against a grab. By rotating the parasol and slipping it under the attacker's shoulder, you can lock and torque the arm, forcing the person to bend over. Applied correctly, it can also lock the wrist. From there you can take the person down or hold them – Professor Donnelly demonstrated actually sitting on his attacking assistant – until help arrives. Of course you can also break their arm and hope that causes them to lose motivation. In self-defense situations you must do what is necessary to preserve yourself and even though the idea of breaking a person's arm is distasteful to most people, it is not unnecessarily brutal when applied to a person who has assaulted you. I've accidentally broken four bones and have recovered nicely from each of them, so a broken bone is hardly going to ruin a person's life. It might not even be enough to stop them, depending on their level of pain tolerance and overall craziness. But hopefully it will make them think twice about attacking a lady again.

[Mark Donnelly]
It is control and not destruction that is the hallmark of a 'gentlemanly' system of self-defense. Bartitsu can be applied with as much gentleness or brutality as appropriate to the situation.
  [Mark Donnelly]
A simple wrist lock was demonstrated to free yourself from a grab to the lapels.
  [Mark Donnelly]
With this painful wrist lock, the Professor can "belabor him as he sees fit," conduct him to the police, or simply escort him out of the room.
Naturally the Professor had explained that running away is always a good option if it's available, and that self-defense should only be employed when escape is not possible. It never benefits anyone to fight when a fight can be avoided. You may survive and prevail, but the chances of getting hurt are still pretty high.

I must say that most ladies make excellent students. They were attentive and respectful, and put their best effort into learning the techniques. Fewer women assume they already know what they need to know about fighting. There is not as much ego or competitiveness, and women are willing to approach the learning experience with a blank slate and are eager to absorb as much as possible. Forgive my gender bias but the gents, as much as I love training with them, sometimes assume they already know how to fight and are merely looking to add a bit of polish to their presumed skills.

All too soon the ladies' workshop was over. I went back to my hotel room to change back into knee breeches, Chinese slippers, and a loose chemise for the highlight of the weekend's training: the advanced workshop.

III. Bartitsu for Martial Artists

After some momentary panic at being unable to find this workshop – it wasn't where it was supposed to be, as was often the case at the Fair – I called Professor Donnelly and fortunately he had not yet begun to teach, so he answered and advised me the location. We were once again in front of the hotel in the driveway, but the sun was shining this time. The workshop was designed for people with previous martial arts experience. Quite honestly I'm not sure how many attendants actually fit into this category. A surprising number of people had some variation of sword training, either through SCA, modern fencing, Japanese swordsmanship, and other variations. But I don't believe more than a handful had experience with hand-to-hand, grappling, wrestling, striking, or any style that involves closer contact or takedowns. Which is no matter, as they were intrepid enough to give it a whirl so more power to them. Professor Donnelly instructed us not to employ whatever techniques we already knew from our previous martial arts, and I resolved not to let my Systema creep into this new experience.

Vigny cane was the first order of the day and the Professor showed several solo movements, explaining that it would take many hours of practice to acquire proficiency in simply handling the stick, much less using it effectively. He showed us how the hand and wrist, not the fingers, maneuvers the stick, and how to retract and extend the elbow to generate the movement. Forwards and backwards, keeping the stick in an even line, as if ascribing a hoop parallel to one's body (not a cone shape), as well as from one side to the other, with the ascribed hoop perpendicular to the body. Putting these all together, he demonstrated slashing and striking with lightning-quick movements. I was thinking this was all quite daunting and rather difficult, when Professor Donnelly remarked, "I did say this would be the advanced workshop." He explained that we'd need to spend many hours of practice just to get comfortable with the stick.

The Professor kindly asked me how I was making out and I confessed to finding the Vigny cane work new and strange and being quite rubbishy at it. I did feel as if I was perhaps the worst of his new students at Vigny cane. Not that I was discouraged; learning new skills is always a bit rocky at first. It's just that for many years now, I've been one of the most advanced Systema students in my class, so it was a new experience to go from being the best to the worst. But as a martial artist it's good to shake things up now and then.

Professor Donnelly cited now-familiar Bartitsu training quotes: "Disturb your opponent's equilibrium while maintaining your own" and, once control has been achieved: "Belabor him as you see fit." We practiced several combinations, blocking, hitting the head, the elbow, the knee, and then the Professor allowed us to try combining them using a bit of our own creativity. The Professor showed us the double-handed guard and had us try that out briefly before moving onto using a combination of blows to the head and elbow and locks to the leg. By slipping the stick between the opponent's legs against the upper thigh and applying downward pressure, you can topple a person. Using the cane to apply leverage to the joints is familiar to me, so combining it with the unfamiliar cane strikes did make the unfamiliar a bit more palatable.

We practiced wrist and shoulder locks as defense from grabs, somewhat similar to the parasol lock we had done in the ladies workshop. I was partnered with a former Systema classmate who happens to be a steampunk as well. That was helpful because we were able to take each other down. I sensed some hesitation from the other participants to fall on the concrete, whether because the ground was dirty, or simply because it was hard, I don't know. Systema is perhaps somewhat unique in insisting that all students learn to fall on, at minimum, hardwood floors, but at best, concrete and other unpleasantly hard surfaces. This helps to keep us safe even from common household trips and falls or wintertime's icy sidewalks. Some people tend to view it as a dangerous method, but in our view, it is more dangerous not to learn to fall on hard surfaces.

So I was very pleased to see that Professor Donnelly took down his assistants and that they fell easily on the concrete. This, to me, is one aspect of a serious method of self-defense that can preserve life, as opposed to a sport martial art. I wish there was more time for demonstrations; I could have happily watched the Professor and his assistants spar for hours. Alas the advanced workshop was over all too soon.

Bartitsu was a huge hit at Steampunk World's Fair. Everyone I spoke to was tremendously excited to learn more. I do hope some of those participants find their way to the July seminars in NYC so we can continue to learn from Professor Donnelly. I'm thinking of organizing a study group, as I have two friends who are as keen as I to learn more about this fascinating martial art. With any luck, in a year or two we'll have firmly established Bartitsu training in NYC, with the support and guidance of Mark Donnelly, Tony Wolf, and the Bartitsu Society.

[Mark Donnelly]
Vigny cane gripping the stick high with fist at eye level, loaded end of the stick pointed up and back. This grip is so unlike anything I've previously studied in Systema that I don't think I managed to hold the stick correctly, much less wield it.
  [Mark Donnelly]
Here the cane is applying leverage against the shoulder for a takedown. Use of the stick to apply locks was more familiar ground to me than swinging and striking in the Vigny style
[Mark Donnelly]
The focus of the Bartitsu for Martial Artists (advanced) workshop was Vigny cane work. Notice how the opponents do not square off but rather keep the body narrow as possible with a sideways stance. This is also a typical Systema approach to stick-work as well as knife disarms.
  [Mark Donnelly]
Jesse and I working on takedowns. He has just used the stick to apply leverage to my leg to collapse me: "... subject the joints to strains that they are anatomically and mechanically unable to resist."