Maryland Bar Bulletin
Publications : Bar Bulletin : October 2005

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Practicing Before the Court
By Patrick Tandy

Sanders

Attorney Lisa Sanders (right, in pirate boots) giving a fencing demonstration with other members of the Calvert-Arundel Swordsmen at the 2004 Maryland Renaissance Festival

The driving force behind obsession is seldom easy to explain.

Attorney Lisa Sanders understands obsession. She’s had a few, and she will readily defend them – the Scottish broadsword standing against the back wall of her suburban Upper Marlboro office leaves little doubt of that…

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“I think most people really do think that swordplay is lightsaber-type stuff,” explains Sanders, who, along with her 11-year-old daughter Cecilia, has been mastering the sport of fencing for the last year-and-a-half.

“It’s not really swashbuckling, per se; it’s a lot more precise,” she adds. “I saw a documentary once [about] James Brown and how every movement he makes is a signal to his band for something else they’re supposed to do; even though it looks to the audience like it’s all very spontaneous, it’s actually all very planned-out. Fencing is a lot like that. That’s why we spend a lot of time on drills: so that stuff becomes second-nature, so that you don’t have to spend a long time thinking about it.”

Sanders’ interest in fencing had actually originated a few years earlier (seven or eight, by her recollection), following a fencing demonstration she had seen at the Maryland Renaissance Festival (www.rennfest.com) in Crownsville.

“I had thought about doing it then,” Sanders admits, “[but] at the time I was living in Prince George’s County, and it wasn’t nearby and I didn’t know anybody else who did it.

“About three years ago, we moved down to Calvert County. Last year, we went to the Southern Maryland Celtic Festival (www.cssm.org), and once again, the same group was there, doing a demonstration. It turned out that they met at one of the elementary schools near where we live, [and] I said, ‘This time, I’m going to do it.’”

The serendipitous group in question turned out to be the Calvert-Arundel Swordsmen (http://www.houseofhate.com/cas/cas_main.htm), an organization that promotes training in and knowledge of fencing, particularly in an historical context. Now, twice a week, Sanders and her daughter hone their skills in foil and sabre – the first two of three basic weapon-stages, respectively, that define the sport (the third is épée). Last April, they attended their first competition, the Cherry Blossom Open, hosted by the US Fencing Association (www.usfencing.org) at the University of Maryland, College Park.

“I just thought, ‘Hey, let’s go see what it’s like,’” Sanders recalls. “‘Just remember, we’re here to have fun; we’re not trying to win or anything – which is a good thing. Cecilia, who was 10 at the time – she came in last. She was the youngest person there. I mean, there was nobody else under 12, and I felt really bad for making that her first experience. But she was a trooper, and she had a good time with it. Most of the kids there were college [age], so they were serious, you know? There were a smattering of folks my age and up, some of whom had obviously been fencing for a long time and were very good at it. [There were also] others who were just starting out like we were.

“What I like about the club that we’re with is that you don’t have to be into the competition,” Sanders admits. “If you just want to learn how to fence, you can just learn how to fence. So much of the stuff now…if you want to take horseback riding, they want to get you ready to show. If you want to dance, they want to get you ready for competition. If you want to play softball, you have to hit the tournament circuit or whatever.”

And besides, competition is not the only route for the serious fencer.

“The core of the group also do reenactments, so they’re more into learning classical fencing, different time periods,” Sanders explains. “Some folks are interested in medieval. Some people are more interested in Renaissance. Some like the 18th Century.”

As for Sanders herself, well…working with the Swordsmen has earned her admission to practice before a court of an entirely different nature…

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“I have this interest in medieval and Renaissance English and Scottish history,” explains Sanders, who has been making annual pilgrimages to the Maryland Renaissance Festival with her family for more than a decade. It is an interest, she explains, that was first sparked in earnest by the movie Braveheart, Mel Gibson’s biopic on Scottish national hero William Wallace. “I had to know more about that time period, and from that…it just kind of grew. I’d read one book, and then I’d go, ‘Well, I wonder what happened after Robert the Bruce – what then happened with Scotland?’”

Outside of reading, Sanders quenches her curiosity by taking part in the Swordsmen’s annual recreation of the Scottish Court (under the meticulous direction of Swordsmen “maestro” Greg Davis) at the “Ren Fest”.

“It’s strict reenactment, so it’s all very period-appropriate,” she notes. “Greg likes us to do some research, pore over what people would wear. Reenactment folks are very serious about being appropriate – like you can’t wear polyester, because it didn’t exist. So you’ve got to go get your natural fibers. Certain colors weren’t around.

“Two or three times during the day we’ll have a fencing demonstration where we have to go get out of [our costumes] and get into our fencing gear, then Greg goes through the history of swords and sword-fighting and fencing. We do the little demonstration on the stage, and then we go and put all our stuff back and put on our [hoop skirts] again.”

However, participation in the Scottish Court required a good deal more than tailored period costumes, or even knowing how to fence.

Sanders
I'm originally from Toledo, Spain...
and for some reason I left Toledo to go to dark and dreary Scotland!


Lisa Sanders

“We all have to develop a character with a story that we can go talk to any patron at the Ren Fest about,” Sanders explains. “When I first told Greg that I wanted to do it, he said, ‘That’s fine – [but] you just have to know [that] I really like things to be accurate, so it can’t just be that you’re pretending you’re in the Scottish Court. You have to have a reason why you, as a black woman, would be in the Scottish court.’ So I did my research, and I came up with my story: I’m originally from Toledo, Spain, the daughter of a family that converted from Islam to Christianity more than 200 years previously. My husband was the youngest son, so he was able to marry for love…and for some reason I left Toledo, Spain, to go to dark and dreary Scotland!”

Beyond the reenactment, Sanders saw additional value in assembling the back story of her alter-ego, Catherine Gordon, wife of the seneschal to the Earl Marischal (Lord William Keith) of Scotland.

“[It was] something that my kids and I could research together,” she explains. “Now they’ve learned something about it. In turn, we learned a little bit about medieval Renaissance Spain, which we hadn’t known about. Now we’re spreading it out into France, to learn a little bit more about France during the same time period – trying to hook those two up. So we spend a lot of our spare time on either reading history books or historical novels.”

Sanders also remarks on the growth that she has seen of the Renaissance Festival itself.

“When we first went, [there were] smaller crowds,” she recalls. “The crowds have grown over time, so I think the word has kind of spread. The Maryland one is actually considered one of the better ones in the country…because it is a mix of enough family entertainment that people don’t feel that they have to shield their kids’ eyes, but there’s enough of what I’d call adult humor going on to [keep the adults] entertained.

“There are Goths who show up…some people come dressed like Lord of the Rings. You see a variety of little girls dressed like Snow White or Cinderella. You see people come in everyday clothes who just kind of marvel at the whole thing. I’ve noticed that the crowd has gotten a little more diverse, too, with different ethnic groups coming. I used to go and everybody was of more European extraction. Now, more people come because they realize it’s fun. It’s more than, ‘Oh, let’s all run around and pretend we’re English.’”

♦♦♦

Since taking up fencing, Sanders has developed a keener appreciation for the nuances of the sport: in competition, reenactment – even in the movies.

“You look at [a movie] and say, ‘Well, that’s not real – who told them [to do] that?’” she jokes. “Honestly, most of them are very serious duels, as opposed to fencing, [but] you do pay a lot closer attention to what they’re doing.”

She punctuates her words with a laugh. “It’s like watching a movie about the law: ‘Yeah, like that would be taken care of in an hour!’

“In a way it’s like practicing the law: coming up against an opponent that you may not have dealt with before. Sometimes you learn something new, and sometimes you teach somebody else something.

“I’ve always had a few eccentricities,” she adds. “I guess it’s something of the kid in me that wants to go play dress-up.”

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Publications : Bar Bulletin: October 2005

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