Canne de combat classes in Columbia teach locals how to duel

This French martial art might make you feel like you've stepped into the world of Harry Potter.

On a balmy Thursday evening, the sound of sneakers squeaking and people panting fills the Cedar Lane Recreation Center in Columbia. Everyone in the room is wearing normal workout clothes, and the only clue this won’t be the typical exercise experience is that they’re all wearing shin guards.

Steve Savoie, 40, counts drills in French and puts his class through a vigorous warm-up. Then everyone in the group finds a dueling partner, and they begin to practice canne de combat (also called “la canne”), a French marital art that requires focus, arm movements and a thin cane made of chestnut wood.

“Wait a second. I’ve joined a Harry Potter dueling club”, says Eunice Loo, 28, of her first impressions of the canne de combat class offered through Howard County Recreation and Parks. “It’s a martial art, but there’s a lot of flourishing,”

Loo and her partner, Andrew Brownfield, 31, both Ellicott City residents and “Game of Thrones” enthusiasts, have attended the class taught by Savoie for just over two months. They also attend a German long sword class, the basis of the fighting in “Game of Thrones,” and have done fencing in the past. They thought canne de combat would be a great alternative and create some variety in their workout routine.

“It’s very entertaining and it’s a surprisingly good cardio workout,” says Brownfield.

Savoie’s class is friendly to all fitness and ability levels, and he’s able to modify his teaching style for those with physical limitations. In the past, he had a class participant who used a wheelchair.

“As long as you follow within the rules of the sport, you can be creative as you want,” says Savoie, who works in marketing and is a longtime martial arts enthusiast.

The majority of the class is spent working in pairs, and Savoie duels most with Laura Zeafla, 40, a software engineer by day who has been attending the class for eight years. Zeafla was part of the co-ed U.S. team Savoie put together for the 2012 Canne de Combat World Championship in France. She placed sixth in the world among women.

“It’s like a puzzle,” she says of the sport. “You have the action of a moving opponent but no bruises.”

Although the thin cane would lead some to believe canne de combat is easy, the blend of footwork, lunges and precise arm movements mean it’s a workout that can test your physical prowess. The presence of a dueling partner means you must outthink your opponent.

Plus, the swift and extravagant hand movements are a great way of tapping into your inner Gryffindor — or Slytherin. 

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La Canne

Sept.15-Nov. 3, 8:15-9:15 p.m.
Cedar Lane Recreational Facitilities
5081 Cedar Lane, Columbia