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Sherlock Holmes' 'Lost' Martial Art Makes NYC Premiere

By Meredith Hoffman | July 21, 2011 7:02am | Updated on July 21, 2011 7:18am

CHELSEA — Self defense was never as noble as in the Sherlock Holmes novels.

At least, that's the opinion of practitioners of Bartitsu, the "lost" martial art made famous by the author of the famed detective series, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Bartitsu fans will hold a workshop this weekend in what may be the first NYC performance of the so-called "gentlemanly art of self-defense."

"It's great for me being a huge fan of Sherlock Holmes and for many years wondering what 'Bartitsu' was," said Rachel Klingsberg, a Bartitsu student and the event's organizer.

She explained that Holmes' fighting style, written as "Baritsu" in Doyle's published stories, had puzzled scholars, who finally found in the 1980s that it was actually referring to the obscure martial arts form Bartitsu, but was missing the letter "t."

Presented by the New York Nineteenth Century Historical Society, the workshop at 34 West 28th Street invites students to "use a walking stick, parasol, jacket, and other accessories for protection."

"As far as we can tell, this weekend is the premiere of Bartitsu in New York City," said Klingberg, noting that the martial art form actually began in the late 1800s in England but never "made it to the New World."

"The most challenging thing was using a parasol for self defense," she said, recalling her first stab at the sport a few months ago in New Jersey at the Steampunks Fair, an event where people don traditional 19th Century clothes.

"I had to transition to using accessories as tools of self-defense."

Klingberg explained that Bartitsu is highly popular for Steampunks, a group of people dedicated to 19th Century science fiction. The martial art has also received renewed interest from Westerners, with more practitioners popping up around the country, she added.

"The first Sherlock Holmes movie showed him as willing to take on the bad guy in a physical and martial way. ...It caused interest in what technique he was using," she said.

At this weekend's event, Klingberg said she encourages people to wear 19th Century attire, as part of the Bartitsu experience.

"We do discourage people from wearing high heel boots...it could be difficult to practice," said Klingberg, who said 17 people have already bought tickets for the event. "But at least half of the people will be in traditional Victorian attire."

Mark Donnelly, a longtime fighter and the author of over 20 books, will lead the workshop, which runs between 1 and 5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. Donnelly earned the title Professor of Arms for founding the Society for the Study of Swordmanship in 1998, and said he first discovered Bartitsu through other forms of fighting arts.

"I'm interested in historical combat," explained Donnelly.

"I also teach 'neo-Bartitsu,' like how to use your cell phone defensively, not because it's a weapon but because it's in your hand," said Donnelly. "This is purely a self defense system. An object either becomes an encumbrance or an asset."

Students can register online beforehand or at the door when they arrive — just be prepared to pay $45 a day for the experience.