Fencing

Despite the fact that it’s one of the five activities to be featured in every one of the modern Olympic Games (athletics, cycling, swimming and gymnastics are the others if you didn’t know), fencing has never become that popular with the everyday man. Perhaps its no surprise, considering the aristocratic background of classical fencing, that its modern equivalent is predominantly taught in private institutions. Since 2010, and specifically due to the 2012 Olympic Games, initiatives have been put in place to implement fencing programmes in a number of schools across the UK.

Even with the 2012 Olympic Games though, the sport still remains as one that sits outside of the mainstream, and unless you were introduced to it at a younger age you’re unlikely to get involved later in life. There are various reasons that could contribute to this. The main one is probably the fact it’s actually quite difficult to get involved with. It’s not like you can just nip to the park and have a knock about with a mate or find a class at your local gym. You need to have the right kit, you need to find one of the few places that do it, and unless someone actually show’s you how to fence properly, there’s a high chance you may actually cause some form of bodily harm.

Fencing is a very quick sport and keeping an eye on the movements of a thin piece of metal in front of you takes a great deal of concentration

Secondly it’s rare that the suggestion of fencing will ever crop up. Everyone has a mate who plays squash or tennis, they’ve probably even invited you on occasion, but very few know anyone who actively fences. Because of this deciding to give fencing a go takes a pretty concrete desire to actually want to do it, not just the fact you have nothing to do at the weekend apart from watch old Lovejoy episodes and tidy the bathroom.

My own reason for wanting to try fencing stems from a holiday I had with my parents a few years ago. It was one of those all-inclusive activity resorts where the day is a timetable of different one-hour activities; Archery at 9am, shooting at 10, maybe some boules at 11. I was pretty much on the set ofset of Hi-De-Hi! Although most of it was fairly run-of-the-mill stuff, I noticed that there was a a fencing class hidden amongst the timetable. I’d never actually wanted to try fencing save for a brief period after seeing it in a Bond film, but the 1pm session of aqua aerobics was full so I had no other choice.

Although there’s a limited amount you can be told about something in an hour, what I’d learnt by the end – as I wiped a ridiculous amount of sweat from my brow –  was that fencing is really hard. I was in pretty good shape at the time but by the end of the class my legs were burning and I was completely covered in sweat. From that point I decided I wanted to give fencing a proper go. Was I really unfit or did I just need to get the hang of it?

After a short break to plan my strategy (around two years), I finally got round to booking myself onto some lessons, a six-week beginner course at the London Fencing Club. However with two months until the course started I decided to do some initial research. I bought a book simply entitled “Fencing” by Brian Pittman to help put me ahead of the rest of the class.

I should probably point out here that trying to read anything about the techniques involved in fencing is fairly pointless unless you’ve actually tried it. Yes, you can learn about the names of things and the history as well as begin understand the rules of the game. However until you’ve actually held a fencing sword the majority of the movements are just a bit confusing. The main thing I learned is that the fencing “look” (seemingly modelled by Chuck Norris in the picture below) is a difficult one to pull-off. After practising it for half an hour in the bathroom mirror I decided to place the book back on the shelf until a later date.

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The course

The six-week course is designed to be an introduction to fencing for anyone who was new to the sport. After being greeted on the first day by our teacher Tim, a Russian fencing master whose career high points include setting up the club ten years ago and training a Russian president’s bodyguards (I have no idea which one), we were taken through what the course would entail.

The first lesson was largely theory. A chance for us to understand how fencing has developed over the centuries, the different disciplines involved and, perhaps the most interesting bit, what types of swords are involved.

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Swords

Not ten minutes into the first class, Tim brings out a pretty large bag and we watch excitedly as he opens it, pulling out a sword. A very big sword in fact. The kind of sword you’d see in a film starring Russell Crowe where he shouts loudly before impaling someone, shortly followed by some more shouting. Luckily we’re not fighting with these. Tim is in fact showing us real swords used for actual battles so that we can understand the evolution of fencing and how it’s turned into the sport we’re all sort of familiar with. Over the next ten minutes Tim continues to pull out a selection of swords from the bag, all from different eras over the last few centuries. He even lets us hold them.

The swords used for fencing are broken down into three types; foil, epee and sabre. The foil is the long thin one that bends a lot. This is the type commonly used by beginners due to it offering a good learning base for the other swords. This is the one we would begin learning with. The rules for foil fencing mean that a point is only scored when hitting the torso. There’s also inclusion of rules that allow fairer matches between opponents that may not be equal (e.g. height).

Six weeks is not a long time to get to grips with a sport as complex as fencing but it’s an opportunity to find out if you want to take it further

The epee is similar in appearance to the foil but heavier. The main difference in an epee match is that points can be scored on any point of the body, there is also no inclusion of fairer play rules.

The sabre is a wider, flatter sword where, instead of just using the tip of the blade, fencers can strike from either side of it. The rules for saber are the same as torso but also include the arms and the head.

After running through the theory of fencing it was finally time to start looking at how to actually fence. First we focussed on the correct stance, where the front and back feet are at a 90 degree angle with both legs bent in a sort of light squat. From here we learnt how to step forwards and backwards, repeating drills until we got to grips with it. If you’ve never done it before, holding this stance for any longer than a couple of minutes can start to feel a bit tough.

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From there we were taken through lunging, something which looks far easier than it actually is, especially when incorporated into advance (stepping forward) and retreat (stepping back) drills. For the remainder of the session we were taken through a variety of drills to help learn the terminology and get used to the method of movement.

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The second lesson saw is what we were all waiting for, the chance to try out real fencing equipment. Using the techniques we’d learnt in the first week we began to run through drills with opponents. As well as understanding how to gauge distance correctly to ensure the blade reached our target – trust us, it’s harder than it looks – it gave us the opportunity to work on our positioning when attacking and retreating.

For the next few lessons we delved into greater detail on the technical movements of fencing, performing increasingly taxing drills over the course of the hour. From the standard lunge and retreating (where our opponents were allowing us to land hits) we moved on to parrying (blocking their sword) and reposting (attacking after a successful parry). Once we’d covered these it was time to start actually putting them to use in a real sparring session. This is where things started to get difficult.

Simply learning the correct movements for fencing alone is difficult, but try carrying them out perfectly when someone is attempting to stick a long sword in you and it becomes quite a challenge. Fencing is a very quick sport and keeping an eye on the movements of a thin piece of metal in front of you takes a great deal of concentration, especially when half of your thought process is checking whether you’re moving correctly. Now try adding in a thick fencing jacket and a metal mask and you end up working up quite a bit of sweat (see photo below for evidence).

The beginner course finished with a mini tournament style fencing session. This allowed us to see what it was actually like to be plugged in to the electronic scoring devices used in official matches. Using epees for the first time we fought opponents in a first to ten series of matches, swapping around throughout the session. This was no longer a drill, we had to remember what we’d learnt in an attempt to win something, which inevitably meant a great deal more sweat. It also became quite clear that the abilities of the class varied wildly, some had picked up the movements and were advancing and lunging with ease. I on the other hand seemed to be slightly behind when it came to speed, still working hard to focus on my form. I did manage to score a few points but they were hard-won.

Alas, after six weeks it would appear that I wasn’t an adept at fencing, but from a technical level I’d learned an enormous amount. Perhaps the most important thing however is that it was enjoyable. Hard, yes, but great fun. The course at the London Fencing Club is well planned, advancing steadily as the weeks commence to ensure that by the end of the six weeks students have gained a good base of understanding. Six weeks is not a long time to get to grips with a sport as complex as fencing but it’s an opportunity to find out if you want to take it further.

Whether you want to try out fencing purely for fitness or have aspirations to become a GB athlete, the London Fencing Club are a friendly and welcoming lot. Details of the club can be found at there website here. Beginners courses cost around £150 but there are frequent discounts, so keep an eye on the website. There’s also information on private tuition and classes available after completing the beginner sessions.

Picture credits: www.londonfencingclub.co.uk