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En Garde! Ready! Fence!

En Garde! Ready! Fence!

Words and photos by Olivia Bauso

I’ve seen the Parent Trap millions of times; as a 90s kid, it was kind of a right of passage. Every one of us has imagined what it would be like to channel our inner Lindsay Lohan and fence for the title of Camp Champ- and hopefully meet our long lost twin sister.

Knowing this, you can imagine my excitement when I’m given the opportunity to participate in Rochester Brainery’s class at Rochester Fencing Club: Introduction to Fencing. 

Before the class begins, we sit in a waiting room filling out waivers. We assume we won’t be stabbing each other or drawing blood, but it’s good to know what you’re in for from the get-go. The other participants huddle with their partners and friends while one woman buoyantly asks everyone if they’ve fenced before. The consensus is no, and everyone giggles out of nervousness. Our instructor, Christine Griffith arrives and leads us into the gym. 

We circle up on the mat, enthralled by a coach and student fencing in the corner. Christine stands in front of us with three weapons in her hand and begins to explain a bit of her sport’s history:

Fencing originated from traditional practices of swordsmanship. The purpose of the sport began as a means of refining your skills for the military in the mid-15th century, but gradually shifted towards competitive practice in the centuries that followed . In the first school of fencing, students learned standards in posture, footwork, attacking and parrying methods, along with the benefits of fencing as a sport. Though the methods vary today, the sport has remained similar in principle. 

She asks if any of us are familiar with the sport, or have even watched it in the summer Olympics. There’s silence in the room. Christine giggles, knowing this is often the case. The first regularized fencing competition took place in 1880 at the Royal Agricultural Hall in Islington (London) and was first added to the Olympic Games in summer of 1896.

Christine picks up her first weapon, naming it a “foil.” This sword is round, light and flexible, and can only hit an opponent in the chest/torso area. The next weapon she displays is an “epee.” Epee is the same length as a foil, but has a triangle cross-section- in order to theoretically draw blood from an opponent. This weapon can strike anywhere on the body. Finally, Christine shows off a “saber.” Unlike thrusting weapons foil and epee, saber is used to slash and thrust at an opponent (through Christine tells us later if we thrust with a saber, she’ll make fun of us). 

After she lays out the basics of the sport, we line up on the mat. There are several strips of green, grey, and black- the boundaries for battle. In order to learn the significance of each line, Christine first explains where the “warning line,” “en garde line,” “opponent’s warning line” and “opponent’s en garde line” lie, and proceeds to have us jog back and forth as she calls where to go. This serves as a dual lesson and warm-up.

Once our blood is flowing we stand back on the en garde line. This would be our home base when preparing to fence. Christine demonstrates the proper stance to take when preparing to fence. We are told to mimic this position whenever “en garde” is called. We then learn the proper way to “advance,” “retreat,” and “lunge” to attack an opponent. I feel like the perfect mix of a waddling duck and ballerina as a chasse across the mat.

Now that we know the basics in footwork, Christine hands out practice weapons: pool noodles on dowels. We use these as pretend foils to feel what it is like to hold something in your hand while applying the foot work.

Before using real weapons, we have to suit up. Christine brings out a bunch of plastic chest protectors, which she explains are mandatory for the women. At first I find this to be quite sexist: are women really too fragile to withstand a hit? The answer, for me at least, is yes. I later would find that I was extremely thankful for that extra layer, and would feel bad for the men who didn’t get one. Next come the jackets, gloves and masks. Everyone takes photos and selfies and cannot stop laughing at themselves in the mirror. It’s all becoming very official.

We head back to the en garde line, this time with foils in our hands. My partner had come to the class alone, like me. I feel silly but totally awesome in my gear, and find comfort in knowing everyone else is probably feeling the same way. 

We continue with drills and practice standard attacks and parrying before being given the opportunity to actually fence. We go back and forth with our original partner a few times before rotating and meeting someone knew. We all put on our best Lindsay Lohan stunt double hats and work our hardest to get the point. This goes on for about a half hour before we realize we’ve gone over the classes’ appointed end time. We take a photo, strip from our sweaty gear, and beg for more information on classes

This was truly an immersive experience that I never imagined I would get to take part in. I left sweating, smiling, and wishing for more.

Intro to Fencing will run again on December 7th! Check out other upcoming classes here.




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