Have at Thee

January 9, 2008

I went fencing Saturday, and it was awsome. You always like to imagine that you have a natural flair for these things -- fencing, horseback riding, undoing the corset of the governor's daughter in such a way that she suddenly realizes she DOES want you. But to have it confirmed? Beyond fantastic. It was a lot like "The Mask of Zorro," but with slightly fewer burning buildings.

And dammit, you can learn to fence too.

1) Stretch. Think about the standard fencing motions and then loosen up those muscle groups. For example, when carving your initials into someone's ascot, you're going to need a limber wrist. And if you run a guy through all the way to the hilt, you'll probably have to brace yourself by putting your foot on their torso to pull the sword out. Flex your arches and calves a few times.

2) Footwork. In fencing as in life, the most important things happen from the waist down. Ideally, you're hoping to keep your weight centered, your knees bent and your torso stationary. A good place to start is to be in a high school marching band, enter a series of beauty pageants, or train for Olympic ballroom dancing. Once you've done four to five years of that, you're ready for the en garde position:

Put your feet together. Turn your non-dominant foot 90 degrees to the left. Move your lead foot forward one foot-length. Then move your back foot backwards one foot-length. Keep your knees bent. To move forward, advance your lead foot a short distance, plant it heel first, rolling the foot forward. Barely lift your back foot and slide it forward to follow. To move backward, start the motion with your back foot, and don't bother worrying about the heel-toe rule. You cannot move sideways in fencing. Attempting to do so would only show your poor character, not to mention explode every ligament in your knees simultaneously. You cannot run in fencing. Attempting to do so results in a penalty strike between the shoulder blades, the prime target on all cowards.

Lunging: Many strikes in fencing begin with the lunge. Extend your sword arm as far as you can without dislocating your shoulder. Now move your front foot forward violently, if possible faking some kind of karate kick to intimidate your opponent. Shout "Ha HA!" or "Have at thee!" or "Arroint thee, wench!" or something to that effect. Lunge your body forward, with your knee ending up over top of your foot. If your knee goes past your foot, your hamstring will snap in half instantly, then roll up like a window shade. During the lunge, your back foot should remain in position on the floor. Should you find your foot wandering, take a spare epee, stick your shoe to the floor and practice repeated lunges until you feel comfortable or you pass out from blood loss in your shoe. To recover from a lunge, simply shift your weight backward, although any respectable lunge should end in the death of your opponent, and require no recovery aside from improvised motions to escape spurts of blood.

3) Sword technique. Once footwork becomes second nature (you should be able to complete a marathon in three hours using the standard fencing advance), you can turn your attention to sword technique. Most sword ability is god-given, but there are some basic strategies:

The Stab: Stab your opponent. In the face, neck, torso leg, arm, or wherever. While anyone would relish the chance to slash, hack or otherwise mutilate an opponent, the genteel art of competitive fencing only recognizes stabbing as a legitimate strike.

Parry #8: If an opponent approaches with their blade toward your leading shoulder, use a clockwise motion to first deflect their blade and then, in the same motion, cut off one of their sideburns.

Parry Alpha Seven: If an opponent approaches with their blade toward your back shoulder, move your arm across your body and use the hand guard of your epee to catch the end of their blade and push it aside. At that point, you have the option of attemting a strike on their sword arm, or shouting "For England" and then lunging your knee directly into their groin.

Ethical Dilemma: Can I Stab Someone in the Boob? Fencing ethicists have struggled with this question for centuries. In a classroom setting, it stands to reason that a man might be partnered with a woman when practicing. In these situations, is it right for a man to stab that woman in her boob? Under epee rules, the boob is a perfectly legal target, but would striking a woman there be interpreted as groping with a prosthetic aid? Or would a conscious effort to avoid the boobular region be taken as a patronizing or sexist slight against the female opponent? If you have a good answer for this, let me know before the next time I go fencing.

Non-Fencing Hand: What to do with your non-fencing hand? If you have less than cat-like balance, or if you are backing up a spiral staircase, you can use your off hand to balance. If you have respectable agility, use your off hand to constantly flip off your opponent, or perhaps tear up large photographs of their loved ones as a psychological tactic.

4) Equipment and rules. Not everyone needs protective gear, but if you're just starting out, you'll probably need to own or borrow some kind of a kevlar vest that also covers your neck. You might think that a really heavy T-shirt, something with some seriously thick cotton and a tight weave, will get the job done. But you are wrong. You also might want to wear loose pants, if only for aesthetic reasons.

The fencing mask is also useful -- while some would cringe at any compromising of their vision, a decent mask is no worse than staring through a screen door. Do not build you own mask from an old screen door, because it might not be as effective as a regular mask at stopping a three-foot piece of metal from puncturing your eye. You can tell if a mask is right for you when it sits snugly on your head, and also causes you to sweat one third of your body weight every ten minutes.

In a friendly, Olympic-style fencing environment, your sword will be attached to a sensor system which hooks into the back of your vest, thereby tethering you to the ceiling. However, attempts at Thunderdome-like leaps will not work, and likely will leave you in a vulnerable position. In a non-friendly fencing envrionment, the sensor system will be adjusted to deliver a 10,000-volt shock through your blade every time you score a touch on your opponent.

There! You know now everything I know about fencing. Go forth and give it a try -- it really is a blast. I would definitely recommend the D.C. Fencing Club, even though it appears to be a crystal meth lab from the outside.

And for the record, I won all three of my matches and mildly pulled my right hamstring. It was the best birthday present ever.

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One man's quest to be the humblest person alive
Copyright 2013, Chris White