“En guarde!” and you’re off… not quite. The first challenge of fencing is in the getting dressed. It starts with white tight-fitting trousers. Next a plastic breast plate (generally for the ladies), then a half vest covering your right-hand chest, assuming you’re right-handed. Next is a big puffy high-knecked jacket – also in white – with a leg strap to step into to secure in place. Finally finish off with a right-hand glove, and of course the trademark bee-keepers helmet. If you haven’t been discouraged by now, you’re ready to start fencing.
Despite the ruling of French terminology in today’s fencing, the sport actually originated in Spain (sacre bleu!), was owned for a while by the Italians before being improved and claimed by the French.
There are three types of fencing, separated by their weapons and rules; the sabre, the foil and the epee:
– The foil is a light, nimble weapon that allows the targeting of the torso, but not arms or legs. A point is only scored when the tip of the weapon lands, not the sides of the ‘blade’.
– The epee is slightly heavier than the foil, and the whole body is fair game although again the point is only scored where the tip connects.
– The sabre has a fancier, wider handle and scoring is allowed anywhere from the waist-up, excluding the hands. The whole blade counts as a hit so a side swipe can also score a point rather than just the nib.
For our training session we used a foil to reduce any over-enthusiastic body hits. Before we began jabbing we did a bit of fitness to warm up, which is quickly done when dressed like the Michelin man.
When you actually get going though, I’m not entirely sure the gear is necessary and at times is a hindrance. The bee keeper helmet obstructs vision somewhat and gets rather sweaty; admittedly a small price to pay to keep your eyes.
The next most important thing is form – the left hand is extended at a right angle behind you (think I’m-a-little-teapot), apparently to aid in balance. This must be raised for the duration of your game or match. Feet are at right angles – your left pointed to the left and the right pointed forward, used to inch forward at varying speeds (also called a parry). The main variation is the lunge when attacking – when the blade-weilding right arm is extended and you lunge forward with your right leg to extend. This is where you hope to skewer your opponent if they’re not quick enough in blocking.
We did a few rounds with an opponent, taking turns attacking and defending and shuffling back and forwards across a gym hall with rather less grace than our enthusiastic trainer was hoping for. While it was fun to have a go, I’m not sure I’m sold on the sport – too much faff getting ready and very limiting in terms of movements having to maintain a strict form accompanied by French commands. A beautiful sport to master and once practised, I’m sure the techniques are fascinating but I don’t think I’m patient enough to stick to the rules.
If you fancy giving it a go, get yourself down to the Central London Fencing Club in Victoria for a two-hour tasting session. At £35 it’s not cheap so if you’re not in a hurry, keep your eye out for vouchers on London’s usual daily deal sites.