Just the thought of fencing usually brings up images of days gone by with dashing men in leggings, capes, boots and feathered hats fighting to protect a damsel in distress. While historically much more serious in nature than many movies and writings portray, there was always a poetry of movement as well as a distinct code of conduct used in fencing and sword work throughout history.
In modern fencing there is still the same sense of athleticism and artistry, but safety and protection of the combatants is also paramount in the sport. Both men and women can learn to fence and many programs are available for children as well. Fencing is still a very popular sport in Europe as well as in North America with training offered through specialized schools as well as through classes and self-instruction programs.
The sport of fencing also has some very unique terms that designate specific footwork and body positions as well as what is known as blade work. Getting to know these terms, which are taken from a variety of languages including Spanish, English and French, is sometimes a bit challenging. However, knowing a few basics is all that is required to get started in watching or learning this fascinating sport.
The following are important terms to understand when watching a fencing match or learning about the sport:
Foil – a very lightweight, thin weapon the foil is blunted at the end but otherwise very traditional in shape and styling. It is can be either traditional, also known as dry or steam, or it can also be electrical. Electrical foils allow scoring when they touch the vest that triggers either a point of the hit is in a target area or just records a touch if it is outside of the target area. The target area is basically the torso with the arms and head excluded.
Épée – most substantial than the foil, it is still considered a thrusting weapon . Like the foil it is now used in the electric form for scoring in most competitions. It can have a standard grip or a pistol grip and has a much larger scoring area than a competition using a foil.
Sabre – the largest of the weapons the sabre is considered a cutting weapon and therefore not just the end of the blade is used for scoring. It is a bit stiffer in the blade than the foil but still moves easily from side to side and is not a fixed blade. The target area when using this weapon is everything above the waist.
Advance – this is the traditional movement used to move forward, front foot first followed by the body. The weapon is held forward parallel to the ground.
Lunge – the most common forward movement in the attack the lunge basically places the front foot flat and forward, knee bent, with the weight of the body and the thrust of the weapon following with the straightening of the rear leg. The torso and head are held erect giving the look of power and control in the attack.
Reprise – a second attack that comes very quickly following a lunge. It is a quick maneuver that often is designed to counter a parried initial thrust.
Attack – extending the arm holding the weapon towards the opponent with an intent to make a connection with the target area.
Bind – forcing the attacker`s blade to opposite direction by using the guard and forte of the defender`s blade.
Right-of-way- when two points are scored at the same time the individual that started the attack has right-of-way which means only his or her point will count. If you bend or break the position of the arm in the attack you may lose right-of-way and leave yourself open to a counter-attack.
Counter-Attack – an attack that occurs after the opponent began an attack. It is a new action, not a result of a self-defensive movement. Depending on the type of competition it may result in a loss of right-of-way for the opponent if "breaking the arm" occurs.
Riposte – the attack immediately after deflecting or parrying the initial attack. It is a new move, not a continuation of the parry.
Salute – before and after the bout or competition each participant will salute the judges, each other and the other`s involved in the operation of the tournament by touching their blade to their head. At the end of the match opponents will typically also shake hands in addition to saluting. In some competitions refusing to salute at the beginning or end of the bout results in lost points.
Cards – yellow and black cards are used to indicate penalties in the match. Black cards result in immediate expulsion from the event and is typically only given when disregard for safety is noted.
There are many very specific terms used in fencing that are unique to the sport. Reading, viewing online videos with commentary or watching online or televised fencing bouts and matches is a terrific way to become familiar with these unusual and very exotic sounding terms.
For those just starting out equipment can be supplied by the trainer or training facility, but having your own isn`t going to be costly. For training and non-competitive events the typical clothing for fencing is a cotton or nylon and is uniformly and traditionally white in color. Instructors can wear all black uniforms in very traditional types of events and competitions. Instructors also wear less padding and often heavier protection since they are much more likely to be struck in non-approved positions when working with novice students. New rules in competitions allow some variations in uniform colors from the traditional black and white and even allow some sponsorship advertising in very specific areas and sizes on the uniforms. In competitive events Kevlar or other puncture resistant fabrics such as Dyneema are required to prevent injury in matches.
The basic clothing includes a chest protector, which is lightweight plastic, which provides puncture prevention over the lungs. Women are required to wear this protector while men have the option to wear it or not. Over this a pastron is worn which protects the area immediately under the armpit of the sword arm to prevent a parried sword from possibly slipping between the protection of the jacket when the arm is raised in the attack position.
Over both of these items is the form fitting jacket. This jacket is held down in place by a strap that goes between the legs and attaches to the front and back of the jacket. The jacket has an extra fold along the throat area to provide protection and prevents the tip of the blade from sliding up the jacket to hit the neck. When competing in electronically scored bouts and matches there is an additional lamé or very lightweight electronically conductive material that goes over the jacket to designate the target hit areas for scoring. Any hits outside of the lamé do not score and are not counted.
The sword had wears a glove both for grip and protection. The glove has a wider, long sleeve worn over the sleeve of the jacket that stops the blade from sliding up under the arm of the jacket and injuring the skin.
Long socks that go up to the thighs are worn under the breeches. The breeches are held in place by suspenders and are tight around the tops of the calves just under the knee. Shoes are flat and are specially designed to support the foot from front to back when lunging and moving rapidly. The soles are not typically gripped to maximize the fencer`s ability to move fluidly over the mats.
A mesh metal mask is also mandatory with the bib also very strong and made of a heavy duty plastic. In some types of competitions a newer visor type of face mesh can be used instead of the traditional metal mesh. The metal mesh mask is worn during practice and is typically not removed, just the face protector flipped up when the individual is not practicing, sparring or competing.
Training And Classes
There are some private classes for fencing available in most major urban areas, sometimes in conjunction with colleges, sporting clubs and private fencing groups. Since there is a definite style and flow of movement in a fencing match it is important to consider taking lessons to develop the form that is required. Learning things the wrong way can actually cause you more problems, especially if you ever want to reach the level of competition.
Many classes that are offered for children and adults provide all equipment necessary, at least at the novice and first levels. Once individuals get into the sport buying your own equipment and even having specially made weapons is highly recommended for competitive levels.
Within the United States there are three divisions of NCAA sanctioned fencing teams from a variety of Universities and colleges. Often these universities and colleges also offer training to the community or may be involved in working with youth training programs through schools or through summer camps and training opportunities. While typically focused on the eastern to central part of the country there are also programs in the southern and western states as well.
If you want to combine athletic ability with high levels of very artistic types of competition then fencing is a sport or hobby you should definitely consider. Although not as popular as it once was, fencing continues to be a great sport for teaching a wide variety of skills including balance, control, sportsmanship as well as individual skill development and teamwork. Popular in both the United Kingdom and Scotland, fencing continues to draw new people to the sport around the world.
Getting started in fencing isn`t costly or time consuming, but it does require a commitment to learn and to focus in on all aspects of the sport. Working with an instructor in private lessons, joining a fencing club or group or taking a course is highly recommended right from the first move you attempt. While you can learn on your own from DVD`s, self-instruction videos and even online tutorials getting the correct form often requires someone to evaluate your position and moves and give you helpful, positive and encouraging feedback.