I used to think of fencing as a leisure sport of the elite. It's what guys named Roderick do when they're sick of sailing or just too damn rich to golf.
Naturally I was stoked to hear about the Chicago Fencing Club, where anyone can learn to thrust, parry, feint and flunge (read: flying lunge) with help from head coach Diana Unger. So I sallied forth for a quick how-to on the finer points of swordplay, and left feeling a lot less dashing than I did when I walked in.
People have poked each other with sharpened sticks since time began. In the 16th century even average Joes packed swords for self-defense or dueling until authorities outlawed pig-sticking your enemies in the street. The modern sport emerged in the 1800s as a less illegal alternative, and these days opponents meet on the piste, a 14x2 meter strip, to test their mettle by landing calculated blows for points.
Think of fencing as armed ballet. Whether you train with the foil, epee or saber (each varies slightly in design and weight), you'll have to strap on head-to-toe armor, including mask, jacket, glove, breeches and knee-high socks. A startup kit runs around $150, though rookies can rent loaner gear for a modest fee. Wear something cool and comfortable underneath, but nix the shorts since beginners and bare flesh invite lots of wacky, painful possibilities.
I didn't think skipping around with a three-foot skewer rated too high on the aerobic scale until the first few minutes of relentless advance/retreat drills. Yes, I huffed and puffed and sweat and stumbled, and my tender shanks quivered from holding a lunge six seconds longer than the good Lord intended. Sparring also stretches the mental muscle, honing hand-eye coordination and a split-second cunning that, at its best, makes chess look like a game of Candyland.
Wear and tear:
According to the CFC website, fencing is statistically one of the safest sports around. Most injuries fall under the bruise category (one student proudly displayed a welt dealt by someone called "The Frenchman"), and the balance challenged should look out for twisted ankles and knees. After almost eating floor thanks to a crooked flunge, the only thing really hurting was my pride.
Unger suggests starting slow with a single lesson per week. Small, structured classes let first-timers slide gently into the proper shape, increasing their comfort level before leaping into hot and heavy bouts. Expect competence sometime around year three and Olympiad-level skillz by about year six. Maybe.
Close your eyes now and imagine I have the stamina to stick with this. I could tackle an eight-week course for $100 ($80 if I own my own gear) or pay regular club dues dependent on where I fence. A year of Sundays at the Discovery Center comes to $100, while Mondays and Wednesdays at the Parkview Lutheran Church and School would cost me $30 a month or $300 a year. Now open your eyes. Isn't it fun to pretend?
Forget about strategy and Errol Flynn flair, at least at first. I had my hands full bungling the subtleties of footwork, finger placement, parrying and the perfect en garde posture (and that's on day one). Slap on a mesh helmet that dribbles burning sweat into your eyes and things get complicated. The upside: You don't need brute strength to excel at fencing, only dedication. "Don't go in with expectations," urges Unger, "and don't be disappointed when it's not like a pirate movie."
Contrary to the swashbuckling delusions I swaggered in with, it's hard to stab someone who wants to stab you back while fighting the urge to swing your foil like a baseball bat. The precise forms and cerebral stuff may scare off anyone looking for the next Tae-Bo, but a select few will appreciate the aggro elegance of the sport. Recommended for adventurous Type-A's and serious buccaneers.
The Chicago Fencing Club welcomes beginners Sundays at 10 a.m. at The Discovery Center, 2940 N Lincoln Ave., Chicago, IL 60657. August is "Try Fencing Month" where $20 gets you an introduction to the sport. Visit the CFC's website for class times and details.