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...Be a Fencer

Fancy yourself a swashbuckler? Take a stab at some real swordplay and find out if you're right.
Thursday Aug 03, 2006.     By Michael Foreman
Centerstage Chicago Nightlife City Guide Arts

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.

The skinny:
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.

The getup:
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.

The payoff:
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.

The commitment:
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.

The cost:
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?

Difficulty level:
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."

The verdict:
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.


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