March 27, 2011

Fencing geek

I love fencing. It's the only sport I have engaged in enough to play unselfconsciously. I picked it up while I was in the Navy, buying equipment in Singapore and practicing with shipmates on the hangar deck of my ship. I took classes in college and continued after my undergrad years in Los Angeles at the fabled West Side Fencing Center once located in the Helms Bakery Building in Culver City. Fencing is an obscure sport in the USA, but Westside was a hive of activity filled with a wide spectrum of characters from actors to accountants to geeks to Olympic athletes.

This is a pretty decent series of videos on YouTube, the European Men's Foil Team Final in 2007. I of course recommend watching all nine or so in the series. But I would be pleased if you would give this one a try at least. Fencing is hard to capture in popular media, hard to explain, it has action that is so fast that it's hard to see what actually happens, and if you track the parry and riposte, it's not always clear who has the right to score. This presentation does a good job explicating the action with slow motion and informed analysis... the Brit accent and reserve serves the action well. But I can imagine a new kind of presentation that could bring in more backstory and a better, more creative explication of the sport and the people dedicated to it, something like a cross between reality TV and a 1st & Ten (graphics system).

Here are some things to look out for when you watch a fencing match:
-Right of Way. Fencing evolved when gunpowder made armor (and broadswords) obsolete, sword fighting evolved to dueling and with the invention of the mask, fencing became an independent sport in its own right. A reflection of its history in combat and in the protocol of dueling, an extended arm establishes the right of way for fencers. Simultaneous lunges with extended arms would result in a double suicide, and this absurdity paints a defining limiting function in the sport of fencing. If a weapon is extended toward you, you have a responsibility to defend yourself. A parry gives the right to counter attack, the riposte. And the extended arm of your opponenet's riposte must be parried before you return to the attack. All judges are fiercely looking for who has the right of way, and this is not always absolutely clear to the novice as it is to the veteran fencer.

-Distance. A fencer who controls distance - the inch beyond your opponent's lunge - controls the attack, and a controlled attack ultimately delivers the hit to the opponent's torso.

-Pattern Disruption. Every fencer has a characteristic style, a particular orchestration of approach and rhythm which can be simple to complex. All martial arts are about misdirection (a feint) where the combatants establish and observe rhythms and seek to disrupt the pattern set by the opponent. Some fencers keep perfect form with the point of the sword fixed on a line to the heart, some relax their arm thus inviting an attack, some play by beating the opponent's blade in order to analyze for unconscious habit and routine, some push and close distance, some invite attack by always giving distance away, all combatants conceal vulnerabilities and position themselves to set strength against weakness. In all of this and more is the pleasure of all martial art from chess (to football- a stretch?) to actual combat. Like all sports, the effort to best another's personal best is the thrill we seek. I hope you can get a glimpse of it here.

Posted by Dennis at March 27, 2011 9:23 AM

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