How do I learn fencing?
June 15, 2005 11:12 AM   Subscribe

So after reading The Speed of Dark by Elizabeth Moon, I've become interested in learning fencing.

Where do I begin with this? What should I read up on? Are there beginner classes that I can take? Specifically in the Chicago area. Any mefi fencers out there? I'm in relatively good physical shape and the only other sport I play competively is tennis, how long would it take me to pick up the basics of the sport?
posted by corpse to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (15 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Response by poster: I just wanted to add that it seems like a beautiful sport that combines athletic ability and mental focus on the individual basis. All of that appeals to me when looking for hobbies.
posted by corpse at 11:31 AM on June 15, 2005

Best answer: Begin with You should be able to post there and locate a local club. The first priority is learning good footwork. When they were young, our coaches are fond of telling us, they used to require students to spend six months learning footwork before they had the privilege of wielding a weapon. Uphill both ways on the piste I'm sure. Often clubs will hold a free group footwork class, or experienced members will drill footwork with you. Strive for smooth, graceful footwork. No bone-jarring thumps, or herky-jerky movement. You will give away your intentions and give yourself overuse injuries.

When you are ready to pick up a blade, start with foil, preferably with a french grip. Learn to hold it with the tips of your fingers with delicate fingerplay before you progress to the pistol-grip for serious bouting. After a time, experiment with the epee to see if it suits your temperament. The less said about sabre the better ;). Invest in a quality uniform and mask. It is safety gear, and accidents do happen. Uhlmann and Allstar are the best. Individual instruction is essential, and your choice of instructor will be a limiting factor on your progress. There are many incompetents posing as instructors out there. If you learn from one of these, you will set yourself back and be forced to spend time unlearning to progress. You want someone who's students have proven themselves in competition, and that probably means european.

Tennis and fencing are quite similar, especially in footwork and psychology. Don't be in a hurry to actually bout, the longer you take with preparation the more solid a foundation you will lay, before you begin developing the bad habits that bouting inevitably instills. Seek out more experienced opponents, and thank them for the lessons they will inflict on you.

For reading: Modern Fencing by Michael Alaux is an excellent primer.
The A-Z of fencing is an great reference filled with anecdotes of the rich history of the sport.
The Tao of Jeet Kune Do is required reading for venturing into competitions. Bruce Lee borrowed heavily from fencing texts, and added martial arts experience for a potent brew.

Good luck. I fenced avidly for fifteen years, and while I've moved on to other sports, I recommend it wholeheartedly.
posted by Manjusri at 11:57 AM on June 15, 2005 [1 favorite]

I only took it briefly, but from what you've said it sounds like a good match for you. It involves a lot of deep lunging and good hand/eye coordination, which any tennis player should have already. I found it fairly easy to understand the basics, but very challenging to perfect. The hardest part for me was the lack of other beginners to spar with, I didn't learn anything except humility from my more experienced opponents.
posted by cali at 12:11 PM on June 15, 2005

The less said about sabre the better ;).

Heathen! corpse, just go straight ahead and start on the sabre! You'll find that you'll love it.
Ok, so I joke a bit. You should start with foil, as Manjusri says, but if you find that you want to move on, choose either epee or sabre, depending on your temperment and your physical shape (taller fencers make better epeeists, generally speaking).

Enjoy the sport, it's a fun one!
posted by Inkoate at 12:42 PM on June 15, 2005

I took fencing at a local community college, which tend to be pretty cheap for residents. I notice that Truman College has fencing courses.
posted by modofo at 12:48 PM on June 15, 2005

I fenced in college at the University of Chicago. If the rules are the same now as they were in 2000-04, you won't be allowed to fence there unless you're U of C affiliated. However, Chicago gets its coaches (or used to) from the Chicago Athletic Association, which has some gorgeous gym space downtown and last-I-checked had memberships (for the gym) and fencing lessons at fairly reasonable prices. Start there.

(Alternatively: I got into fencing when I was in high school in Indiana and there were no real classes we could get into, so my friends and I just got together and paid a fencer at the university to give us private lessons once a week. I'd bet there are fencers at Northwestern (which has a varsity team) or Chicago (which does not, but usually has some very good fencers around) who would be amenable to a similar deal).
posted by willbaude at 1:22 PM on June 15, 2005

Oh, and I feel the need to contradict Manjusri above. I fenced foil for years in high school (started doing nothing but footwork for months, then the french grip, then, eventually, the pistol grip, blah, blah). I switched to the sabre in college, and it is a different world. Sabre is faster, rougher, and a little more painful, and bad sabre fencing, of which there is plenty, is ugly, nasty, and unrewarding. But high-level sabre is far more rewarding than the nonsense of the other weapons. So keep your mind open as you investigate the weapons.
posted by willbaude at 1:24 PM on June 15, 2005

Best answer: I agree with most of what Manjusri said, but not necessarily with the bit about starting with foil. I fenced in college, and due to my height and what was needed on the team I was put straight into epee. The shorter folks generally found themselves going right to sabre, though of course not always.

In any case, the choice of weapon is moot, for a while. You'll need to start with some basic lessons/classes, so you'll be taking whatever's offered at your local club and concentrating on footwork/strengthening for a while. First step is to FIND a local club. In Chicago, maybe this one would work out? Or check with local colleges, maybe.

The good and the bad of fencing is that the right club is crucial. I fenced for a summer in San Diego and had a great time with Cabrillo Academy of the Sword down there. After college I moved to San Francisco and found a club that was pretty unmotivated and kind of standoffish. It was ok, but I eventually found another sport I liked better (kung fu) and moved on. A club that fit my personality more might have kept me in the sport longer. A good club can be a great social outlet as well as a way to fence.

Fencing, it should be said, is an expensive sport. You can start taking basic classes without much expenditure, but if you go very far with it you'll end up spending a few hundred dollars on equipment, and doing a lot of repairs (or paying to have them done) routinely.

I developed some back problems (diminished disk in my back) while fencing, but I think I was destined to have them anyway. No one else I know had those issues, though there was the occasional dislocated shoulder or chronic knee injury. You WILL, however, end up with one arm/leg stronger than the other, regardless of how much you try to train the other side.

One last comment: fencing is a GREAT sport to take up later in life. In this case by "later in life" I mean "after the age of 15". In college I was able to make the varsity epee squad by senior year as a sophomore-year walk-on. I'm not bragging -- I really wasn't all that talented. It's just that the pool is smaller due to it being a pretty unknown support. Plus, although it's physically demanding, a huge component is mental, so older folks with lots of skill can still kick a lot of ass.

Have fun!
posted by gurple at 1:26 PM on June 15, 2005

bah, change "support" to "sport" in my last paragraph up there....
posted by gurple at 1:36 PM on June 15, 2005

Seconding Inkoate (and, on preview, willbaude and gurple): just about everyone starts with French-grip foil to learn the basics, but you should take your teacher's advice as to which weapon to continue with. I fenced foil at the Santelli school from ages 13-16 or so and then switched to saber at the direction of Miklos Bartha, my maestro and that of many Olympians, who felt it better suited my aggressive style. At 6'3" I could have been competitive in epée as well but just wasn't interested - and it was extra fun to be a tall sabreur! Then I fenced saber at Brandeis but didn't really like the program and left it in sophomore year and I'm afraid haven't fenced since.
posted by nicwolff at 1:40 PM on June 15, 2005

BTW, our former upstairs neighbor Jonathan was a fencer. I think I still have his phone number somewhere if you want it.
posted by jennyb at 1:41 PM on June 15, 2005

Best answer: There's a lot of good advice here, so I'll try not to repeat most of it. Foil is the foundation for all weapons, so you'd probably benefit most from starting with foil and getting a solid grasp of it before you move on to other weapons. From the FAQ:
Foil is the most common starter weapon. It is an excellent weapon to begin with if you have no preferences or want to learn generalized principles of sword fighting. Transitions to the other weapons from foil are relatively straight forward. Foil is an abstracted form of fencing that emphasizes proper defense, and cleanly executed killing attacks. Historically it was a training weapon for the small sword, so it is well suited for the purposes of learning. However, it is far from a simple weapon, and many experienced fencers return to foil after trying the others.
As it goes on to say, it can be good to start with other weapons, but if you're planning to try different weapons it's most useful to start with foil (IMO).

Fencing really works your upper legs, so doing exercises to build leg strength is helpful. I second Manjusri's advice about good instructors, though an instructor doesn't necessarily have to be European to be good. My instructor is a graduate of San Jose State University's Fencing Masters Program, a program well respected both here and abroad. An instructor who was trained there or who has a US Fencing Association/US Fencing Coaches Association certification is probably qualified to do the job. If you can, observe a class at the club you're considering before you join. A good instructor will concentrate on instilling new students with the basics rather than on getting them into tournaments. (Like Tom in Speed of Dark.)

I'm not in the Chicago area, so I can't vouch for them, but here are a couple of local clubs:

Chicago Fencing Club
Chicago Athletic Association Fencers Club

I just finished reading Speed of Dark myself, and really enjoyed it. A caveat, though: modern fencing is not entirely similar to the style described by the book. Most notably, we use only one weapon at a time, rather than two-handed duelling combinations. That said, a lot of what Moon wrote rings true, especially when she talks about the mental components of the game. It's a beautiful sport and a lot of fun, especially for someone who can appreciate that part of it.
posted by Aster at 1:45 PM on June 15, 2005

One more point that I don't think has been mentioned above: grip strength is essential to fencing. I'm sure it's the same with tennis, so you're probably in good shape there, but it couldn't hurt to get a couple of those grip thingies and work your forearms in preparation.
posted by gurple at 1:51 PM on June 15, 2005

I fenced in college, mostly sabre, but didn't compete. As has been mentioned before, don't expect to pick up a weapon for a while. Expect your legs to feel like jelly those first few lessons. Be concerned if you have knee problems - you're going to be in a partial squat much of the time. And, be aware that guys can get full chest protectors, just like the ladies.

Well, not just like...
posted by Sangre Azul at 2:59 PM on June 15, 2005

Agree with above, especially about starting with foil, as foil was always designed with being a training weapon in mine.

Also, Sabre is not fencing. :)
posted by absalom at 3:07 PM on June 15, 2005

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