I went into this semester resolved to take a gym class of some sort. Not because there was some requirement, not to get extra credits, but just because the opportunity was there.
I had always had an interest in fencing, but never joined the fencing club that started up the end of my last year of high school. Maybe I liked the idea of poking someone with a blade, or I thought that fencers just looked really cool.
I’m taking fencing this term as an hourly class twice a week for one credit over at FitRec, and it’s definitely as cool I imagined it. I enjoy the mind games that you have to play with your opponent to psych him out, to make him miscalculate, to make him become overconfident and set himself up for disappointment. I like the rising tension during the approach, and how time slows down as your mind speeds up during an attack. You’re always thinking, always alert, judging your opponent’s distance and reach in comparison to your own.
Which, I will admit, is usually an unfair balance for me. I’m rather short, and with short height comes short legs and short limbs. Compared to taller guys, I have little in the way of reach, and can cover less distance when retreating, advancing, or lunging.
Reach matters quite a bit in our first exercise. Before we’re allowed to hold a blade one class from now, we’re practicing everything else: footwork, right of way, and tactics. Instead of using a blade, we’re using a glove. This is saber fencing, which normally allows any kind of hit above the waist. For this exercise, we loosely wield a glove and have to try to hit each other in the chest or back.
To exemplify right of way, a fencing concept in which an attacker’s hit has scoring priority over a defender’s hit, we take turns attacking and defending. The attacker is allowed an advance and a lunge, during which the defender can make up to two retreats. Once the advance and lunge are taken, the roles are switched.
There is no blocking allowed, and actions can be of any length, so you do not have to take a full advance or a full retreat. This turns the exercise into one primarily about tactics and distance. The two fencers start out a good distance from each other, and advance closer while taking their turns. The object is to get your opponent to misjudge the distance at which he can hit you, so that he lunges and barely misses as you are retreating, ending up right next to you. Once that happens, he’s practically giving you the point, since you are now on the attack and can easily hit him.
In practice it rarely works out that way for me. Being rather short, I have a rather significant disadvantage in terms of reach and movement in this exercise. Since the attacker is only allowed a single advance, with their lunge not advancing them very far (only extending their reach), a defender with two retreats should actually be able to increase the distance between himself and the attacker, resulting in fencers drifting apart from each other if they take full retreats.
This is not so in my case; in fact, the taller people in the class can actually still hit me even if I make two full retreats, and I’m hard-pressed to hit them if they take two or even one full retreat.
I therefore have to be sneaky to win. I have to take my attack immediately after they finish theirs, to get them off-balance and to get them to make mistakes. I have to keep our distances under my control.
I want them to back off more than they should thinking that I’ll advance, putting him out of reach. I want them to not advance as far as they should to hit me, thinking that I’ll retreat.
Feinting to achieve those results is difficult, to say the least. It’s absolutely thrilling and absolutely tiring. You’re moving all the time, and if you’re not moving, all your muscles are tensed, and if your muscles aren’t tensed, you’re probably going to lose the point. After a dozen bouts, you’re caught up in a exhausted but focused trance where you forget about the half dozen matches around you and only see your opponent. All you see are his movements, his reactions, his responses to you toying with him and his frenzied attempts to try and outmaneuver you.
And just like that, it’s over. The world rushes back to me and I’m smiling, being a good sport and laughing with my opponent about how he just barely caught me. We walk back to our sides of the room, take a slow breath, turn around, assume a ready stance, and the world slowly dissolves once more as we begin our approaches.
I’m not sure how I’ll do with a blade in my hand, but I can’t wait to find out.