Sworded Activities

May 26, 2004

by Carolyn Boyd

Article about fencing A faceless figure dressed in white is coming at you with a sharp sword. Your heart is pounding as it tries to stab you in the chest, the shoulder, the arm. It keeps going. Then, just as the blade is about to pierce your stomach, a voice shouts “halt”.

It’s the stuff bad dreams are made of – unless that is, you too are kitted up in a mask, chest plate and jacket and are wielding a weapon at a fencing class. Here, when someone is coming at you with a foil, you give as good as you get.

Eminent epees

You don’ t need to be able to recite the names of all three musketeers to know that sword-fighting has been around for centuries. Winston Churchill, Karl Marx and Grace Kelly are all known to have fenced. More recently, Madonna played a fencing instructor in the Bond film Die Another Day, in which she had a go at piercing Pierce.

And given that the sport is far more interesting than sweating it out at the gym, it’s no surprise she was willing to take lessons to prepare for the role.

Known by some as physical chess, fencing presents the challenge of learning technique and strategy (something that requires much concentration) as well as fantastic exercise for your arms, legs and stomach. It’s this combination of a mental and physical workout that makes it so popular. New York is teeming with foil-fighting fanatics, while the number of clubs in the UK is growing fast.

‘There was such a demand at the other club I fenced at, that I started up my own club,’ says our teacher and founder of the Salle Gadaski school, Tim Gadaski. In the days of the old Soviet Union, Tim represented Russia in competition against the other states of the union, so he knows his cut from his thrust. An artist by day, he’s been teaching fencing part-time for ten years.

Buckle my swash

Two nights a week, in the hours before the disco divas hit the dance floor, the place is filled with the clash of crossed swords. They have converted their cloakrooms into ladies and gents changing rooms, you can use the swimming pool and, if you’re thirsty afterwards, you can head to the bar. ‘Fencing is a really good way to meet people,’ says Tim, ‘ so we were keen to emphasise the social element of the club.’ And sociable it is, though it does seem ironic that 400 years ago your aim was to leave your opponent dead, rather than meet them for a beer afterwards. In the days when D’Artagnan, Athos, Porthos and Aramis were swashbuckling their way around France, Tim explained, they would have used their cloaks to shield themselves. In their right hand they would have held a foil, and a dagger in their left. These days, however, your left hand is held aloft behind you and, instead of a cloak and plumed hat, you’re protected by a black mesh mask and white canvas jacket.

Foiled again

For the ladies, there’s a not-so-attractive moulded plastic chest protector-something I was glad to be wearing when my opponent’s foil went slightly askew in the early weeks of the course. Thankfully, over the eight weeks of lessons, everyone’s aim improved and, by putting together the various attack and defence moves we learned, we finished the course with a mini-tournament-the first player to reach five points wins the game. I finished somewhere in the middle but at least, it seems, I’m now getting the point.

Fictional Fencers

Alexandre Duma’s novel The Three Musketeers was first published in 1844. Set in 1625, the story tells of young D’Artagnan, who arrives in and offends the three musketeers. The four become friends when together they defeat five of the Cardinal’s guard. Some 20 film versions of the legend have been made, most notably the 1973 version with Oliver Reed as Athos and Michael York as D’Artagnan.

The swashbuckling masked swordsman Zorro made his first appearance in the story The Curse Of Capistrano (1919) by Johnson McCulley, which was published in the pulp magazine All Story Weekly. Since then, there have been numerous books and stories about him, while he has appeared in some 40 films including The Mask Of Zorro in 1998 and The Erotic Adventures Of Zorro in 1972. Isabel Allende has just finished her version of the ‘classic’ Zorro novel tracing the background of Diego de la Vega while a sequel to The Mask Of Zorro begins filming this year.

Recent additions to the fictional fencers include Johnny Depp and Orlando Bloom in Pirates Of The Caribbean, while Dumas’s The Count Of Monte Cristo got its 18th outing with James Caviezel and Guy Pearce in 2002.

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London Fencing Club is the best and the busiest fencing club in the UK providing coaching and training facilities for more than 300 regular members and hundreds of adult beginners. We also offer fencing classes for children, after school clubs and team building events. The Club employs eight Fencing Masters of the highest calibre.