Saturday, May 20, 2006

I Nearly Lost My Head

Today I fenced the first half of Dunwoody FC's May Melee - and I am in so much pain. Tomorrow is Open Epee (possible B2) and Team Epee.

Fencing sabre is a lot different than the other two weapons. The distance is completely different. What may appear to be dangerously close but still safe distance in epee - is still distance in sabre. Especially since all the guy has to do is whack you. Out of the three weapons, I never would have guessed the sabre is the whippiest of them all. Even on a clear parry-riposte action, the intial attack could still wrap completely around my blade and touch me.

The best was during my DE - when my opponent was making a cut to my quarte and slashed me across the neck. My mask was knocked clean off and I almost came to my knees. Dammit - I thought I was about to give up the Quickening. My head is still ringing hours later.

If I can find a cheap helmet and lame I will probably keep up with it. It was a great time, especially since I won two pool bouts (out of six).

My only regret is that all the energy put into sabre could have been redirected into getting my D06. I lost it in a DE to a guy who was beatable, but was very tough. I've had my E for about six months or so... and I have re-earned it three times. I think I need to push myself to get to the next level.

Thursday, May 11, 2006

A Woman's Hand Stops the Blade - Mercy in the Arab World

I just read a powerful exerpt about Saudi executioners from Lew Rockwell's blog. In it, Charles Featherstone relates the story of a Saudi executioner - who beheads his victims with a sword. However, Saudi executioners are not just deadly swordsmen, they are counselors to the victim's family and often try to convince the family to give clemency. Apparently in conservative Islam, the victim's family can stop an execution at any point - even as the sword is raised above the convict's neck.

While Saudi Arabia and North Africa have horrible reputations for dispensing corporal punishment, the fact that they put clemency in the hands of a victim's family is quite ingenious. If an advocate for the accused can convince a family member that he should not die for his crime, then he certainly deserves to live.

Also interesting is that the executioner has a special sword on reserve when he must behead more than five people in a short time. Wow.

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Living By The Sword - Relay For Life

Last Friday I spent most of my night hanging out at the Pattonville Stadium in my knickers. Lovely. Myself and three fencing students from Georgia State were on site to do a fencing demonstration for Relay For Life. Basically we were a bit of entertainment for those who were out late for this event and for those who were staying over in tents on the grassy field. We were quite a site for the people even though we spent most of the night just standing around. It seems that most people have seen fencing on TV - but few have actually seen people who refer to themselves as fencers up close. A lot of the younger kids would come up to me asking about the weapons, how everything works, and of course if they could try it out. I was more than happy to talk to people about the sport, why it is a lot of fun, and to hold my $150 Uhlmann FIE epee - but you are not about to play Zorro with it.

Around midnight we were finally allowed on stage - and we fenced to the hottest beats of the 80s, 90s, and now. On a wet stage. So there we were, slipping and sliding, trying to encourage all the kids to get into the sport. I of course was stiff after standing around all night, and it was all I could to give everyone a good show - and not get my ass kicked in front of a crowd. The biggest crowd pleaser was the two sisters who fenced each other - all the moms and daughters got excited, and nearly begged for autographs after they were done.

It was a bit ironic... I was giving up my Cinco de Mayo celebration (i.e. Cinco de Drunk-o) to do this thing with a girl who I nearly yellow-carded at Rome's Clocktower Open the weekend before for trying to fence with an oven mitt. The guy from GA State was actually pretty good, and it took some effort not to look like I was getting killed - I am a pretty cautious fencer, and cautious fencing doesn't please crowds. But if it gets more people into the sport, I am all for doing it again.

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Competiting in Sabre - Hack and Slash, or Precise Art

When I think about fencing, I have two images in mind - epee or kendo/kenjutsu. I began fencing using foil, and then later added epee and just for fun - I bought a pair of shinai to practice with at home. (I'm a great date!) Sabre never really entered the equation, especially since I noticed that there were rarely a lot of sabreurs at any practice or competition I ever attended.

However, after talking with my coach, I decided to preregister for the E and Under Sabre event at DFC's May Melee. I will be borrowing equipment from an old coach, so I think I am all set. Except for the fact that I have only touched a sabre about three times, bouted with one only once, and the closest thing to practicing with my sabre has been using my shinai. They are both cutting weapons, right? Shinai fencing in kendo focuses on cutting with the right amount of force in time with the right spirit (whatever that means). I thought that would prepare me enough for and E-Under event, until I started researching historical sabre fencing.

In my research, I decided to see what General George S. Patton, a famous Olympic sabre fencer, had to say on the sport. I was shocked.
In the Peninsula War, the English nearly always used the sword for cutting. The French dragoons , to the contrary, used only the point which almost always caused a fatal wound. This made the English say, "The French don't fight fair." ...At Wagram, when the cavalry of the guard passed in review before a charge, Napoleon called to them, "Don't cut! The point! The point!"

The point is vastly more deadly than the edge. While it might be possible to inflict a crippling blow with the edge (were the swing unrestricted by the pressing ranks of the charge or by the guard of attack) the size and power of the blow is so reduced there is grave doubt it would have sufficient power to do any damage to an opponent's body, protected by clothing and equipment. And even should the blade reach the opponent, it's power to unhorse is dubious.
So according to Patton, who cares if a sabre has an edge for cutting - the thrust and the point is still the name of the game. In fact, in his famous manual on sabre fencing, not only does he not teach cutting, he doesn't teach the parry! Patton even says that using the cut in a sabre fight is akin to biting in a fist fight - it may be necessary from time to time, but not worth teaching.

Well, I have no rating to protect in this sabre event, so I am going to practice and take Patton's advice. I am sure to post my findings!

Monday, May 01, 2006

Fencing in Popular Culture

Fencing is definitely one of the most prolific sports available today. Here are some examples of fencing conquering language and film in popular culture.
  • Touché - Popularly used to acknowledge a strong argumentative point or defeat, is also used in fencing to acknowledge one is hit. Traditionally, it is the responsiblity of the defending fencer to announce if he has been hit - both in practice or if there is a dispute in competition. In my brief four years of fencing, rarely have I seen someone not acknowledge a fair touch against them.
  • Forte - This term (pronounced fort) is commonly used to describe ones strong suit or skill. In fencing, it is the thickest part of the blade, and the area of the blade used to parry an opponent.
  • Foible - A foible is the opposite of a forte in language, it is your shortcomings in your behavior or character. In fencing, the foible is the part of the blade between the point and the middle area - and it is this area you must hit with your forte to achieve a legal parry.
  • Darth Vader - Scenes of Darth Vader, the baddest and blackest man in the galaxy, slicing up mofos all over the place are burned into the minds of a generation. Few know however that a guy named Bob Anderson, swordmaster and British sabre champion, is the one under the black suit in Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi. The bladework in Star Wars is actual sabre fencing, and has inspired thousands of people to actually give the sport a try. Anderson has also either doubled or consulted on films for Errol Flynn, The Three Musketeers, The Princess Bride, and Highlander. So even while actual fencers poo-poo these movies as fake - the actors were taught to fence by Anderson before the director even shouts "action!"
  • Bruce Lee - While many remember Bruce Lee's moves in Enter the Dragon and his teachings on the two-inch punch, not many know that Lee was an avid fencer and most of the footwork from his Jeet Kune Do style is taken directly from Western-style fencing (as distinguished from kendo). Additionally, Bruce's brother Peter was a high-level competitive fencer.
  • Sunshine - This poignant movie is a story partially based on the lives of two Jewish champion sabreurs, Attila Petschauer and Endre Kabos, who tragically died in the Holocaust. Not only do you see some great fencing, it is tells a brilliant anti-state tale.
  • Die Another Day - This James Bond movie not only prominently displays fencing (although no fencer ever says "let's do this the old-fashioned way"); you can even purchase the Leon Paul uniforms and equipment used in the film.
So there you have it, a quick guide to fencing's influence on contemporary culture. And I wrote this entire post without even mentioning Zorro! See you on the strip!

Fencing - The World's First Sport

People are always surprised when I tell them that there are at least 12 active fencing clubs in the Greater Atlanta Metro area. They are surprised because the general perception towards fencing is that it is a rich white man's game. Never mind that there are many African American fencing champions throughout the game's history, or that as the sport expands - prices on everything from equipment to club dues are becoming more competitive. Much of the blame for that perception lies with the clubs and governing organizations that had color bars and other exclusionary devices. Thankfully, these devices are a thing of the past, and there are more women and minorities fencing competitively than ever before.

Another issue that has hindered the sport is its style of teaching. In the past, one was not allowed to even touch a weapon until after six months to a year of training in footwork. While footwork is the most important part of fencing (just like the ability to move the ball down the field is the most important part of football), this restriction is not how you build widespread interest in the game. If you sell the sword fighting aspect and get a weapon in the kids hand the first day - it may take him longer to build discipline, but at least he will stick around to learn it. Great bladework plus strong footwork equals fencing that is fun to watch, and that will build interest in the sport. And the US Fencing Association would love nothing more than to get a brief 10 second highlight on Sportscenter.

There is plenty of reason to start paying attention to this sport. Most popular sports have their basis in war - whether they are teaching strategic and tactical thinking, or they are building up the necessary conditioning to do battle under extraordinary circumstances. Looking at it this way, fencing is the ultimate sport - and the most intuitive. Give a kid a football, and he will not be able to throw a spiral on the first try. Give two kids a couple yard sticks, and you will see one kid do a great parry three to protect himself from the kid trying to whack him in the head. Only some refinement, discipline, and footwork are needed to turn that natural killer instinct into a proper fencing skill.

For a great fencing overview - check out Wikipedia's article.