Weeks before Halloween, the Charlotte Central School gym was full of swashbucklers clad in stiff jackets, black mesh masks and leather gloves. They lunged and parried with their long, slender, blunt-tipped weapons. The gym floor could almost have passed for the deck of Jack Sparrow's ship, the Black Pearl.
But these weren't pirates seeking plunder — they were foil-wielding fencing students, ages 9 and up, gathered for their Tuesday evening class.
I stopped in to try my hand at fencing. Our instructor was Viveka Fox, who leads the Vermont Fencing Alliance. "Fencing builds flexibility, balance and strength," she told me beforehand. Evidently those virtues have broad appeal — preteen boys were the dominant demographic, but we middle-aged moms were well represented, too.
We began with stretches and exercises in a big circle, then moved on to footwork. "What's most important in fencing is how you move your body," said Fox. "What you do with your weapon is secondary." So we practiced the en garde position — feet perpendicular to each other and shoulder-width apart, knees bent, leading arm relaxed and bent at the elbow. We practiced advancing and retreating, scuttling back and forth like crabs. Finally we each took up our foil and practiced lunging forward to poke our opponent. That was pretty fun.
I asked the boy next to me why he decided to try fencing. "I like stabbing things," he said cheerfully. His friend chimed in, "Fencing's like mental chess. I like the strategy and figuring out all the rules."
According to Fox, forms of fencing have existed for thousands of years in many cultures, but modern foil-fencing dates to the 17th century court of French King Louis XIV. Complex rules, plus a high degree of hand-eye and body coordination, make it both a mental and physical challenge.
The range of experience at the gym that night was broad; there were beginners like me, as well as accomplished fencers. But everyone got instruction at his or her own level. I picked up some tips from Fox's assistant coach, Ray Schuppe, who knows what it's like to pick up a foil later in life; he took up fencing to get in shape and to be active with his family. Now he trains side by side with his teenage daughter Sharon, a member of VFA's competitive Junior Team.
By the end of practice I was drenched in sweat, and my thighs were burning from all that crouching and lunging. Fencing is a surprisingly good workout.
When the kids in the gym took off their masks, they looked confident and strong. I imagined where fencing might take them — not to a pirate's life, but to an adolescence that's assertive and focused, respectful of rules, and mindful of when to advance and when to retreat. En garde!