Fencing is a strange study in contrasts: it’s simultaneously kind of badass and a bit nerdy. It’s a sport that’s mostly about hitting people and largely conducted in French. Perhaps most surprisingly, as I learned in my recent foray at the Rhode Island Fencing Academy and Club (RIFAC), fencing is swordplay in which the swing of the blade is somewhat incidental to the action.
I arrived at RIFAC’s 12,000 square foot facility, tucked away in an unassuming East Providence neighborhood, and was immediately impressed by the level of activity: there were kids of all ages taking lessons, seasoned fencers sparring with peers and enough swordplay to rival the set of Game of Thrones. Coaches Alex and Jill Ripa have quietly turned RIFAC into the epicenter of competitive fencing in Southeastern New England; Alex was even named the United States Fencing Coaches Association’s 2015 Coach of the Year.
Jill invited me to jump into the recent eight-week Adult Beginner course. I was coming into the middle of a cohort of first-time fencers who were already well into their training, so she told me I would first need a quick crash course on some of the basics. That meant attempting to learn six weeks of fencing in just 30 minutes.
She quickly took me through the building blocks of an attack: a series of simple poses, footwork and movements that combine into a coordinated dance intended to keep your opponent off-balance and get your blade past their defenses. Contrary to the swashbuckling stereotype of fencing in pop culture (like Cary Elwes and Mandy Patinkin’s famous face-off in The Princess Bride), the sport is really about efficiency and economy of movement. The blade is not actually the focus of your attack, functioning more like an extension of your hand than an implement of destruction. When you finally make a well-timed lunge to touch your opponent’s shoulder with the tip of your sword, most of the work has already been done by your feet.
A return visit to cross blades with the members of the Adult Beginner class gave me a better glimpse of the fitness side of fencing. The class began with a number of footwork warm-ups – sprints, lunges, grapevines and the like – that demonstrated how success in fencing comes as much from your glutes, hamstrings and calves as it does from the sword. These were followed by dexterity and concentration exercises like following an increasingly fast series of “advance/retreat” instructions or trying to catch a falling glove with the tip of the sword.
After we were sufficiently prepped, it was time to gear up and engage in some actual swordplay. We had the opportunity to try electric fencing, in which electrified swords and foil lamé are used to score touches according to fencing’s elaborate right-of-way protocols (which determine who gets the point when both fencers land blows simultaneously). I engaged in two bouts of first-to-five-wins with teenage opponents. I’m not ashamed to say that I was roundly defeated in both (they did have six weeks of training on me, after all). I did, however, manage to experience the thrill of hearing the buzzer sound and seeing the scoreboard light up for me a couple of times with a deftly executed parry and riposte or well-time lunge and thrust – or maybe I just got lucky.
Rhode Island Fencing Academy and Club
14 Almeida Avenue, East Providence