At the Fencing Academy of Philadelphia, a very old sport resonates afresh with the young generation.
In order to understand fencing, one must become comfortable with paradox. Fencing is one of the safest Olympic sports—with an origin that lies in murder. Fencers have some of the most powerful legs of any athlete—which they use to move around a narrow strip barely 15 yards long. It is a sport that requires an intimacy between opponents—while being unable to see one another’s face. Fencing demands that you move as fast as you possibly can into extremely precise positions; it is chess and ballet, poker and line-dancing, pool and jeet kune do, and it is none of those things at all.
It is swordfighting, and it is not swordfighting in the least.
I went for a crash course at the Fencing Academy of Philadelphia, down on Lancaster Avenue. The class I was scheduled to join was already several weeks into its training, so instructor Patricia Dominguez offered to bring me up to speed. Dominguez has a commanding voice, an easy smile, and a background in dance; she’s a regular performer with the Philadelphia-based ArcheDream For Humankind dance troupe. She led me through the basic movements of fencing, having me practice thrusts and lunges while holding on to a Frisbee.
Fencing, like dance, engages the entire body. If the right arm thrusts forward, the left must move to counterbalance. If the right leg scoots to a lunge, the left foot must also be properly placed. The first time I tried to do this, it felt preposterous. But once I got it right, I saw the point: Without your left side engaged, you can’t recover from the pose, leaving yourself open to attack. Lunging out is fine if you hit your mark—but if you miss, you best snap back up right quick.
“In dance, you’re working with your partner,” Dominguez adds. “Here, you’re working against them.”
That’s where fencing is perhaps the most like actual swordfighting: You’re trying your best to get the other guy before he gets you. Your swords may have blunted ends, but the fact that you’re going to survive a stabbing doesn’t change the fact that you want to avoid it. A torso is not a large target, and getting close enough to tag your partner means that you’re close enough to get tagged yourself. Speed is important.
Dominguez refers to fencing as “physical chess,” and I believe it. The same thought processes apply, the need to consider moving offensively while at the same time being aware of your defense. Fencing, in fact, has changed the way I look at chess. I’m not saying it made me a better chess player, but I did finally put my older sister in checkmate, which has never happened as long as we’ve been alive. Draw your own conclusions.
Fencing carries a particular focus. Unlike team sports, which require your focus to be split between a myriad of participants, or individual sports, where your focus is directed inward, fencing asks you to be aware of your body plus one person opposite you. So the goal of all these strictly regimented moves and poses is to automate the internal half of that process: Let your muscle memory do the work; you’ve got to pay attention to that other sword. As Maitre d’ Arms Mark Masters, the academy’s owner and head fencing instructor, puts it: “Nothing makes you pay attention like someone trying to hit you.”
So much of fencing is about reducing distraction. The masks—a relatively recent safety feature of the past three centuries, considering the long history of fencing—bring the added benefit of removing your opponent’s face from your awareness. The protective padding is uniformly white, doing away with the tribal markers that other sports cherish. The result: All fencers are identical, save how they move their sword. That’s what you have to pay attention to, and that’s all that’s left.
Fencing’s dedication to removing distractions stands in stark contrast to a world full of them. In a way, the sport’s minimalist nature is more archaic than the swords, and the people who gravitate toward it are people who crave that feeling of simplicity. Just as your opponent’s identity is obscured, you, too, put on the same mask; it’s a heavy piece of equipment, but it’s also snug, comforting. Wearing the mask, it’s easy to forget about what emails may be waiting for you, what your friends might be tweeting. The fencing mask is an all-encompassing sphere, a mesh lens through which to focus your attention on what is important.
“We get a tremendous amount of kids right now who are on the autism spectrum,” Masters says. “Fencing is one of the sports that is actually suggested for kids on that spectrum. Because they need to operate by very, very specific rules—but one of the problems those kids always have trouble with is reading facial cues. Well, in fencing you’re wearing a mask. So, you don’t have to worry about that. The mask immediately gives the individual a persona.”
The academy seemed chaotic when I first walked in, but the more time I spent there, the more I saw how focused each participant was. The swords aren’t sharp, but even the young children don’t play around with them; they’re paying attention. And they’re leaving behind such distractions as winning and losing. “You learn more by losing than winning,” Masters likes to say. And he’s right: At the end of a day of elimination rounds, everybody has inevitably lost but one person. Fencers lose bouts all the time. But they keep fighting. It’s good practice for—well, everything else.
Fencing Academy of Philadelphia: 3519 Lancaster Ave. 215.382.0293. fap-fencing.com
Jared Axelrod’s PW series, “Made New,” explores a broad spectrum of artisans, makers and thinkers who update old-fashioned practices to enhance 21st-century life. A West Philly resident, Jared is by turns an author, illustrator, sculptor, costume designer, podcaster and more.