Wednesday, March 23, 2005


Long ago and far away, before children and coastal moves, I studied choreographed stage combat. For about four years I was in really good shape. I could (my crowning achievement!) do a running somersault with a rapier in my hand, and come up en garde and ready for the next phrase of the fight. For one who was inevitably the last chosen for all teams at school, and would have been happier just walking around the track reading a book, this was a pretty amazing change. But then kids happened, and life happened, and some years piled on (about 16) and some pounds piled on (about 20). Still, the memory of playing with swords is always with me. I'm a pill to go to a movie with, if it has swordplay; I am easily offended by stupid fight choreography and mutter crossly.

So, last summer I decided to take up fencing again. Only this time I'm taking competitive fencing, which is like stage combat only in that they both use weapons. I thought my earlier training would be an asset, but in fact it's a pain in the ass. In stage combat you have a partner, someone with whom you work to create the illusion of great danger. In stage combat the cardinal rule, as for doctors, is: "First, do no harm." I've seen a 200 pound guy dislocate his shoulder pulling back on a cut with a broadsword, when his partner went up on the choreography and would have had his head sliced open. You're evaluated, when you go to qualify before a SAFD* judge, on how clearly you signal your blows before you make them: the quintessential John Wayne punch? Where he grabs the cowboy's shoulder, pulls his fist back to his ear, then lets fly? All telegraphing: you hold the shoulder so you know exactly where your partner's body is, and can guage how much room you have to cheat the punch; you pull your fist back to signal to the partner that the punch is coming. And if your partner doesn't make eye contact to let you know that he's seen, you wait. You vamp. Because the last thing you want to do is hurt the person you're working with.

In competitive fencing, of course, all of this is wrong. First of all, you have an opponent. Big difference. And you want to do some things as late as possible, so as not to telegraph anything to your opponent. Parry when there's no hope of the opponent disengaging, that sort of thing. And of course, you want to hit your opponent.

This is all difficult for me. Part of the problem is the very reason I started stage combat years ago, and started fencing now. When you're writing about swordplay, it helps to know what it's about. But I have a pretty good imagination: when my opponent thrusts at me, in my mind that's an edged weapon and my life is in danger. I've got a good solid parry--if anything I parry too hard, since the way modern fencing is scored, all you need is to deflect your opponent's blade before you riposte (and hopefully score), because a successful parry gives you right of way and it doesn't matter if he hits you if you have the right of way. Only, in my mind, that's an edged weapon and it doesn't matter if I get the point if I also get gored. So I'm hell on parrying. But I also tend to stand there like a dope once I've parried, with my patient teacher yelling "Madeleine! Hit him! Hit him!"

In stage combat you know what's coming. You want it to look clean, clear, want the fight to be a narrative which is perceivable by the audience. In competitive fencing it's a mess. No, that's not right. When you judge a fight (and we take turns at it) you have to watch to parse what a phrase that ends in a touch is: "Attack, parry, riposte, parry, riposte, break, attack--point to Rocco," or something like that. But there's nothing clear about it (elegant, yes, if you're very good, but no one in my class is that good yet) to the untutored audience.

I'm probably the oldest person in my class. We're a rag-tag group--several of us are significantly overweight, there are three lefties, only one of us moves like an athlete, and he's got so much energy he can't altogether rein it in, which is its own problem. We start out with twenty minutes of footwork drill, and once our knees are sending telegraphs to Congress begging for legislative intervention and we are swooning and dizzy, the work with the foils begin. By the time class is over I feel rather like I've been run over by a Zamboni.

I love it. I'm a terrible fencer, but not quite so terrible as when I started last year. Last night I won my two practice bouts and judged a third without embarrassing myself. By the time I'm 55, I may be able to acquit myself honorably. It's good to have a goal.

*The Society of American Fight Directors


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