Friday, July 06, 2012
Sapphire Focus on Fitness: Fencing
Okay, this is really, really long, but I was asked to give a talk to the Sapphire's on fencing for this week’s Focus on Fitness. I decided to share it here as well, in case anyone was curious about this crazy fencing thing I do.
For the past 16 years, I have been a member of the Society for Creative Anachronism which is a medieval/Renaissance reenactment society. It is a non-profit living history group that aims to re-create the noble life from roughly 600 AD to 1600 AD, from the martial arts to the arts and sciences to court life. Among the many activities I participate in personally, I now fence in the SCA. I have been interested in fencing for as long as I've been a member of the SCA and my husband became a fencer shortly after we met, but it was a long time before I was able to fence in part because I injured my wrists and my hip. I have now been fencing for almost three years now and I love it.
I'm going to split this into three parts. The first part I'm going to talk about fencing in the context of the SCA which is a historical style which has some important differences from fencing as it is done today (which I will call modern fencing). The second part I’m going to talk about some of the differences in modern fencing. I don’t personally do Collegiate fencing, but my husband’s cousin and her son do and I have some friends who do both SCA and modern so I have asked around to get at least some basic information. The third part I’ll talk about fencing as exercise.
As I already mentioned, SCA fencing is very different from modern fencing as it is based on 16th-century sword fighting techniques. Warfare in the 15th and 16th centuries was evolving due to the introduction of firearms which made armor obsolete, among other things. Without the armor to slow them down and without the need for heavy swords to get in through said armor, a lighter, faster sword style using the rapier evolved. Rapiers were used both in battle, after the firearms discharged or the enemy was too close to use firearms, and also it increasingly for personal duels. Both of these aspects come into play in the SCA version of rapier fighting, or fencing.
Fencing in the SCA is based on the honor system. Without the complex electronic equipment used in modern fencing to determine the touches, we to rely on the fencers themselves to declare for blow is good or not. While the rules vary somewhat from Kingdom to Kingdom (the SCA is an international organization subdivided into regions called “kingdoms” which can cross national boundaries), in general any touch that has contact with the skin with positive pressure is considered a good touch as the assumption is that we're fencing in street clothes and it does not take much pressure to pierce the skin. Also, fencing blades are assumed to have a sharp edge (though they are not actually sharp!) so drawing that edge against the body is a considered a touch—though you cannot slash at an opponent. Any part of the body can be a target. A touch to the hands loses the hand. A touch to the arm loses the arm. A touch to the legs or feet loses the leg. Typically, a hand lost is closed into a fist, an arm lost is put behind your back, and if you leg is lost you often go on your knees though sometimes “posting” (or fencing without moving one leg) is an acceptable alternative. A touch to the torso, head or major arteries is considered a kill shot.
In addition to fighting with the rapier, usually in your dominant hand, in the SCA we can use other items in her offhand at the same time. This can be a second sword, a dagger, a shield, a rigid parrying device such as a sheath or stick, or a non-rigid parrying device such as a cloak were stuffed animal (we also have a sense of humor in the SCA fencing community—some fencers use puppets, which they use to mock or taunt their opponents and it can be very entertaining). Even if you choose not to wield something in your offhand, you can still use that hand to parry though you cannot grab the sword and hold onto it. If you lose your dominant hand, you can switch your weapon to your offhand and continue fighting. SCA fencing is also not done in a line and there are no right of way rules (which I will talk about later) so fencers can circle, retreat, and fight the angles as well as in front of us.
Fencing bouts in the SCA are usually based on one of two formats, though there is a great deal of variation within these two formats depending on the rules of the list (that is, that particular tourney) at the time. The first format is essentially one-on-one combat. Basically two fencers entered a list, or the fencing area, and proceed to fight until by the rules of that particular tourney one of them is eliminated. Typically this is done by a “kill” shot, but sometimes it's best two out of three, or other tourney specific rules may apply such as stepping out of a constrained area (such as when simulating boarding actions for ships). The second format is called melee and involves groups of fencers facing off against groups of fencers. Some melees are called resurrection battles and you have a certain number of times you can “ resurrect” by going back to a designated resurrection point and then reentering the fight. Other melees are not resurrection battles and once you're killed you're eliminated from the fight. Typically the group that wins the melee is the groups that either lasts longest or meets some other designated objective such is gaining control of a flag or gate at the end of the pre-designated time.
At all SCA fencing events there are always marshals, or referees, whose primary responsibility is to make sure that the fencing is safe. At the beginning of all events all the gear you plan to use is inspected for safety by a marshal and the marshals watch the fencing with an eye for safety. In the event that something potentially unsafe occur—such as equipment failure—the marshals, other fencers, and even on-lookers can call “HOLD” which causes the fencers to freeze and then, if safe to do so, go on one knee until the potential danger is taken care of.
To get started fencing in the SCA all you have to do is show up at a local fencing practice. If you are male you should wear your own protective cup, but most groups have the rest of the gear as loaner gear so that you can try out fencing without having to spend a lot of money on equipment. Depending on where you live there may also be a youth fencing option available for children in the family who are interested in learning how to fence. I won't spend a lot of time talking about youth fencing because it varies from kingdom to kingdom but in general younger fencers use different equipment than adult fencers (in the Midrealm, the youngest fencers use plastic buzzer swords; the older youth—teenagers--use the same blades as adults). To fence at an actual SCA event however two things are necessary. The first is that you need to have a membership to the SCA Inc. This is required for insurance purposes. Membership rates vary depending on where you live and whether or not you want newsletters, but currently the minimum membership rate is $30/year, with additional members of the family being $10/year each. The second requirement is that you need to authorize as a fencer before you can fence at an SCA event. Basically to authorize you need to pass the basic skills test where you fence against an experienced fencer while being observed by marshals and demonstrate by answering questions that you know and understand the rules of fencing in your kingdom. You do not need to be a highly skilled fencer to pass an authorization test; you merely have to demonstrate you know the rules and are safe with the sword. Safety is really important to us—we may joke about “stabbing” or “killing” our friends but the reality is that we really don’t want anyone hurt, and an important part of that is knowing the rules and having enough control over your blade. You authorize first in single sword (so nothing in your off hand) and then over time can acquire secondary authorizations of dagger, rigid parry, etc.
Equipment for SCA fencing *varies from kingdom to kingdom!* DO NOT BUY anything other than a cup for the men/boys without first finding out what the rules for YOUR kingdom are. And really, since loaner gear is available, it is better to go try it and see if it is something you are going to enjoy before investing in your own equipment. This gives you time to experiment with different styles of gear so that you can decide what best suits YOU. You can then slowly acquire your gear over time without spending a ton of money up front. I’ve been fencing for three years and I still don’t have my full kit, though I’m getting there.
But to give you an idea, for the Middle Kingdom, you may want and/or need (an * indicates that this is optional):
A sword. In the Middle kingdom, this is a schlagger blade from an approved list that passes a flex test. Schlaggers are fairly heavy blades with a diamond cross section so somewhat stiffer than some of the other fencing blades. The sword must have a tip put on the end (we use rabbit blunts with a washer or nut put in it for some rigidity) to blunt the tip and the duck tape that holds the tip on has to be a different color from both the tip and the sword to make it easier to spot if a tip does come off.
* A second sword (same guidelines as the first) for fighting case of sword, or with two swords.
* A dagger (or two) – like the sword, the dagger has to pass a flex test, come from an approved source, and have a tip.
* A shield or other non rigid parry device—some kindgoms have constraints on the size of shield though not the middle; all that the middle cares is that you can use it safely and that it has now sharp edges or spikes which could hurt someone. If you are using something like a sheath, the open ends has to be away from the other fencer so that there is no small opening that could catch a blade tip.
* A non rigid parrying device—something soft, like a cloak or stuffed animal, basically. The main rule for this is that it can’t be weighted with something like lead.
A fencing “jacket,” including legs and arms covered, and coif. I say “jacket because really the style is up to you as long as you are covered appropriately. You need to have “puncture proof” (which means that it will pass a punch test to insure that a broken blade won’t pierce the fabric) over the body, groin, back of the head, and armpits. The arms, feet, and legs need to be covered, but do not have to be puncture proof. Pants and doublets are probably the most common styles, but I’ve seen Japanese Samurai gear, Turkish coats, and even gowns for the ladies (if wearing a gown, you need to make sure that 1) it’s short enough you won’t trip over it and 2) that your legs are always covered.) You should never, ever see visible skin on the fencing list.
For men/boys: a cup. While we don’t really encourage shots there, they do happen so you WANT that protection. My husband finds the cup/compression shorts combo the most comfortable.
*For women/girls—a chest protector. Not required, but in general highly recommended, especially if you are sensitive in the chest like I am. I have one designed for modern fencing but I want to get one designed for martial artists because they allow a wider range of movement—SCA fencers use a wider range of movement than modern and the chest protector can get in my way, though not too badly.
A rigid gorget—this is a wide, rigid collar that protects the throat and neck. It needs to protect down to the collar bones and is usually metal or metal and leather.
A mask—most people use modern fencing masks, but there are period-looking versions available though those are expensive. The mask needs to be puncture proof with a mesh fine enough that a broken blade cannot get through.
Shoes—they do not need to be closed toe but if they aren’t you need socks or something (remember, no visible skin). For SCA events I fence in custom made boots but for practices I fence in modern cross trainers—I chose cross trainers because I’m moving in all directions and running shoes are designed for forward movement—not sideways or backwards. People fence in a lot of different footware but you need something with decent traction and that gives you a solid footing if you change direction quickly—flip flops are probably not wise, for example.
Gloves—usually leather gloves with a deep cuff. They could be cloth—the rules don’t say they can’t—but leather gives you a better grip on your sword etc.
You will also eventually want to invest in materials for cleaning and caring for your gear—for example, duck tape, tips, a metal eraser, and something to sand down burs in your blades (such as sandpaper).
Some of this equipment you will need to buy (like the swords) but a lot of it you can make on your own—for example, most fencers sew their own armor. 3 layers of densely woven linen will usually pass a punch test, for example (the punch test verifies that the fabric is puncture proof).
I don’t know as much about modern fencing but I wanted to at least touch on it. Personally, I find fencing in the SCA more fun because it is more varied—you have a wider range of options and the tourneys can be original and often as amusing (such as the “fairy tale tourney” we did last year where we had to fence our way past a series of obstacles—such as troll on a bridge, a pair of bandits, and a two headed dragon, to rescue a “damsel in de dress” who usually tried to kill you as you “escorted” her (or him) to the “castle.”) Plus I have discovered that I love melee and I think that SCA fencing is friendlier for people with joint issues because you aren’t as restricted in your movement options. But if you are not into the living history part of the SCA, SCA fencing may not be for you.
Modern fencing is collegiate or Olympic fencing and it is a highly competitive sport. The biggest differences between it and SCA fencing:
Weapons—modern fencing uses foils, epees, and sabers which are rarely allowed in the SCA. They also can use “pistol grip” swords which supposedly hold the wrist in a more neutral position, though they wouldn’t work for some of the SCA blocks (nor are they SCA legal).
Epee is the weapon closest to the SCA fencing blades as it is based on the rapier, but it is lighter than the schlagger. A few SCA kingdoms still allow epee authorizations, but they are the minority. Epee was invented in the 19th century in France to more closely resemble dueling and so is based on the small sword, though without the sharp tip. It is a style of fencing that has more relaxed rules than the other styles of modern fencing and most closely resembles what we do in the SCA, though there are still differences.
They ONLY use one sword, main hand. You fight at an degree angle to your opponent, providing as little target area as possible, with your off hand behind you, usually held out for balance.
You are limited to a very narrow field to fence in. This limits sideways movement and you are basically fencing in a line, forward and back.
You only fence one opponent, never melee.
Most modern fencing has limited target areas, though what areas are considered valid target depends on the weapon (foil is torso, saber is hips on up, and epee is the entire body).
Most collegiate fencing is based on later period dueling rules of first blood—so unlike SCA fencing where it is often an acceptable trade off to lose an arm or a leg in exchange for a kill, in modern fencing you HAVE to parry (or block) a threat to you before you can initiate your own attack. This is referred to as right of way rules. Only Epee does not have right of way rules.
Fencing bouts usually go until one of the fencers has 5 valid touches (or points) or until 3 minutes, at which point the fencer with the most points gets the win. If the fencers are tied at 3 minutes, it goes to sudden death—who ever gets the first touch wins. (Three minutes doesn’t sound very long, until you are out there with a sword, believe me!)
Touches in competition are often decided by means of an electronic sensor.
As far as what you need to get started, you need to find a club (the fencing equivalent of a dojo) and take classes. The price of clubs varies; the one that my cousin’s kid fences in is $250 for a 10 week beginner class. To start off, all you need are comfortable clothes and good tennis shoes—ones with laces, not Velcro. After a certain number of classes (which varies on the club), you will need to invest in the equipment:
Fencing jacket (style depends on what style of fencing you are doing, but the most common is a long sleeved jacket with a strap that closes it at the groin)
Underarm protector (called a plastron)
Chest protector (for women)
(Note: she did not tell me that a cup was required for men/boys but it very likely is).
My husband’s cousin highly recommends getting in touch with underground fencing org if they are in your area as she’s had good experience with them. Some fencing clubs are more aggressive than others so it’s good to shop around and find one that suits what you want and need.
You can buy starter sets (jacket, gloves, sword, and mask) for as little as $151 plus shipping. SCA equipment tends to be more expensive (in part because it’s more specialized, with a smaller market) but other than the gear the actual fencing is very inexpensive, and the gear usually lasts quite a few years before you need to worry about replacing things (my husband is just now getting around to replacing his gear and he’s fenced for about 15 years, though admittedly he took about 6 off because of a non-fencing related knee injury). Instead of paying $150 for tent weeks at a club, you pay a membership fee of $30 for the year, a site fee for SCA events (this goes to cover the cost of putting on the event) which is typically $7-8, and practices are free, so in the long run I think it is significantly cheaper way to fence.
Fencing as exercise:
Fencing is at least for me definitely a good workout for the whole body, though especially for the arms and legs. The forearms, biceps, triceps, and the muscles along the shoulder blade (I don’t know what they are called) all get used a LOT in sword play, and the footwork uses your calves, glutes, and quads in particular (if you are familiar with the Warrior 1 and 2 poses in yoga, those are really similar to common stances in fencing). It can be a pretty good strength training workout, especially if you are doing drills where you are repeated doing the same movements again and again. Thing about it—you have a weight in your hand, which you are repeatedly moving in some basic core patterns while doing a lot of lunges and other legwork. Plus in the SCA we like it so much we do it two handed—add the weight we’re moving around, add to the fun! A fencer tend to get really strong arms—especially forearms—and legs. Fencing also burns a TON of calories. According to sparks, I burn 261 calories for 30 minutes of fencing... but that’s based on collegiate or modern fencing. In SCA fencing, we do more movement—circling, retreating, darting in, shifting sideways, not to mention jogging to and from the resurrection points—with often heavier weapons. Typically at a fencing practice I get in a good hour and a half of fencing and at events 3-4 hours. While individual bouts can be pretty short (especially if you are a new fencer, as you tend to die a lot) you can often move pretty steadily from one bout to the next with minimal waiting, and at practice we’ll typically do 10 or so passes before switching partners, and I usually just take enough of a break to get some water before getting back to fencing. While I tend to go by sparks calorie burn estimates—and even then it’s not uncommon even then for me to burn a 1000 or more calories when fencing—I imagine it’s really somewhere between fencing and martial arts (which burns for me, according to sparks, 403 calories for 30 minutes!)
One word to the wise—modern fencing in particular can be *really* hard on your knees if you are not careful. The reason is that modern fencing lends itself strongly to lunging—and the deeper the forward lung, the more inches you can get on your range and the more likely you are to get a kill shot (in SCA, it is less of an issue because we have more flexible footwork rules and you can step into the shots more easily rather than having to lunge deeper.) DO NOT let your knee go past your toes. This puts a lot of strain on your knees! SCA fencing does tend to be more forgiving because there are a lot of different styles you can draw from—ranging from one where you basically keep your feet planted and touching at the ankles to one I saw where they guy somehow twisted his body up so that it was all hidden behind the bell of his sword. It may take some time to find a style that works best for you, but there are definitely ways to work around limitations. I still have a bad hip, though it’s getting getting better, and I have several fencing friends who have hip or knee issues who have learned ways to compensate for them.... and some of them are the best fencers I know!
However, while fencing--both SCA and modern--is a low impact exercise, it is a good idea to talk to a doctor first if you aren't used to exercise or if you have any issues such as heart problems or joint issues!
The biggest danger, really, at least in SCA fencing (I am not familiar enough with modern to know) is dehydration and overheating. We fence outside a lot, wearing a lot of layers, and when it gets hot outside we sweat A LOT. Thankfully, the armor rules at least for Midrealm now allow linen so they breathe better than the armor used to, but still, make sure you stay hydrated! At most events, they have Gatorade, pretzels, water, oranges, etc. for the fencers... take advantage of them.
And one interesting note, which at least made a difference to me... men and women are physiologically different. It’s subtle, but it does make a difference while fencing. This doesn’t mean that women can’t be effective fencers because some of the best fencers I know are women, but it does mean that we fight a little differently. Some of it is differences in tactics—women tend to be shorter than men, with less reach, so rather than hang back and pick off our opponents from afar, we have to get inside their guard (advantage—if you get inside their sword range, they can’t kill you unless they have a dagger but you can kill them). The biggest one for me though was that women’s hands and wrists are hinged slightly differently so the blocks etc work slightly differently. This may be less of an issue with the modern because of the pistol grip swords, but if you find something not working for you, sometimes it works to inverse it (so instead of twisting the hand out, twist in, or vice versa). With my bad wrists, this is particularly an issue for me, and I had one well meaning guy fencer who kept insisting that I needed to block a certain way and my wrists couldn’t handle it... thankfully, I had another fencer (also a guy, but who knows how to teach female fencers) and he said, yeah, you don’t do that. Do this instead.