Sword play: no child's play

Lunge with the best of 'em at Concord fencing center

EN GARDE! How many times have you wanted to say that after seeing Errol Flynn in one of those swashbuckler movies? Heck, the phrase was good enough for "The Three Musketeers," and that's good enough for me. But still, without a sword to call my own, something gets lost in the translation when all you're lunging with is your forefinger ...

So when I heard about Sword Play, a fencing center and club in Concord, I thought, "Now here's a way to make my medieval fantasy come true. Just show me a mask and foil and I'll be a dueling fiend." Fencing, I come to find, is a lot different than what you see in those "Musketeer" and Flynn flicks. It's not only a physically challenging sport, it's also a mind game. But I felt I was up to the task, being the sports fanatic I am, as I took my place among a dozen students in a recent Sword Play intermediate class.

Boy, was I in a league of my own! Club co-owner Thelma Alane had us work on footwork first in a series of exercises that made me feel like I was in a giant game of computerized Simon. Moving in a line across the room, we practiced different actions she called out at random. "Advance" meant to stand with your feet at a 90-degree angle (the en garde position) and step forward. "Retreat" meant to step backward keeping the same 90-degree angle. And to "lunge" required thrusting forward with the dueling arm and front leg while straightening the back leg, still maintaining that en garde stance.

It all seemed so easy, like at the beginning of Simon Says when you only have to memorize two or three things at once. Then Alane, who is ranked 39th in the nation and probably can't remember what it was like to be a novice, started calling out multiple actions: 'Advance, double advance, lunge, retreat, lunge, advance, double retreat." Now the game was Twister and I was the idiot tangled up in my own limbs.

Determined, I followed my neighbor's steps and finally made my way like a spider across the room and back several times. My quadriceps and glutes were really getting a workout. This was much better than aerobics. Enough with the footwork, though, I wanted that sword in my hand - to challenge my nemesis and save the fair prince. I quickly suited up in fencing jacket and mask and footed into the en garde position, preparing to fight to the finish, even if my foil had a rubber-tipped point.

But first, Alane cautioned me, I had to learn the rules. You just can't go around poking your opponent all over the place. Opponents must select the same type of sword from three varieties. The foil, with a square blade, is used to target the torso area. Epee fencers can score points by hitting any part of the body with the triangu1ar-bladed sword. The sabre is used to poke or slash opponents anywhere from the waist up. The fencer who scores the most touch points during the four-minute match or scores five points first wins.

Since I thought it best not to be sliced to smithereens my first time out, I chose a nice civilized foil and stood on my mark. We saluted; we stood en garde and before I knew it we were off to the fences, advancing, retreating, dancing with a sport that dates back to the 16th century.

And the next thing I knew, a sword - something that used to kill people was coming straight for me. I jerked to the right and screamed inside my little screened mask as the red tip jabbed me in the ribs. I looked down to see if blood was dripping out of me, but there was nothing, no pain whatsoever.

Embarrassed, I hoped Alane didn't see the look of dread on my face. I quickly regained my composure and when Alane yelled "ready!" and went to lunge, I moved my foil to the left in what's called a "parry" block and touched my blade to hers, swiping it away.

Instead of cowering and retreating, I advanced and lunged right back, scoring a touch right in her side. I couldn't believe it! Did I mention she's ranked 39th in the country and I've never fenced before? However, you can't stop; you must keep on fencing Four minutes doesn't seem like much, but it is plenty of time to score five points.

The beauty of fencing, though, is that, like chess, you don't just make a move and that's it. You must constantly be strategizing countermoves to outwit your, opponent. The art is not in the sword itself, but in the cleverness and subtle finesse of the person under the mask. The sport really marks a great way to get in shape physically while providing new mental challenges for yourself as well.

For more information on fencing or to check out the next demonstration, call Sword Play at 687-9883.