For centuries the art of fencing has captured the minds of soldiers, artists, and historians alike. For generations, Hollywood has bedazzled us with choreographed sword battles in classics like The Count of Monte Cristo, The Three Musketeers, Pirates of the Carribean, and The Princess Bride. In today’s age many people wonder where they can go to learn this electrifying form of art and competition. Well, for Erika Ruhl, and many other students here at Marquette, that place is just a short stroll away. So…What is fencing some of you may ask. Very simply put, fencing, originally derived from the word defense, is the art of fighting with a light, one-handed sword. And while the days of defending one’s honor at noon on the courtyard are long gone, the art of Fencing has survived in various forms including an Olympic sport. The term generally refers to the European schools of swordsmanship, mostly those of the French and Italians. “Other systems of fencing, like the Spanish and Portuguese have pretty much been lost,” says Charley Dobbs, a Sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences, eight year fencer, and coach of the Marquette Club. Generally beginners learn with the foil which has a more limited target area and strike surface, you may only strike with the point. They later move to the epee and finally the sabre, which is both a thrusting and slashing weapon. Each sword adds more target areas, and a wider use of the blade surfaces. “The progression is really important,” says Ruhl, “you start small and you slowly add more danger, and more options.” While fencing has traditionally centered around a progression of these three weapons, Marquette’s club is the first group to pioneer a new format for bouting. This format includes other weapons such as the short sword and the rapier. Each bout is scored in the form of touches. The goal is to land as many touches on your opponent as you can while sustaining as few as possible to yourself. Usually the limit is three or five touches, but some tournaments play up to ten or fifteen. A fencer has achieved a true zero when they win a tournament without ever being touched. To really motivate people towards that true zero the club has purchased a prize for their next tournament. “The first person to get a true zero in a tournament will be the proud owner of this fine transitional rapier,” Dobbs says, hefting the sword proudly. Marquette usually competes in at least two tournaments a year, both co-hosted with their sister school in St. Louis. “It’s great to train with our friends, a lot of times it helps to have a fresh set of eyes to critique us and help us improve,” says Dobbs. Recently the Marquette club has been holding or attending seminars and importing some masters from around the nation to broaden its horizons as well.
A typical practice, like many other sports, consists of drills that help provide a solid foundation in the fundamentals of fencing. A night’s training begins and ends with the traditional eight-count salute, led by the instructor and mimicked by all of the learners. It’s a sign of mutual respect that shares lineage with other forms of salute and ceremony, such as a military hand salute, or the bows exchanged before a Karate match. After the salute, Charley or another senior member of the club takes the group through footwork drills that teach fencers to quickly react to their opponent’s movements and maintain a proper distance between them. They also learn the proper way to lunge and recover afterward. Another basic principle that they must master is to maintain a “line,” in fencing the action takes place in a straight line, if the line is broken you are probably opening yourself up to an attack.
But Practice isn’t merely about the fighting, it’s also about history, the culture of fencing. “I’m an anthropology major, so I love it when we learn about the history behind the skills we are practicing,” says Ruhl. “I don’t really like bouting as much as I like learning the techniques and strategy behind it. I love being able to watch someone and help them identify ways that they can improve.”
Why fencing? “I joined when I saw the booth at O-Fest. I saw swords. Swords are cool,” says Mike Osterman, a junior in the college of Arts and Sciences. Two and a half years later he’s still coming back for more, “it’s a good group, a society, we all share a great bond.” For others like Colleen Herman, fencing is a welcome break from the stress of school, “I expressed interest on one of those freshman surveys and I got an email a few weeks later, it’s my break from work, and it’s also good physical activity.” Colleen is a Freshman here at Marquette and plans to continue fencing as long as she can.
“It’s not always fencing either,” said one fencer, “Sometimes we get together and get pizza, watch a movie, or just hang out.” Speaking of movies, I’m sure some of you are wondering how your favorite sword master on television stacks up to the real deal. “It’s important to remember that Hollywood creates an illusion to pump up the entertainment factor in their movies. Some movies are fairly good at choreographing a realistic fight, others are completely the opposite. Most usually fall somewhere in between, they do some things right and others wrong. It’s fun for us as fencers to watch it and be able to critique it ourselves.”
The Marquette Fencing club meets every Tuesday and Thursday night at 6:00PM in the practice space by bookmarq under Campus Town East. New Members are always welcome. Also, check in at www.thewarrior .org to see some fencers in action.
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