“That’s just what I need: to have a few pints at Red Door East and then have someone hand me a sword.” Such was the response I received when I suggested to a friend that he should take up fencing for exercise at the Nashville Fencing Academy in East Nashville.
While I may have failed to convince my friend to wield a sharp object while buzzed, plenty of people are taking up arms. Fencing, or “physical chess,” is gaining in popularity, with the United States Fencing Association growing from 12,000 to 28,000 members over the past decade. Even in Nashville, where you’re probably more likely to be hit with a lawn dart than a foil, a growing crowd is adopting the activity as a fitness exercise and as a sport for high-level competition.
Doug Harris and Caroline Saville, the head coach and general manager of Nashville Fencing Academy, have been training amateur fencers since the academy opened in the spring of 1995. For three years, the nonprofit fencing academy has occupied a modest space on Woodland Street, near Five Points, with three regulation fencing strips, or pistes, and electric scoring equipment. The club is open to beginners and experienced fencers ages 9 and up. Harris, 34, who has coached fencers on the Junior U.S. National Team, is also deft at pulling my leg. He tells me that in Old Europe, when duels with rapiers and sabers were not uncommon, reporters made the best fencers. Harris explains, straight-faced, that since reporters often pissed people off, they would be challenged to duels. I interrupt to ask if he’s kidding, given my motives in visiting his fencing club. “No, really,” he assures me, “reporters and landowners were often the best fencers. It was in their best interest.”
Rapier wit aside, I took comfort that this was 2006 and I was in Tennessee’s only private fencing club, where, if my effrontery should lead to a duel on the piste, at least I would be outfitted in padded white jacket and pants, protective mask and gloves. Should my insults lead me to international competition, I’d have a uniform of ballistic nylon and Kevlar to protect my upper body. My thighs, hamstrings, calves and buttocks, however, would not be so lucky. And speaking of buttocks, Saville is quick to point out, “There is such a thing as fencer’s butt. Think about lunging constantly. It really
works the glutes, thighs and calves hard.” As evidence, he lifts his left pant leg to expose a chiseled calf the size of a Honeybaked Ham.
Harris trains his students in epée, one of fencing’s three events (saber and foil being the other two). Epée is lighter than the saber, yet heavier than the foil. In epée, the blunt, spring-loaded tip of the weapon must be depressed to register a hit, but the entire body is a target; by contrast, in foil, simply striking an opponent’s torso with the tip of the weapon draws a point. Saber, on the other hand, is both a thrusting and cutting weapon, meaning that both the tip and blade score points. In saber, only hits from the waist up register a score, a rule that is reminiscent of the days of cavalry riders. In each case, the weapon is connected to an electric body cord, which triggers a signal light upon a direct strike on the opponent’s target area.
Fencing is a strenuous sport, but done well, it is extremely elegant.
On a recent Thursday night, I meet Bernard de Clavière, 70, who began fencing decades ago in his native France. A competitive de Clavière is exceptionally polite and gentle off piste. He refers to his foil as “the academic weapon” and to his coach as “the master.” “In here,” Bernard gestures around the club, “he is the master. Out there, he is Doug.” This sense of tradition is part of the fencing education Harris seeks to impart to all his students.
While some of Harris’ students train for fitness and for fun, others, like Robyn Shaffer, are in it to compete on a national level. Shaffer, a 15-year-old University School of Nashville student, has been training for four years since she moved here from Boston, where fencing was part of an after-school curriculum. “It’s a sport that you can do all your life, from the time you are a kid until you’re 60 or 70,” she says. “It also translates well over to other sports, like tennis—it helps me work on my footwork and especially on my quick thinking. And it’s just fun. I get to meet a lot of people all over the country by going to these tournaments.” Under Harris’ tutelage, Shaffer is starting to place higher at national tournaments and is climbing the rankings in her age group.
On the other side of the Cumberland River, at the Cohn Alternative Learning Center in Sylvan Park, Chip Moore, 34, teaches and fences with the Cumberland D’Escrime club. Moore teaches eight-week classes in foil to ages 14 and up as part of Metro Nashville Public Schools’ Community Education program. An engineer for the City of Hendersonville, Moore volunteers his time and has footed the bill for much of the club’s equipment. He compares the activity level of fencing to racquetball or tennis. “It is very, very aerobic and something that makes you compete against yourself almost as much as your opponent. Footwork is 70 percent of fencing. After all, you have to be able to get to your opponent to strike and then be able to get away from your opponent.” Moore says that introducing students to the sport begins with lessons in how to stand, advance, lunge and retreat. “Once you learn how to move, it’s all about learning to read your opponent. You learn to judge when you need to be laid-back and when you should be aggressive.”
One of the best aspects of fencing, both coaches Harris and Moore tell me, is its relative safety, despite the fact that the athletes are playing with weapons. Sprained ankles and bruises are the most common injuries, with few of the knee injuries, concussions and more serious injuries that plague other sports. “You may get an occasional bruise,” Moore says, “but the only time I’ve seen a broken blade injury was when someone was drinking from a water fountain and inadvertently stabbed himself in the leg.”
Information and classes:
Cohn Adult Learning Center
, 4805 Park Ave.: Mondays from 5:30 to 6:30 p.m., followed by open sparring. Eight-week semester in foil costs $45, including equipment use. For more advanced fencers, there is open sparring from 5:30-7:30 p.m. on Mondays and Wednesdays for $15 per semester, starting again in late January. For more information, visit www.mnps.org
or call Jim Polk at 298-8050.
Nashville Fencing Academy
, 961 Woodland St.: Membership costs $100 per month. Personal training available for $25 per session. Call 650-6665 or visit www.nashvillefencing.org
A wealth of information about fencing is also available at www.usfencing.org
. You can check out local fencers in action on Jan. 28, when the Vanderbilt University Fencing Club hosts the Music City Open.