I have to admit, I’ve not been the best at keeping fit whilst living in the UAE, but I do like a the idea of a sport with a bit of drama. So when Dimitar Kestenov, senior coach at MK Fencing Academy invited me along to a class, I was immediately intrigued.
Fencing? All that comes to mind is a scene from Peter Pan, or The Mask of Zorro. I want to be able to walk out of the room with my innards all still intact – but I’m assured from the get-go that it’s safe. Firstly, we take a look at the “weapons”. There are three to choose from: foil, épée and sabre. I learn that all three have different rules in each game and fencers tend to specialise in one. Today, I will be using an épée, which has a large bell-shaped guard. I learn that unlike the other swords that are restricted to certain areas of the body, the épée enables me to aim for any area of my opponent’s body, just not the back – it’s literally the most disrespectful action to stab someone in the back.
I begin with some simple stretching to warm up my joints. Dimitar notes that warming up in fencing is like building a house. You start with the foundations first (your feet) and work your way up, with heavy focus on neck and arm stretching. I couldn’t help but compare fencing to a choreographed dance, or even yoga. If you can hold a warrior or tree position in yoga then fencing is right up your street. Its foundations are clearly about core strength and balance.
Stretches done, it’s time to learn the “en-garde” position which is in three steps. A step forward is performed by moving my leading foot forward and then bringing my rear foot up to finish. The second step is doing the first step backwards. As simple as it sounds, this challenges my balance and inner core strength. I’m told my upper body should not move too much and it’s hard to not look down at my feet. At times, I feel more like a ballerina than Zorro.
Now to the lunge. The aim is to take a large step forward and land my foot flat on the floor. When the point of the épée hits the opponent, a slight lift of my hand ensures that the blade bends upwards when hitting my opponent.
Next, and possibly the part I’ve been looking forward to most, I’m fitted out in my protective clothing, and thankfully it’s well padded. Fencers need to wear a tough protective chest shield. It’s not the most comfortable attire, yet it is entirely necessary. With my épée selected, I’m fitted with a helmet. Wearing it, no one can see my face, which is probably a good thing because now it’s getting real. Nerves are building.
I put into practise the three steps I learned and take (ahem) a stab at it. At first, I find it quite hard to hit the target perfectly. I also realise the amount of mental concentration that is required in this sport.
Dimitar slips on his jacket and helmet, which I can only assume means I’m about to try and dual a man who is a five-time National Champion of Bulgaria in the Modern Pentathlon. I am doomed. I feel like curling up into a ball and surrendering, but I need to show him what I’m made of.
Luckily Dimitar is just refereeing. Now that I’ve been shown some basics, it’s time for me to meet my opponent: 14-year-old Prune Huguet, a student at MK Fencing. Before we start our challenge, I learn some standard etiquette. Firstly, we must salute each other. I hold my helmet in my left hand, look at my opponent straight in the eye and raise my blade to my right eye. In a swift movement, we then direct our épées to the floor before turning to our coach and ref, and salute Dimitar in respect.
We can’t see each other’s faces and I’m secretly glad, because right now I’m noticeably scared of a teenager. The chance of me striking her is low, but there is nothing like a mask to hide fear. Prune, being the true respectful fencer she is, kindly doesn’t go too hard on me. She even lets me attack her, even though I’m sure hitting her in the head (when I was aiming for her chest) isn’t exactly respectful on my part, but it still scored me a point. After our bout, we end by shaking hands.
I am won over by the tradition and respect for this 19th century Olympic sport – a self-defence sport both respectful and theatrical. Fencing is not a violent sport, it’s about discipline and tact. It’s not just a physical exercise, it’s also a mental one, and anybody can try it, no matter your fitness level or age.
1 Learning the en garde position
2 Liz selects her épée and gets her protective kit on
3 The salute before the dual
4 Taking a lunge at coach Dimitar
MK Fencing Academy MKFA, UAE. Cranleigh School Abu Dhabi; from April at NYUAD. www.mkfencingacademy.com (050 794 4190).