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Sword play

Swish, Spar, strike. As you play at being a medieval knight, find yourself getting lighter and quicker on your feet, and a whole lot fitter. Vidya Balachander tells more.

travel Updated: Dec 05, 2009 12:26 IST

On a regular cement floor, fencing feels deceptively slight. Swords in hand, the opponents pace back and forth in quicksilver steps. Their movements are measured -- this game may involve swordplay but there's very little aggression on display. Every once in a while, a player may take a big stride and leap in the air. You may hear a clang when metal meets metal, but it lasts only a few seconds. Far from a competitive sport, fencing sometimes resembles poetry.

But don't let the apparent delicacy of the sport deceive you. Fencing demands both skill and stamina. If the rapid movements are all about quick reflexes and sharp thinking, the long hours on your feet are a test of agility, your cardiovascular ability and your balance. In other words, fencing is a great overall workout.

So if you have tired of the treadmill and yoga isn't doing you any good, you know what you should be trying out next.

Mighty antecedents
Fencing has its origins in European schools of swordsmanship. In Europe in the 12th century, this system of combat was considered essential knowledge for members of the aristocracy. It involved not just the use of swords, but also other weapons such as daggers, rapiers, shields and pole axes. In medieval Europe, fatal injuries weren't uncommon during fencing duels.

Being adapted into an Olympic sport in 1896 blunted the game's dangerous edge. The sharp swords that were used for duelling were replaced with lightweight swords without tips or edges. The focus was no longer on wounding -- or killing -- but instead on "touching" the opponent's body with the sword, and preventing him from doing the same. Rules and regulations came into place: Modern fencers need to wear several layers of protective clothing as well as masks to prevent injury. With these modifications, what was once a brutal system of combat became a completely safe sport.

Tougher than it looks
Fencing may look simple, but it is tough skill to master. "It takes a minimum of six months to learn fencing," says Kedar Dhawle, coach of the Maharashtra state fencing team and secretary of the Mumbai Suburban Fencing Association, who takes classes in several locations in Mumbai. "It doesn't mean just touching the swords."

It's easy enough to understand what the big deal is the first time you try fencing. An average session is a whopping two-and-a-half hours long. The first 25 minutes are intended to get you warmed up for combat. By the time you finish the stretching and strengthening exercises, you're already breaking a sweat. And you haven't even got started on the aerobic exercises, which include skipping, jumping and running.

The next 15 minutes are devoted to footwork. What may that be, did you ask? "Footwork is the main thing to be able to move forward and backward," says Dhawle. "Persisting with it till you get the footwork right can be very boring but it is very important." Being fleet-footed is essential for fencing. There is no scope for being clumsy or stumbling over your own feet.

As part of footwork, you're also taught the correct postures used in fencing. You have to keep both your knees bent at all times. Over time, this is sure to improve your lower body strength and coordination.

Once you have somewhat understood the basics of footwork, you proceed to the actual techniques of attack and defence. Celebrating the event Modern fencing is divided into three 'events' -- foil, epee and sabre -- named after the swords used in these categories. The foil is a light and flexible sword. The 'target area' of this event is from the shoulder to the waist, which means that's where you are allowed to touch the opponent.

The epee is the heaviest of the three weapons. In this event, you can 'pinch' your opponent with a sword anywhere on his/her body. The sabre is also a light sword, but this is considered the toughest because it is very fast-paced. All three events have intricate rules about attack, defence and what constitutes a 'touch' or 'pinch'. These are impossible to comprehend in a single session. So if you do plan to take fencing classes, don't expect to be a pro overnight.

What you can be sure of is that you won't have many dull moments while learning fencing. For a bystander, the game is a visual treat. Like the Indian martial art kalaripayattu, fencing is all about theatrical flourish and clinical precision. For the practitioners, it is a workout for both body and mind.