Exceptionally Answered Questions : on Fencing
Over the years we’ve had the privilege to interview countless athletes, fighters and teachers. At the CombativeCorner we love to not just ask the about “the story” (what got them to where they are), but the probing questions that will more likely resonate with the student looking to find a method/style/philosophy/etc that can bring their game or area of expertise to the next level. To read the full interview from whence the question was pulled, click on their hyper-linked name.
What was your biggest challenge when you first started?
My first semester of fencing I actually got a C! I had a hard time focusing and paying attention for long periods of time when I was younger so fencing really helped me to improve my focus an discipline, but focusing was also my biggest challenge at the start.
What goes through your mind before you begin a bout?
I’m thinking about what action I’m about to execute and also telling myself to “come to my baseline” mental place. I always want to be fencing from a familiar and strong mental place. Never get too high and never get too low.
In teaching students, what are some of the core principles that you try to instill?
Firstly control. With weapons you need control before you can progress. Control is mostly about mind-set I think – learning to respect the weapon, your capabilities and be respectful of the training partners. Next is how to move – the students generally don’t realise they are being taught this, because they think they are learning techniques of attack and defence. For the first few months though what they are really learning is a new way of moving their bodies. In everyday life we just don’t move our bodies in these ways. At first even strong and fit students exhaust themselves in an hour class because they just aren’t moving right. Learning to move is all about efficiency of course and once a person knows how to move with a given weapon then they only use a fraction of the energy to do things that used to exhaust them. Once a person has learned control and how to move, then they really effectively start to learn about attack and defence, time, distance, judgement, line and the other basic themes of fencing.
What is your current view on the way they teach (modern/sport) fencing today?
I actually have a lot of respect for modern sport fencing and I think it has some very well-established and effective teaching methods. Some of how we train historical fencing is taken directly from sport fencing. What I have criticised about sport fencing are some of the rules and some of the equipment – I think it has led to a sport that is further and further removed from swordsmanship and therefore is less and less like what most people actually want to do when they start fencing. A huge proportion of historical fencers are former sport-fencers who started because they wanted to learn how to use a sword – some people do both historical and sport fencing, and the two need not be exclusive. I myself did sport fencing for many years and would recommend any child to do it as a basis for historical fencing. In the future I expect that historical fencing will become more like sport fencing in its attitudes to professionalism, teaching and athletic excellence. I certainly hope that historical fencing will learn from some of the mistakes of sport fencing though and not repeat them.
What weapon appeals to you the most and why?
Foil, sabre then epee in that order. It’s like watching three different movies. They’re all exciting but each brings different feelings to you. The structure of the foil fencing allows you to set up and have resolution in the most powerful way. Sabre feels like playing cat and mouse with me being the cat. Epee is like dancing: structured with only three rules that, if you follow them, you can win the Olympics. Of course when I was young in the Soviet Union, girls only had the choice of foil.
Students often have a hard time understanding the difference (besides the grip being used). If we are talking about aspects (other than the gripping of the weapon) what philosophical, strategic or postural differences does the foil fencer exhibit?
I think that the definition of the classical fencer by Maître Louis Rondelle answers this question the best;
“The Classical Fencer. – A classical fencer is supposed to be one who observes a fine position, whose attacks are fully developed, whose hits are marvelously accurate, his parries firm and ripostes executed with precision.
One must not forget that this regularity is not possible unless the adversary is a party to it. It is then a conventional bout, which consists of parries, attacks, and returns, all rhyming together.”
In contrast to:
“The Blunderer. – Is a fencer who strives to hit his adversary by all means, fair or foul, without preparation or opposition. His arm drawn back of its position, he advances or retreats without necessity, effects a tension on any attack, attempts to execute time-thrusts on simple attacks, beats the blade and changes the engagement without motive.”
The prime directive in fencing is always defense. If there is no defense it is not fencing. Some may repeat the tired old adage “The best defense is a good offense” but that is not necessarily true. This is because the mentality of the real fencer is centered on self-preservation. The premise in all fencing is to touch without being touched. It does a fencer no good to theoretically kill his adversary as he himself is killed in the process.
As a masterful fencer yourself, is it hard to contend against a student or challenger (in a bout) using their natural gifts (i.e. athleticism, speed) or even scoring touches in a wild, uncalculating manner?
My obligation as a teacher is to guide the student; not to contend with them. When students are first introduced to the assault in our school, they are only allowed to fence against the master or provost. This is to ensure that the student is given precise responses that he recognizes. These academic assaults have specific rules. The student is the designated attacker. This allows them to use any of the various attacks they have learned. If they are successful, then the master will attack and the fencer cannot step back until he has parried and reposted. As a teacher my job is to give the students tools to overcome their weakness and to build upon their natural attributes. I use the assault as another means by which I polish the skills of my students. As they build their confidence and become more skillful they are allowed to fence with others.
Why are pronated attacks (such as those from tierce, seconde and quinte) and parries so prevalent in the French Small-sword? As Evangelista once wrote “Pronation will invariably generate muscular parries. That’s why the French style, by and large, avoids pronation in its delivery?
The French small-sword fencer seeks to control the adversary’s blade by proper placement and leverage, not muscular strength. The pronated positions allow for strong beats, froissements, croises as one is using the same edge as one uses for the same techniques in quarte. That said, there are actually more supinated attacks and parries used in French small-sword. The use of sixte instead of tierce did not become common until the second half of the 19th century. Even then, most masters did not discard tierce. Correct training will allow the student to develop proper parries without generating a lot of force. In fact to develop sentiment du fer (tactile sensitivity with the blade) one cannot be heavy handed.
10 QUESTIONS WITH SAMIR “THE SANDMAN” SEIF
AS WELL AS…(A RETURN TO)