Tuesday, November 24, 2009


(Gandalf......Vet fencer....Grey...like the Gray Epee...it all makes sense...(sort of) in the end.

Recently, on fencing.net and the fencing.net Facebook link, there is an article bashing Nick Evangilista and his book "The Art and Science of Fencing".

My first day fencing, I left the gym and headed for Barnes and Noble bookstore to look for a book on fencing. That book and the "By the Sword" were the only ones in stock related to fencing. "By the Sword" is an excellent book, and I read it later. I bought "The Art and Science of Fencing", as it contained so much more of the information I was hungry for.

I should point out that Nick Evangilista is a "classical fencer" who is less than happy with "modern sport fencing/Olympic fencing". This is strongly reflected in his writings.

At the time of reading the book for the first time, I did not totally understand the difference. The book influenced me in a couple of ways negatively. For example: Trying to fence foil with a French grip.

I wrote Mr. Evangilsta shortly after reading his book. He sent me a picture of himself. (I don't know what that says, but it must mean something.) I learned a few things about him that most people don't know. For example: He raises goats to eat....that sort of thing.

Not too long ago, I heard (right or wrong)that he does not fence anymore. This bothered me a bit, as we are about the same age.

I have reached a point in my study of fencing that I do not agree with much of what was written in "The Art and Science of Fencing". (I say this as I am a "modern sport fencer/student of Olympic fencing". All like me would say the same, so it is no big revelation.)

Would I feel compelled to tell him so if we ever met? Not at all.

This is a man that wants to validate his famous coach/father figure and what he taught. Of course he also wants to validate himself. One is noble,the other human.

Let it go.

During Coach's most recent group lesson in Greensboro, he asked us to free fence and use the actions we had been working on in drills. We did so.

Coach said, " You guys move like classical foilists........there is nothing wrong with that." (That is not an exact quote....as we were in the middle of bouting, and I did not hear it all with my mask on. But, a reference was made to our group and moving like classical epeeists or foilists.)

I must confess that if I had an opportunity to study with a really good classical coach for a few months, I would do so. Not because I think it would help me with my fencing, but just for the experience. It is a dying art and I am drawn to knowledge that will soon pass from the world.

The combination of thinking about classical fencing and learning a few things from a coach whom I respect and one of his students has caused me to give a lot of thought to what is right.....and what is wrong in fencing.

Olympic/sport fencers sneer at classical fencers because classical fencing doesn't produce fencers that can compete successfully within the parameters of Olympic/sport fencing. Yet, so much of Olympic/sport fencing has classical elements (or only slightly modified classical elements) used in it. (At least for beginning/intermediate students.)

In the book "Epee 2.0" by Johan Harmenberg, he talks about inventing and using " bouncing" foot work. But, he also instructs his readers to master conventional footwork first. Why does he do that? He never says why.

Bouncing footwork is at odds with the classical approach of economy of movement. This is something you pay attention to if you are a Vet fencer.

Bouncing makes a lot of sense. Something in motion accelerates faster than something static. (Whatever the correct scientific phrasing may be.)
If you are young and athletic enough to do bouncing footwork, why learn the basic advance and retreats?

If you are an older vet fencer and you see wisdom in economy of movement.....why bounce?

For a couple of years now (maybe three....I need to check with my partner) I have taken private lessons (once a week) with Coach. A PL once a week is not enough. However, (generally) his group lessons are much like private lessons with less trained "leaders".

For three years or so, I have worked on a drill to do a beat,pick.....take the blade in eight....hit to the thigh. Now sometimes we move through this drill and I go far in drills. Sometimes, I still spend a lot of time on this one segment of our drills.

I really think it depends on what sort of mood Coach is in.

There are a host of small things that can be done wrong in this drill. Drop your arm too much on the beat.....too much on the pick....pick is not deep enough.....too little pressure on taking the blade in eight....not enough firmness/energy in the action....your weapon arm "poofed out"....too much shoulder...it goes on and on.

Now, here is the rub. I have never ever used this action in a bout. I see almost no possibility of ever using it in a bout. Once in a blue moon, I might use a beat/pick/remise. If I find an opponent that is kind enough to have extended their weapon parallel to the floor.

I have to assume that I am becoming technically proficient (or at least in the journey of becoming technically proficient)and that each element of this drill is what I am working on and not the elements strung together to form the drill.

Editors Note: This question goes in with a half dozen questions I have, should I ever have the opportunity to have a long talk with Coach.

So is working on this drill a waste of time or not? Is it right....or wrong?

When we teach young kids how to fence, in the beginning we work hard to drill into them to keep a good en guard and tip on target. As time goes by and you advance....you drop your arm...pull back.....change it up if your opponent has a good flick to the cuff.... a lot of different positions for arm and point. Which is right? You could say it is a state of flux and that you must master the good en guard in six....point on target before moving on to the more advanced places to have your arm and point. Or are those actually advanced places and should they be taught from Lesson Three or so? Lock your arm in an unchanging place that becomes a constant target for your opponent....or move it all around like the "Hokey Pokey"?

Why have basics first, if eventually you will discard most of them? Yes....you need a foundation....yes...you always come back to them...yes....some of the basics are constantly in some successful peoples games.

So many times I tell a new, young fencer something or instruct them on something and I feel like I am lying to them....or at least withholding some of the truth.

Editors Note: I often feel like my journal would be better with a musical back ground or at least wav files. If I had a way to post wav files I would have Jack Nicholson saying, " YOU CAN'T HANDLE THE TRUTH!"

The truth is that someday you will not want to keep your arm in six and your point on target. This will be more dangerous when your tiny little forearm does not look like it is using a trash can lid for a bell guard.

But, you just can't say that to a kid....I guess. They would not get it.

They would never understand the struggle to find what is correct and incorrect in fencing. What areas are gray? What areas are absolute...if any?

I know they would never understand......because I don't.

So, is it pointless to critique "The Art and Science of Fencing"? How can "modern sport fencing/Olympic fencing" critique classical fencing when there are so many elements of classical fencing in it? How can "modern sport fencing/Olympic fencing" say something is wrong with classical fencing when there are so few absolutes within itself? How can we critique something that will be constantly evolving in the future? What makes us think that we will not evolve full circle back to a more classical style? (I know it is unlikely.....but it could happen.)

You often hear, " Epee is truth." I like to think that of the three weapons that this is close to true. It is a large part of it's appeal.

The search for absolute truth (if it exists) must be even harder in other weapons.

Last Editors Note: This is a rambling post. Sometimes I can't find anything of interest to read about fencing on-line. As I read back over this, I feel like I am just talking to myself. I remember a quote from Gandalf that says," It is a habit of the old to always address the wisest person in the room." He was ,of course, talking to himself. In this case, I am certainly NOT the wisest person in the room.....but I AM the only person in the room.( Thanks to my editor! Now if you could fix my mind so it does not bounce all over the place.)


Princess Rashid, Sport-Fencing Artist said...

Great post. It really struck a cord with me. I once had a coach tell us at large fencing camp that he was training us to Win not look pretty. In his mind, fencing so-called "correctly" didn't put medals on his wall, but fencing to win did. He's had a lot of National medalists in his stable.

That type of thinking encourages an unorthodox style. I don't have a problem with that but I admit the elitist in me hates to see a just a total disregard to form and "proper" fencing style in the development of new fencers. It could lead to some really ugly fencing and that can lead to some pretty unsafe fencing.

Also with teaching, I think its necessary to teach the rules first before you can allow or encourage the fencer to become creative.

my two cents..

Courtney said...

there is nothing wrong with classical fencing. like you said, it's almost like a dying art, especially with the focus now on winning rather than the love of the art form. i mean, i love my sport, and i love to win. but sometimes you have to take a step back and appreciate how beautiful and rich it is. the same thing goes with sometimes you have to take a step back and have a good laugh at how silly it is too :)

cobalt said...

The problem with a lot of classical teaching is that they try to leave their domain. The term "classical" implies that the knowledge no longer applies and is historical in nature. It's very important for us to remember our history, but the world doesn't stop and reflect on our past very long.

There's also the silly thought that this training has anything to do with getting into a real fight or swordfight. Neither "classical" nor "sport" have anything to do with a sword fight. If you want to learn how to defend yourself: Learn how to shoot a gun, or pick up MMA.

I mean seriously...look at boxing over the years. See how it's progressed. (More recently for the negative as too many people got greedy...but that's another point) You've seen the old classical English boxers with their palms facing themselves, etc...not bouncing. Can you imagine someone going up to Manny Pacquiao doing that?

Anyhow...on to pedagogy:

A lot of times a new coach has to remember fails to understand one very important fact: You can't teach em everything at once.

Their little brains can only process so much at one time. :P

I always tell my new students, we're going to set the basic rules first. When you master these, then we can break some of them. (Charles Gibert liked to joke about the standard Toomey advanced discussion of a technique: "Blah, blah, blah, BUT/EXCEPT FOR/WHEN blah"). You only get to break conventions when you know the reasons why they exist, and why you're breaking them. (For example: 1.) I keep a good guard. Why? I'm at the edge of my opponent's distance, it's easy for him to hit me if I drop it. 2.) I dropped my guard. Why? I'm out of my opponent's distance, I can do pretty much anything I want/I'm trying to bait him to attack from there)

For example, I always get on a student's case about keeping a good 6 guard. It's important for them to be calibrated as to what that is. Once I feel secure in their knowledge of what a good guard should be, then we can break it and move the hand around. There's a big difference between leaving your guard open because you don't know any better, versus doing it intentionally to draw an attack.

Another example, I recently taught Miles to move his guard around. Why? He's been consistent in keeping his 6 guard. Which prevent the silly hand touches people were getting on him. But now people are scoring with angulation and flicks because the hands too steady. So he now knows what he gains/loses in hand position by instinct. I couldn't have shown him that without starting from the basics. It would have been way too complicated to show him everything at once. (Heck, going back over all that, it's complicated reading that. :P )

I will also teach actions in group lessons some students will never use competitively. They still need to be introduced to them, so it's not a surprise when they see it. (And they may add it to their repertoire over time. Similar to a pitcher adding a new pitch)

Regarding bouncing, IMO...it's hard to teach some of the reasoning behind it without using standard footwork. And you will still be using that footwork on occasion, even if you do bounce.
Again, you've got to show the foundation before you learn the exceptions.