“Simon says, lunge!”
The voice echoes through the cavernous gymnasium as 12 steel swords flash beneath fluorescent lights. Lunge, parry, feint, riposte — en garde! A dozen would-be fencers stand ready, awaiting the command of their fencing master.
“Simon says, we are done,” the master commands.
The tension breaks, weapons lower and the students disperse. A few feet away, Mark Bevan, president of En-Garde Fencing Club in Edmonton, looks on with pride.
“She’s a real asset,” he says of the fencing master.
The not-for-profit club is nearly three years old, and Bevan is pleased with its 60-member roster that includes kids, teenagers and adults from St. Albert and west Edmonton. On this night, teenagers and adults have converged in the gymnasium at EcolĂ© Notre Dame elementary school in Edmonton to learn the ancient art of duelling.
“They say it’s sort of like chess at a thousand miles an hour,” Bevan explains. “It takes a lot of thought, a lot of finesse, practice, skill … but what’s really cool about the sport is that you can get into it fairly quickly.”
He may be right. The class is full of ruddy-faced teenagers not yet old enough to drive cars, but who wield their weapons with the confidence of seasoned veterans. It’s a strange scene, one that doubtless worries some parents, but Bevan, a father of two, is quick to quash any rumours about the sport’s potential brutality.
“As a parent watching it, I think it’s one of the safest sports that my kids have ever been involved in,” he says. “It may have been, in the past, an opportunity to kill. It may have had a violent root but now it’s more about finesse.”
In addition to protective clothing and steel-mesh masks, swords are dulled and blunted and the goal is to land a hit rather than kill or maim.
Bevan, who originally learned fencing as a stage actor, says he’s always been impressed with its level of sportsmanship.
“There is very much a gentle aspect about it and a very respectful aspect about it,” he explains.
But in addition to these qualities, he’s careful to note that the club has an ulterior motive — friendship. Its slogan is “where friends meet to fence,” a phrase coined by club founder Roger Hodkinson.
The idea, says Hodkinson, was to build a club where people could come together, learn a sport and make lasting friendships.
“We just wanted to have a different atmosphere from the start than was currently available,” Hodkinson says.
Hodkinson, a former competitive fencer, decided he wanted to start a less-regimented club when his own kids expressed an interest in the sport. Soon after, he found a school that was willing to let him use its gymnasium after hours and En-Garde was under way.
Bevan entered the picture after his own kids expressed an interest in the sport as well, and both he and Hodkinson say they’ve since made efforts to make the club as inclusive as possible.
“Roger would probably never say this,” remarks Bevan, “But … I think it’s about a contribution to the community. It’s about building something that makes the place a better place to be.”
The club supplies all the necessary equipment to students, and is even willing to help parents who can’t afford the $299 price ticket.
Hodkinson, who recalls what it was like fencing in his youth, believes the sport is perfect for kids that aren’t attracted to traditional Canadian sports.
“Ninety-nine per cent of the kids here are the kind of kids that wouldn’t necessarily fit into a hockey or soccer or baseball team. They’re not your standard jock-types; they tend to be a little on the thinky side,” says Hodkinson. “But bring them together and it sort of sets them on fire, it’s like they’ve found each other … now they’ve got a place to belong.”
Their efforts weren’t in vain. When students aren’t practicing parries and lunges, swords are lowered and they lapse into the common teenage vernacular, discussing homework assignments and plans for the weekend.
But there’s one demographic that Bevan thinks has a real opportunity to take advantage of the sport.
“There’s so much opportunity for girls in this sport,” he says. “I think of the sports that are out there, the doors are just wide open for girls that want to go [into this].”
Sarah Morrison is one of those girls.
Across town at the Edmonton Fencing Club, 20-year-old Morrison hustles among a throng of duellists ensuring fees are paid, equipment is ready and students are happy.
The club, founded by 1984 Olympic gold medallist Jujie Luan, possesses the same relaxed community atmosphere as En-Garde.
Morrison, a junior coach, came under Luan’s tutorship when she was 10 and quickly became a member of the family.
“We’re kind of a family. Jujie treats everyone like family,” Morrison says. “When I was competing she’d pick me up from school, bring me here, feed me dinner [and] give me lessons.”
She can’t remember exactly what drew her to swordplay, but she liked the individuality that came with it.
“It’s always about personal best because you can’t really measure yourself against anyone else, because everyone else is getting better or worse,” explains Morrison.
In addition to a silver medal at the 2002 Alberta Winter Games, Morrison is adept at all three styles of fencing — epĂ©e, foil and sabre — each with its own sword and history.
EpĂ©e was designed in the 19th century to teach the wealthy how to duel, while foil evolved from the French aristocracy’s training weapons in the 17th and 18th centuries.
Sabre, on the other hand, descends from the cavalry sword. Unlike epĂ©e and foil that use larger target areas on the body, sabre fighters are only allowed to strike above the waist because, when mounted combat was still common, it was un-gentlemanly to attack an opponent’s horse.
Beyond weapons, the sport itself has a colourful history. Fencing began in the 14th century as a way for aristocrats to settle disputes of honour. The first treatises on the sport were written that same century, but it was William Shakespeare who coined the most commonly regarded first reference to it in his play The Merry Wives of Windsor.
Although the death of an opponent is no longer the sport’s chief intent, it still carries much of its old world heritage.
According to the British Columbia Fencing Association, the piste, or long narrow strip used for duelling, is designed to mimic what combat was like in the narrow corridors of a castle. Fencers wear white because points were scored with soot or ink placed on the tip of the weapon prior to the invention of electronic scoring systems.
Fencing has also been included in every modern Olympic games since 1896.
For Morrison, the sport is more than a passing fancy.
“Even if I’m not fencing seriously, I’ll always have a connection to it,” she says.
Naturally right-handed, Morrison was recently forced to re-learn the sport with her left hand after she damaged her right after years of fencing.
Not one to give up easily, she plans to attend the fencing national tournament in Saskatoon this weekend even though she won’t compete. She will also coach summer camps in St. Albert starting in July.
Although Morrison says she’s lost her competitive edge, like Bevan and Hodkinson, she refutes the sport’s violent, elitist reputation, maintaining that it’s a sport for everyone.
“It’s a sport that tends to be more about co-ordination than speed,” Morrison says. “It’s important to realize that anyone can start it even if you’re not naturally athletic.”