The typical sports bumpkin, looking to snatch the simple glories of competitive, violent gaming, needs little more than strength and coordination. But at Cyrano's Place Fencing Club, instruction in the art of fencing matches physical prowess with the intellectual aerobics of problem solving, giving students the refined grace of an athletic chess match.
"You're constantly being put into an artificial emergency situation," explains the club's head coach, Sara Kass, a fencing scorekeeper for two Olympic games and a finalist in the U.S. National Championships for Women's Saber. "If you don't act properly, you're going to get poked. It's critical thinking. It's evaluation. It's analysis. It's reaction time."
One of three different weapon types -- the flexible-bladed foil, the more rigid épée, and the bowed saber -- is employed. Students first tackle the intricacies of the foil, then move on to épée or saber. "Foil is the way in which you get your basic footwork and hand position -- your simplistic logic of what the game is about," says Kass.
And figuring out what fencing is about is half the education. "I don't think the question is 'Is fencing an art or a sport?' It's both," Kass says, pointing out that ballet is derived from fencing. "But I think you can say that about any sport: When somebody makes a move that's just incredibly awesome, it's an incredible comment about human athleticism."
Whether a waltz of weapons or a kick-ass cutlery contest, fencing also offers a considerable workout.
"When I started three years ago, I weighed nearly 350 pounds," facilities engineer Jeff Velna recalls. "I've got four screws in my left hip and two screws in my right foot -- I could hardly walk across the room. Since I've been fencing, I've nearly lost 90 pounds, and now I'm on the verge of being able to run again."
Of course, running with sharp objects is not recommended.