Coming to the point: ACE MV fencing class
The sword was long an instrument of battle, settling disputes long before firearms changed the face of warfare. Over time, swords became a cross between an elite fashion statement and a weapon used to decide arguments between gentlemen. Sword duels were at one time responsible for thousands of deaths. Today, the sport of fencing is practiced internationally, and is one of only four sports that have been featured in every modern Olympics.
Fencing might seem to some a rarified pastime, and its traditions and place in the world of contemporary sports are not familiar to the average American. But for the past 14 years, a small group of devoted fencers have gathered regularly at the Martha's Vineyard Regional High School to practice their sport and share their passion with others.
Adult and Community Education on Martha's Vineyard (ACE MV) included a five-week Introduction to Fencing class as part of its winter session. Student Dave Brodsky, who coaches lacrosse and races bikes, did a bit of fencing in high school, and was attracted by its athletic aspect. "It's fun," he says. "I'm glad I'm doing it. It's a complement to the other sports I do."
Photo by Danielle Zerbonne
The class is taught by Island pediatrician Dr. Michael Goldfein, who has been fencing for more than 50 years and teaching for 15. Although he ultimately chose to practice medicine over professional fencing, it has been his lifelong passion. He was one of the founding members of the Martha's Vineyard Fencing Club, which in the beginning served high school students who were able to take it as an alternative to standard physical education classes.
His introduction to the fencing class is an accelerated one, and in only the second class, six students were putting on their freshly bleached jackets, brand-new masks and gloves, and picking up a practice weapon.
Fencing requires coordination, endurance, and strength, and when fully suited up with foil in hand, practicing beats (a strong tap on an opponent's sword to initiate an attack) and parries (a defensive move used to block the opponent's sword), the athleticism necessary becomes rapidly apparent. The foil only weighs about a pound, but combined with the footwork and lunging that the students practiced again and again, a few walked away feeling the burn. The mask covers the entire head and neck, offering excellent protection against sword points but inhibiting quick relief if an itchy nose suddenly begins to plague its wearer.
Dr. Goldfein explained to the class of six students, new or nearly new to the sport, about the different weapons and basic rules that accompany each. Foil, with a blunt-tipped, lightweight sword using only the torso as the target, is usually the first style new students learn. Epee uses a slightly heavier weapon, and the entire body is a valid target. In Sabre fencing, it is possible to score with the edge of the blade using slashing or thrusting attacks, as opposed to foil and epee, where only the very tip of the weapon is used.
The ACE MV fencing class meets each Thursday, the same time the fencing club meets, in either the school gym or in the wide hallways if a basketball game is in progress. As the class receives one-on-one instruction, club members are pairing up for bouts, or receiving their own instruction from one of the several experienced fencers, including one of the club's earliest members, Ann Russell. Ms. Russell fenced for the United States in both the 1972 Munich and 1976 Montreal Olympics, and Dr. Goldfein notes, "She provides the fencing club with 'world class' instruction."
"If you get good instruction in the beginning you can build upon it," Ms. Russell explains. "Our youngest student is 10, and the oldest in his 60s. I love the intergenerational aspect if it."
Danielle Zerbonne is on staff at The Martha's Vineyard Times.