Fencing for Fitness

Ever fancied trying fencing? London’s main spot for the sport is on our doorstep – novice Kate O’Donnell takes the lunge.

Would it be trivial of me to admit that film and fashion were foremost in my mind? I pictured Madonna and Rosamund Pike from the Bond film Die Another Day and the fencing-inspired catwalk fashions from Dior’s latest catwalk show.

And would it be even more trivial of me to admit that the first thing I noticed when I turned up at my first fencing lesson was that my fellow fencers had, to a man and woman, the neatest, pertest bottoms? You know how when you do any fitness class, or go to the gym, there are usually a few bods who are not in great shape? Well, in the humble surroundings of a municipal fitness studio, I found myself surrounded by gods.

I had signed up for a taster session with the London Fencing Club, which holds year-round group fencing lessons for all levels, plus intensive workshops and one-on-one private sessions, at two locations: the Finsbury Leisure Centre in Norman Street and the Central Foundation Boys’ School in nearby Cowper Street. I had assumed that fencing can make you fit. What I hadn’t expected was that it can also give you an incredible body.

My instructor, a lean Romanian called Alex, given to guttural yells and dressed from head to toe in black, ninja-style, was chief god. He gave me a sabre, a leather glove for my “fighting hand” and showed me how to shimmy forwards (with feet always at 90 degrees to each other), retreat (the same thing backwards), and lunge (not so far over your front knee that you can’t get up quickly). On the other side of the studio, a 22-person intermediate class was in full warm- up mode, comprising running round the studio, high stepping, jumping up and crouching down, lunging, and then doing it again backwards.

Alex, meanwhile, had moved on to show me how to deploy the sabre using a squash-like flick of the wrist, rather than a tennis-like bludgeon with your whole arm. I practised on an unsuspecting exercise ball. Next, he invited me to hit him on his chest and his flanks with the cutting edge of the blade (needless to say, it was blunt): each stroke bounced off his skin as though he were rock hard yet also made of rubber.

The thwacking sound of steel on flesh was, I thought, alarming, but Alex laughed off the welts that were rising on his skin. Forwards and back we went, me landing a few blows and thinking that fencing is like dancing ballet while playing chess. From the group session next door I could hear the beep, beep, beep of the steel boxes that record each hit and cries of “Next!” as fights came to an end and partners changed. It was clear from the pink faces and broad smiles that, as a way to work off office stress, fencing is brilliant.

Once upon a time, sword fighting was an essential life skill. Early weapons were of the bludgeon variety: pikes, poleaxes and assorted long sticks. Later, soldiers could swing (incredibly heavy) broadswords. The appearance in the 16th century of the lighter, nimbler and far more dangerous rapier required fencing masters to teach their charges how to use this deadly new weapon.

Formalised rituals, rules and increasingly refined weapons – the three used are foil, épée, sabre – enabled every dashing young blade to practise
his swordsmanship in relative safety. These days, our biggest danger is probably crossing Old Street roundabout, so who needs fencing? Well, swordplay is called play for a reason. It’s fun. En garde! Etes-vous prêts? Allez!

Six-week beginners’ courses start at £150 (07951 414409)
Click here for more information: www.londonfencingclub.co.uk