Olde Town Fencing Club resuscitates ancient sport

Olde Town Fencing Club resuscitates ancient sport
Fencing beginners practice their lunges as part of an Olde Town Fencing Club lesson. Enthusiasts say the sport is growing. (Courtesy photo)

If Joe Hoffman had to guess, generations of novels and movies romanticizing swordplay have turned increasingly more Americans on to fencing.

That’s what did it for him at least.

“I was basically just telling you my story,” said Hoffman, an instructor and member of the Olde Town Fencing Club, with a chuckle. “I had to sign up for a physical education class in college and said, ‘haven’t tried fencing in the past couple of days.’ I took it up and some 30 years later I’m still at it.”

It’s a sport with a rich history, here and abroad. Though fencing has its roots in the battlefields and duels of Europe, it was taught in Boston and New York as early as the 1880s.

Still, the sport never quite ignited the country’s popular imagination until recently.

“It wasn’t really seen as an American sport, but now we’re a lot more globalized and the Atlantic Ocean doesn’t look as wide,” Hoffman said.

The mystique of fencing, white-clad warriors attacking and retreating while wielding one of three weapons — the foil, saber and epee — has certainly played a role. Then there’s the influx of Eastern European fencing masters, many of whom have crossed the Atlantic since the Cold War’s end, said Wayne Bowman, another local fencing aficionado. Increasingly, it’s become a youth sport, he said.

“I kid our younger fencers about how when I started in this sport [about 32 years ago] it was a sport for grown-ups,” Bowman said. “But nowadays the youth players are dominating in numbers and, unfortunately for me, they’re well coached these days.”

While the surge in youth fencers has perplexed Bowman and Hoffman, they’re not knocking it. The Olde Town Fencing Club is offering youth beginner classes, ages 10 to 15, Mondays from 8 to 9 p.m. beginning next week. A second class on Wednesday nights is available for adults. Both programs are run through the city’s recreation department.

Hoffman and Bowman hope the eight-week course will create new converts to the ancient sport. Despite it’s growing popularity in the United States, there’s a sharp learning curve. They have seen many give up on fencing. For others, the sport brings out an almost primal instinct.

“It connects down to a very deep level of the brain,” Hoffman said. “I’m going to touch you — no, you’re not going to touch me. Attacking and defending go way down deep.”

But it’s more than just the fight-or-flight response. Fencing masters harness their instinctual movements with constantly changing tactics and strategy, Hoffman said. You see how your opponent is moving and counter or try and trap them, he said. Just make sure the person with the other foil isn’t trying to trap you.

It’s a sport requiring quick thinking, good footwork, balance and athleticism. And just maybe, an attraction to the adventurous, sword-wielding hero so rife in popular culture.

“I had read a lot of science fiction and swashbuckling historical novels [before trying fencing],” Bowman said. “When I was a kid I saw the 1952 version of ‘Scaramouche’ … It’s that sort of a thing: Let me try that out.”