Volume 17, Number 42 | March 11 - 17, 2005

Downtown notebook

How did I ever learn to like fencing?

By Michele Herman

When our younger son was eight and had a head full of Robin Hood and Lancelot, he asked for fencing lessons for Christmas. We said, are you sure, hoping he wasn’t. We had managed to avoid kids’ organized sports until then and were in no hurry to sign away our weekends for swashbuckling school. But if it had been a movie, at this moment the orchestra would have struck up a theme brimming with conviction, and he would have looked us in the eye and said: “Mom, Dad, I’ve never been more sure of anything in my life.”

So we promised him fencing lessons, figuring that with all the other neighborhood kids who never saw a stick, dowel or plunger they didn’t itch to wield, lessons would be easy to come by. We knew that in the past Carmine Street Rec and the McBurney Y had offered fencing. But the next day we opened the paper to learn that Metropolis in Chelsea, which turned out to be the only fencing school left for miles around, was entering bankruptcy.

Thus began our quest, spurred by our unwavering son. The search for fencing classes – any fencing classes – lasted a month, and every lead we found circled us back to Metropolis. Eventually a friend called with a number she had clipped from a tiny ad in the paper, which in turn led me to a name my searches had not turned up: the Alexandre Dumas School of Fencing. At the time my son was working his way through “The Three Musketeers.” Is this a good omen or what, my husband and I asked each other.

The owner answered the phone. He said kids were their specialty, and the school welcomed newcomers and was very friendly, and we should come by any Saturday afternoon, stay for two or three hours and pay ten bucks. He gave me a nice little lecture on how he teaches from the inside out, developing kids’ minds. Skeptical at stumbling onto what seemed to be the grail, I asked how it could be I’d never heard of his Upper West Side school. He said, oh, we let people find us. So that’s where you can find us most Saturdays, my son parrying and thrusting with enormous precision and concentration on the “strip” in his mask and vest and glove, and me, the anti-organized-sports mom, sitting on a folding chair watching with a big grin on my face.

And now I’m going to do something I never thought I’d do, because it’s so grating when sports fans do it: get all gooey about the beauty of sports. But I can’t help myself. When this fencing business started, I didn’t understand it at all, beyond the obvious boy appeal of a sport that sanctions the use of a pointy weapon as equipment instead of a ball. I thought fencing was vaguely blue-blooded and effete, like social dancing or polo. It seemed as dead as Latin, as stagy as Errol Flynn in kelly-green tights.

But after a year of being an Alexandre Dumas habituee and watching my son soak up his lessons, I have to admit he was on to something. Fencing is beautiful, even if we have to schlep to W. 101st St. to do it. Like ballet, it’s full of grace and rigor, and it’s French. First position is even the same, except that in fencing you turn your torso to the side to make it a smaller target. I also like the boxing-like physics of taking all the available masses and moving parts of a human body and enlisting them as pulleys and motors and counterweights. It all makes perfect sense: You squat for flexibility and center of gravity, you advance with your front heel and retreat with your rear toes, and you adjust your back arm to balance your thrusting one. The foil is only an extension of the strength, balance, precision, endurance and sheer wits behind it.

Fencing is not as American as Little League, but to its advantage it doesn’t come with long lulls in the outfield or on the bench or with parental adrenaline leaking out all over the place. There are no synthetic jerseys emblazoned with the name of Chase Bank or Murray’s Cheese. It’s sport boiled down to 1000-year-old essence. You wear a plain-white, heavy-cotton fencing vest, with standing collar and simple lines, surely the most handsome and flattering uniform ever designed. If I were Marc Jacobs, I would look into a fencing-inspired line.

For my son, the point is more that fencing makes him an honorary Musketeer like D’Artagnon. It gives him a seat at the Round Table, which means that Merlin can’t be far away. This is, after all, a kid who thinks up a new Halloween persona every year involving weapons and capes and belts and ammo bags or quivers slung across his shoulder. Fencing also goes a long way toward correcting for the unfairness of being second born. In fencing, it doesn’t matter how big you are as much as how well you use what you’ve got.

The courtliness also has its charms once you learn it. You call the teachers coach and shake their hands when you say hello and goodbye. You begin each round with a series of salutes concluding in a wonderful swashbuckly slicing of the foil through the air, and you end by removing your mask with your right hand and shaking your opponent’s hand with your left.

As for my blue-blood misconception, the owner of Dumas is a 71-year-old black man and former fencing champ who has taught fencing to generations of inner-city kids. The other coaches include a young black guy in a do-rag with a winning sense of humor, a middle-aged Hispanic woman, and our son’s first teacher Cindy, a blond Italian-American triathlete bond trader.

We love Cindy. She’s strict and no-nonsense, but she’s also clear and patient. She never gushes, but you can see in her face that she adores fencing and working with the kids. This fall she left temporarily to coach the Frederick Douglass Academy fencing team. They made it to the finals, losing nobly in the end to number-one-ranked Stuyvesant in Battery Park City.

Dumas is not for everybody. It’s a scrappy and makeshift place. The owner lost the space he was renting in the Volunteers of America building and moved to the basement of an apartment building nearby, spruced up with a fresh paint job but definitely a basement. He was raised the price. And you know that lecture about fencing from the inside out? Let’s say we can practically recite it by heart.

Our son is about to turn 10, and he still has a head full of Robin Hood and Lancelot. Age 10 is when competitive fencing begins, and the head coach just told us he’s ready for tournaments. Unlike most of his peers, when he has an idle moment, he doesn’t ask to play Age of Mythology on the computer. He goes to the imaginary strip that runs the length of our living room and, with a fierce look on his face, a perfectly balanced torso and a stealthy heel-toe movement, he lunges.

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