Monday, September 8, 2008

Thoughts on my first two fencing lessons

My brother Jim, who's 13 years older than me, started West Point the same year I started kindergarten. He was a member of the Class of 1980, the first to include women, which fired my baby-feminist imagination. For several years there, I wanted to go to West Point, too.

At some point the Academy gave him a sword engraved with his name. As 20-somethings who move around a lot are wont to do, he left it with Mom and Dad. I used to get it down from the top shelf of the master bedroom closet, draw it, and carefully brandish it. I never played with it--I knew better than to treat it as a toy--but I loved it. I've yearned over swords ever since and toyed with the idea of taking a fencing class, someday when I have the time, after I've lost the extra weight I need to shed, etc.

This summer several friends convinced me that I shouldn't wait around for that perfect time. Salle Auriol is 15 minutes from my house, and beginner lessons are affordable and fit my schedule as long as I take a break from writers group and choir. So I signed up for the September class and had my first two lessons last week.

Tuesday was bliss. We had such a large group that they didn't even get to equipment and swords. It was all footwork and body position...and to my great surprise, I was almost good at it! I think of myself as a clumsy person, and I tend to struggle in dance or sport classes because I'm not a visual learner. In other words, I have trouble learning by watching a demonstration. Instead, I'm verbal and kinesthetic--tell me what to do, or, even better, tell me how it feels when I'm doing it right. But apparently my few years of skating and my bits and pieces of dance from high school musicals and the like stood me in good stead, because the footwork wasn't hard for me.

It was, however, challenging. I had to concentrate, and it was the toughest workout I'd had in a long time. But I loved it, and I even had a few of those moments that delight my history geek's soul. The instructor was explaining some of the history of the sport, how the similarities to ballet weren't a coincidence, because a few centuries ago young gentlemen would study at academies where fencing, dance, equitation, etc. were taught together as gentlemanly and soldierly arts. That was enough to fire my imagination. There I was, learning exactly what my more aristocratic characters would've learned as a normal part of their education. That 200-year gulf between the world I live in and the world I write suddenly seemed thin, insubstantial, something I could almost step through.

I drove home Tuesday loving fencing and trying to calculate how soon I could take up saber.

Thursday wasn't quite so delightful. We got our epees, and I discovered I wasn't half so natural at holding a sword as I am at advances, retreats, crossovers, and lunges. The instructor's assistants had to correct my grip and straighten my elbow not once, but twice. And that correct grip? Hurts. Makes me feel all weak and out of shape. Which, in point of fact, I am.

Next we put on our gear. Cue body image demons, because the slim, flat-chested gym bunny types had an easier time finding suitable equipment than buxom, overweight me. Geared up, we started work on the most basic attack--just stepping toward your sparring partner and poking him/her in the chest. Simple, right? Only I'm not sure I ever got it right, especially given the added challenge of being paired with a southpaw. (There are only two lefties in the class, one man and one woman, and since we went in gender-segregated groups to get set up with gear, we ended up with women paired with women, men with men.) To top it off, I don't think I've ever sweated so much in my life. My clothes were downright sodden in spots.

At the end of the lesson, I approached the instructors and asked if it was normal to be confused at this stage, and would we be going over what we'd learned that night again? They assured me that it was and we would, and I made a comment about feeling like the most clumsy one out there. They glanced among themselves, shook their heads, and the youngest one said, "Not even." Which made me feel a lot better. The senior instructor said there's always a few naturals, and they're the ones everyone notices and feels awkward beside, but that, basically, determination wins out. If you want to learn, you will. Funny, I hear that advice about succeeding as a writer all the time. Talent doesn't matter half as much as being stubborn enough not to give up...

With that in mind, I'm going to at least stick it out for the rest of the month. I invested in better shoes and more workout clothes. I'm going to take an outfit to change into so I won't have to drive home drenched. I don't know if I can work through my current clumsiness and my dislike of the gear to get back to that point of joy in movement and communion with history, but I'm going to give it a fair shot. Because Tuesday was wonderful, and if ever there was a sport made for my personality and passions, fencing is it.


Christine E. said...

Susan, I haven't read your blog before, but I will now, because I love the way you write! You make me want to take up fencing, even though from the challenges you describe, I'm pretty sure I wouldn't be much good at it.

Keep going, if only so I can read what you have to say about the classes!

Ryan, Sarah and Miriam said...

Hey Susan - I think it is great you are trying out fencing! Good for you. It does sound like hard work - but fun and rewarding like all things that tend to be hard are! Maybe once you have had a few more practices you will get your "thin line between now and the past" zone back.