Ho! Ha Ha! Guard! Turn! Parry! Dodge!

Ho! Ha Ha! Guard! Turn! Parry! Dodge! Spin!
Fencing Gets Its Day on Both Sides of the BayBy Joyce Owen

For those who watch sword fights in a movie or play and wonder if they can master the intricacies of the blade, En garde! A fencing club holds classes right here on the Emerald Coast.

The North Bay Society of the Sword offers lessons in the use of the épée, foil and saber, proving that the skill of handling sword-fighting weapons is something that one can aspire to.

One recent evening, while Maestro Robert Drake demonstrates “engage and lunge,” the last lesson taught in an eight-week program, the students in the class show that fencing is more inclusive than many other sports.

While 13-year-old Brian Kennedy works with adult student Brian Gortney, 8-year-old Tommy Rice and his mother, Lara, take turns practicing the new technique.

A few months ago, Tommy asked his mom if he could take a fencing class, but she didn’t think there was a place in the area to learn the sport. Only a few days later, they saw an article in a local paper about fencing classes at the Destin Community Center.

The mother-son duo wasn’t planned, but Lara noticed Tommy was the only youngster in the group at the first meeting. She worried he would not have anyone to fence with and joined the class, too.

Drake says many of the best fencers start off saying they aren’t very athletic and aren’t really interested in sports.

“But if they give it a chance, there’s that ‘a-ha’ moment,” he says.

“You always remember the first time you come en garde. You remember when someone is trying to hit you with a sword.”

Sometimes, after the initial attack, Drake has to remind his new students to riposte, or go after their opponent. They are just standing there, smiling, savoring the moment.

“One of the coolest things is that the strongest, fastest person doesn’t always win,” he says. “It’s about your determination. Your attitude carries you a long way. Some people describe fencing as physical chess. There is as much a mental requirement to succeed as physical agility.”

Several years ago, Drake had a 12-year-old competing for the first time at a tournament in Tallahassee. The young man was short for his age and the least experienced of the 13 fencers in the tournament.

“It appeared he would lose, so I told him, ‘This is your first event, just have fun,’” Drake recalls.

“But the boy had a couple of advantages. He trained with his father and was used to fighting adults, and the other fencers thought he was just a little guy, so they decided to take it easy on him,” Drake says. “There was no reason logically that he could win, but he had determination on his side and he used that to his advantage.”

In the tournament, the boy’s opponents became frustrated when he scored points, which led to mistakes in their strategy.

“It was the perfect situation,” Drake says. “He was undefeated in the tournament. Being strong and fast isn’t everything; the mind is more important. Fencing is about sizing up your opponent and figuring out a way to defeat him.”

The North Bay Society of the Sword has about 35 members. That’s more than some bigger cities, Drake says, but the club recruits from a large area.

In 1997, Drake met a teenager at a Civil War reenactment who wanted to learn the intricacies of fencing. Her mother had a spare room at her day care facility where they could train. Drake started teaching in Niceville with one student. As more people became interested in the sport, he decided it was time to organize.

“I stole the name,” Drake admits. “I had a friend who said if he ever formed a

fencing organization, he would call it Society of the Sword.”

Drake combined that with the location next to the North Bay Fire Department in Niceville where his classes were held.

Now, the club meets twice a week in Niceville and once a week in Destin and Fort Walton Beach.

During a recent session in Destin, active fencer Kennedy assisted with the lesson. Kennedy has been fencing off and on for four years.

“I’ve always been interested in sword fighting,” Kennedy says. “More for the culture than the swashbuckling aspect. We have a bunch of newcomers and have spread out to meet in new places. There’s lots of interest.”

As an active fencer, Kennedy can come in and fence during any meeting. And though he appears very intense during the actual matches, there’s a hint of a smile as Kennedy dons the mask and prepares to fence.

“It is a fun thing to do, suiting up in protective gear and dueling with an opponent, but knowing there’s a bit of danger is an important part of the training,” Drake says. “After all, there’s always a risk in a sport that allows one to advance on an opponent with a 3-foot-long steel sword.”

When parents ask how old a student must be, Drake tells them when they understand the safety issues, they are old enough.

“I like to remind people these are real swords. There is a rubber tip on the end to prevent injuries, but it can pop off,” he says.

Drake’s club offers training for those who just want to have fun with the sport and for others who want to participate in fencing competitions.

“We’ve got a couple of students who aspire to that level of fencing,” he says. His club doesn’t use the electronic scoring that most viewers of Olympic fencing competitions would recognize. With the Olympics, many competitors are just trying to make the light go off, to signal a hit. While that’s not wrong, Drake prefers to teach classical fencing, which he says is more like real sword fighting.

For more information on North Bay Society of the Sword, e-mail Drake at rohio48th@netzero.com or call him at (850) 678-9190 or (850) 226-2750.