It would seam inconceivable today for a 9 year old to join a fencing club and do only footwork for one year and a half, but that’s how I got started. All the kids in the club were “drooling” around the weapon rack, but the coach was very adamant thundering with a dictatorial voice. “You are not ready yet to touch the weapons.” Now forty something winters later, a fencing coach myself, I totally agree with that philosophy of coaching which stresses footwork first and then the weapon skills.
Before the first steps
Fencing starts with the en garde (Fr.) or on guard position. It is the foundation that provides the fencer with the necessary mobility to create offensive, defensive or counter offensive actions. Generally speaking there are two schools of thought that approach the same topic from two different angles. The classical school of fencing teaches the on guard position with particular focus on strict lines, symmetry and aesthetic balance. Other schools decided to distance themselves from the classic lines and adopt a natural, facing forward of the on guard position. That means that the fencer’s shoulders and hips are facing naturally forward in a comfortable position. Even though this on guard position advocates natural move on the strip, it still maintains all the foundational elements: heals on the same line; the distance between the heals approximately equals the distance between the shoulders; knees slightly bent; an imaginary line drawn from the center of the hips falls in the middle of the distance between the heals (aka body’s center of gravity); body straight maybe forward leaning a few degrees from the waist (note: hips remain in the same position); shoulder, hip, knee and ankle on a perpendicular line with the floor; front elbow a palm away from the torso. The only difference is the back foot now pointing forward at about forty-five degrees, and shoulders plus hips are also facing naturally forward.
Why shoulders and hips facing forward?
Since footwork in modern fencing tends to cover the whole length of the strip at rapid speed, the on guard position gradually adapted to meet that need. It almost looks like foil and epee fencers wanted to be as fast on the fencing strip as saber fencers. So, they decided to imitate the saber on guard position. It is a well-known fact in the world of fencing that saber fencers move fast on the strip. One of the factors that generate increased mobility on the fencing strip is a natural, forward facing position of the torso. World renown fencing Master Emil Beck stated in The Complete Guide to Fencing that “The fencing position is not a static element, but is essential for loose and quick movements and therefore should be as natural as possible” (p. 48).
A talented kid came to train with us. I was intrigued by his on guard position. His whole torso, including hips and shoulders, was perfectly lined up with his weapon in the position of sixth. When I asked him if he intentionally adopted this uncomfortable on guard position, he said “Yes, because I am showing less target to my opponent.” “I agree,” I tried to reason with the kid, “yet that defies the purpose of fencing which is touch without being touched.” In my mind a fencer who starts the bout concerned about not being touched develops a defensive mindset instead of being free to create touches. “Works for me,” said the kid. It may work now, but for how long? A constrictive and less mobile on guard position coupled with a mindset that is not fully devoted to land touches, can potentially develop detrimental habits that may hinder the development of talent.
How to detect if your on guard position provides for a dynamic mobility on the strip
Take three or four retreat steps as fast as you can, then immediately advance three of four steps. If you are able to fluently retreat and immediately advance without stopping because you lost your balance, you are probably well centered and therefore mobile on your on guard position.
The on guard position, a subdivision of body position, is part of basic fencing elements along with weapon position, body movement and weapon movement. A natural on guard position promotes freedom of movement on the strip, allows muscles to act and react with appropriate speed, and it also stimulates creativity in footwork.
Beck, E. (2007). The complete guide to fencing (2nd ed.). St. Louis, Missouri: Meyer and Meyer Sport.
Coach Daniel Bucur | 9 October 2016 | Melbourne, Florida