Social Aspects of the Minnesota Sword Club
When you join an athletic organization most people first think of the activity but what makes or breaks the enjoyment of the sport are often the social aspects. Following is an outsider's observation of the Minnesota Sword Club. They spent 17.5 hours observing for a writing class at the University of Minnesota, which makes their writing a bit flowery. They do however get the feeling of what is happening. Following is their paper.
Written By: Sam Garbrecht and Chad Berg
CIS Writing, University of Minnesota
November 3, 2010
A white sign and flickering lights guard the entrance to the Minnesota Sword Club. I stroll through the door, unaware of the activity taking place below my feet. The light brown walls are accompanied by tiles on both the ceilings and floors. At the end of the room a wide spiraling staircase descends into the club. As I reach the base of the stairs, a wave of chatter sifts through what was once a bowling alley. A wide carpeted landing splits twenty feet farther down, and on the right is a narrow strip of floor inhabited by aged couches and faded chairs: an observation post for spectators.
Further right sits a shelf filled with trophies and medals of numerous sizes and shapes. The shimmering case is hard to miss, placed as a reminder to the current fencers of their aspirations to succeed. Many club members are desensitized to its glossy presence, after walking past it thousands of times.
The polished floor shows marks from where the bowling lanes separated, and the shelves where the bowling balls were kept have been transformed into storage for swords and masks. The fencers use a wooden bench as a place to observe other bouts and catch their breath.
Rich Jacobson, the owner of the Minnesota Sword Club (MSC), established it in the 80’s after moving from the east coast. Rich is a tall, slim man with a full head of white hair and a mustache. Although described as “frugal” by one instructor, Rich knows all there is to know about fencing.
A collection of faded pictures sits on a wall. “Most of the ones up on that wall over there are the ones who stay and train here at this club,” he explains. Rich embodies diligence. He arrives at the club an hour before practice begins and leaves well after. Constantly moving about, he carries boxes of new equipment, organizes all levels of fencers and their instructors, teaches the saber group and individual lessons, and answers the phone.
The Minnesota Sword Club is full of youth, teenage, and adult fencers, their parents, and the instructors. The energy level takes a significant boost as Rich paces around checking in with instructors and parents while the children are in unorganized lines warming up by tossing a ball at each other. Some teens openly spar on the floor while a roar of speech rises from others. Moms and Dads of all ages occupy themselves while their kids are on the floor. Some sip coffee and munch on muffins while watching the action or chatting to each other. Others prefer to be alone and sit near tables wearing their suits and working on laptops and cell phones. Still other parents read the newspaper or books stopping every so often to glance at the fencers.
Two masked figures slash and stab with their sabers, and neither gain an upper hand as they shuffle back and forth on the polished wood.
“It’s not about direction; it’s about arm movement!” Karl Beck declares. He is a tall, well-built teenager with shaggy hair that hangs down to his shoulders. Like the rest of the small group of fencers that show up on Wednesday nights, he is competitive but relaxed and social.
“Karl, it is entirely about arm movement and direction,” Dan Hartmann jokes. Like Karl he is one of the most competitive at the studio. He is also tall but with a slender frame. His hair and fingernails are jet black, and he wears red and black pants with a studded leather belt before practice.
In the background, a chorus of high-pitched male voices rise in unison, “We do what we must because we can, for the good of all of us, except the ones who are dead.” This song from the popular videogame, “Portal,” would be more at home at Comic Con than a fencing studio. This is just one song –one quirk—that binds them.
One member of the chorus, Zach, approaches me as I sit on a flower-patterned couch. Zach, whose husky frame sports a wavy ponytail, is an outgoing foilist. “Why do you want to study us?” Zach questions. “We’re so weird.” It is hard to disagree with a teen-ager when the average conversation is about “Portal,” “Call of Duty,” or the relative application of time travel and its many uses. “We’ve got people like Dan here who are jocks, and people who say," I’m kind of a gangster…I’m the outlier,” Zach adds laughing before retreating to the circle of teenage boys nearby.
Each fencer, like Zach, finds their own group of friends to converse with. Their clothes lack brand names or logos and they stand hands in pockets, legs spread apart. The clothing conveys an important message: no one in the studio is better than anyone else. Unlike a high school where Nike and Adidas define the jocks, and Aeropostale and Abercrombie and Fitch adorn the popular girls, clothing here is functional and unadorned. As much as their clothing crosses the traditional lines between cliques, so do their interactions.
Hannah Dickinson, a junior at Hopkins High School, is a social butterfly at MSC. She stands at average height, wraps her brown hair in a ponytail, and wears her makeup like she could be one of the popular girls at school. Her attitude however, does not embody the stereotypical queen bee. “No one hates anyone,” she claims. “These friends are better than my friends at school. I mean, I have a few friends at school but here I have a ton. I go from being an introvert to an extrovert.” Apart from fencing, she enjoys writing and drawing and is one of the many diverse people who make up the studio. From novel-writing to playing video games to mountain biking to karate, there isn’t one stereotype that could sum up the fencers at MSC.
Amongst the conversations, a young instructor in his black MSC t-shirt and sweatpants walks up shouting, “Teen group one minutes!” Instead of preparing alone, the students bend over and grab their garments without missing a word of their conversations. They slip their gray vests over their shoulders and adjust the straps. In their right hand they grab their swords and swing them as they hold their white mesh helmets with their left hand. Practice has begun.
The floor of the studio is separated by wooden pillars into three basic sections. The sections are occupied by one sword type (epee, foil, or saber) and all three disciplines hold separate group practices. The epee fencers occupy the front section. In epee, fencers duel with weapons similar to that of the three musketeers and attempt to strike their opponent anywhere on the body. “People who fence epee get really antsy and paranoid,” one instructor explains. They shuffle back and forth making small prods at each others’ hands and feet, careful not to leave themselves exposed. One round of a fight lasts around thirty seconds while they probe for weaknesses and keep themselves protected.
Among the epeeists is Mike Dickinson, a balding fencer in his mid-forties who joined the club three years ago after enrolling his daughter, Hannah. Mike favors individual lessons because he enjoys the opportunity to set his own pace and learn strategies. “It’s like a chess game with a sword in your hand,” Mike says. Because fencing is an individual sport, there is no one to back you up when something goes wrong. “Unlike team sports, you must remain focused at all times or you will lose,” Mike adds. Despite his age, he finds no problems conversing with the kids. “If you just spent all day at work talking to adults, you’d be very one dimensional. Talking with kids keeps me well-rounded.”
In the middle section, the foilists, led by Tyler Clayton, practice their footwork by hopping across the studio on one leg. Tyler lacks height, but makes up for it in his enormous personality. His dress is casual unless teaching a lesson, where he equips himself with black vest and matching mask. Excited to share his experiences with me, he informs me foil is typically for beginners and requires a death blow (a hit to the upper body or groin) along with having right of way (being on the attack). Like epee, foil is about being slow and methodical “They enjoy getting a hit because it’s such a small target. I actually like foil though. I kind of have to; I teach it.”
By the back wall are the saber fencers. The quickest of all styles, saber attracts the strongest and fastest individuals. “People who fence saber are the type of people who just like hitting stuff,” Clayton smirks. Saber is a military weapon originally used on horseback, and the target area is the hips and up including the head. It incorporates strategy and footwork to create a fast-paced hybrid style. Unlike epee which is dominated by methodical stabs, saber belongs to hack-and-slash fencers. Because saber uses the concept of ‘right-of-way’ where the fencer on the attack gets a point even if both fencers hit each other, saberists tend to charge and establish themselves as the attacker. As soon as the fight commences they rush and take a swing, ending the fight less than three seconds after it begins.
Despite the many differences between the styles there are many characteristics that unite them. According to Tyler, “Sword fighting is all one game. Each weapon just highlights an aspect of that. It’s an interesting way to look at the world around me. You rarely find a sport that’s like physical chess.” Like chess, fencing requires focus, strategy, and adaptation. “Sometimes my dad has to remind me that I’m here to fence instead of socialize,” Hannah says with a wry smile. “But, once you put that mask on, you are just in the bout. They tell us to come focused and know that nothing else matters. We need to put everything else behind us.”
During bouts, Hannah drops her social façade and transforms into a warrior. Sweat drips down her face as she takes a break from the action. Despite her affinity for loudness, she remains quiet and prepares for the next point. She readjusts her mask keeping her eyes fixed on her opponent, tuning out the buzz of the club.
There is one characteristic that every fencer must master to compete at an elite level: the ability to adapt. Fencers adapt to the style their opponent and remember their opponents’ tendencies in specific situations. The ability to adapt comes with age and experience. “Dave, who is like 71 or 72 years old, who has had two bypass surgeries and joint problems, cleans my clock every single time. You wouldn’t think, but he just kicks my ass,” Tyler informs me laughing. Another form of important adaptation is the adjustment of style. “In fencing there are two basic brains,” Tyler adds. “There are warriors, who can see, interpret, and feel out what happens. They don’t care how they look as long as they get the touch. On the other side of the spectrum are technicians. They’re not very perceptive but are meticulous about drills and techniques. At the start, warriors totally kick ass,” he smiles.
As the fencers age, the dominance shifts between the two “brains”. Despite the upper hand at a younger age, the warriors begin to lose a step as fencers become adolescents. Technicians take over because of their ability to outsmart and outmaneuver the warriors’ aggressive, yet predictable, attacks. Control exchanges between the two until fencers learn to balance them. “I used to be a warrior but I guess I’ve kind of turned into a technician now,” Tyler analyzes.
Tyler Clayton has traveled to a variety of fencing studios throughout the country. “It’s definitely unique…This is the only club that occupies a bowling alley. It has a weird charm, nothing nice. It’s kind of like, come down to the dungeon,” he laughs. “But you have a bunch of people hitting each other with sticks, so we like to call it ‘directed chaos.’ We kind of shape it so it goes the way we want.”
While watching the “directed chaos,” I notice Hannah steps forward, parries to the left, leans right, and thrusts her saber forward. Immediately after, she takes one more step and repeats again, again, and again until traveling all the way across the floor. New and old moves must be committed to muscle memory.
“In fencing, there are not that many things to learn, just using them at the right time in combination with the right things,” Clayton explains while a group of foilists do push-ups behind him.
The repetitiveness does not stop on the floor. Every day the fencers arrive and head to the locker rooms where they change into workout clothes. When they are not chatting about random topics they gather in a circle and kick around a weighted hacky sack while waiting for their designated practice time. During practice, they socialize and do cardio workouts, and eventually move to drills, followed by open bouting. This routine is rarely broken.
As I lean against an aged wooden pillar, a slim thirteen year old boy named Logan motions for me to move. Logan is one of the top foilists in the youth age group. He has piercing brown eyes. Around the coaches, he follows their every command; however, he searches for opportunities to avoid extra physical workouts.Today Logan has been given the personal responsibility to guide a new foilist at the club.
Unlike the advanced teenage fencers, new members are not thrust into camaraderie at the youth level. They are forced to earn their position in the environment by skill with a sword or developing a friendship with someone higher in the social hierarchy. Jared, the new foilist, has thick hair that reaches his shoulders and faded converse shoes. Along with dark tan skin, he lacks energy on the floor. Too nervous to approach the other children, Jared spends most of the practice working with the coach, Tyler.
“Nobody’s really helping him out because Tyler is helping out. Tyler helping is enough,” Logan tells me. “To fit in, you really have to be yourself. If I have to make him fit in, he won’t be himself.”
But even Tyler, whose responsibility is to teach the rest of the foilists at the same time, cannot always incorporate Jared into the new environment. While coaching the rest of the fencers, Tyler’s mind slips. “Oh, I forgot to give you [Jared] something to do…looks like you got a quick break,” Tyler tells Jared after six minutes of stale inaction.
Tyler’s duties have doubled with the addition of a new student. Luckily, he has “teacher’s pet” Logan to help him coach. Logan is the king of the hierarchy at the youth age. Fencing for nearly four years, he believes he could fence at the higher level but is “too lazy to do all the stuff.”
I look on as Tyler explains a simple drill to the foilists. Following his explanation, he waves up Logan who has been expecting the invitation. Logan demonstrates the drill with purpose and turns, beaming, toward his peers. His teaching does not stop there. Logan helps to coach every one of his opponents. During each drill, Logan grabs hold of his opponents’ blade, directing it while explaining the “correct” process.
None of Logan’s opponents appear to take his advice to heart. “I hate fencing with him [Logan]. He never stops touching your sword,” two girls converse in secret.
When asked about how other people might view his advice on the floor, Logan responds, “Sometimes they seem a bit exasperated. But I think they should fence the best they can or not fence at all.”
Meanwhile, Jared rehearses the stance and thrust Tyler instructed him to. He sets his feet, bends his arm downward, thrusts his foil forward into an inch-round hole in the wall, and retracts. After several minutes, his pace falls and he becomes distracted, longingly gazing at Logan and the other foilists.
While the teen fencers practice their many footwork and sword drills they exhibit both sides of their personality. In essence, they’re still their normal chatty selves. Hannah smiles with her fellow saberists as they hop across the floor. Her face flushes red as a friend razzes her for missing a step, a rare occasion for Hannah. Even with the jovial atmosphere they focus on fencing. Practice is light but not sloppy, and they keep it fun but don’t waste it. Their footsteps are methodical and purposeful along with their sword thrusts.
After about 15 minutes the drills are complete and the floor empties. A few coaches remain with students giving individual lessons while the rest of the crowd suits up to fight.
On the front of the floor, Karl Beck and Dan Hartmann hook themselves up to the electronic cords used to register hits. They are both over 6 feet tall, and while Karl has at least 20 pounds on Hartmann, they are evenly matched and both in the upper echelon of fencers. I stand next to Sue, an aging ex-competitive fencer who goes to the club to keep in shape. She volunteered to mediate the bout and explains what is happening as it progresses. I can’t help but be impressed by the keen eye she has cultivated over her years of experience. As they leap back and forth at each other, their swords create a blur of confusion and I barely see any of the touches, but Sue doesn’t miss a single one, “Attack, parried, attack, arrives.”
The match drags on, it’s 3-2 Karl, and their breathing becomes lengthened. Dan sticks his hand out at Sue asking for a quick rest. His talkative, light-hearted attitude is nowhere to be seen; he hasn’t said a word the entire bout and after most points throws his head back in exasperation and disbelief. Karl acts much the same. They ready themselves for another go and with a quick parry and a counter-attack Karl scores another point. It’s now 4-2; one more point and it is over.
Hannah joins me as a spectator. I ask her how fencers handle the mental toll of winning and losing and she responds, “At first it was all about winning. But now I know the only way to succeed is to fail, so I guess winning and losing really just balance each other out over the years.”
“Ready… fence!” Sue announces. Hartmann takes an immediate step forward followed by a step back from Beck. Hartmann pauses and then takes three more decisive strides toward Beck while thrusting his arm forward. Beck deftly dodges to the right and gives a quick sideways jab straight into Hartmann’s gut. Match over: Beck wins.
When I entered the club, my preconceptions were shattered. I expected designer clothes and well-groomed kids whose air of superiority bordered on arrogance. Nerds, geeks, athletes and every other kind of kid flock to the Minnesota Sword Club every day to share techniques and gossip, but mostly company, which they receive little of at school. The fencing studio is not only an institution of learning, but also a social refuge. Fencing teaches them about strategy and logic while allowing them to get a workout at the same time. Fencers are not rich kids who patronize everyone around them, but rather outgoing and hospitable competitors who made an extra effort to help me fit in. They are neither conceited nor superficial and by no means proper. The fencers at MSC wear their mask like a crown; a symbol of their commitment to the game, and they don’t take it lightly. They are dedicated workers who love what they do, and they learn perseverance and patience each day. Many of their experiences come from the game of fencing, but more memories spur from the social aspect of the club. There is no obligation for students to attend, yet the impenetrable friendly atmosphere keeps them coming.
As the day lingers on, fencers begin to filter out. They head to the locker rooms in the back corner and reappear back into their normal clothes a short time later. One by one carrying their custom red and black MSC bags they exit out the back entrance knowing they will be reunited in a day or two. They take with them the energy they bring to the club; an energy that cannot be replaced.