Corrections or additions?
This articles by Phyllis Maguire was published
in U.S. 1 Newspaper on Wednesday, June 3, 1998. All rights
Good Fencers, Good Neighbors
Live in the suburbs long enough and "fencing"
becomes the stuff good neighbors are made of. The sport lives on
with "rapier wit," a holdover from a medieval activity that
gets resuscitated — like jousting — in Hollywood swashbucklers
or Renaissance fairs. But, en garde! New Jersey is in fact a fencing
enclave, and if you stand outside the West Windsor-Plainsboro High
School on a Wednesday or Thursday evening, you can hear the clash
They belong to the Call To Arms Fencing Club, a merry band of amateurs
who have been meeting twice a week since September. Call To Arms is
the progeny of the former St. Paul’s Fencing Club of Princeton, which
met for seven years under the tutelage of the dueling pastor, Father
Evasio DeMarcellis. Following DeMarcellis’ death last year, Call To
Arms’ founder Dennis Reisert sought a new site, and the club that
began with less than a dozen fencers has now grown to over 20 members.
Luis de Agustin, a 44-year-old New Yorker who moved to the Princeton
area five years ago, has been a member since October.
It is not a big sport, de Agustin admits, but it is an organized,
association-sanctioned collegiate and Olympic one. In the United
aficionados are found in the Northeast, with pockets in California,
and around the Great Lakes. Never as popular here as it continues
to be in Europe, fencing is offered at many Ivy League colleges and
an increasing number of high schools.
"We are lucky here in the metro area" — de Agustin is
referring to New York City — "to have probably the finest
fencers in the country." Club member Harry James, who coaches
the boys’ fencing team at Somerville High School (his sister Molly,
another Call To Arms member, coaches the Somerville girls’ team),
points out that New Jersey has more high school fencing programs than
any other state, with 24 girls’ fencing teams and 22 for boys.
Princeton’s proximity to New York also means easy access to
of fencing gear — the different swords, with a variety of grips;
the cotton and leather gloves and footwear; the jackets and uniforms,
which are called armor, though made of layered cotton or of ballistic
material for competition, and the electric hardware needed for
bouts. When competing, not only is your sword electrified, but so
is your uniform; a wired jacket — called a lame — is connected
by cables to a box which lights up when the circuit is broken by a
valid "touch," for which a point is scored.
Since Call To Arms’ members don’t compete, no electric set-ups are
required. De Agustin estimates that the basic gear — a sword,
a glove, the mesh mask, called a helmut, that feels like a combination
beekeeper’s hat and neck brace, a cotton jacket, and (for women) a
molded plastic breastplate worthy of Brunhilde — costs around
$140. The club charges no fees or dues, unless you want a private
lesson with one of the coaches. In addition to the James duo and
Eric Wolarsky, a veteran of Columbia University’s fencing team and
now assistant fencing coach at the Hun School, is also available to
give lessons. Club equipment can be used free by novices until they
are ready to purchase their own gear.
"It’s a sport that demands visual and mental acuity," says
de Agustin. "I’ve heard it referred to as `physical chess.’ It
is also a martial sport, based on battle and weaponry, and approached
by some as an art." Competitions entail scoring points on an
"but as a martial art," de Agustin continues, "it is a
battle of wits with a certain beauty of engagement accomplished,
in a `gentlemanly’ manner." Fencers begin a match by saluting
one another — with their helmuts off, a throwback to an earlier
age when swords were sharp and one needed to make sure who
one’s opponent really was — and end by shaking hands.
It is also a sport with a strong dose of romance, and some feel called
to arms after a particularly rousing Errol Flynn or Zorro re-run.
But staged fencing — those slashing forays down grand staircases
and over battlements — has about as much in common with sport
fencing as Hulk Hogan has with collegiate wrestling.
"Watching sports fencing is not particularly compelling,"
de Agustin concedes. "The movements are so small and fast, that
when a group like ours gives a demonstration at a school or fair,
we incorporate some staged fencing just to give it a bit of
The flourish appeals to some who then find they like the sport."
Club members range from youngsters — though de
says the group now limits enrollment to those age 14 and over —
to octogenarians. The mother of 11-year-old Stephanie points out that
it is an excellent sport for girls, building as it does on ballet;
the basic fencing stance is similar to a fifth-position plie with
a body twist. There are several West Windsor high school seniors,
both girls and boys, including one aspiring actor, for whom fencing
might come in handy for those Shakespeare in the Park auditions. Other
members, like de Agustin, are former college fencers who laid down
their weapons at graduation.
De Agustin first fenced while earning a bachelor’s degree in fine
arts at Hunter College, coming under the influence of coach Julia
Jones, who, he says, was considered "the finest woman fencing
coach in the United States and a legend in her own time." Though
the two intervening decades have made a difference in his speed, de
Agustin finds there are definite advantages to being more mature.
"Wisdom and experience," he says, "will best good
There are three types of swords, each with its own blade shape,
"bell" or grip, and target areas. The foil is a point weapon,
and scoring touches are valid only against an opponent’s torso. It
is, says de Agustin, "the foundation weapon. The foil attracts
someone who likes the finesse of small movements and concerted
The epee, the longest of the three weapons, can score anywhere on
an opponent’s body, and "it attracts someone who tends to be more
quick and agile." De Agustin’s weapon of choice is the saber,
a slashing sword, which "requires more strength, and appeals to
more powerful fencers."
While each type of blade has its own devotees, there is a distinctive
fencing type. "It is a sport that attracts people who don’t
in other sports," says de Agustin. "Even when you fence on
a team, you compete as an individual, so fencing draws people who
want to be the lone sportsperson."
And it attracts those who are comfortable with targeted aggression;
instead of vying with a team for territory, you are scrambling for
blade right-of-way and lunging with a sword (though blunt-tipped and
rubber-covered) directly at someone’s body. "You must exert
to win," de Agustin says. "As in so many sports, you can
read or explore people’s personalities in how they fence."
A significant attraction, he points out, is the element
of the mask. The mesh helmut, covering the face and most of the skull,
must be worn — disguising the facial expression that inevitably
accompanies all those thrusts and parries. "To be able to exhibit
aggression without anyone seeing it in your face is liberating,"
de Agustin admits.
Though all the sword edges are blunt, the sport does involve some
risk, and anyone using a weapon dangerously will be, says de Agustin,
"immediately put down and discouraged." There is virtually
no danger of being stabbed. "The worst that happens is raised
welts; maybe a small cut if you’re unlucky, but most injuries are
the standard sports ones: pulled muscles and strained ligaments that
we try to avoid with warmups and floor exercises."
Members’ professions range from coaches to dentists, to a pharmacist
and a novelist. De Agustin, who received an MBA from Columbia
and a master’s in urban planning from Hunter is a self-employed
trader affiliated with Atlas Capital Management in Princeton Junction.
He says his vocation and avocation share many traits.
"The fundamentals of investment have to be learned, but the
point in trading is psychological," he says. "How you deal
with success or pressure, how you respond to failure — those are
attributes that come from your personality and your attitude toward
discipline. The same holds true in fencing: you have to learn the
techniques, but those get sifted through your psychological makeup.
The result is your own fencing style."
And which of the two, swordplay or trading, involves more risk?
is much safer, by far," says de Agustin without hesitation.
might die fencing, but only once. In commodities, you can get killed
— Phyllis B. Maguire
and Thursdays, 8 to 10 p.m., at the West Windsor-Plainsboro High
School, Wednesdays and Thursdays, June 3 & 4; June 10 & 11; and June
17 & 18. When school re-opens, the club will resume under the auspices
of the West Windsor Recreation Department. Call 609-951-9138.
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