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Sine qua non

All human activities have a goal, or organizing principle, or sina qua non related to that activity.  I call it the foundational imperative of the activity.

The goal of equitation is to ride a horse from point a to point b. The sine qua non of equitation, the foundational imperative is: Stay on the horse!  I submit that any approach to equitation that results in your being thrown, trampled or dragged by the stirrup is invalid.

The goal of swimming is to cross the water in the water from point a to point b. The sine qua non of swimming, the foundational imperative is: Don’t drown!  I submit that any approach to swimming that results in you drowning is invalid. 

The goal of a swordfight, or duel, if you prefer, is not to get killed. To survive the fight. The foundational imperative of “fencing” then is: Don’t get stabbed!

Indeed, the word “fencing” comes from Old French meaning to fend off or to ward away a blow. The primary and definitive skill of the fencer is defense. Not offense.

Swimming in a pool resulted from and was intended to address the real world need to NOTdrown. Riding around an arena resulted from and was intended to address the real world need NOT to get thrown, or trampled.  Fencing in the salle d’arms resulted from and was intended to address the real world need NOT to get stabbed.

None of these activities were created by the whimsy of idle minds, who fabricated, ex recto, rules, conventions, procedures or recommended practices that were arbitrary or capricious. The rules for the thing were created by people who had experienced the reality of the thing. The real world reality. 
The only reality that counts. 

People who had experienced and understood the real world requirements of swimming, developed swimming, based on and consistent with that reality.  People who had experienced and understood the real world requirements of horse-riding developed equitation based on and consistent with that reality. And people who had experienced and understood the real world requirements of surviving a sword-fight developed fencing, based on and consistent with the reality of the duel. They were people who had fought duels, whose friends an family members had fought duels. They lived at a time when reports of duels appeared in the newspaper like baseball scores.
Indeed, the fencing rules that govern fencing contests specifically state that the goal of fencing is to simulate as closely as possible a “courteous and frank encounter.” What’s a “courteous and frank encounter?” That’s 19th Century-speak for “duel.”

The purpose of a fencing contest is to determine who is more skillful at surviving a duel. It’s not a contest to see who’s stronger or who’s faster because being strong does not, per se, optimize your chances of surviving a duel. Fencing is not a contest to see who’s faster because speed does not, per se, optimize your chances of surviving a duel.  Even strength and speed combined won’t do the trick. The only thing that optimizes your survival in a duel is your sword-handling skill,
Luck, too, I suppose. But you should always remember the first rule of luck: it runs out.
The person best able to survive a duel is the one who never receives a “touch” (a wound). Touching the opponent is a secondary consideration because it isn’t required for your own survival.

In summary, fencing is specifically and explicitly intended to simulate a duel, and fencers are bound to conduct themselves as if  those blades were sharp. If you just got here from Mars and read those rules in a vacuum, they don’t make any sense. The contest rules are not an instruction manual  for people who don’t know how to fence. The rules exist to clarify and codify standard operating procedure for people who already know how to fence. The rules provide standard definitions, a common language, and describe established principles. They serve to ensure a safecontest, a fair contest, and a true contest, that is a contest with the highest degree of verisimilitude.  All fencers and officials agree, by their participation, to follow those rules.
But do they?

WE do.
When you boil it all down, the definitive difference between “classical” fencing and “modern sport fencing,” which is the so-called “fencing” you see in the Olympics, is this:  

In classical fencing, we follow the rules the way they were written and for the purpose for which they were intended.  We don’t cheat. We don’t creatively “interpret.” We’re not interested in gaming the rules, or bending the rules, let alone breaking the rules.  The rules are “sacred” not because they are rules, but because they are logical, rational and realistic, not arbitrary or capricious. The rules specify exactly how you should fight a duel IF you want to maximize your chances of survival.

And that, you might say, is the point.



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I play guitar a little.

For some years, I made a (meager) living as a wondering troubadour, a singer-songwriter on the folky circuit.  Guitar was my comp instrument, because you can’t find many a cappellagigs, and you can’t hitchhike very well carrying a piano. I’ve played some classical stuff on a classical guitar, I’ve played some blues on an electric guitar. I’ve rocked and rolled. Dabbled in flamenco.

I like all kinds of guitar music. Every style has something to offer, some unique thing about it that you really only find in that particular genre of music. They all have something to offer. But no matter what kind of music you play, you still have to keep time and hit the right notes.  Playing it well is key. A terrible classical guitarist isn’t inherently a better musician than an excellent bluegrass picker, just be cause he’s doing classical music.

In recent conversations, some folks have asserted that “modern sport fencing” has something to offer, that, by implication, “classical fencing” does not.  I’d really like to know exactly what they think that is.

Because “classical fencing” is simply correct fencing, fencing in strict accordance with the rules, which are based on the realities of the duel. “Modern sport fencing,” aka “olympic fencing,” is -- to put it bluntly -- incorrectfencing, a kind of pseudo-fencing in which they violate the rules and “fence” in a manner that is completely contrary to surviving a duel. 
In classical fencing, you have to keep time and hit the right notes.
In Olympic “fencing” you don’t even have to tune your guitar.
You just have to play real loud.

I’ve never found that playing the guitar incorrectly had “something to offer.”
Playing out of time, hitting the wrong notes, playing out of tune -- that’s not a “style” of playing guitar.  I don’t see any benefit to making a practice of it.

So I wonder, what is it that the “sport fencing” advocates think that fencing incorrectly has to offer that fencing correctly does NOT?

I guess that’s rhetorical.


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     When I was a kid, I taught myself to play the guitar. 
     I had a fool for a teacher and an idiot for a student. I taught myself lots of things that seemed fine in the context of 3-chord rock-and roll, but turned out to be real handicaps when I tried to play Bach.  

                         (Not my band; but I was in one just like it. Just add black leather jackets)

     I later found a wonderful guitar teacher, and he taught me a hundred little tricks and secrets that I would never have figured out intuitively, all by myself. For example, are you aware that you don’t have to blow into it?

     It’s very common in martial arts to have some kind of a skill-ranking system. That makes perfect sense. In many eastern martial arts, such as karate, ranks are often designated by different colored belts  (a system devised by Jigoro Kano, the founder of judo, in the late 19th century).
     Quite often, there are many more students in a school than there are teachers, and the more “advanced” students are put in charge of the less advanced students. 
    Typically, The Sensei works with the highest ranking students, while a lower-ranked student is put in charge of the rank beginners.
     When a student works his way up through all the ranks, he/she is anointed a “teacher.”  Now, these “teachers” may be very good at DOING the thing they do, because they had a great deal of instruction and practice in how to do the thing they do. But few -- if any -- have any training in TEACHING.  For good or for ill -- and usually for ill -- they simply mimic their Sensei (sometimes right down to his/her accent!)
     DOING the thing and TEACHING the thing are two SEPARATE -- though closely related -- skill sets.  Having one of them does NOT mean you have the other.

     Here’s a little pop quiz for you. It helps if you’re a boxing fan, but you’ll recognize some of these names even if you’re not.
     QUESTION: What do Willie Pastrano, Luis Manual Rodriguez, Carmen Basilio, Jimmy Ellis, George Scott, Jose Napoles,  Ralph Dupas, Pinklon Thomas,  Trevor Berbick, Sugar Ramos, Wilfredo Gomez, Michael Nunn, Sugar Ray Leonard, George Foreman and Muhammad Ali all have in common?


     If you guessed that they’re all boxing champions, good for you.
     What’s the other important thing they all have in common?
     THIS guy.
    Angelo Dundee.
     He's the guy who trained them.

     Know how many professional boxing titles Angelo Dundee held, himself?
     Know how many times he was a top contender for a title?
     Know how many professional fights he had?
     Know how many amateur titles he won?

     Angelo Dundee did not become a great boxing trainer by being a great boxer. He became a great trainer by watching great trainers at Stillman’s Gym, and devoting himself to the art and science of training boxers.
     Dundee was not a "master boxer," or even a "boxer."
     You could say that Dundee was a “Boxing Master.”

     When I was studying under Maitre d’Armes Jean-Jacques Gillet at his American Fencing Academy, we weren’t there to become great fencers, we were there to become great teachers.
     Our definition of a fencing master was someone who could teach any person (young, old, male, female, athlete, non-athlete) how to use any sword (foil, epee, sabre, longsword, rapier and dagger, smallsword) for any purpose (recreation, sport, theatre, or earnest combat). 
     We used to say that a true fencing master was someone whom you could lock in an empty room with some strange kind of weapon he/she had never seen before, and by the end of the day, they could train you to wield it effectively.

    I’ve been self-taught and I’ve been trained by a pro. I’ve been a student many, many times, and a teacher for quite a while.  I can offer you this recommendation from my direct experience: If you want to learn something, don’t look for someone who knows how to DO it; look for someone who knows how to TEACH it, and do whatever they tell you to do. Get the best teacher you can right at the beginning so you don’t have to try to “un-learn” bad habits later.
   I wish someone had given me that advice early in my ill-spent youth.
   Would have saved my pucker.


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