DOVER-FOXCROFT, Maine —Local instruction in the international sport of fencing resumes this month on Wednesdays in Dover-Foxcroft.
Students of all abilities and ages, including beginners as young as 10, gather weekly from 5 to 7 p.m. starting Sept. 11, at the American Legion Hall. Most of them are middle- and high-school students, with a few adventurous adults. They comprise the Maine Highlands Fencing Club, which is affiliated of the United States Fencing Association, the body governing fencing in the United States recognized by the U.S. Olympic Committee.
Overseeing the club is long-time fencer Cleon Grover, 61. Grover was introduced to the sport at the age of 18 at the University of Maine at Farmington. He progressed to qualify for the Olympic tryouts in 1976, and has fenced consistently since. He is a former two-time Maine Foil Champion, former Maritime Province Saber Champion, and is qualified in all three weapons: the foil, epee and saber.
Over the past 43 years, he has taught modern Olympic fencing, as well as historical fencing, most notably as the fencing instructor for The History Channel’s “Frontier — Decisive Battles” series. He has taught modern fencing for the last eleven years based in Dover-Foxcroft.
Trained as a teacher (B.S., Secondary Education, 1974, with a major in English and minor in History), Grover is a supervisor for River City Commercial Cleaning of Bangor. Originally from Eddington, he and his wife, Debi, who also fences, have lived in Corinna for the last twleve years.
Beginner fencers are often inspired by films like the “Pirates of the Caribbean” or “The Three Musketeers,” Jedi Knights, the legend of King Arthur and his sword, Excalibur, or fantasy literature. Finding out what inspires learners helps Grover tailor his message.
Would-be swashbucklers learn to channel their enthusiasm into subtle, quick moves. Rather than hacking or slashing, a fencer tries to touch their opponent with the tip of their foil. The first person with five touches wins the bout. Action halts after a touch or if someone stumbles or a blade breaks. Safety is always a top priority. There is a referee.
“Nobody’s going to just stand there and just let you stab them.” Instead, a fencer will feint, or make a diversionary move to mislead their opponent, then make their move before the opponent can recover from their mistake. For that reason, it has been called “physical chess.”
While there are a limited number of moves on the fencing strip, they can be combined in countless ways, explains Grover. The fact that opponents cannot see each other’s face due to the fencing mask, or helmet, adds to the challenge.
Participants wear a stiff, wire mesh helmet, padded jacket, and glove to protect themselves, and use an authorized foil, saber, or epee, which when used properly, will not inflict damage. “It’s an incredibly safe sport.” In 43 years, Grover has not seen anyone get seriously hurt.
Students progress at their own pace. They notice an improvement in their physical reflexes and mental focus. Fencers develop long, lean muscle, similar to runners and swimmers. Fencing gives kids their own niche and there is a social aspect and camaraderie, too.
Some students are content to simply fence locally, and remain in Dover-Foxcroft. However, those interested in competing out of town can do so as their schedule and transportation permit. About a dozen tournaments in Maine are held on Saturdays or Sundays from now until spring. There is a statewide competition in June.
Regional, divisional, and national competitions for different ages are held under the auspices of USAF. The sky is the limit. “No matter where you start out, you can pursue this to whatever level your ability and desire takes you,” says Grover, pointing to the teenager Azaline Dunlap-Smith from Machias, who studied fencing under John Krauss of Down East School of Fencing and went on to compete at national and international levels.
A local fencer might have their season interrupted by other commitments—holiday music concerts or driver’s education—and, when that happens, they simply return to Wednesday night fencing when they can.
The basic class is one night a week for six weeks. Students will develop foot work, technique, and strategies. Learning at the age of ten or 12 is “a great time to start”. Grover encourages beginners to attend the September 11th session. Kids who cannot attend the September 11 date, can start any time. After the initial Basic Training, students are encouraged to return to continue to develop their skills. Grover says this is a “lifelong skill.”
More experienced fencers use the same room to practice their skills. The configuration of the American Legion Hall accommodates two, Olympic-size fencing strips, each six feet wide and 40 feet long, and extra space for group and individual instruction.
Loaner equipment—helmet, jacket, glove and foil–is available for beginners to use. Clothing should include shoes that will not leave black streaks on the floor, t-shirt, and loose fitting pants or jeans rather than shorts to prevent contact by the blade with a leg.
The cost for six weeks is $75, which covers use of equipment, insurance, and use of the facility. Students who decide to invest in their own fencing equipment can purchase it through the club at a discount. Fencing equipment is relatively inexpensive, which is good news for parents.