Club member Dirk Friedrich watches as fencing instructor Bruce Darling, left, demonstrates a fencing action to Stewart McVicker.
DUNEDIN – Ever sat up watching one of those late-night, grainy black and white movies with dueling scenes? The ones with sword-brandishing, swashbuckling heroes and villains, effortlessly leaping on and off castle staircases, swinging from chandeliers, blades flashing, metal clinking, until the evil one finally gets a well-deserved stab in the ticker.
Have you then thought to yourself, “Looks like fun? I could do that (if I knew how)”?
Indulge the fantasy and get thee to thy Dunedin Recreational Center.
Here, two evenings a week, the Dunedin Fencing Club (DuFU) holds classes for beginners and advanced alike and taught by seasoned professionals, Bruce Darling, the club’s charter member and David Holdsworth, a retired U.S. Army colonel. With an emphasis on strategy and psychology, fencing has been compared to linear chess. In addition, speed, quick thinking, good footwork and hand-eye coordination make for a talented fencer.
“We look for people, especially younger people, who like to do it almost in a fantasy way. They’ve seen it on television, maybe some movies. Maybe as kids, they played out on an empty lot, hitting each with other sticks and branches. They come to us in awe,” said Darling, 58, whose day job is that of a building contractor.
Unlike many sports that require years of high-level training, beginner fencers can after a year or two of consistent practice and coaching achieve the basic skills and technique needed to enter and win tournaments.
The dropout rate though tends to be high.
“Some people who come to us, they try it and fall off the side. Frankly, that’s a lot of people. I’d say half the people that start never go through with it,” said Darling.
Over the years, however, as most people’s attention spans have grown shorter, he has been forced to adjust his teaching style.
When I started fencing in ’76, I wasn’t allowed to touch a weapon for eight weeks. All I did was footwork for four nights a week.”
In fencing bouts, the winner is the first fencer who reaches a specified point total. This is typically five but can go up to 15. The weapons used in modern fencing are wired and connected to a score-keeping device with an audible tone and a green or red light each time a valid touch with the tip of the sword is delivered to one’s opponent. Assuming the touch hits the valid part of the body, a point is scored. If an out-of-bounds touch is made per the type of blade being used, the match is stopped without a resulting score.
The sword itself has three different blades – the foil, epee and saber. When using the foil, the valid target is the torso from the shoulders to the groin. With the epee the entire body is the valid target area and with the saber, the target area is the upper body from the hips to the top of the head and as such requires a different mask.
Fencing may seem dangerous; however, swords are made of flexible blades and have blunted covered tips. It is also a sport that does not require much in the way of expensive equipment. The protective gear worn consists of leather gloves, masks and Kevlar vests.
While speed, agility and endurance are all necessary attributes for a fencer, balance, Darling said, is perhaps the most important quality in the making of a true fencer.
“One of my most successful students had trained in ballet. She was good! That first year she went out, she ended up in third place in the Nationals in her age group.”
“It’s all good, clean fun,” said Chad Wonderly, 39, one of the more advanced students and the club’s vice president who fenced as a college student. “Besides, I get to stab someone.”
Briana, Angela and Erika Dean, 13-year-old triplets from Dunedin, describe the sport as “unique and fun and sometimes hard but with practice it gets easier and easier.” Since first starting classes five years ago, the trio has been entering and winning in tournaments.
The Dunedin Fencing Club is a member of the Central Florida Division of the United States Fencing Association. During the 1950s until the late 1960s, according to Darling, this area had a very active fencing community, especially at the competitive level with many tournaments held throughout the year. Eventually, however, the club disbanded mainly because the city of Dunedin had no fencing facility.
Enter Jim Campoli, a master fencer hailing from Michigan who ended up as a mentor to Darling. Campoli has had a long and impressive career in the sport and as a competing member of the original governing body of the American Fencing League Association.
Soon after his arrival to the Sunshine State in 1974, he started a fencing club at the University of Tampa along with forming the current Dunedin club and reaffiliating it. Campoli has remained in the area and coaches at the Gulfport Fencing Club in south Pinellas County.
Upon moving back to this area several years ago, Darling said he was disappointed to see how the once vibrant fencing community had become almost dormant.
In addition to nurturing potential talent in kids as young as 8 years old, he said he has made it the club’s mission to reestablish a strong, local fencing program along with sponsoring the tournaments and competitions that have languished over the past years.
“We’ve gone from where we used to have six or seven major tournaments every year in this division, which used to go from Tampa to Central Florida and to the East Coast of Florida, to where they actually don’t have any major tournaments anymore,” he said.
Those looking to improve their skill, Darling said, must travel farther afield to cities such as Atlanta and Charlotte.
Darling said he knew next to nothing about the sport until he and his sister stumbled upon a fencing match being held at the Clearwater Countryside Mall in 1976.
“I said to her that I had never considered trying fencing. She said I’d be too chicken to try it, anyway. Then, as I was walking away, she said she was amazed at how many girls do it.”
As a 20-something guy recently graduated from the University of South Florida, Darling decided to give it a whirl.
For the past 35 years, he has immersed himself in the sport, winning tournaments around the country. For now, Darling said his main objective is for the “division to be as strong and as popular nationwide as it once was.”
He hopes to add more fencing classes at recreational facilities in nearby cities including that of a beginner’s class that will meet at the Palm Harbor Public Library starting in April.
As well, Darling hopes the club’s members will soon be able to participate in competitions closer to home. “We have an open invitation from the mayor of Tampa and the Hyatt Regency and the Tampa Convention Center,” he said, “that anytime we want to do a large tournament, we can have the facility for free.”