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No foil for fencing

The masked man dances back and forth, dodging the swift strokes of his opponent's blade. Narrowly averting a jab at his wrist, he lunges forward, and with a cry of on guard, pokes the heart of his nemesis with the sharp point of his sword.

At the Tampa Fencing Academy, though, there is no need to break up the fight.

Contrary to the carnage immortalized in Shakespearian theater and dozens of Errol Flynn movies, no blood is shed. No cries of agony are heard, only the sounds of steel striking steel and a buzzer tallying the winner's score.

Fencing, the art of dexterity, duels and daring-do, was used to settle disputes, tests of honor and vendettas during the 19th century and often resulted in death. Today, the consequences are less dire, with increased agility, improved coordination and lots of fun the most common results.

What was once considered an obscure sport for the elite and classically trained actors, is now played by 150,000 Americans in more than 800 clubs, according to the U.S. Fencing Association. The bay area boasts one of the country's newest.

The Tampa Fencing Academy, 7042 W. Hillsborough Ave. (in the Peacock Alley Shopping Center), opened this month with 15 members and 24 students.

Gerry Duran, 56, who coaches new students at the academy, started fencing 10 years ago, when he took his daughter to a club at the University of South Florida. Although she lost interest in the sport, Duran was hooked, eventually competing in tournaments and teaching at Baywinds Learning Centre.

"We were growing and there just wasn't enough room," said Duran, of the Baywinds location.

Although the Academy's typical member is in his or her late 20s or early 30s, Duran said fencing can be taught as early as 10 years old, with children's courses offered from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. on Saturdays.

"The club has widened the scope of fencing," he said. "More people know about it. More people can talk about it intelligently because they've experienced it. You'll find three types of people interested in fencing: the romanticist that remembers the old swashbuckler movies, the athletic person looking for something different and a combination of both."

Duran attributed the renewed interest in fencing to its prominence in recent movies such as Rob Roy and Harlequin romance novels, but said newcomers discover many other benefits to the game.

"What gets you going is the history of it," Duran said. "But you realize it's such a mind and will game, you become completely absorbed by it. It's an anaerobic sport. You have to move quickly within an instant of time. The game motivates you to improve your condition. You don't fence to get fit. You get fit to fence, so you can excel at it."

A typical bout lasts anywhere between four and 15 minutes. The scores are electronically tabulated. Fencers wear wired vests made of conductive material that trigger colored lights on the side of the player who was hit. Before the electronic system, hits were determined by ink spots placed on uniforms by the tip of the blade.

Other than the occasional bruise or sprain, fencing injuries are quite rare, Duran said. Rounded tips have replaced the sharp points on swords and uniforms are well-padded with mesh oval masks protecting the face.

The safe nature of modern fencing, coupled with its relatively low cost and romantic appeal have increased its favor among novices.

Joanna Gilford, 34, has been fencing for a year. She placed second at the Clearwater West Coast Duel.

"It had been something I had wanted to do for years," Gilford said. "I was looking for something really different. I was surprised at what a mental game it is. It's predictably unpredictable. It's a great sport because it really doesn't take a lot of physical strength. It's also a great stress reliever."

Other players were similarly attracted to the singularity of fencing.

"It always had some kind of attraction to me, but I didn't think anybody taught it anymore," said club member Tom Gibson, 33.

Gibson started fencing about 1{ years ago with his nephew Martin Johnson, 16.

"I wanted to try it because I thought it was a unique sport," said Johnson, who has since competed in the Junior Olympics in San Jose, Calif. "Since playing, I have found I am a lot better at agility. It builds fast reflexes. Compared to almost every sport I know, the equipment really isn't that expensive."

Monthly membership at the club (including equipment) is $25. New students are required to take a four-night introductory course for $15.

The academy is open from 6:30 to 11 p.m. Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays. Children's courses are held on Saturdays. An open house celebrating the new location will be from 1 to 3 p.m. July 23.

"There's something romantic about a storefront fencing academy," Duran said. "It gives it that European flavor."

Getting the point

Many of the words and phrases used in English pertaining to fencing are derived from French terms and there are a number of Italian words universally understood in their Italian form. Here are a few of the important fencing terms:

Advance (of the blade): An event where blade contact is avoided, either deliberately by refusal to engage, or in deceiving the opponent's attempt to find the blade.

Allez: A command made by the Director to the fencers to begin fencing.

Attack: The initial offensive action made by extending the weapon arm toward the opponent and continuously threatening the opponent's target.

Epee: One of the three fencing weapons. The epee is a thrusting weapon only, with a blade triangular in section. The target includes the entire body of the opponent.

Foil: One of the three fencing weapons. The foil is a thrusting weapon only with a blade quadrangular in section. The target is restricted to the torso.

Lunge: The basic fencing movement of the body made to deliver an attack to an opponent out of arm's reach. One of the two postures of fencing.

On guard: One of the two fencing postures, characterized by offering the option of either attacking or defending. Also a command issued by the Director.

Parry: A defensive action of the blade and guard of the weapon, deflecting an attacking blade. Parries may be executed either by opposition or by percussion.

Piste: The fencing strip.

Riposte: An offensive action made by the fencer who has parried the attack. The riposte may be direct or indirect, simple or composed.

Saber: One of the three fencing weapons, the saber is a cutter and thrusting weapon and the hilt has a knucklebow on the guard to protect the hand. The target is the entire body above the hips.

Thrust: One of the simple attacks, made in one motion by moving the point of the weapon directly toward the target with a full extension of the arm.

Source: United States Fencing Coaches Association Glossary of Fencing Terms.

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