Fencing Seminar Etiquette
by Steven Reich and Tom Leoni
As I consider our upcoming fencing seminars, I can’t help but think about some of the things I have seen in past classes (taught or taken) that detracted from the learning environment. As a result, I have come up with a few rules to reduce the unwanted distractions and counterproductive behavior to a minimum. Unfortunately, the one percent of fencing students to whom this applies are unlikely to read it—most attendees we have in our fencing classes are excellent students.
- Always Maintain Proper Etiquette.
The instances of lack of etiquette always seem to result in the largest amount of wasted time and the most distraction, although they seem to be very minor annoyances.
Show up on time for your class. This often means you should be early so that your equipment is ready and you are outfitted with what you need to use for class.
Come to class with all of the proper equipment. If you are taking a class on rapier and dagger, be sure you have both a rapier and a dagger. If your class requires protective gear, be sure you have it.
Show respect to your equipment. Avoid dropping your weapons and other equipment. While everyone occasionally will drop something, I am amazed at how little respect some people show their weapons. Besides the distracting noise of swords and bucklers hitting the ground, do you really want to treat your equipment this way? Respect for your equipment also means periodic inspection to be sure that your it is safe and undamaged.
Do not talk when the instructor is talking. There are certain times when conversations naturally happen in class—usually when students are paired off and performing drills to their own time. However, when you hear the instructor addressing the class, you should stop talking immediately.
Turn off your cell phone. Do this at the very beginning of class. Obviously, those people who have a need to keep their phones on (doctors on call, husbands whose pregnant wives are expecting soon, etc.) are an exception. But in general, there is nothing more distracting for the instructor to have his train of thought interrupted by the ring of a cell phone.
Remember the student-teacher relationship. This is something that seems to be overlooked by one or two students in every class. No matter what your experience as a martial artist, if you are in someone else’s class you are the student. Except for your choice on whether or not to take the class, the student-teacher relationship is not a democracy.
Respect your drilling partner. You should always maintain proper fencing etiquette with your partner. Give your full attention to your partner when drilling and give a respectful salute when appropriate. This also means that you perform any necessary hygiene before coming to class—a grappling class with a partner who smells like a garbage dump and feels like a salamander is a truly awful experience. And while not quite as obnoxious, a smelly or dirty sword-partner also is an unpleasant experience.
- Always remember that safety is your responsibility.
You must always act so that you are not taking unreasonable risks for either your partner or yourself. Not only must you not endanger your partner; you must not allow him to endanger you, and for that matter, you should not allow dangerous behavior to go on around you without speaking up. Besides your the health and that of your fellow fencers, the well-being and reputation of our WMA community could be significantly harmed if someone was seriously injured (or worse) at an event.
- Perform the drills in the method demonstrated by the instructor.
This is a problem that I encounter very often, and it deserves a few words. Always remember that if you have confidence in the instructor (which is presumably why you signed up for his class), you should also have confidence in the pedagogical material he is presenting. Failing to do so can create a number of problems.
Don’t modify the actions of the drill. Besides being highly disrespectful to the instructor, this is discourteous to your partner, whose learning might be hindered by your modification. It is also potentially dangerous, since the reaction to the modified drill could result in an action unanticipated by either fencer. I have found that the majority of people who modify drills do so because they feel the action shown by the instructor is something too basic that they already know. Believe me: these are instead the ones who need the drill most.
Don't modify the speed of the drill. If the instructor says "slow," slow it should be. Generally, there is a sound pedagogical reason behind his recommendation--or even one of basic safety. Don't second-guess him.
Don't "win" when you are supposed to take the point. This is perhaps the worst infraction of all, and one borne of simple machismo. If you are the one that is supposed to take the point in the drill, it looks really "unprofessional" to improvise a counter so that you score the point instead. If you can't accept that taking a point is a part of learning, maybe fencing is not for you. Besides, your turn to give the point in the drill will come next (if it hasn't already). In any case, this is something to be avoided at all costs, especially when you are a man and your partner a woman—it looks twice as bad.
- Don’t give instruction to other students in the class.
This isn’t your class, regardless of your level of experience; the students are paying for the instructor’s time, not yours. While you might need to talk your partner through some drills, really avoid the temptation to act as a private tutor—especially if you are a man and your partner is a woman (I’d say that at least 75% of all fencing “help” men give to women in a non teacher-student situation is unnecessary and often somewhat insulting).
- Remember the purpose of questions.
You are not in class to show everyone how smart you are, to stump the instructor, or to expose supposed "flaws" in the style being taught. Ask questions that are pertinent and will help you understand the material. If you don’t like the instructor, don’t like the style being taught, or have disagreements with his interpretation of the style, the time to bring it up is after class. (If you don’t like the instructor or the style, why are you in the class in the first place?) One particularly annoying type of “question” is pointing out a perceived flaw in a system by “discovering” a counter to a technique. Every technique has a counter and finding it is not finding a flaw in the system. If you are honestly curious about a counter to a technique you’ve just learned (for example, “How do I counter the cavazione di tempo you just showed us?”), by all means ask. However, if you know the counter, don’t interrupt the class just so you can tell everyone what it is. This is a topic for after class discussion.
- Give it your all.
You owe it to yourself, your partner and your instructor to give all of your attention and commitment to what you’re doing. Execute all of your actions in earnest: all of your attacks on target with intent and all of your parries as if you were defending from a real attack. That doesn’t mean everything needs to be full speed; that means you perform all techniques with your full mental and physical attention.