A local fencing class boosts physical endurance, respect and coordination. By Ruben Luong. Photos by Vinh Dao.
Would you challenge Parisian fencing master Franck Rouband to a duel? Feel free to do so at his 130-square metre studio home in An Phu, where his La Salle d’Armes de Saigon class meets on Monday evenings for Olympic and traditional fencing.
Rouband, 52, has practiced fencing for more than 40 years and is also an instructor at Saigon’s British and Australian international schools. He is trained in all three weapon variations of fencing: foil, épée and sabre.
During an Olympic class last month in An Phu, students concentrated on foil, a light thrusting weapon with a small circular hand guard that targets the torso, neck and groin; and épée, a heavier thrusting weapon with a guard that covers the hand and targets the entire body. Fencers interchange the right of way in foil fencing, but can attack simultaneously in épée to land touches.
Ten minutes into a warm-up of steady lungeing and parrying with Rouband, French restaurateur and fencing student Noelle Carr-Ellison breaks a sweat under her mask.
“If you could see my face under my mask, you would be laughing your head off,” she says. “My teeth are clenching so hard.”
Fencing appears low-key and gentle to a spectator, but it boosts leg strength and promotes deep ab and cardio training, according to Rouband. Most competitive sports build up adrenaline, whereas fencing is unpredictable and oscillates between a steady and stressful dynamic.
“A French master once said it is like playing chess and running a 100-metre race at the same time,” Rouband says. “You have to move very fast. You need to have good footwork and at the same time adapt to your strategy. You have to respect your opponent’s strategy, have the capacity to change your strategy and adapt to your opponent.”
Before anything, however, Rouband’s discipline begins with developing the right attitude. “Everybody, I try to teach them to be a good citizen,” he says. “That means to respect your opponent and to encourage fair play all the time.”
Fencing is a dignified art which was popular among aristocratic men. Although fencing today is a competitive sport, Rouband says fencing is one of the last, if not the only, remaining martial arts from Europe. It originated in Spain (think Zorro), but was improved under French and Italian fencing schools of the Renaissance.
By mid-19th century, fencing competitions began using electronic tips that signal lights with each touch of the weapon’s tip. Fencers make valid touches from a series of offensive or defensive moves, like in a video game that relies on adapting specific combos for special attacks.
“To touch the opponent is not just the only goal,” Rouband adds. “It’s always the action that comes before, if there’s a beautiful action or gesture.”
For example, opponents might thrust (extend the front leg with a slight kicking motion and propel the body forward with the back leg) or disengage (fake an attack but semi-circle the tip to throw off the opponent). To defend, they might counter-attack or circle parry (block or deflect the blade in a twisted, circular motion).
Executing these movements reads as simple, but thrown into the formality of duel, it’s considerably difficult. The fencing mask, constructed with a padded bib for protection, is not only heavy, but hot and with limited ventilation. It’s hard to even see through the mask’s black netting.
Fencing students wear a white croissard (form-fitting jacket) which goes between the legs, while masters wear black. A single glove is worn on the hand that carries the weapon. But those items also become sweaty the longer you duel and parry, and it’s harder to keep focus.
“The biggest mistake is coordination,” Rouband says. “It’s the first mistake of all beginners, that is sure, but it is also the mistake that can happen all the time,” he says. “Fencing is not natural. You have to turn your hand upward, always be in profile, walk in profile. You have to learn the body language.”
Proper fencers should extend their arms first and legs after, with the front foot as close to the ground as possible at all times to stabilise movements. Reversing this order increases the chance of missing the target.
Being tall and slim is an advantage to avoiding targets. Long arms and legs help fencers reach their target easier with every lunge and thrust, while staying slim minimises the profile and makes it harder for the opponent to make a valid touch.
Rouband stands at 174 centimetres, which he says is average for a French man. He often wins because he adapts, such as dodging under taller opponents. He recounts one championship he saw two years ago in which a short Italian beat a two-metre tall world champion from Cuba. “Being tall and slim will not make you be the best fencer,” he says.
Regardless of body type, fencing is also appropriate for all ages. Rouband says it teaches children and teenagers self-discipline and self-control, while it sharpens the physical and mental faculties of adult and elderly students.
“I’m dyslexic, but in fencing, I don’t have any problem,” he says. “And in France, I was close to a big car accident, but I developed very good reflexes from fencing. It saved my life.”
Rouband’s fencing classes are VND 300,000 for one hour. Private lessons can also be arranged. Call 09 09 07 15 73 or contact firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.