Attempting to reenter the world—safely—during a pandemic is nerve-wracking. Unlike many former plagues, Covid-19 is stealthy: symptoms may appear anywhere in 5 to 14 days; it can appear like allergies or a more run-of-the-mill cold; and it can even hide, like the Danaans in their wooden horse, in people who never develop symptoms but spread it far and wide. Against an enemy so difficult to track it pays to be cautious. For those of us teaching fencing or anything else that requires close proximity, be it dance or BJJ, we must make every effort to keep our students and ourselves safe.
Few things are harder to give up than something we desperately want and which brings us joy. Sometimes, however, we must if only for a time. The jury is still out as to whether we should begin classes as we did pre-pandemic. I’m inclined to think this is a bad idea, at least here in the States, but individual lessons, of a type, are perhaps something we can do under certain provisions. To date, there are several steps we can take generally that will reduce the chance of catching and/or spreading the virus:
- we work outside
- we wear masks
- we keep an appropriate distance
- we reduce the length of lesson time
I have given two lessons this way so far, and it’s interesting what works, what doesn’t work so well, and what effects these changes in approach can have on the body.
What Went Well
Parallel drilling works well and easily abides the social-distancing protocols. Yesterday after stretching we started with molinelli. I had this student add a few additional molinelli to the three I started with him (I normally have students begin with a) a fendente from the left to the head from point in line, hand in second, moving through prima; b) with hand in fourth, point in line, an ascending cut to the flank moving through sesta; and c) from point in line, hand back in second, a cut to the left cheek moving through quinta). I also introduced him to the scarto, that is, to shifting the trunk back and forth as one parries/chambers a cut and attacks. It allows one to fine-tune and play with distance, can provide a few more inches of defensive space, and it can feed the cutting dynamic with a little extra oomph.
Next, we ran through a few footwork drills. We started in parallel, just advancing, retreating, and lunging. Then, together, I pushed him back and forth from just out of distance; his job was to maintain that distance. While out of measure, this still works distance and one’s sensitivity to it. Ideal? No, but useful, yes.
The rest of the lesson focused on progressively more complex actions to the forward target. This prevented us from getting too close while still allowing us to work on something of worth. The first was a simple stop-cut drill, e.g. I advance, expose the inside, outside, top, or bottom of the wrist, student strikes to that line and returns to guard. Next, on occasion I would cut after he made the touch to encourage him to cover himself after the cut. Third, I would parry some of the stop-cuts or arrests, riposte, he would parry, then riposte in turn.
What Didn’t go so Well
For more experienced students the footwork we normally warm up with is not enough to push them or have them hone that footwork for tactical situations. Advance, retreat, lunge, passing steps, etc. are important to drill, but on their own only do so much. I may be able to bring a pell out, but this will require working at my home, a choice perhaps less ideal during the pandemic (my pell, such as it is, is an old Wavemaster with additional padding on top and an old, heavy canvas jacket around it). One useful alternative is a softball trainer, the sort of long wand with a ball on the end, but this is a much more restricted target. It is, however, far more portable.
Molinelli too, while a great exercise and one we should all do, suffers without application. I include them in warm-up to prime us for more activity, but without the ability to get into distance we lose the opportunity to drill these offensively and defensively. My student today is at a stage where he would benefit from this, but it will have to wait.
Without closer proximity much of what we normally cover is just off the menu for now.
Effects of the Changes
Apart from being hobbled in what we can drill and cover in lessons, the single greatest change has been arm fatigue. Both instructor and student have the arm a bit more extended for longer periods of time working the forward target. Even in terza/third this can be tiring (the Italian third is taken with the arm farther forward). With Olympic weight sabres this is less onerous, but with period weight blades it begins to tell much more quickly.
The answer in both lessons was more frequent breaks. These afford a chance to discuss what we’re covering in more depth, so more breaks aren’t necessarily bad, but it’s not ideal either. As we acclimate to the weight we’ll be able to manage longer exchanges, but day one was proof that we’re rusty and our muscles used to quarantine idleness. So far, we have not taken most exchanges beyond three or four actions. While perhaps closer to how we actually bout, longer phrases are medicine for the hand. We drill in more complexity, strive to improve so that in the simpler actions in a bout we are cleaner, our eye sharper, responses crisper. One positive aspect to this extended target, however, is that focus on the advanced target is more in keeping with the conservatism that should be present in any bout. As I often point out, in surviving footage of duels most opponents seem particularly keen to stay just out of measure. 
The most common complaint about drill is that it’s boring. If that is all we have, then I agree. We drill as a means to an end, so when it feels like the goal, like it’s all we do, it’s a lot easier for boredom to creep in. It’s boring for me too. Varying lessons while maintaining appropriate distance for health is difficult, but there are ways to jazz it up.
I have some less standard material I plan to employ to help. I’m still brainstorming these, but as one example bayonet drill may afford some diversion. As a pole-arm, rifle and bayonet keep us a little further away. Even if I am the only one with the bayonet and the student is defending with a sabre, the distance will remain a little farther out. This means that some of the more fun, crowd-pleasing options are out, for now, but that is not wasted training. While the bayonet may be less often employed in today’s military, it’s extremely useful technique to have in one’s toolbox. 
Safety is, and always should be, our top priority. It’s inherent in the very term “fencing,” which derives of course from “defence,” so an added layer of protocol, while annoying, is not so great a step. Face masks under the mask are annoying, but no more so than a pair of glasses (my poor student today has to wear glasses and a face mask, and he does fine). Whinging to the contrary, one can breathe in a face-mask well enough too.
My town, obscure as it is, has had a rise in cases this week, so it is difficult if not impossible to determine how things will look in a week let alone in a month. We cannot fence on a respirator or if dead, so… hard as it may be, financial blow though it be, put your health and that of your students’ first. If you’re potentially ill, if a student is, cancel and postpone. At some point we will be able to fence again, but only if we ensure that we make it through Covid-19, so, be smart, stay healthy.
 Youtube has a number of early 20th century duels, mostly epee/spada, as well as the performance piece from the 1967 between Serge Lifar and the Marquis de Cuevas, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=e68nuAcSuWQ. Other, more instructive examples, may be found here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=a7_ia1UodkI&list=PLMMzUA30gYjhm2faYLiI8w1ViqSv3FLmC
 The nature of modern warfare has no doubt reduced the need and use for a bayonet, but a number of militaries still teach the rudiments of this important skill. One does, after all, run out of ammunition or find oneself in situations where striking with the rifle butt or stabbing with a bayonet may be necessary. I can’t speak to this myself, but my father and his father related to me how important they found it in combat. Even in Vietnam, my father’s war, he had recourse to it. For civilians, bayonet drill is perhaps the simplest staff/pole-arm to learn and though we don’t walk about with rifles, one never knows when that mop handle, cane, umbrella, or broom may be the only thing between one and an assailant.
PHOTOS: to the best of my knowledge these are free to use.
First Image: “Stewart and Holmes Wholesale Drug Co. employees on 3rd Avenue during the 1918 Spanish Influenza pandemic” (University of Washington Libraries, Special Collections, SOC0394) via https://crosscut.com/2020/03/coronavirus-how-seattle-handled-spanish-flu
Second Image: this image of the primary hand positions (as opposed to invitations/parries with the blade) is widely used, including within published works, but I’m uncertain as yet of its first appearance.
Third Image: this is plate XIX from Cav. Ferdinando Masiello, Sabre Fencing on Horseback, Firenze, G. Civelli Establishment, Editor, 1891, trans. by Christopher A. Holzman, Lulu Press, 2015, p. 52.
Fourth Image: this is Fig. 9, page 34, “Position de la garde et engagement,” from Jean Jules Gaston, Manuel d’escrime à la Baïonnette, Berger-Levrault & Cie, 1910. A pdf may be found here: https://www.ffamhe.fr/collectionpalas/Jean_Jules_Gaston.pdf