Written a couple of years before January 16, 2008
By DICK TRUST
For The Patriot Ledger
Swords. Chivalry. Swashbucklers. Errol Flynn films.
They all conjure up fencing, the courtly art that dates to at least 1200 B.C. – an ancient carving in Egypt depicts a sport fencing bout with masks, protective weapon tips and even judges.
That was then, this is now, and Harry Shamir is a man who embraces the modern form of fencing – which still features masks, protective weapon tips and, if you will, referees.
Shamir owns and operates the South Shore SaEF Fencing Clubs, and is one of the sport’s more ardent instructors and practitioners. His studios in Hingham, Plymouth, Quincy and Middleboro draw some three dozen students willing to thrust and dodge flashing, albeit blunt-tip, blades.
Daniel Conroy of Canton has taken lessons Wednesday nights in the Parish House of the OldShipChurch at 107 Main St., Hingham, and Thursday nights at the HinghamCommunity Center at 70 South St. “I’ve never enjoyed a sport so much,” said Conroy, a 17-year-old junior at XaverianBrothersHigh School in Westwood. “I played hockey a long, long time ago. I liked it at first, but I grew tired of it. But this I really do love. I’m the lone fencer in the whole school. It gets a lot of ‘Oh, fencing, really, with swords?’ “It’s great. I look forward to those nights.”So does Noelle Micarelli, an eighth-grader at HinghamMiddle School. She was drawn to fencing while reading fantasy and adventure novels such as the Harry Potter series and The Princess Bride. “It’s fun, it’s good exercise and you can learn a lot from it,” Micarelli, 13, said. “You can apply it to other areas of your life. If you’re on a debate team, for example, you can think about fencing and it can help you organize your ideas. It’s sort of like an attack and parry – fencing terms. The teacher is always emphasizing that you can verbally fence.” In fact, fencing stems from the word ‘defense.’
HinghamMiddle School student Joseph Cifrino, 13, likes the speed of the sport. “It’s really fast, with split-second thinking,” he said. “It challenges me a lot.”
While Shamir claims that fencing makes you more intelligent (more on that later), swordsmanship kept Frenchwoman Jeanne Calment feeling younger. Documented as having reached the longest human lifespan at 122 years, 164 days (Feb. 21, 1875-Aug. 4, 1997), she picked up fencing at the age of 85.
Age is no issue for Hingham Middle School 6th-grader William Beachum, who said: “It keeps me thin.”
Rebecca Gross, 27, of Middleboro and her husband, Ryan, 26, attend classes together.“Ryan is a rising star,” Shamir said. “With his dynamism and style, he has the potential to become one of the exemplars of what fencing can be. And his wife is not far behind.”
Touching me, touching you
The objective in fencing is to make touches for which points are awarded. The first with five good touches wins. A good touch is one that a fencer has the right to do at that moment and lands on a valid target area of the body.
“You wear a protective jacket, mask, fencing trousers, helmet, gloves, and none of it can be pierced,” said assistant instructor Ari Levitt of Quincy. “You’ll feel it and you can get bruised, but it won’t hurt you.”
Fencing has been featured at every modern Olympic Games, the first in 1896. Currently, three types of weapon are used in Olympic fencing, and they are same ones practiced at SaEF.
– Foil, a light thrusting weapon. The valid target is restricted to the torso and back.
– Épée, a heavier thrusting weapon, with the entire body valid as a target area.
– Sabre, a light cutting and thrusting weapon. The valid target area includes almost everything above the waist (excluding the back of the head and the hands). SaEF stands for Sabre, Épée and Foil.
Levitt, who captained the varsity fencing team at McGillUniversity in Montreal and taught the jayvees, pointed out that electronic scoring is used in all major national and international, and most local, competitions.
The core of the scoring system is commonly known as “the box.” In the simplest version, both fencers’ weapons are connected to the box via long, retractable cables. The box normally carries a set of lights to signal when a touch has been made. In foil and sabre, because of the need to distinguish on-target hits from those that are off-target, special conductive clothing and wires must be worn.
The minimum age for joining the fencing club is 8, and that group would start with a plastic KSabre.
“(Eight-year-olds’) arms are shorter, their motions are not yet mechanically adept,” Shamir said. “They are physically unable to do the subtle motions required of any other weapon, so we start them off with this.’’
A Holocaust survivor who was born in Bologna, Italy, Shamir also lived in France, Italy, Switzerland and Israel before settling in the United States in 1969. He began teaching fencing in the summer of 1997, conducted on a sidewalk near Plymouth’s now closed Cranberry Museum. “I had one student,” Shamir said, “and she dropped out.”
His main base of operation in America’s Hometown (was) [now is at CBJ Community Center, 5 - 9 p.m. Sundays or Mondays]. In addition, Shamir offers fencing activities every Thursday in Quincy for three age groups. The locale is the Ward 4 Neighborhood Center, at the DellaChiesaSchool, 100 Brooks Ave. Call 508-747-5803 for details on all of SaEF’s (current) venues.
Plans are for the Middleboro YMCA to be a home to the club beginning January 22. More details are on www.SaEF-Fencing.com.
Shamir is by trade a mechanical engineer whose fencing background is traced to 1984, when he attended a lecture on the sport. In talks about other topics “I found out I knew more than the lecturer,” he said, “but I didn’t have the pedigree in order to start lecturing on my own. Then I saw an ad for a free Fencing demo. A charming young lady at the end of the demo handed me a foil and said, ‘Why don’t you try it?’ I put on a mask and we went against each other. She said, ‘Hey, you’re a natural.’ From that moment, I was sunk.”
Why take fencing? Shamir offers up a pretty convincing argument.“First of all, (fencing) makes you more intelligent, by enhancing the ability of the brain to read a motion, to read an activity and take resulting appropriate action,” he said. “The better you are at it, the more appropriate the resulting action.“You have to also take into consideration the rules of the game while doing all of these very rapid motions. That is kind of difficult because you have to read your opponent, read the motions, read yourself, and your brain has to calculate what the response to them has to be.“This is very rapid, a very intense activity that the brain does. And if the brain does that, and becomes used to it, it becomes more intelligent.” Holbrook Gracia of Hingham, another assistant instructor, stresses that good sportsmanship is an integral aspect of fencing. “You can’t be a jerk and offensive,” Gracia said. “The salute, shaking hands . . . You can win a bout and lose by not saluting. Good sportsmanship is not only a rule; it’s tradition and a necessity. “There’s no room in fencing for dangerous behavior like pulling your opponent’s mask, as in football. That’s not what fencing is about. Fencing is about self-control. It’s about building up calmness under fire, and serenity, and the ability to make decisions while someone is trying to attack or poke you.”
Sounds like fun. It is, for those who, uh, enjoy being attacked or poked.
· * *In addition to fencing, Mr Shamir has this month begun a new venture, Marinair Ltd. (www.marinairltd.com), making and selling a new material, Floatfoam™, designed to save the lives of boaters, their vessels, and light aircraft.
And oh, yes – SaEF also means "fencing" in both Hebrew and Arabic.