Last week a new fencing studio opened in downtown Bakersfield.
I like that it is located on the second floor of the Women’s Club of Bakersfield on 18th Street downtown, and not just because it is such a beautiful space. As a scholar of Victorian literature, I am glad to note that fencing was one of the sports of the New Woman of the 1890s, along with bicycling and tennis. It is now a sport for the new woman of 2015, one of whom is my daughter Izzy.
Izzy and I began fencing a several years ago with what was to become the Kern Athletic Fencing Foundation when she was just nine. I had not fenced since the 1980s when I was a visiting professor at University College of Swansea in Wales. I remember the first night we showed up at the dimly lit, second-story salle on Chester Street. The instructor took one look at my form and said, “Where did you learn to fence? And when? No one fences like that in the United States. Not anymore.” Rules evolve, and my running attack in saber was no longer legal.
My first experience fencing was as an undergraduate at Cal State Northridge in the 1970s. My teacher was Muriel Bower, the first female U.S. fencing master and author of Foil Fencing, a classic text now in its 8th edition. Her first teacher was Henry Uyttenhove, who had also instructed the most famous swashbuckler of all time, Douglas Fairbanks Sr. at the Los Angeles Athletic Club. Professor Bower made the 1948 Olympics team, but a serious car accident prevented her from attending. She did eventually coach the women’s foil team at the 1964 Olympics in Tokyo before becoming my teacher in the 1970s.
One advantage of studying the humanities is that you can always find a creative way to incorporate your extracurricular interests into your research. I presented a paper at the University of Kansas many years ago on the popularity of fencing in Victorian England, and I later published a study of Ridley Scott’s first film, The Duellists, a brilliant version of Joseph Conrad’s novel The Duel (also called The Point of Honor: A Military Tale), in which the swordplay choreography is some of the best on film. A knowledge of fencing and dueling also comes in handy reading any number of Shakespeare’s plays or Russian and Eastern European novels.
I was invited to serve on the board of directors of the Kern Athletic Fencing Foundation by its director, Lucas Dobrzanski. He too had fenced at the legendary Los Angeles Athletic Club. As a lifelong fencer himself, having founded the UC Davis fencing club as a student, Lucas wanted to bring fencing to the youth of Kern County. He had a vision to form a nonprofit organization to offer free fencing lessons to at-risk youth who might not otherwise have access either to sports or to academic assistance. With the help of volunteers from CSUB, including students and instructors from Education and English, we formed KAFF’s Smart Fencing program, which started with students from the Standard School in Oildale. One wonders whether Merle Haggard, who attended Standard, might have taken an interest in the sport.
Smart Fencing has served dozens of kids, giving them not only the advantages of free tutoring, but also the benefits of the sport of fencing: balance, confidence, endurance, alertness, and self-discipline.
For more information, contact Kern Athletic Fencing Foundation.
Dr. Robert Frakes
Dean of the School of Arts & Humanities