How Fencing Breaks Down Cultural Barriers

Though fencers are at opposite ends of swords pointed at one another, they aren’t building opposition but connection. Sport in general offers us the chance to connect with one another, but fencing is something truly special. That’s thanks not only to the way that fencers interact with one another, but also with the way that fencing is structured in its competitive aspect.

Sports is the common denominator in the world that brings everyone together. If there’s any one place in the world where there is equality, it is probably sports. That was something that didn’t always exist. We’ve come a long way in sports. Why can’t society use sports as a way to bring people together and create change? – Stephen M. Ross

Fencing gives us the chance to break down cultural barriers.

Fencing as Connection

Fencing against an opponent creates a connection between two people. You’re on opposite sides of the strip, but the match is something that the two fencers create together. It’s not through talking or verbal communication, but all by the language of the sword. The connection that comes within a fencing match can easily be likened to sign language or body language.  A match is not unlike a conversation, just like a chess match is not unlike a conversation. Two fencers are talking to one another through the clash of their swords and the cadence of their feet as they make their way through the match and one becomes the victor.

What’s really cool about learning fencing is that you’re not only learning this athletic and rigorous sport, you’re also literally learning a whole new way to communicate and connect with other people! The language of fencing is one that transcends everything else. Fencers are talking to each other! Nonverbal communication transcends culture and language. It can bridge the gap between people who are totally on opposite sides of the spectrum, bringing them together in ways that were heretofore impossible.

As a sport, fencing strips away all of the things that divide people. Look at two fencers against one another. You can’t tell anything about either fencer except that they are a fencer! The playing field is leveled and you’re communicating with one another without expectations or assumptions. For those of us who have done a lot of fencing, it’s not difficult to imagine how two fencers are having a conversation with one another. It’s challenging to really quantify this for someone who hasn’t experienced it, but even if you’ve never fenced then you can see the pattern of communication that goes between two fencers during a match. One fencer might reach out and say something, and the other will answer. Sometimes they’ll talk over one another, or there will be a pause in the dialogue between them. Every fencing match is different, just like every conversation is just a little bit different. What matters is that the two fencers are always going back and forth, no matter if they’re epee, foil, or sabre.

Some conversations are more excited, while others might be more subdued. Depending on what the personality is of the two fencers, different tones of communication can happen during a single bout.  But whatever the particulars are of their mode of communication, the fact is that those two fencers are connecting in a way that’s simple impossible through any other means. It’s truly a singular form of communication, and thereby connection.

Sport is where an entire life can be compressed into a few hours, where the emotions of a lifetime can be felt on an acre or two of ground, where a person can suffer and die and rise again on six miles of trails through a New York City park. Sport is a theater where sinner can turn saint and a common man become an uncommon hero, where the past and the future can fuse with the present. Sport is singularly able to give us peak experiences where we feel completely one with the world and transcend all conflicts as we finally become our own potential. -George A. Sheehan

Fencing and Cultural Exchange

Another really cool thing about fencing is that it allows fencers from anywhere to communicate with other fencers from everywhere, no matter what their spoken language might be. We’ve already established that fencers can communicate with one another nonverbally through their bouts themselves, but what makes things even more special is the structure of the fencing tournament circuit. Fencing tournaments are unique because the regional and national level circuits bring together a wide variety of people from all over the United States, and even all over the world.

First off, let’s talk about why it’s important for fencers from all over the country to come together. The United States isn’t just one culture. Anyone who has lived in America will tell you that it’s a big country that’s not just one thing. People from the Northeastern US are very different culturally than people from the Southwest, who are very different culturally than people from the Deep South. There is no ONE culture here, even for people who are from the United States. But then you throw into the milieu the incredible cultural diversity that the immigrant populations bring to the table in the US, and you find yourself with an amazing plethora of cultural realities to explore! Meeting with and fencing against people from many different parts of the United States through the regional and national tournament circuit offers fencers the chance to explore and connect with so many different kind of people. It’s truly one of the great things about this sport.

But it’s not just fencers from within the United States that you’ll meet on the regional and national circuits in fencing. There are some amazing people that you can meet from all over the world on these circuits! Since USA’s NACs are open to all people, from all over the world, it’s common to connect with fencers from Canada, Hong Kong, Russia, Mexico, Korea, Japan, Puerto Rico, France, China, and more! This kind of immersion in various cultures means that you can have the chance as a fencer to meet all kinds of people and to connect with them.

Exposure to new cultures is the best way to create cultural sensitivity, tolerance, and understanding. In fencing, one of the unique things that we find is that you can go to the regional and national levels of fencing fairly quickly. This isn’t something that you’re going to have to train for a decade in order to get to – within just a few years of focused training with a solid fencing program, fencers can move on up and be exposed to this broad range of cultures.

The travel in and of itself is also a powerful way that fencing competition allows fencers to break down cultural barriers. Fencing tournaments happen all over the country, and even all over the world. This kind of sport allows you as a fencer to travel all over and become immersed in other cultures. We highly recommend to all of our fencers that they take an extra day on the back end, after competition, to explore the places that they’re visiting in order to have that exposure to a new place. It’s a wonderful way for young people (and adults) to learn more about the world and explore how different people live. Again, even within the United States you’ll find that people don’t live quite the same!

The fencing competition circuits are a perfect way for fencers to learn more about cultures both by connecting with people who they are fencing against and also by exploring the cities where they’re competing.

Fencing’s Roots in Cultural Exchange

Fencing  is nothing new, having been around for hundreds of years. Not only has it been around for hundreds of years, but from the very beginning it was a sport that encouraged the cross pollination of cultures. At first, this happened within Europe, where fencing culture crossed national borders to find roots in a wide variety of European cultures. Eventually, primarily during the last 100 years, fencing spread wider to other parts of the world where it then became a new foundation of cultural exchange.

This notion of bringing people together is something that’s ingrained in the culture of fencing going all the way back to the beginning. It’s important to realize that fencing is between two people, but it’s always been bigger than that.

The modern Olympic Games were founded for the express purpose of bringing people together across the bounds of continents, across the cultural divides that kept everyone apart. No matter what other things might be going on in the world – wars or plagues, heated conflicts or famine, the Olympics offered a place where everyone could be on an even and respectful playing field. Fencing was one of the original sports in the Olympics. Those first games in 1896 included nine sports – Athletics, Cycling, Gymnastics, Shooting, Swimming, Tennis, Weightlifting, Wrestling, and Fencing. It’s important that fencing is part of the wider cultural exchange that is the Olympic Games because it really shows how incredibly potent sport can be, and fencing can be.

Fencing strips away cultural tension. Fencers don’t have to worry that they’re fighting against someone who is from a different culture – all they need to know is that it’s an opponent like any other. Again, the unique nature of fencing is that all fencers look basically the same once they’re in their uniform! We saw this in the most recent Olympic Games in 2016 when Ibtihaj Muhammad, a sabre fencer, became the first athlete from the United States to wear a hijab at the Olympic Games. Once she put on her fencing mask and outfit, it was nearly impossible to even tell that she was wearing a headscarf. Fencing leveled the playing field, it meant that people from all over the United States and the world could watch her fence without making assumptions about her! She was just an athlete.

Fencing is a sport that anyone and everyone can play, and it allows everyone to connect on an level playing field.

Fencing Teaches Tolerance

When fencers connect with other fencers from different cultures, it’s a wonderful way for them to build tolerance.  We find that our fencers don’t just meet their opponents one time at a competition – they exchange contact information and build friendships with people from other cultures. It’s truly fantastic to see two young people fence one another and then build a friendship through their shared love of the sport! Fencing gives them a place to start to talk to one another. Oftentimes it’s hard to find an entry point for conversation with someone who has a widely different background than you do. Fencing gives us that common place to start from.

Common ground in the form of a shared sport like fencing gives people something to build from. As fencers, we learn to respect one another through good sportsmanship on the strip. It doesn’t matter what someone else might be culturally, when they step onto the strip it’s easy to see that they deserve support and respect. That transfer from the strip to life in general .

Fencing has the power to bring cultures together. From the beauty of non-verbal communication with a sword to the wonderful possibilities of fencing competitions  that bring people together, this is a sport that does a lot for cultural sensitivity and exchange. Getting involved in this sport changes us, for the better. We learn that we can be incredible rivals on the strip, but that it doesn’t mean that we have to hold one ounce of that stress off the strip! We learn to admire both our teammates and our opponents as part of the work of good sportsmanship. That’s a skill that’s transferable off the strip.

Being tolerant of and enthusiastic about the beautiful variety of cultures that are out there is a big bonus for fencers – beyond the already impressive benefits that come from the athleticism, mental focus, and teamwork that the sport already encourages. Breaking down cultural barriers is a bonus for fencers!