COLUMBIA — On Saturday afternoons, eighth grader Claire Dong can be found at Columbia Classical Fencing LLC, with her hair pulled back in a single braid and a foil gripped in her right hand.
The sword’s sleek metal blade requires great agility and precision when wielded against an opponent. Of all the weapons used in the club, it’s her favorite by far.
“With foil, it’s all of this art, all of this other stuff — it’s like you have to put so much into it, every little thing,” she said.
At 13, Claire is the youngest member of the club. She regularly duels fencers many years her senior with many more years of experience.
But Patrick Morgan, the club’s head instructor, said Claire is a quick learner.
"In terms of either her ability to understand the concept and execute it, she picks it up very fast,” he said. “And then once she does it, she does it consistently, over and over and over again."
Columbia Classical Fencing LLC began in 1996 at Dexter's Int'l Taekwon-Do and Martial Arts Training Center, where a small group of fencers began meeting regularly to practice classical dueling. Since then, the club has expanded and moved to its new home at the Jazzercise Columbia Fitness Center on Nifong Boulevard.
Morgan has been in charge of the club since the former instructor, his old political science professor, retired to Brazil. Morgan routinely travels around the world to learn new skills and techniques to teach his fencers.
The classical style of fencing is very different from the modern sport, Morgan said.
“We practice fencing as it was practiced in Europe, especially France, in the 1700s and in the 1800s,” he said. “So ours is not the fencing that one sees in the Olympic swords — hyper-athleticism, as impressive as that is. And so we practice it as a form of a martial art.”
Swordsmanship is far from the only skill in Morgan’s repertoire. He also instructs his fencers in the arts of cane fighting and knife fighting. Both types of fighting have roots in Europe — cane fighting originated in post-revolutionary France, while knife fighting was once a common practice in Spain.
For Morgan, fencing is as much a mental sport as it is a physical one.
“It’s often said that fencing is what they call physical chess,” he said. “There is a level of strategizing and trying to out-think your opponent and deceive them while at the same time defending yourself.”
The future of fencing
In the years to come, Morgan said he plans to teach more classes and recruit new fencers, but more importantly, he hopes to keep the tradition alive.
There are only two places that teach classical fencing in the Midwest: Morgan’s club and Trovare di Spada, a St. Louis-based school with an emphasis on Italian fencing.
“Without the efforts of people like myself and the other few people who are actually practicing classical fencing in this country, it would be a tradition that would have died out by now,” Morgan said. “I like to think of myself and this club as a link in that chain.”
Fencer Chris O’Keefe said the lessons at Columbia Classical Fencing are the best part of his week.
O’Keefe, who has been fencing for 17 years, first picked up the sport while he was in college in Kirksville. He said he prefers the “common sense” aspect of classical fencing to the Olympic sport’s rule-heavy approach.
Each Thursday and Saturday, he heads to the Jazzercise building with his fencing gear in tow.
“I’ll do it for the rest of my life,” he said.
Claire hopes to carry on the legacy as well.
“It’s interesting to see how they fought in the past,” she said. “And it’s just fun to fight with swords.”