En garde: Allez Fencing in Nashua teaches the modern style

Staff photo by Hannah LaClaire Students wrap up their recent fencing lesson with 30 minutes of sparring at Allez Fencing in Nashua.

The two 10-year-olds lunged back and forth, parrying, feinting and attacking – thin swords clashing with a soft metallic sound.

Ari Mikhak, one of their coaches, stopped to correct their footwork. They began again.

Allez Fencing, a fencing school in Nashua, has about 30 students, the youngest of whom just turned 6, and the oldest, age 72. They are all focused on becoming competitive.

Mark Elbag, Allez’s other coach, has been fencing since he was a teenager, but is grateful to be able to teach a new, primarily younger generation of fencers.

“I love teaching, it’s really cool to see the changes in the kids,” he said, and recalled a student named Ben from when he was coaching in Cambridge, Mass. who was shy and quiet at first but became “chatty as can be” once he built confidence through fencing.

Elbag originally moved to Cambridge to pursue a more competitive kind of fencing, and was pushing for the national team, when he suffered a serious knee injury.

Now, he’s been coaching for almost as long as he has been fencing he said, and he and Mikhak opened their Nashua school just over two years ago, in Oct. 2015.

The difference between being the athlete and the coach, Elbag said, “is astronomical.”

“When you’re in it, the perspective really changes. It’s very fast, very intense, split second decision making, heart in your throat,” he said. “But when you’re coaching, it’s more like a game of chess. It’s two different worlds.”

The school offers three levels for competitive fencing, as well as fencing camps, recreational fencing, fencerfit (a fitness building course), and an adult class.

The 10-year-olds lunging and sparring with one another are part of the Level II, Advanced Techniques and Tactics Class.

“People think it’s hard to teach younger children, but these kids are like little sponges,” he said. When they move into the Level III class next year, they will be a very competitive group.

The real struggle, he said, can be with the teenagers.

“When you’re (fencing), people forget it’s a combat

sport, there’s a lot of adrenaline going. We have to encourage them to manage it … that can be difficult.”

The Level II class has about 10 students ages 6 to 10, Elbag said, with only two girls.

“We’re lucky to have even a few girls in the class, we’re desperate for girls.”

Fencing can be a particularly good sport for women, he said, because in a male dominated area, there are many opportunities for scholarships.

Of the girls they do have in the class, Elbag said, “They’re amazing. A few weeks ago we had a girl go to a competition, beat all the boys and come home with first place.”

Competitions are split up by gender and age, although in smaller groups for younger children, boys and girls are often put together.

Once the students are around 13, they are put in the adult-level classes, meaning sometimes adults have to fight kids.

This often works out in favor for the younger student, as the adult ego has cost many matches, Elbag said, because the adults underestimate them.

That is not to say that they have not won on their own merit. The students at Allez work hard, and a few of them have even competed in the Jr. Olympics.

Every class starts with a warm up before moving into footwork, which Elbag said is the most important part. The classes have designated days for speed, strength and endurance.

Mikhak was instructing the students on a speed day.

“For speed, we want them to be more coordinated, quicker and more explosive in their movements,” Elbag said, as the students completed a series of quick footwork exercises. “It’s a very fast sport, you have to have your feet underneath you at all times.”

After warm up they work on target practice and focus on technique, doing tactical and technical drills.

“They have to be disciplined, but we want to make it fun,” he said. “It’s a hard sport. Fencing is fun, but it’s hard fun. It’s not an instant gratification sport.”

The hardest part can be getting the mind and body to synchronize.

“Sometimes students will think they are doing something but they aren’t, or they will see something they want to do but not be able to get body to cooperate,” he said.

This is especially difficult given the fact that “most of the time they have under a second to react.”

Because of this, “emotional control ends up being huge,”he said.

Fencing has undergone somewhat of an overhaul in the last few decades. The sport used to resemble a more “Three Musketeers” type of style, with points being awarded party based on how the moves looked with less attention on the athletic aspects

“But (now) it doesn’t look anything like it used to,” Elbag said. “It’s much more modern. The speed, timing and tactics have all changed.”

Yet still, people tend to view it as being almost posh, unattainable, which Elbag feels may be some of the problems with getting people into the sport. They have seen a lot of interest, but have had a harder time getting traction.

Fencing, he said, is not hard to get into, and while the initial kit can be expensive, the equipment lasts for years.

The sport has been rated one of the safest, above even table tennis, and there have been no serious accidents since the 1980s.

At the lower levels for the classes, Allez offers equipment, but “at the higher levels you’ll want your own equipment because the feel of the weapon ends up being very important,” Elbag said.

There are three types of fencing; foil, saber and epee.

At Allez, they work with epee.

In foil, points can be scored only with the tip of the blade in the torso area. Saber fencers can score with the side of the sword as well as the tip, and the legal target areas are anywhere above the waist, including the head but not the hands. In epee, anywhere is legal, but due to heavier swords, points can be more difficult.

No matter the style, the sport is still challenging.

“It’s a physical and mental sport, if you excel in one or the other you can go far in fencing, but in order to reach the top you have to have both,” Elbag said, but no matter what, he always prefers hard work over natural talent.

He and Mikhak, who have “polar opposite” but “complementary” coaching styles, encourage competition in a healthy environment.

“We want the kids to compete with each other, not against each other,” he said.

Hannah LaClaire can be reached at 594-1243 or hlaclaire@nashuatelegraph.com.