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En garde, touché — up, up and away 

Yes, Virginia, there's sword fighting in Charlotte

Decked out in a flashy, skintight ensemble and floppy white hat, the foppish dandy swings down from a chandelier, twirls his moustache and in a thick, Inspector Clouseau-esque accent, challenges his opponent with a nasally "En Garde!" If that's your impression of fencing, you're not alone. The sport hasn't exactly been embraced in the US as it has elsewhere. In fact, as I was doing a little Internet research for this story, one of the first web sites I came across was the playfully tongue-in-cheek fencingsucks.com, which described fencers thusly: "They sneer. They like to jostle strangers and push elderly women into the bus lane. They hold spitting contests on crowded sidewalks. They smell bad, and know it. They're fencers."

Well, last week I met about a dozen fencing enthusiasts at the Touché Fencing Club on Old Pineville Road. (I kid you not; it really is called "Touché"!) Sure, the fencers were dressed a little funny, but not once did any of them sneer, jostle, push or spit. Nor did they smell particularly bad.

On hand was fencing coach Peter Zay, born and raised in Hungary. Zay was just nine years old when he saw his first fencing competition on TV. He fell in love with the sport. "It was like armed combat; a duel," he said.

Zay was a natural, and under the tutelage of some of Hungary's fencing masters — guys with names like Laszlo and Janos — he went on to become a member of the National Junior Fencing Team. He and his wife moved to Charlotte in 1992, and Zay started teaching fencing at CPCC; he opened Touché in 1998.

Fencing is gaining in popularity, although its following in Charlotte is probably equivalent to that of the Mecklenburg Pierogi Lovers Club. In fact, some folks still look to Zay for their home-improvement needs. "I still get calls from people who want us to build a fence around their yard," he said with a laugh.

Anxious to get some hands-on experience, I asked Zay if he could show me a few things. Donning a fencing mask — which gave me a great creepy-killer look, a la Friday the 13th look — I grasped a sabre. There are two basic moves in fencing: the advance, for attacking, and retreating (a popular move among the French). While Zay showed me the proper way to execute the defensive "parry" move, it took all my strength not to let loose with Daffy Duck's, "Ho! Ha ha! Guard! Turn! Parry! Dodge! Spin!" war cry from when he took on Porky Pig.

Thankfully, Zay didn't turn me into a shish kebob, and we made way for two of his more advanced students to duel. The action — a fast and furious flurry of motion that's nearly impossible to follow — took place on an official 6-by-40-foot dueling strip. Scoring is recorded electronically. The sword has a small spring-loaded tip that's connected to a wire inside the blade. Every time the sword tip touches the "valid target area" (read: a human torso), it registers on the scoring machine.

As Zay's students continued to go at it, he explained that during the 12th century, when lighter materials were discovered, the big, heavy swords that fighters held with two hands evolved into smaller, more manageable weapons. This allowed soldiers to be more agile and quick on their feet — and later spawned countless Three Musketeers and Zorro movies.

The modern sport of fencing originated in the first Olympic games in 1896, and to this day it still consists of the same three weapons: the foil, épée and sabre. In addition to the Olympics, the other big fencing competition is the United States Fencing Association's (USFA) Summer Nationals Fencing Championship, held this year in California.

Graciela Nolen, 15, is one of several of Zay's students who will make the trek to the West Coast next month for the competition. Nolen got into fencing in a roundabout way when she was just 12. Her dad, Jeff, was looking for a way to keep his daughter out of trouble and enrolled her in an after school program that happened to offer fencing.

"I thought I'd give it a shot," Graciela said. Not only did she give it a shot, but within six weeks she'd come in third place at a competition in Wilmington. A year later, she competed in the NC Jr. Olympic Qualifier, where she won a gold medal and three silver medals.

"It's really become a part of me now," she says. "I hope to someday go to the Olympics."

Some of her girlfriends aren't as enthralled with Graciela's newfound passion. "They think I'm a stuck-up little girl."

Let's hear them say that when she's holding a sabre in her hand.

Touché Fencing Club, 5410-B Old Pineville Road, 704-676-4728, www.touchefencing.com.

If you have an idea for the Urban Explorer column, contact Sam Boykin at: sam.boykin@cln.com or 704-944-3623.

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