Interview with Berks Fencing Club President Dan Bonfitto: Fencing in Berks County

Dan Bonfitto began French foil fencing while in college, then turned to stage fighting. He soon found Berks Fencing Club and was hooked after the first practice. By 2019, the club elected him as president. Today, Bonfitto took some time to talk with us about Olympic Fencing in Pennsylvania. All images provided by Dan Bonfitto.

Martial Arts of Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow: Welcome Dan and thank you for joining us to talk about fencing!

Dan Bonfitto: It is a pleasure to be here!

MAYTT: When did you begin fencing and what aspects of the sport continue to motivate you to train and coach?

Dan Bonfitto in his Sunday best.

DB: My formal fencing training started in 1992 when I took the Fencing 1 and 2 physical education courses at Penn State as a freshman. It was my first class of the day and absolutely energized me for the rest of the day. I had a great time in the class, but I was never really on a path that included sports. When my required physical education credits were fulfilled, I was done.

I then proceeded to ruin all of that classical French foil training with a decade of stage fighting. As part of the amateur theatre scene in Austin, Texas in the late nineties, it quickly became apparent to me that I was better off swinging a sword than delivering a line. As a director, every time I directed a fight, my fencing training came into play, but in reverse. Attacks had to be slow and deliberate, defenses had to be early, and all of the movements had to be big enough to be seen from a distance. 

In 2013, just as I was turning forty, I was signed up for the Berks Fencing Club’s Sunday night Introduction to Fencing course. Jon Weaver and Eric Young taught the course, which consisted of eight weeks of formal training and two weeks of in-class tournament. I was very rusty, but my previous training gave me a definite advantage in the class. I won the tournament, but what really hooked me about the club was the attitude of the club. I joined the club and proceeded to lose bouts over and over again against experienced local fencers. 

What was amazing was the interest that the club members had in improving every other fencer in the club. If my guard was weak, Jon was there to correct it. If my movements were too big, Eric was there to show me how to improve control. One of our few lefties, Carl, was like a puzzle box of parries and ripostes who repeatedly defeated me and then explained why I lost. I fenced every Sunday night. 

By 2017, I was confident enough in my abilities to offer my assistance as a coach for the intro course and to run for vice-president of the club. In 2019, I was elected president of the club and continue to coach.

MAYTT: Congratulations on your recent election! How have you seen the training regimen change or modify itself since you began fencing? Would you consider these modifications and adaptations to have positive or negative effects on current fencers? How so?

DB: At our club, there is not a specific regimen for training. We are an all-volunteer community fencing club that meets once a week. Everyone in the club has their own path. 

They don’t start at the same place. We have fencers who come to the club with world-class training. We have fencers who did some fencing in college and want to return for recreation. We have kids with parents who are trying the sport for the first time. 

They don’t want to go to the same place. Some of our fencers want to see if they like the sport and don’t have a goal past that. Some of them want to fence for fun on a Sunday night. Some of them want to train to fence at a college level. Some of them are training for local and national competition. 

A ten-year old, a non-athletic adult, and a lifelong athlete don’t have the same abilities, the same drive, and the same goals. We do our best to offer options to all of them. Sometimes we fail. Sometimes we improve a fencer. Sometimes we get a new member of our fencing community.

Our introduction course focuses on classical French foil technique, but varies slightly depending on which coach is leading the course. It covers basic footwork, guard position, simple and compound attacks, straight and circle parries, actions on the blade, and some basic strategy. We also offer new fencers’ seminars on epee and sabre fencing after the class. 

Fencing is at least three separate sports differentiated by weapon (foil, epee, and sabre team for each weapon, and parafencing for each weapon). Each weapon has its own techniques and strategies. At Berks Fencing Club, we teach all three weapons and don’t have a monolithic philosophy about what technique is the right one.

Dan conducts an epee weapons test with new fencers, Rishi and Ricky.

MAYTT: What was the fencing community like when you first started fencing? Was it a robust community, teeming with fencers, or was it characterized by small pockets of clubs and schools isolated from each other?

DB: Here in Berks County and the surrounding areas, there aren’t a lot of fencing clubs. We’re part of the Philadelphia region and most of the other clubs are closer to the coast. We do what we can to reach out to other fencing organizations. 

Mickey Zeljkovic of Zeljkovic Fencing Academy (and the 2021 Parafencing Head Coach) came to us as a guest coach this past year and offers private lessons beyond what our volunteer coaching staff can offer. We are currently working on launching a parafencing program at BFC with his assistance and some coordination with the IAMABLE Foundation. 

We also have a regular informal three-weapon scrimmage night with the Kutztown University Fencing Club. Their club is a little more consistent in age range, but has a similar distribution of beginners and experts, so it’s always a great fight. The winning club in each weapon gets a formal salute from the other club. 

MAYTT: It’s great that you have a club close by you can compete with. Fencing has been around for centuries and the public’s perception of it changes with each generation. How did the American public view fencing when you began, and have you seen a change in that perception since you started?

DB: Zorro, Star Wars, The Princess Bride, and countless other on-screen depictions of sword-fighting have colored the public’s view of fencing. When you see ‘fencing’ in the media, it’s often the activity of a wealthy villain or an uptight buffoon. Even in a positive light, the sport is caricatured so that it looks good on-screen. 

I get it. We wear a bright white uniform and a mask that looks like it was made for beekeeping. We walk around in a weird squatting position with one arm up in the air and then make quick little jumps to attack. Then something happens very fast and one side gets a point, or maybe doesn’t because of a complex ruling. Fencing looks very strange until you understand it, and then it’s beautiful.

We spend some time in our introduction class explaining the difference between fiction and the actual sport. Our beginning students have usually done at least a little research into the sport before the first class. It takes a lot more work to explain it to friends and family who only know it from a brief flash of coverage on the Olympics.

One thing that I find incredibly fulfilling about fencing that I don’t often see in mainstream American sports is the dedication to sportsmanship. We salute before every bout, after every bout, and shake the hand of our competitor. Failure to do so is not only frowned upon, but penalized with a black card. We don’t trash talk or jeer our opponents. We don’t insult the referee. Instead, we respect and appreciate their efforts. At the end of a bout, we look to the person with whom we just crossed swords and fought to our utmost ability and offer an open hand. 

MAYTT: Tells us about the history of Berks Fencing Club. Who founded the club and how has the club itself helped elevate fencing in the region?

DB: Honestly, look to Jon’s answer about the start of the club.  My answers about pre-2013 Berks Fencing Club history would just be copied from his notes. 

Since then, BFC has expanded from two coaches to five (and a guest coach) and added a summer introduction course. We also went from being a primarily foil fencing club to fencing with all three weapons regularly. 

Being an all-volunteer community club, we also keep the financial bar to entry in the sport very low. Fencing can be very expensive (probably one of the reasons it’s portrayed as an elitist sport on screen). Private lessons, gear, travel, and club memberships all add up. We offer annual memberships at $200 which include use of all of the club equipment including uniforms. Our goal, as a volunteer club, is to open fencing to people who wouldn’t otherwise try it and make it a sustainable option for those who enjoy it. 

Keeping the costs low helps us to bring in parents of kids who want to try fencing. One of my favorite things to see in an introduction class is a parent and child leaving at the end of a class, excitedly talking as classmates about fencing.

MAYTT: How has the club been affected by the constant storm that is the COVID pandemic? In your opinion, how has the club adapted and survived during the pandemic, and do you think those changes will stay with the club and/or fencing even after the end of COVID?

DB: COVID has been tough. We were closed for about half of 2020, but reopened in July with a few restrictions. 

We sign in for contact tracing. We distance when not on the strip. We provide hand sanitizer.  We don’t share fencing masks. We don’t come to the club with any hint of a symptom. Competitions have varying levels of testing and vaccine requirements. 

We mask 100% of the time, including when we’re wearing our fencing mask. This is the big one. There is no option for doing what we do without full masking. We have older fencers who have a higher level of risk. We have younger fencers who aren’t vaccine eligible yet. We provide masks for anyone who doesn’t have one.

Foreground: Dan makes a parry 6 against Richard. Background: Jon bouting with another fencer.

Masking is required by USA Fencing for all events, so we comply. I can’t let someone fence without a COVID mask at BFC anymore than I could let them fence without a fencing mask. 

USA Fencing, the national organization for the sport, is also our insurer. Having clear directions regarding opening, masking, and other COVID policies has made my job as a club president easier. There’s no gray area or room for debate. I commend them for clear instruction and regular updates. I have set my back against this wall many times over the past year. We’ve lost club members because of it. 

To anyone who feels it’s too hard to mask, try it for three hours of non-stop fencing in the summer wearing full sabre gear! [Laughs]

I’m looking forward to the day we can fence without the additional masking requirements. It’s hot and it’s uncomfortable, but we also haven’t had any in-club cases. 

MAYTT: Who do you feel had the most influence in establishing fencing throughout Pennsylvania and the Northeast? What made these fencers and coaches stand out from their contemporaries?

DB: I’m going to refer you to Zach Sturgis’ answer. 

MAYTT: How has the Olympics helped maintain fencing in the public eye? If the sport was not in the Olympics, would fencing still have the following it does today?

DB: Every four years, our club sees a surge in new interest in the sport. Outside of the occasional depiction in popular media, the Olympic Games are the only time the sport is publicized. 

If fencing wasn’t an Olympic sport, I think that a lot of the legitimacy the sport has would be eroded.

MAYTT: Within the combat sports/arts community, Historical European Martial Arts (HEMA) has been growing steadily since the late 1990s. In your experience, how have you seen HEMA effect fencing? Is it a positive or a negative effect and do these effects provide a bridge to cross-community interaction?

DB: Every once in a while, we see a little bit of HEMA technique on the fencing strip. It’s usually unsuccessful once the opposing fencer identifies it. Fencing is very linear, follows very strict rules about what an attack should look like, and capitalizes on the speed and accuracy of a light, fast weapon. If you try to attack with a fencing weapon in the way you’d attack with a much heavier weapon like a longsword, you’re often going to leave yourself open to a fast counterattack. Under the very specific circumstances of a fencing bout, the narrower list of strategies a fencer might use are going to be the optimal ones. 

While they might not go together in the same bout, both boil down to the idea of hitting the other person with a sword without being hit yourself and having fun with that activity. I think any interest in either sport just fosters interest in combat sports as a whole. 

MAYTT: Final question. Given your time within the sport, what do you think the future holds for fencing? How will the sport adapt itself to a post-COVID world?

DB: Fencing has adapted pretty well during COVID, with only the masking and testing requirements adding much difficulty. Fencers are pretty well adapted to having to abide by safety and equipment policies to avoid injury. A few more bits of gear and rules aren’t going to stop us from enjoying the sport. 

I hope to see increased popularity, but I think it’s a long haul that’s got to start from the ground up. I don’t know if it’s ever going to be popular as a spectator sport without a lot of spectator education. The best way to learn about fencing is to do it, so the best way to make fencing fans is to make fencers. We have to do that with an outstretched hand, patience, and a willingness to teach the sport.

MAYTT: That was a great conversation! Thank you again for speaking with us about fencing.

DB: Thank you for having me and I’m glad you enjoyed the discussion!

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