The last time I poked someone was in college. It was 2007 and Facebook “poking” strangers was just one of the many bad decisions I made that year. Once I graduated, the poking ended and I moved on to interacting with people like an adult, re: refusing hugs and giving firm handshakes. Then last week, in a Dabble fencing class, the playful jabs of my college days returned. Except this time the poking was done by a sword, in real life, sans Zuckerberg.

Walking up to the doors of RedStar Fencing Club, I half expected to be greeted by the Great and Powerful Oz. The doors are immense, dark slabs of wood inexplicably sprouting from metal and brick. Once inside, I climbed a flight of stairs and was met by a wizard of sorts, a young woman with a long black braid and two nose rings.  The woman was our co-instructor for the night, my compass, Jon-Girl. “Don’t worry,” she told me as I signed in. “It will be fun. You’ll do fine.” I handed over my waiver and joined my classmates in the studio. Shit was about to get real.

The class was an even mix of guys and girls. There were a few couples but mostly solo Dabblers. I rode the Belmont bus back with two guys whose reasons for taking the class were similar to mine. “I was just looking for something new and different to try,” one of them told me.

In class, I used my being the only left-handed fencer to my advantage. Because I was the exception, I was routinely called out: “Everyone step forward on your right foot. Ali, you’ll use your left foot.” I had to use a special sword and jacket. Whatever the class did, I did backwards. I had a built-in identity. I was the fumbling-oddball-possible witch who took stabs at the air. No one was threatened by me and everyone was endeared. Or so I thought.

After an hour of warm ups, suit ups, and footwork, we spent the second half of class dueling. We stood in two rows, facing our opponents in claustrophobic mesh masks and straightjacket chic protective gear. Our dulled tip swords pointing into our partner’s abdomen. And on our instructor’s signal, we fought.

Due to my historically low levels of competition and high levels of self-involvement, I was caught off guard when my partner did what we were instructed to do: hit your target. I immediately wondered if I did something to offend her. Perhaps I didn’t take our practice lunges seriously enough, I thought. Then I wondered why she was hitting me with such force. Couldn’t she tell from my Keds and ill-fitting yoga pants, that I was a frail, non-athlete? But the thing about being attacked is that, in the moment, there is little room for self-reflection. It wasn’t long before I realized I had to defend myself and I started jabbing and poking like a fiend. I landed a couple of hits and for all my misses I blamed it on my lame left hand.

In the end my fencing exploits proved successful. I learned that there are three different types of swords, each with their own rules of play. I opened up to the strangers around me. When me and another classmate became winded, after our duel, we bonded over how out of shape we were. “It’s my second day since I’ve quit smoking,” she told me. “I have no excuse,” I told her. And then there was that moment in class when I stood up for myself, took command of my sword, and forgot all technique. I was simply thinking of my survival and my desire to dabble another day. I fought my way back for you, Dabblers! Now back to my signature firm handshakes.

Until next week, stay curious!

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