Two young men, dressed in white suits and looking like beekeepers, stand about 10 feet apart, stoic behind mesh-screened face-plates, with 3-foot long, thin steel foils held point up.
"En garde!" shouts a stocky, platinum-haired instructor.
The two fall into position, a knee bent forward, foil dropped to a 35-degree angle, one hand raised behind.
"Allez!" cries the instructor, and the two lunge forward down the 6-foot wide "pist[e]," or fencing strip, and clash steels.
This is a typical night of practice at Cracovia Olympic Fencing School, which stands just north of Williamson Street on Madison's Near East Side.
Owner and instructor Krystyna Kostecka prowls the fencing room like a panther, eyeing the performances of students with an alert, serious gaze, clapping and giving encouragement here, stepping in with a "no, no" and demonstration there.
A former attorney in Krakow, Poland, and a world-class fencer, Kostecka says she has a core of 30 steady students at her new building, in which the school has been open less than a year.
Kostecka started Cracovia (Latin for Krakow) about 3 1/2 years ago, running the school in a State Street facility. At Cracovia, students from 10 to 60 learn classical, European-style fencing with foils, the flat-bladed sword favored by traditionalists.
In fencing, competitors battle in the 44-foot pist and score points with hits on their opponents' torsos, protected by a metallic "lame" or vest. The first to 15 wins. Attacks are parried and returned in a "riposte," an offensive move following the parry. Accidental or sloppy hits during parrying typically don't count as a hit. To count, a referee must verify that the score was conducted from an offensive posture.
Fencing weapons include the foil, the pe, a heavier foil with a larger hand guard, and a sabre, a flat-bladed slashing weapon. At Cracovia, Kostecka teaches only foil.
European style typically stresses technique with greater intensity than styles from Asia or America. It is the form Kostecka learned under former Polish and later American Olympic coach Leszek Stawicki, who recruited Kostecka as his sole female student when she was 14.
Kostecka preaches form over force, skill rather than winning at all costs. The style suits Art Barnard, a student for about a year under Kostecka. "She's just so passionate," said Barnard, 35, of Madison. "She's hard. It's real European old school."
But the emphasis on technique is critical to fencing, said fencing veteran Lisa Brideau. An aerospace engineer, Brideau moved to Madison a year ago following school at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada. There Brideau, now 23, was a varsity-level fencer.
"It really comes down to skill and technique," said Brideau, describing the characteristics of good fencers. "Anybody can get to the highest level if they can get the skills down."
Brideau, who in competition now often fences with men, as women are still rarely found at meets, notes that strength, size and speed do not necessarily prevail in the sport. "You can be as aggressive as you want," explained Brideau, "but if you don't have technique, you just hurt people."
Barnard, a former high school football player and soldier, pointed to his first tournament as an example that size may not much matter in fencing. At well over 6 feet, the former high school football player hardly carries a childish frame. "I got beat by an 11-year-old," said Barnard with a shake of his head. "It was kind of humbling."
The sport offers terrific exercise, notes Barnard.
"You're completely tense," he said. Even in a short exercise or match, the clenched muscles and sudden, anaerobic bursts leave him gasping and sweating. A match, he pointed out, can last anywhere from five to 45 minutes, depending on the comparative skills of the fencers.
Michael Mullins, 58, comes to Cracovia strictly for the workouts. A former military man, Mullins now works at the Madison Gas and Electric control center, sitting in a chair. Mullins explained that he dislikes team sports, and doesn't enjoy golf.
So he fences. "It is a lot of exercise," said Mullins. "It's hard to compete with these young kids," he said, glancing around the room. "They're so fast."
Cracovia is the newest of Madison fencing organizations. Durendal Fencing Club opened in Madison in 1990.
Led by David Glasser, a certified master fencer who has been teaching in Madison since the 1970s, Durendal teaches foil, epee, sabre, as well as rapier and dagger (used together), and hand-and-a-half sword. "It's kind of like knightly combat," explained instructor Jessie Michales, of the latter weapon. "They're heavier than a fencing foil." Most fencers at Cracovia note that fencing requires as much mental focus and strategy as it does fitness.
"There's so much discipline involved," said Maria March, 14, of Madison. A freshman at East High, Marsh has been training at Cracovia for about nine months. She said she's been interested in the sport since she was 5. "I loved the grace," she said.
But it is the focus required by fencing that sets it apart from other sports.
"I like having to use my willpower and my self-control a lot," explained March, who has played soccer and studied ballet.
Not lost, however, is the beauty of a match, of the dance and lunge of parries and strikes.
"The fighting," observed March, "is like a dance."