Yamashita brings art of swordplay to West Side

2/24/2017 | Chris Maza

Category: February

Members of the intermediate/advanced fencing class practice at the UNICO building.
Reminder Publications photo by Chris Maza

Taro Yamashita was the very definition of a multi-sport athlete.

Hockey, lacrosse, football, you name it, he probably played it at some point.

When he went off to Brown University with the realization that he was not going to continue to play hockey at 5-foot-9, 160 pounds, but wanted to remain competitive, he found and fell in love with the game of swordplay.

Twenty-six years later, he still celebrates that romance. Through Riverside Fencing Club, he passes on that love.

Yamashita, the head coach and owner of the club, conducts beginner and intermediate/advanced fencing classes in Western Massachusetts, including West Springfield in collaboration with the Park and Recreation Department.

The program has been very popular and a big part of that, he believes, is that there’s no sport he’s found to be more inclusive than fencing.

“What drew me to it was the great combination of smarts and athleticism that was necessary to succeed. It was also great leveling of the playing field that football or lacrosse or hockey don’t have,” he explained. “Even if I am as fast and as skilled as the guy next to me, if he’s 6-foot-5 and I’m 5-foot-10, then I’m not going to be as good as he is in some of those other sports. But fencing is kind of sizeless sport.”

Having competed nationally and internationally and coached for an additional 14 years, including acting as head coach at the University of Massachusetts until just last year, said he’s basically seen it all.

“I have fenced against people as big as 7-foot-1 and have come out victorious and I haven fenced against guys who are as short as 5-foot-3 and they beat me,” he said. “The mental challenge and competitive challenge of wanting to win and get better is still all there in fencing and there is a physical aspect to it, but I don’t have to be bigger than you to beat you.”

What’s more, he said, the social aspect of fencing is one that isn’t found in a lot of other sports for several reasons. First and foremost, it’s one that resonates with many ages. Yamashita has taught students as young as 8 and as old as 78. Each has a different reason for being drawn to the sport.

“For some, especially kids, it’s Star Wars or Pirates of the Caribbean and the swordplay aspects of those movies. Some people are drawn in by the historical aspects of it. It’s one of the oldest sports on the planet. There are pictures painted on ancient Egyptian pottery that depict fencing,” he said. “There’s also a romantic aspect to it, whether it be the knight in shining armor or the Three Musketeers and things of that nature. Some are just really curious.”

Many children, he added, simply find fencing because they want to do something competitive, but none of the mainstream sports have resonated with them.

“I’d imagine it’s similar to why some kids get into gymnastics or dance or even BMX or the X-Games sort of alternative sports,” he said. “It’s the idea that you can be individually creative and you can have your own body, your own sense that the sport is contained within your own self. There’s an aspect of self-reliance you don’t find in a lot of other sports.”

Despite such a diverse cross section of the population attending his class, Yamashita said the atmosphere is a welcoming one.

“Fencers as a group tend to be a very interesting and eclectic group of people outside of the sport, but we all seem to relate to each other very well. There’s slightly more of a ‘geek factor’ to us, so to speak,” he said. “Fencers also in general tend to be an intellectual crowd. At my club, I have seven PhDs, maybe more.”

Yamashita takes a different approach to teaching the sport than some other instructors. While most coaches would focus on blade work and positioning in a beginner’s class, Yamashita explained he tends to place more emphasis on the cerebral part of the sport.

“Fencing is not unlike ballet in that there are several positions and movements that you have to master and many classes focus on that aspect. Mine is focused more on the movement of the game – whose turn is it to strike and to defend,” he explained. “The focus is to give people a feel for the game so whether or not they like the blade work and specific techniques, do they like the underlying piece of the game? Fencing is very similar to a game of tag where both people are ‘it’ and there are only two people in the game. Whose turn it is to tag and whose turn it is to get away kind of changes fluidly as you go along. That’s the basis of how I teach it.”

From there, the higher level class builds upon that concept.

“It’s an organic sort of thing. I try to teach fundamental tactics and techniques, but I try not to lose the sense of why we’re doing this – it’s supposed to be fun,” he said. “Teaching the technique becomes teaching them ways to succeed by creating a context and in doing so, there’s an immediate reward.”

Yamashita’s next sessions begin this March. A six-week introductory class for children 10 to 13 will run every Sunday from March 5 to April 9 from 5:30 to 7 p.m. at the UNICO Building at Mittineague Park. A teen and adult introductory class will follow from 7 to 8:30 p.m. The deadline to register is March 2.

The intermediate and advanced youth class begins March 1 and runs for six consecutive Wednesdays through April 5, 5:30 to 7 p.m., followed by the teen and adult class from 7 to 8:30 p.m. The registration deadline is Feb. 27.

All equipment is provided.

If the registration deadline has passed, fear not; Yamashita said he conducts classes regularly, so another opportunity will be available in the near future.

“I take some time off during the summer so people can get outside and enjoy the nice weather, but for the most part, we always have a class going on,” he said.

For more information on the West Springfield programming, contact the Park and Recreation Department at 263-3284. For more information on Yamashita and Riverside Fencing Club, visit www.riversidefencingclub.com.

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