It's All in the Fingers

Robert Levis talking about his dad, Joe Levis (1932 Olympic silver medalist) interviewed by Andy Shaw

"It's All in the Fingers"


Without a doubt, the single most important element  of my father's fencing technique was his emphasis on the minimizing the distance that the blade, more specifically, the point, had to travel. He referred to the concept as "making your movements small". However, a better term for it would have been "economy of movement". In every lesson, he would preach to me that whether an opponent was bigger, stronger or faster did not matter; one would always be able to parry and hit an opponent in plenty of time if one's point had to travel a shorter distance than his. In other words, the fact that an opponent was 20% faster would not matter, one's point would reach the intended target sooner if it had to travel a distance which was 30% less than the distance the opponent's point had to travel. It made sense to me, but I never was able to develop the hand control of my father.


Although we'd drill and drill in lesson after lesson, he was rarely satisfied with my handwork. He would go through the movements so that I could emulate them....but they were so difficult to copy......good grief...he would perform a disengage into six-double' -lunge where the help me...if it moved more than one inch as it went through the disengage-double' .....I would be surprised. When doing a coupe', if my blade went above my opponent's point more than one half of an inch, he would be incensed. When he showed me his famous septieme parry, his arm would not move, and his wrist hardly moved, but, somehow, instantaneously, his point would be in the septieme position, pointing to the floor, with the strong part of the blade on my weak part of mine, Before I would even realize it, I was hit flush at the waist or crotch (shortest distance to hit). Then he would do the counterpart move with the octave parry. 


He would always say his secret was that "it's all in the fingers". He could actually fence an entire bout using only his index finger and thumb. Indeed, those digits were so strong that he could use them alone to bend a soda pop cap. He minimized movement of his arm so that it moved only when he was extending it for a riposte or a lunge. He'd demonstrate in each lesson how, with only his index finger and thumb, he could do all the necessary defensive and attacking moves and, thus, make the distance his point travelled "micoscopic on size".


Later in his competitive career, probably around the late thirties or early forties, he began to use what I used to refer to as the "ole sawed-off shotgun", but which some of his students called, the "Levis Grip". In the interest of making his weapon as light as possible so that it would be easier to control with his fingers, he would take a conventional foil with a French grip .........take off its long, relatively heavy pommel and replace it with a small, lightweight pommel  similar to a sabre pommel, no more than 1 and 1/2 inches long.....then he would cut and unwind the string on the handle, leaving only the exposed wood, and remove the finger padding at the bell guard. He believed the padding interfered with his control of the blade. He wanted the knuckle of his index finger as tight as possible against the inside of the bell guard because the knuckle acted as the "fulcrum" for his finger movements. Another unique idea was his use of adhesive tape to fasten the shortened handle to his wrist, thereby relieving his hand from the burden of holding the weapon. This allowed him to use only his index finger and thumb to direct the movements of the weapon. 


How many times in practice bouts in the salle, he would attack and hit his opponent in a long, complicated series of feints and changes of line.....then take off his mask, look at me, wink, and whisper, "Son, it's all in the fingers".........................End of First Installment


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