"En garde four. Retreat four. Advance. Retreat six. "Advance. Lunge. "En garde." From time to time the fencing master had to stop his students. "Relax," he crooned. He tapped one woman's foil with his sword, and it clanged on the floor. "Do you know why you lose your weapon?" he asked. "Too stiff." He continued the Simon-says drill of the basic fencing positions. Suddenly one of the novices advanced her sword when told to retreat. The master looked down at the metal tip inches from his Adam's apple. "That is the danger," he said calmly. Some say that the heart of fencing is the desire to do your opponent in. Knowing that he is thinking the same about you lends an excitement, a feeling of being on the edge of symbolic death, perhaps. The killer instinct is often what separates the champion from the recreational player. "The kill is the touch," says Michel Mamlouk, a fencing master who runs the Diplomat Fencing Academy. "You have to desire to kill, say 'Boom, I killed him.' Of course that used to be the point of dueling," he says. "There has to be a certain element of aggression in a person for him to fence in the first place," says Ed Beemer, a member of the D.C. Fencers. But everyone seems to agree that self- control is important, too. "A few years ago I would have a difficult time controlling myself within the bouts emotionally, because I would get so wrapped up in competing," Beemer says. "It would be difficult for me to concentrate if there was what I considered a bad call, and I thought they were all bad calls. "What I did for it," Beemer recalls, "I stopped fencing for two months and thought about it. I went back a much calmer fencer. I had gotten to the point that my emotions were not allowing me to enjoy it." There's more to fencing than just swordplay, as there'll be a chance to observe at the local bouts this spring. The National Fencing Championships will be held here for the first time, in May and early June. This Saturday and Sunday is the second annual Lakeforest Open: At the Lakeforest Mall in Gaithersburg, you can talk to the fencers and pick up details on joining fencing clubs. Then on April 24 and 25, as an alternative to the runners' Perrier Cherry Blossom Classic, there's the little-known Cherry Blossom Open competition for fencers, at George Mason University. You'll see three types of weapons being fenced: the foil, the epee and the saber, which is the heaviest. The hand guard is different on each weapon, and each has its own conventions: In the foil, you can only score a touch if you hit your opponent's vest. In the epee, the whole body is game. In the saber, anything above the hips is a valid target. Saber is the most interesting to watch, with its fast and furious clanging of the blades. "Bing, bang, boom, like the movies," is the way Mamlouk describes it. Fencing, though, is not the ideal spectator sport for the simple fact that the hand is quicker than the eye. Because it's hard to watch you're not likely to find a fencing bout on television. Even people who know it very well miss things. For this reason, fencers bless the electronic age, when a touch can be measured by machine. In the case of foil fencing, the fencers wear a metallic vest. On the tip of the foil is a small button, like a doorbell. The foil is wired through the handle and the wire is strung overhead to an electronically timed machine mounted on the wall. When the button on one foil touches the opponent, it makes a buzzer sound, and different colored lights tell if the touch was on target. One recent Saturday morning a women's foil tournament w vests, like soldiers putting on armor, preparing for battle. None appeared to be the sort of fencer who superstitiously refuses to be helped into the equipment. Some lunged fiercely before a mirror. They were assassins in white -- masked and anonymous executioners. Contrasting with the implicit violence of cold steel was beauty and form. The two who were about to fight would plug in their foils; the wires to the scoring box were kept out of their way by a pulley arrangement overhead. Creeping gracefully backwards then forwards in their white sneakers, the fencers seemed to be held by guy wires, Peter Pans about to go aloft. Each woman had a chance to fence the others. Spectators sat against the wall alongside the fencing strip, close enough to feel endangered by the slashing blades. In the end, the winner, Gwen Mines, sat down among them, panting ever so slightly, with a faint smile of triumph. She is a second lieutenant in the Marines, having graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy in May, where she was on the fencing team. "I used to be into karate," she said, "There the karate team wasn't too good. So I joined the fencing team. A lot of the form and idea is the same." Another competitor was Susan Stein, a surgeon, who joined the D.C. Fencers for the exercise, "something I could do that was structured," she said. "I can't go out and run. But I knew if I had to be some place I would do it." Third place went to Julie Washburn, a senior at Wilson High School, who started fencing a year ago for much the same reason: "I read in a fashion magazine that fencing reduces your thighs," she said. The director, or referee, for the bouts was Robin Dunnington, a budget analyst with the National Corporation for Housing Partnership, who has been fencing for 14 years -- since she had the good fortune to attend a Concord, Mass., high school where fencing was a highly competitive sport: There were a hundred people on the team. "I like the feeling of combining the physical with the intellectual," Dunnington said, "and knowing when I score a touch that it is something I did uniquely, not depending on other people. And it's fun, moving back and forth, trying to outfox your opponent. It's similar to the other martial arts, with balance, grace, attack and defense." Women can fence men, and do. "If the men are in better shape they might last longer through the day," said Dunnington, "but the top women athletes do very well against the men." In the past, women have only fought foil, but now they are getting into the rougher epee and saber. People are sometimes drawn to fencing by the romance of swashbuckling -- Robin Hood, Errol Flynn, Zorro -- which is quickly reduced to drills and hard work. They stay in it for the friendships, for the exercise and for the man-to-man, woman-to- woman, woman-to-man combat. It brings out the atavistic. Fencing is often described as physical chess, where strategy is the key. You can be young and lithe, and your opponent graying and slow, but that opponent will be lying in wait for you. It's not a question of strength or size, though long arms may give you a better reach. Oddly enough, for all the hitting the sport is relatively safe. Says Daniel Lyons, a fencing master and a member of the D.C. Fencers who has been fencing since 1935 and coaching for the last 23 years, "You don't get beat up too much. You get hurt -- a lot of pulled muscles, you get bad knees -- but you don't get injured like in football." The more aggressive you are, the better fencer you are, as long as you keep control. And then you have to have the guts to f director, who describes the action and keeps score. In the local clubs, the person serving as director may also be a friend, who, once play begins, assumes an Olympian detachment and becomes sir or ma'am. When one of the fencers has five touches against him, he loses, and then, the players shake hands -- using the ungloved hand, the one that does not hold the sword. Fencing is entirely one-on-one. You are always close enough for eye contact and subtle communications. Fencing becomes self- revealing. "You can tell a lot about a person's personality when he is fencing," says Mamlouk. You can, for example, tell an honest fencer. "Oh, immediately. For instance: there's a doubtful call and they will acknowledge they have been touched -- even before the decision is announced." You can tell if someone is "hyper," says Mamlouk: "You can see it in their eyes. Like they are throwing flames. When they are fencing, when they score a touch, they go into a frenzy. Also if there's a judgment call, they whip off the mask. Some people don't wait for the permission -- they have to have permission from the director to remove their mask -- they just whip their mask off. They are the arrogant ones." Communication goes on: There is even something called the sentiment de fer, the feeling of the blade, which, according to the other D.C. Fencers' master, Ray Finkleman, tells you not only your opponent's intentions, what move he may be doing against you, but also his emotional state. You can tell whether someone's had a good day by whether he's relaxed. For example, says Finkleman, if he is very stiff, he is going to react, and you can base your strategy on that. "Most contacts with the blade are very swift," he says. "It takes a long time to evolve that kind of sensitivity." Though it started out in America as an elitist sport practiced by the military or at Ivy League schools, fencing seems to know no class structure. Said Stein of the D.C. Fencers, "At the club, everyone fences everyone else. You learn by fencing someone who is better than you; and they in turn can practice new strategies on you, and when they've got them down try them on better opponents." Occasionally these strategies will include concentration-breakers. According to Lyons, an opponent will tell stories, stop the bout, get the director to talk, claim an injury, anything to disturb your concentration. In that case, he says, "You just sit on the floor and don't look at anybody; when the director says 'Fence,' then you get up. Don't help your opponent get up if he looks hurt. I can't tell how many people have done that to bust your concentration." Holding on to the concentration is paramount. Beemer, who does public relations when he isn't fencing, says he has one trick which is pretty common: You fence it one touch at a time. Pretend that the whole bout is the next touch. "Don't give up one because your mind slips," he says. "Give up one because your opponent outfenced you." The height of concentration comes in the tied bout, where the score is four to four and the next touch wins it. The director calls out "la belle," because the next touch must be a beautiful touch. "Fencing is only one phase of life, which is like anything else in life," says Lyons. "We have people in our club who are just too soft to ever become a successful fencer," he says, "and they are also too soft to ever become a successful businessperson. People lack that winning quality which goes all the way through their life. "But there are people with what you call a late spirit -- because they feel so klutzy -- but there's a big fire down there," he says. "They are really competitive inside, but they always felt so bad about themselves physically. You can help them comeout.

"These recessive personalities with a big anger in them, they become great. They let it out -- with a sword." REGARDING THE ENGARDE LAKEFOREST OPEN is Saturday from 10:30 to 6 and Sunday from 12:30 to 6, on the lower level lof the Lakeforest Mall in Gaithersburg. On Saturday there'll be a mixed (men and women) foil meet and a saber team exhibition; on Sunday, a men's epee meet. Because the competition is designed to introduce the public to fencing, officials will give detailed explanations of the action, and club members will be on hand to answer questions. Call Ed Beemer, 979-1730. CHERRY BLOSSOM OPEN is April 24 and 25 from 8 to 8. Finals at 6:30 both days. It will be in the main gym at George Mason University, 4400 Fairfax Drive. Call Michel Mamlouk, 296-8820. NATIONAL FENCING CHAMPIONSHIPS will be held from May 29 through June 5 from 8 to 8 at George Mason University. Here's a sampling of final rounds: men's foil, May 30 at 1; men's saber, May 31 at 5; women's foil, June 1 at 5; men's epee, June 3 at 4. Admission to preliminary rounds is free; to finals, $2.