A Cold Day in January

Today marks the 2-year anniversary of one of the most formative days in my study of historic Italian rapier fencing. Initially, I didn’t write about the day because it always seemed that I’d have even more insight about the day in the near future. This continued until months had passed, then years and it no longer seemed timely to write about. However, Dante has started bugging me about it again and, well, despite the first duty of a Free Scholar being to take every opportunity to disappoint your primary sponsor, I figured I’d use the 2-year anniversary as an occasion to provide a write up.

It all started on a cold weekend in January 2014. Ruairc and I were bored, so we drove to Dante’s in order to attend an Italian Rapier fencing practice that he had advertised on Facebook. When we got to the park on Saturday morning, we had expected that there would be at least a few other fencers in attendance, but apparently they had been scared off by the temperatures in the mid-teens, so it was just Dante, Benjamin (who served as Dante’s teaching assistant for the day), Ruairc, and me.


Lunges:

The first thing we worked on that day was our guard and lunges. Dante made 3 specific corrections in order to:

  1. Align the sword with our forearm: This one has since become my pet peeve for Italian rapier instruction, however simply put, the sword should be held such that the wrist remains in a neutral position and the blade aligns with the forearm. There should be either no angle, or a very slight angle formed at the wrist between the sword and forearm. Holding the sword in this way closes an open line to the right upper chest and makes it far easier/efficient to perform a cavazione.
  2. Place our weight on our heels rather than the balls of our feet: This adjustment changes the way that you apply force into the ground when moving (forward or backwards), ultimately providing better alignment with your skeleton such that you can generate more force when pushing into the ground. Changing this in my guard wasn’t particularly difficult, but it was fairly difficult to maintain this during the lunge, as my weight wanted to “roll” forward onto the ball of my right foot during the landing. The benefits of this weren’t immediately apparent because of some other form issues that I needed to fix and weakness in my core and leg muscles. After about 6 months of continued work and focused drilling, however, I was able to make this automatic and was able to use this change in alignment in order to better propel my lunge forward and propel my body backwards in the recovery, retreats, etc.
  3. Move our left hip back such that our bodies were more profiled: Simply put, we weren’t keeping our hip profiled despite doing so with our shoulders. I have since observed this problem in lots of fencers, as they are generally conscious of their shoulder placement (which they can get profiled), but are less conscious of their hip placement. Fixing this was actually quite difficult and required about 3 months of focused drilling in order to make it automatic.

Overall, I was able to make these changes “well enough” to continue the day, but I ultimately spent the next year making a lot of these things work. There were a few additional “key lessons” that I ended up discovering over that year that were also important to making it all work.

  1. Ideally, all movements are performed by pushing with one leg or the other. This is in contrast to throwing your body weight forward and falling and/or pulling yourself with one leg or the other. For example, to move forward, push with your back leg, don’t pull with your front.
  2. In order for “pushing” to work, it is necessary to maintain a “rigid frame” through your pelvis and trunk. I recently demonstrated this to my students by putting my buckler and a pillow on the floor. I then pushed each of these objects with a stick and noted that the buckler moves immediately, but the pillow gives way before it starts to move (I also shouted “SQUISH!” as the pillow did so, which has since become a bit of a running joke and also a great way to remind them to keep their frame rigid when drilling). For me, this required several months of focused training involving things like planks, mountain climbers, squats, and such.
  3. As a result, weight should be held over one leg or the other. There isn’t really a “middle-weighted” stance in the Italian rapier tradition, and allowing your body weight to be placed between both legs means that you can’t take advantage of most of the benefits of the Italian rapier stance/lunge.
  4. The movement of the body through space (displacement) is performed with foot work. The movement of the upper body (leaning, rotation) is performed with the trunk muscles independently and generally keeps the center of mass in the same place. This became intuitively apparent as I built up my “rigid frame” and gained better control over my body placement. However, I came across a similar idea in my recent study of Agrippa. Briefly, Aristotle’s ideals surrounding motion hold rotation (movement in place) to be more perfect than displacement, which Agrippa echoes in his emphasis on the cavazione and void as methods of avoiding attacks rather than parries, cuts, or movement backwards.

The Drills:

After completely re-inventing our guard and lunges, we then proceeded to work through a series of drills. We were required to perform each drill until we had performed it correctly 20 times in a row. After doing so, we were allowed to move onto the next drill. The drill progression was roughly the same (as far as I remember) as the progression that is presented in Dante’s book as shown below (in most cases, the teacher begins the action):
Drill Progression

Performing any of these drills by themselves wouldn’t have been a problem for me at the time, but there were two big factors that made things quite difficult. First, it was about 15 degrees out, and second, performing even one of these drills until you have performed it correctly 20 consecutive times takes a lot of repetitions. Doing 7 of these drills in a row led to significant fatigue in both my arm (from holding the sword up) and in my legs (from all the lunging). It didn’t help that we had changed pretty much everything about my stance and lunge just before we started. In any case, I found that for each of these drills, I generally performed it about 10-15 times (with some incorrect trials mixed in there) before I’d start to build a streak. Frequently I’d get to about 15-18 in a row and then I’d make an error (usually due to fatigue) and would have to start again at 1, which was super-frustrating. Sometimes this would happen more than once in a single drill. Breaks were allowed, but we had to perform 10 lunges sparring passes when we took one, so I don’t think I did. Eventually we managed to perform 20 correct repetitions of each of these, but it took us several hours (did I mention it was 15 degrees outside?).

 

Reflections:

Overall, the drills were pretty basic stuff in the Italian rapier system. The first drill is the gain-lunge exercise that I’m still working on with my current batch of students. However, the temperature, attention to detail, requirement for consecutive correct repetitions, and the inclusion of all of these drills in the same session made it a pretty grueling day. At the time, Ruairc and I had been studying Italian rapier for about 2 years, so we were disheartened to learn that there were major flaws in both our stance and lunge. However, we also had the benefit of at least 6 months of regular drilling that, albeit partially incorrect, had at least given us some baseline conditioning and a good understanding of what we were trying to accomplish. Dante sent us a curriculum in the week following this event that outlined an ~500 hour training plan that worked through each of the drills that we performed that day with the end-goal being that each drill would be trained up to the point of being able to perform 20 correct repetitions in a row. So, ultimately we had completed all of the “mid-terms” and the “final exam” in a single day for a training program that is meant to last for several months, so it isn’t surprising that such a day tested the limits of our endurance. That being said, despite being relatively new fencers at the time, we had a number of advantages that made such a day possible.

First, of course, is conditioning. Ruairc and I were (are) relatively young and had been regularly exercising and drilling. This contributed significantly to our ability to endure the sheer number of repetitions that we performed that day. Had this background not been the case, I don’t think that we could have completed such a test and the jump from zero to hundreds of repetitions would have been an excellent way to injure ourselves. So, if you’re interested in trying something like this, keep in mind that you need to build up to doing so (preferably in a more systematic way than Ruairc and I did).

Second, and perhaps most important is attitude. You have to be hungry to put yourself through something this grueling. The weather alone was a good enough reason for most people to stay home, but again, it takes quite a bit of gritting your teeth and working past being tired to pull off similar numbers of repetitions with seriousness in a short period of time. In my own personal training, I find it very easy to take breaks for too long, to avoid pushing myself etc, and certainly to spend too much time talking about how a motion *should* be performed rather than simply performing it. Pushing past muscle soreness is also something that I have difficulty training my students to do. I have generally attempted to break practices up, alternating between arms and legs in order to allow them to keep fencing, but I think that this may have been a mistake to some degree. There’s a point in time where training needs to get more difficult in order for students to progress, and pushing past the mental blocks in order to do so takes a certain attitude and determination.

There were also a number of lessons learned from that day. I noted the specific corrections to my guard and lunge above and added some lessons that I learned indirectly as the result of training myself to make Dante’s changes automatic. That list isn’t complete, however, as many of those lessons could be posts by themselves (and I have or am in the process of writing several of those posts). Ultimately, the real value was that those changes caused a dramatic “shake-up” in the way that I trained and once the puzzle pieces of putting my guard and lunge together correctly started falling into place, everything got a lot easier.

2 comments to A Cold Day in January

  • Dante di Pietro

    It was 10 sparring passes, and it was 26 degrees *with wind chill*. 😀

  • Dante di Pietro

    Facebook tells me it was 26 without a wind chill. 😀 It was cold.

    I think the tough part was, as you said, fitting the information of 6-12 months into 2 days. I basically held guard for 6-7 hours in one day, and that was tough. I do a lot of exercise and conditioning to be able to practice, so overall fitness is a consideration. If we’d had more time or opportunities, we could have developed slower. As it was, you were moving soon and I wanted to cover everything. This was actually the final motivation for writing my book, which was mostly completed in the following February on snow days.

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