Musing: 5 Great Leaps   1 comment

In a discussion with fellow combatants, I made the statement that there were five big leaps fencers make, with the qualifier that the five leaps was a number pulled entirely out of my ass.  But, on further consideration, I would say it’s a pretty accurate count of the leaps in form to go from rank newb to intermediate fencer.  After intermediate, progress is not made in great big leaps but in small, hard-earned improvements unique to each fencer and their path.

First Great Leap: Holding a sword

The vast majority of fencers I know ended up fencing because fencing is damn sexy lookin’.  We all came to the sport with a pre-set idea of how it worked: “Wave your sword around, say something pithy, and then stab your opponent through the heart,” or something similar.  Picking up the sword for the first time reveals just how many of those assumptions are actually applicable.  Or not.

There are fencers and armored fighters I’ve seen who, after a year or more, were still convinced they had learned all they needed to know from the movies.  I refer to these people as “Somebody else’s problem”.  It makes me feel like a bastard, and I feel guilty about that, but if you’re not willing to make this first simple leap of discarding your assumptions, there’s nothing I can do to replace those assumptions with functional technique.

Second Great Leap: Learning about leverage

Once fencers hear, learn, internalize, and practice the concepts of forte and foible, and the strengths of the true edge, false edge, and flat, their fighting goes from sword-swinging stage fencing to more precise binds and deflections, keeping the point on line so that their attack is simultaneous with their defense.  Merely saying “Oh, right, forte, foible” does not mean a fighter has internalized leverage.  I try to teach this as binding with a punch of the hand, not a sweep of the sword.  Sweeping parries when a deflection is the right approach indicate the fighter is still trying to parry with their sword instead of their hand.

When the fighter develops smooth and precise parries binds (I’m trying to get rid of the word parry) in quarta and seconda, they close out half of the lines of attack and frustrate imprecise disengages.  They start having a defense and offense that forces opponents to be more cautious and step up their fight.

Third Great Leap: Moving your feet

I keep a journal of my thoughts after fencing.  It’s pretty slim, ‘cause I only do it once a month or so.  Lately, it’s been the same thing over and over again: “If I do not move my feet, I will die.”  I’ve never seen a progressing fencer not get to a point where he thinks “I can stand here, parry everything they throw, and not bother moving my feet.”  But that’s bull.  Our feet keep us alive.  You may have quick hands, but somebody will be quicker than you, or smarter, and you’re right there standing in range for them (I learned this lesson from Baron Marcellus.  Learned it good and hard).

When a fencer makes the leap from standing flat-footed, occasionally taking a big, clumsy step forward or back, to moving with small, quick, smooth motions (to quote Rufus Piggeboye, “move small to move fast”), maintaining range until they’re ready for the pass, they go from being a pell to being a threat.

One of the most frustrating defenses for me to face is the fighter who takes a small step back every time I step forward, who is always depriving me of the range I’m trying to eat, and who is then able to force me backwards with rapid advances into my space.

Fourth Great Leap: Moving your hand

At Dreya’s next-to-last practice in barony, something that had been eating away at me for months finally clicked.  I feel guilty that it took me this long.  She’d learned, and learned quite well, to stand in good stance and hold her sword in a good tierce like a good student, and she does that extremely well.  And this is generally the mark of a good beginning fencer.  But it robbed her fight of a certain dynamism.  It was the sword’s equivalent of being always flat-footed.  Her sword’s potential movements were pre-determined, its position in space already known to her opponents.  So on that Tuesday we talked about it, and on Thursday, her last practice, she fought in Swetman’s “Lazy man’s stance”/Marozzo’s “coda lunga y larga”/Wistric’s “Yes, my garde is en, attack me already”.  Now she’s down in Ansteorra somewhere, either clobbering Silver Talons, or getting told by some Don or Donna to hold her damn sword in tierce so she can actually stop incoming attacks.  I’m curious to find out which happens.

Fiore preaches against offering your sword to your opponent, but the default guard of almost all fighters does exactly that.  With a highly practiced disengage (and I mean highly, highly practiced; if Dante’s not bullshitting about how frequently he drills, he may be one of the few people who actually practices it sufficiently) presenting your sword in a standard rapier guard is not actually offering your sword to your opponent.  But even with that disengage, it’s still a vulnerability.  Dante’s sword can still be taken.

One of my favorite guards is a modified Guardia di Testa from Marozzo, held almost horizontal and perpendicular to the line of attack at eye level.  The hand is vulnerable to a pick, the body is vulnerable to a vigorous attack to the foible that closes any lines of a disengage.  On the other hand, fighters tend to be confused by this attack, and the extension preceding a lunge becomes a flick of the wrist, driven down through any gap in the opponent’s guard (it’s especially useful against sword-and-dagger fighters).  So, it has advantages, and disadvantages.

Taking the sword out of the standard, default position (or set of positions, with seconda, tierca, and quarta), actually creates more vulnerability.  The proper application of these non-standard guards is as a starting point, outside of long-range, from which you transition to a more standard guard that closes your opponent’s line of attack as you move in to range (the guardia testa transitions to a seconda or low parry six; lazy man to a seconda or quarta).  The essential point, though, is that your sword is mobile, and line of attack is not predictable, nor confined to the box in front of the opponent that is the standard area of attack.

Fifth Great Leap: Moving your mind

The last, and probably the hardest, leap to make is the shift of the mind away from the self.  Progressing fighters only have the context of learning while holding the sword.  So their brain is trained to always be thinking about what they’re doing: are they in the right form, are they parrying with the forte, are they advancing smoothly.  But a successful fighter has to entrust all of that to the subconscious; to develop a switch that can turn that mode on for drills and training, but off when it’s time to kill.

The great leap to intermediacy is to shift your perception from yourself to your opponent, and your decision from how to fix yourself to how to defeat your opponent.  Trust your body, trust your muscle memory.  Then you have all your brain cells free to study your opponent, learn them, and defeat them.

And as far as I can tell, these leaps are easy compared to what comes after them.

Posted November 20, 2009 by wistric in Musings

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