Footwork in Fencing: Gaining and Closing Distance
by Don Corwyn Montgomery
When the average person thinks of swordplay, the first image that comes to mind is the flashing bladework. While intricate bladework can indeed make for a powerful fencer, this is only half of the game. The movement and placement of the body play an equally important role in determining the outcome of a bout from the perspectives of both offense and defense. Proper footwork will enable a fencer to avoid the danger of a successfully landed strike and also permit the fencer to take advantage of an opening in the brief moment that it is made available. Position determines advantage, and the potential movement upon demand is as important to the fencer as foot shuffling can be in boxing. While training the body in movement may seem to be dull at best, repetitive training of the lower carriage of the body educates it to move properly as needed with little or no thought given to its execution, thus freeing the mind to focus on the actions of the opponent.
Balance is key. Balance is the platform of successful function. Without balance, one cannot move how one needs to move when one needs to move with appropriate measure of movement to meet the need of the moment.
No action should be taken in fencing without understanding the necessity of recovery. A "do or die" maneuver is not acceptable and should never be instituted. Strategic method requires that all maneuvers have a functional recovery that permits the combatant to continue to either retreat or continue with the offensive.
Presented or Offensive Stance
To assume the basic fencing stance, stand with the toe of your attacking foot pointing in the direction of your opponent and your defensive foot perpendicular to this with your heels touching. Your feet will thus form an L-shape. Now, while arching your lower back, move your attacking foot forward so that the heel of this foot is now located where the toe previously was. This should place your feet shoulder length apart and allow you even balance between your two feet. Aim the toe of your leading foot at your opponent and position the knee over the instep of your foot, aligning your leg for safe and efficient motion, and bend your knees slightly. This positioning of the leading leg will demand that the aft positioned leg have the foot planted lateral and perpendicular to the leading leg, granting better balance and stance for improved movement. Adjust the spacing of your stance according to your body style to afford yourself this point of balance of even distribution of weight with a likely positioning being equivalent to the width of your shoulders. You are now positioned for action.
Should attempting this stance result in your head being forward and your butt protruding to the rear to maintain balance, this is a result of failing to arch the lower back. Just as a weight lifter arches the lower back to avoid injury, the same approach grants balance and strength to a proper stance for fencing.
A typical complaint of the new student is that this position feels unnatural. It will for a time until the psoas and groin muscle stretch, strengthen, and adjust to the new position and the movements. This will take some practice but will gradually grow more and more comfortable with repetition.
In modern electric sport fencing, the nondominant arm would be held in an upright relaxed position behind the body to act as a ballast; however, in rapier fencing, the nondominant hand is used in blade deflection. As a result, balance is levied more upon the strength of the quadriceps, gluteal, psoas, loin, and abdominal muscles. Proper stretching and strengthening exercises will be of great assistance in extending vitality while maintaining such positions. Of course, nothing is more effective in strengthening the muscles needed for movement in fencing the repetitive drill work.
The stance described above may very well feel unnatural to a student at the outset; however, this stance permits the body to reach for greater range with greater ease as it allows the body to align itself within the framework of its own natural function. Upon establishment of this stance as habit, the various joints will be able to act smoothly in conjunction with one another. By combining this stance with bladework drills, the fencer may reach out with the blade to touch a wall target at the maximum extension. A check of the various alignments of the body with one another will very frequently demonstrate that more range is possible. Upon a standard straight thrust, the attacking toe should be facing directly at the opponent with the knee directly over the instep of the attacking foot. The defensive foot should have that perpendicular position with the knee of the defensive leg also over the instep of the defensive foot. The hips should be flexed with bouncing agility. The upper body should be loose with the attacking arm and shoulder in line parallel over the attacking leg. The spine should be straight, and the head should be held high with the raised forward. This allows for the body to reach its furthest. If slightly more distance is required to touch the target, avoid leaning forward to reach it. Instead, crouch more deeply centered between the knees and watch the distance be covered with balance maintained.
Refused or Defensive Stance
It is possible that the fencer may find a defensive stance to be more useful to individual style or the use of a particular form. In defensive stance, the position of the feet are reversed, and the offhand parry arm and shoulder face toward the opponent as opposed to the attacking arm and shoulder. The feet are maintained in an identically reverse stance with the defensive toe facing the opponent and the attacking to perpendicular in position to the defensive toe. Otherwise, movement is identical in that a right-handed defensive fencer is now moving in the same fashion as would a left-handed offensive fencer.
The twisted stance is a deception in that the feet are in offensive stance while the upper body twists into defensive stance. Movement while maintaining this stance is conducted in the same fashion as if the upper body were in the offensive stance. When the fencer choose to make an offensive thrust, the upper body relaxes and returns to offensive stance, thus providing maximum range of attack.
Basic Linear Footwork
Basic footwork in the linear advancing motion is accomplished by lifting the toe of the attacking foot first and bending the ankle slightly upward. With the heel barely off of the ground, move the foot forward in a kicking motion the distance that the heel is now positioned where the toe was previously positioned, landing softly upon the heel. If you notice any stamping or slapping of the foot on the floor, you are lifting the foot too high from the floor. The landing should be soft, smooth, and silent. Additionally, practice keeping the toe facing directly forward as this will both result in more even footwork with protection of the ankle and the knee and have a secondary effect in optimizing range. While maintaining a perpendicular position of the hind foot, lift this foot slightly and move it forward the length of one of your feet. Movement of the hindfoot is opposite in execution to that of the forefoot in that you will first lift the heel from the ground and spring this foot in motion using the ball and toe. When you finish this motion and plant the hindfoot, your feet will once again be shoulder length apart with the knees slightly bent. Multiple steps are accomplished by repetition of these motions.
As the advance is practiced, extend the arm for a thrust a moment before moving the body. This allows the blade to arrive in the target before the body arrives within range of the opponent blade. The principals for optimizing range continue to apply while the body is in motion just as they do with the straight thrust. Observe the position of the toe, the knees, the hips, the shoulder, and so on.
Basic footwork in the linear retreat is accomplished by first lifting the hindfoot slightly from the floor heel first, reaching backward and landing slightly upon the toe and ball before planting the heel of the foot. Next, lift the forward foot toe first slightly off of the floor and move this the distance of the length of the foot in the reverse, landing softly upon the heel. Repeat these movements to retreat from the opponent. Feeling with the toe of the hindfoot helps to secure more even flow and sure footing.
Be certain to maintain good balance and not to allow your body to bob up and down as this will pull off your point control and prove to be a motion signal to your opponent to telegraph your movements. Maintaining even balance helps to keep your advance and retreat discretely. To evaluate your own balance while performing footwork drills, begin moving in forward or backward and alter your movement to instead go in the opposite direction. You should be able to smoothly adjust. This simple technique, when practiced, can be used to confuse your opponent's timing and distance.
, The Lunge
The lunge is a rapid attack motion utilized to close distance with an opponent that would typically be out of range. When executed properly, this movement is explosive and very fast. The principals of movement described above for linear forward advancement have a prime effect on the lunge.
To practice lunging, stand in the beginning position. In a simultaneous motion, lift the attacking toe and pull the attacking heel slightly off of the floor, the foot moving slightly forward in a kicking motion. As you do this, propel yourself forward using the rear leg while having the rear foot firmly planted very evenly upon the floor. Upon landing, the attacking leg should complete motion by having the knee bent directly over the toe. Proper ending posture will having the forward thigh parallel with the floor, the rear leg straight with the foot firmly planted on the floor, and the spine erect. One option in execution is to drop the nondominant arm behind and parallel with the rear leg to act as a counter ballast. A final note is that the attacking arm should be thrust forward prior to coming into range with the with opponent. The idea is that the tip of the blade should contact the opponent before your own body comes into range of return attack.
In the event that the lunge attack is not successful, recovery from the lunge is accomplished by bending the knee of the rear leg and recovering to the standard retreat of footwork. This will begin in an exaggerated position but is quickly resumed once motion is begun.
A common bad habit is to lift the leading foot and to fall forward in extension. This is ineffective in two simplistic fashions in that it takes too long to accomplish by having no forward thrust to the motion and because it is very easily read by the opponent who has time to counter this sluggish lunge. As above, be certain that the leading foot does not stamp upon landing. If it does, the foot was raised too high off of the floor. Again, be certain that the attacking toe faces evenly forward and does not veer to the side. A second bad habit is to allow the rear ankle to roll so that the rear leg is balanced on the side of the foot. While this method is taught in some modern fencing schools, it is a bad combination for fencing in the round, fencing on grass, fencing on uneven ground, etc. as it both places the fencer at increase risk of an ankle injury and eliminates the option of other actions without having to first reposition the foot to bear weight. This tactic may be acceptable in the gymnasium where points are calculated in a sport, but from a martial arts perspective, this is an ineffective approach as it immobilizes the fencer from balanced recovery.
Exercises for practicing the lunge are to place golfballs or quarters on the floor. The object is to keep the heel low enough in elevation to kick these objects forward as the lunge is performed.
Achieving the explosive forward thrust from the defensive leg can be practiced with the assistance of a partner. The fencer practing the lunge is given a restriction of the partner provide resistance by holding the defensive arm immobile. The fencer must now try to press forward against the pressure of immobilization. This trains the reflexes to thrust the body forward.
Once again, the principals of optimizing range apply with the lunge as they do with the straight thrust or the advance thrust. As the lunge is practiced, viewing the position of the body in a mirror will demonstrate how erect the spine is at completion for the determining balance and poise. The concept of the positions of the toe and knee are so very important in regards to the lunge, as are the shoulders and the hips. Regular practice in evaluating this and striking at a target will grill into the reflexes the effective range the fencer possesses and allow the fencer to respond appropriately upon demand.
The method of recovery and the concept of center balance permit the possibility of lunges in succession. By unhinging the defensive knee, the defensive foot can be brought forward to join the offensive foot while fencer seemingly remains in a lunge position. The defensive foot can now push the fencer foward in another lunge to cover more distance in reaching a retreating opponent. This move can be very surprising to an opponent who had expected to evade one lunge only to encounter a greater range in the opponent than was considered possible.
Low Dropping Extension
This is a deceptive maneuver in which the fencer takes and advancing step forward with the attacking foot while simultaneously sliding the defensive foot behind into an end-lunge stance. This allows the fencer to quickly drop deeply and gain extension in a fashion that disrupts the timing of the opponent while increasing the range of the fencer. The recovery from the maneuver is the same as the recovery from the lunge.
This move has also been dubbed by some as the reverse lunge. It is executed upon retreating from the advance of the opponent while extending the body for greater range. The motion is disruptive to the timing of the opponent, and upon completion of the maneuver, the fencer is in deep lunging stance by retreating. Recovery is identical to that with the lunge.
Basic Lateral Footwork,
Movement in the Round
Movement side to side incorporates the same movements of the feet; however, it will incorporate thinking with the feet ambidextrously. When moving to the side, the hindfoot now becomes the leading foot and will be used in the same fashion as the attacking foot was described above, lifting the toe first and landing on the heel one foot length from the starting point of movement. Likewise, the forefoot will mimic the movement that the hindfoot had in linear movement. This will produce even movement from side to side.
the Circling Opponent
On method of maintaining control of the playing field is to turn as the opponent works to circle. This is simply accomplished in either direction. An outside turn would constitute turning the position on an axis of the foretoe in the direction of the outside in a counterclockwise direction, and an inside turn would constitute an axis turn to the inside with a clockwise direction. For a slow spinning turn in outside direction, as opponent circles, lift the attacking heel, and step to the side with defensive foot at an angle while pivoting on the attacking toe. For a slow spinning turn in inside direction, as the opponent circles, lift the attacking heel and half step back with defensive foot while pivoting on the attacking toe.
Both spinning motions permit the fencer to maintain tip position on the opponent at all time.
Cross Legged Footwork or Passe Step, Gaining Ground
Maintaining even footing and motion keeps the fencer in a state of instant mobility and response. Crossing the legs can be a fatal mistake; however, if done with the same mentality of positioning, crossing the legs can instead make the difference of allowing the fencer to cover ground more rapidly.
The Passe Step in Linear Movement
The Passe Step can be done very naturally and effectively by maintaining the feet in their standard positions and moving the position of legs an equitable amount to allow for comfort, speed, and poise. Use of these movements will permit the fencer to change tempo on the opponent and also to overtake or evade and opponent as deemed appropriate according to the needs of the situation. From the initial stance, bringing the defensive foot in a perpendicular line ahead of the attacking foot crosses the legs yet still permits free movement forward or backward. Movement can also be made to the side in either direction for the chance in stance. Another step forward with the attacking foot returns the fencer to initial stance. By crossing the legs in this manner, it is event possible to lunge from a stance of crossed legs.
A retreat with cross legs in accomplished in reverse method by moving the attacking foot in the perpendicular line behind the defensive foot.
The Passe Step in Lateral Movement
The Passe Step is also very useful in the round. As with linear cross legged movements, maintain the feet in the stance positions of attack or defense. In offensive stance, on stepping to the inside, cross the attack foot lateral and to the opposite side of the defensive foot. The end result is an illusion of a pretzel stance; however, balance and ability to respond are completely contained in this position. The motion is completed by passing the defensive foot laterally to a normal position. In the process of these two steps, greater distance is covered more rapidly than with the shorter step of standard lateral movement. Similarly, stepping to the outside in offensive stance is accomplished by crossing the defensive foot behind the attacking foot followed by repositioning of the attacking foot in a return to normal stance.
This movement in defensive stance is a mirror twin of movement in offensive stance.
As attacks are thrown at the fencer, movement of the body to avoid these attacks is an effective and basic method in the arsenal of defense. The simplest movements are the smallest movements. Slight turns of the body at the shoulders, the hips, and the knees are deceptive and allow the fencer to slip past an attack. At other moments, more aggressive movements are required both in defense and on offense.
Altering position for a strike or to subtlely slip outside the zone of an attack can be simply accomplished by repositioning the attacking foot in various positions clockwise or counterclockwise of the standard point of landing. This allows the fencer to slide diagonally and strike in a variant zone unexpected by the opponent. The lead foot may be moved to any position on an imaginary clock face on the ground from one o'clock to eleven o'clock with the twelve o'clock position being the normally chosen position in advancing motion.
Similar yet more exaggerated in response are the void, volta, and in quartata.
The void is a side step away in avoidance of attack. The first and simplest method is a lunging action out of the area of attack with a recovery by turning on the toe of the advancing foot and swinging the rear foot behind to return to a standard position.
Alternately, in offensive position, the attacking foot would be moved behind the body as one quarter turn is executed. As the blow is voided by absence of target, the defensive hand may be advantageous used to bind the blade and press it in a high guard. While control of the opposing blade is maintained in this fashion, the attacking foot may be returned to offensive position as the fencer follows through with a return strike while maintaining control of the opposing blade, pressing the control closer to the guard of the opposing blade as forward motion is pressed further.
The volta is a sudden turning motion executed to avoid a thrust while simultaneously delivering a return thrust. This is frequently accompanied by a block with the defending hand. Two methods on volta will be discussed.
A volta may be performed in a lunging action. Instead of lunging directly toward the opponent, the lunge is instead down with a clockwork steps to a side of the opponent. Simultaneously, an attack is thrown either over the shoulder if on the offensive side of the fencer or crossbody with an accompanying hand block if on the defensive side of the fencer.
For another variation, with a volta to the inside line of the opponent, the defensive foot moves in a perpendicular line in position to the opposite side of the attacking foot with the direction of the body and blade constantly focused forward to delivering a return attack into the opponent while blocking with opposition with the offhand. A volta to the outside line of the opponent is accomplished by throwing the attacking foot a half circle behind the body while pivoting on the toe of the defensive foot. Simultaneously, a block is delivered with the defensive hand either high or low with a return strike delivered with the blade in the plane opposing of the block. A low guard block with the defensive hand is the simplest, most comfortable block permitting a return strike over the block. A high guard block requires a crotching motion in conjunction with the return to place the body appropriately in response and shortens the range of the return strike.
An inquartata is a counter-attack made with a quarter turn to the inside line of the opponent, concealing the front of the defender but exposing the back. This is accomplished in avoidance of attack while simultaneously delivering a strike. The return attack is delivered looking over the shoulder of the attacking arm. The defensive foot should cross behind the attacking foot to be place slightly ahead of it, thus maximizing the range of the return strike.
the Pasada Soto
The pasada soto is an evasion attack that incorporates body extension similar to a lunge and also involves a three point landing on both feet and on the off hand. There are three variations of this move with which I am familiar, each having a different application.
The first method is the pasada soto in retreat. Upon noting or luring your opponent into attacking in the higher planes, retreat and drop, stretching the distance between the attacking and defensive feet beyond the standard incorporated distance with the attacking foot placed forward and the defensive foot placed in the far rear behind the body, leveling the body parallel to the ground over the thigh of the attacking foot with the back flat like a table and braced upon the nondominant arm. This movement is simultaneous extension of the attacking arm and raising the blade to strike the stomach, chest, or throat of the advancing opponent.
The second method is the pasada soto in repose. No backward step is utilized, but instead, the pasada soto is accomplished by dropping in the place where the defender currently stands. Here, the three point landing is accomplished by dropping low with the attacking leg stretched forward under the body and the defensive leg is swung to land perpendicular to the attacking leg. Simultaneously, the off hand arm is used for support in line opposite the defensive leg while the attacking arm stretches forward to place the appropriate thrust into the advancing opponent.
The third method is the pasada soto in advance. In this method, the fencer lunges very deep and low to land in a position identical to that achieved with the pasada soto in retreat.
Recovery from the pasada soto may be accomplished in four directions of traverse, outside, inside, or advance. In all, the blade is brought into a Prime guard and upon center positioning of the weight of body, the off hand assists the movement of the blade in either defense in lateral or traversing recovery or in beating movement in attacking advance.
Performing the pasada soto with the legs in defensive position is very possible and does permit and easier recovery as the weight of the body is more readily distributed for response following this maneuver; however, this position will greatly diminish the range of the stop thrust attack, a result that must be considered in planning the strategic use of defensive versus offensive positioning. This change would be better performed for a pasada soto to be performed to evade attack with a planned subsequent response following evasion.
Pulling It All Together
When changing guard positions in reference to the opponent, consider the level of vulnerability incurred by the fencer. If a change in position from defensive stance to offensive stance is undertaken in the advance, the target of the chest grows larger and more difficult to defend in the course of this maneuver. In direct contrast, changing stance from defensive to offensive in the retreat increases range while simultaneously protecting the target of the chest. The advance of defensive to offensive can be accomplished with drill work to clear the opposing blade with a bind or beat using the offhand defense for safe movement. This strategy of movement in both directions proves more useful as other weapons forms are brought to bear.
As the various methods described herein are utilized in conjunction with one another, the fencer has the potential to make the bout more and more difficult for the opponent to gauge. The changes in foot movement will change the speed of the advance and the retreat, changing tempo on the opponent and causing mistiming of actions and responses. Use of cross leg movements in change directions coupled with standard movements permits an opponent to subtlely alter the range yet to do so while conserving energy. The opponent is also set back by the expectation of fatigue on the part of the fencer by the activity demonstrated while creating such an illusion of distance.
The utilization of multiple methods of balanced movement in conjunction with solid bladework make for a efficient and deadly fencer.
The information presented in this document is a collection of various techniques progressively taught to me by a number of individuals. This document is neither intended to be a complete instruction sheet nor to be considered to be a professional document but is a merely study aid from one fencer to another. Please practice these techniques only under your own advisement and werewithal.
"Linear and Round Footwork, Lunges, and Turns" Don Danulf Donaldson * "Kada" Don Donnan MacDubhsidhe "the Solitary" * "Voids, Volte, and in Quartata" The Honorable Lord Vyvyan Brousard * "Optimizing Range" Don Diego Miguel Munoz de Castilla * "Cross Legged Footwork" Sir Kadan Chakhilghan * "Waterstep Footwork" Don Ian Muir Keyard * "Slipping" Lord Pierre de Tours * "Successive Lunges" Lord Parion the Predator * "Alternate Footwork and Clock Stepping" Don Jerryd de Wayne * "Explosive Lunges" Randy Bruno, USFA foil coach