The modern fencer has a wide variety of footwork for attack and defense. This week we will focus on three simple footwork actions that logically flow together and that can be combined with attack, counterattack, or defense.
Before we do, it is important to understand what footwork does. When we wish to attack, footwork allows us to prepare that attack and to close the distance to the point where the lunge takes over. When we wish to control the strip, footwork allows us to maintain optimum distance, to open or close distance to test opponent reactions, and to take the initiative and push or pull the opponent. When our objective is defense, footwork keeps us outside the opponent’s optimum distance for an attack, collapses the distance to disconcert the attack, opens the distance slightly to facilitate a parry, or pulls the distance to make the attack fall short. The rich variety of footwork actions and the roles they can play means that footwork is every but as important as bladework, if not more so.
It is very important to understand that the major concern of footwork is not to maintain distance. Generations of fencing coaches have made “maintain distance” a rallying cry for misuse of footwork on the strip. Think about it – if you start out at lunge distance and maintain distance for 3 minutes, what is the score … that is right, 0-0 at the end of time. If you lunge the other fencer steps back to make you fall short; if you advance, the other fencer retreats; if you retreat the other fencer advances. You never get to hitting distance. You want to control the distance, to be able to close when you want to attack, to open when you are defensive, and to maintain when you are doing actions that do not directly lead to a possible hit.
To do that you must have fast, smooth, controlled advances and retreats. This basic set comes in two forms, the quick step and the marching step. The quick step is the traditional fencing step. In the advance the sequence is:
(1) front heel lands
(2) front foot and back foot land simultaneously.
This results in what is effectively a one tempo footwork movement. In retreating the sequence is similar, but reversed:
(1) rear front toes and ball of the foot land
(2) rear foot and front foot land simultaneously.
If an extension is included as an attack (or counterattack) stepping forward, the extension starts either slightly before the front foot moves or before the back foot moves, depending on your tactical choice for the action. The same applies to the extension from the retreat as a counterattack or a counteroffensive threat, either before the rear foot or with the front foot, or it may be delayed to start with the hit.
The second choice is the marching step, a two tempo step with some interesting options. In this case, one foot completes the step before the second foot initiates its movement, with the sequence front-rear in the advance and rear-front in the retreat. This allows the fencer to react with a lunge from either foot down as an opportunity presents itself.
The third footwork movement for this week is the reassemblement (French), or riunita (Italian). If you are counterattacking this movement simultaneously withdraws the front foot (keeping the right angle orientation) to the heel of the back foot, stands the fencer up with the hips shoved backwards and the chest leaning forward, and the arm fully extended in the stop thrust. This can be done in all three weapons, and when done with opposition provides a reasonably secure counterattack. The arm moves first or at least simultaneously with the rest of the body.
Why the reassemble in this footwork set? It fits nicely. Try the sequence advance (either variant) to create an opportunity for the opponent to close, a retreat (either one depending on the speed of the developing attack), and the reassemble to hit.
With any footwork the challenge is to be smooth, flowing, and not mechanical, with the ability to remain balanced and execute offense and defense in movement, and the ability to control the distance. This requires practice. First practice the individual steps; second practice them in pairs (one advance-one retreat, retreat-reassemble, two of either advance or retreat); third practice changing from marching to quick step or the reverse; fourth practice scenarios of several steps and integrate the lunge (advance-reassemble-two advances-lunge). Practice every day – there is no substitute for practice as the key to victory.