Footwork is an absolutely critical component of modern fencing, probably more important that the actual blade techniques. Footwork allows us to set and change the rhythm of the bout. Footwork manipulates tempo by speeding it up or slowing it down. Accelerating footwork allows us to get to optimal hitting distance before an opponent can make an effective reaction.
Footwork can guarantee you the right of way in foil and sabre when you are fencing with a referee who believes that any forward movement of the body is the right-of-way-gaining attack. The quality of footwork can even make a difference in whether or not your attack, obviously initiated first, is regarded by the referee as deserving the right of way by showing sufficient intent. Chunky mechanical footwork does not show intent and therefore should not be awarded a touch; smooth flowing footwork shows intent and deserves the hit. And the list goes on.
As a result footwork in the last decade has been interesting to watch. Some examples:
… the marching step has largely replaced the traditional quick step. There are a couple of reasons why. First, the sequence of one foot, then the other foot, allows the fencer to attack off either foot. On the advance you can lunge with half of the advance completed when the front foot comes down if there is an opportunity. Of course your lunge will not provide as much linear forward movement as a lunge from the on guard position, but it can take the initiative at the moment of opportunity, as opposed to waiting for the forward movement of the back foot and then lunging. The same opportunity exists when retreating; you can lunge when the back foot lands. Or you can wait to attack in both cases until the step is complete and the guard position reestablished.
The bottom line is that now an advance step and a retreat step now allow 2 distinct attacking opportunities each, in stead of the one opportunity each in the quick step.
… the slow speed fleche driven by an extension of the back leg, not the explosive extension of the compressed front leg. Yes, it is slower, a lot slower. But it has two big advantages. First, the body stays in control throughout, and the upward vector of the both feet off the ground fleche is not required. Second, because it is slower, there is time for more complicated actions.
… the flunge, an absolutely inelegant travesty generated by the prohibition of the fleche in sabre, recently appeared in an epee bout carrying forward a touch to the hand or glove. I thought about this for a while. And I decided that it made a lot of sense and is a really good use of the flunge. The fleche always counted on accelerating past the opponent. The flunge does not. The acceleration in this case came in a series of steps forward followed by a front leg explosion with the fencer landing well in front of the opponent in a close to on guard position. The flunge in epee offers a way to accelerate against the forward target without the exposure that the fleche requires.
… bouncing, not on two feet as in the old epee technique, but forward hops on the rear foot, front foot in the air, followed by rapidly accelerating marching steps or lunge. The hop expends energy on the way up, and regains it as the foot descends, allowing an explosive drive from the rear leg into forward footwork.
… in sabre, two small steps off the line in the box and then the lunge. The first step gives you milliseconds to assess what the opponent is doing, the second step time to chamber the weapon (chambering is a martial arts concept of positioning the weapon for an explosive delivery), and finally the lunge. This makes sense with two quick steps and a lunge.
I am not sure what it gains you if you are doing a marching step patinando (an advance of the front foot, followed by the back foot coming forward to almost touch the front foot, with a lunge) for maximum length on the attack. The front foot in this scenario is your assessment, the rear foot is the chamber or feint, followed by the lunge. It appears that the patinando is as fast as two small steps-lunge, has the same number of part-tempos, and probably does not differ materially in its ability to assess or chamber. This combination flows smoothly and clearly communicates from the start that a powerful attack is on the way, without losing the ability to stop or distance pull.
So what is this all about? First, for a long time footwork, probably 50 years, has not been something that carries the fencer into the distance that he or she can do bladework. Footwork carries and communicates the attack; bladework must be synchronized with footwork to deliver the hit with maximum point hit speed at the moment of greatest acceleration in the footwork at the critical gap for scoring.
Second, footwork will continue to change as the sport adapts to whomever or whatever is driving its current evolution. One can argue that the fleche was an evolution to deal with the quick step, the flunge was an evolution to deal with the prohibition against crossing the feet in sabre, and this is hardly the only example.
Third, footwork on the attack must be flexible enough to allow opportunistic exploitation of the situation while constantly communicating the intent to hit. The referee who believes in intent as the arbiter of right of way cannot read your mind; they can only judge by what they personally believe to manifest intent. Smooth, flowing action without mechanical execution has the best chance of being seen as intentful (yes, I know there is no such word, but bear with me – intentful … full of intent, as in more intentful than someone else’s action).
Fourth, thankfully for epee fencers who don’t have to worry about the weirdness of modern right of way, smooth innovative footwork offers the best chance to close or open distance for the most effective application of your techniques. Epee punishes small inefficiencies in movement and wasted time. Smooth is the cure for these inefficiencies.
Finally, innovation that works will drive emulation – this is how we got bouncing in epee. This becomes the new thesis of how to fence the weapon. Eventually (in a couple of years) a smart fencer will solve the problem the new thesis presents and be the source of the emergence of its antithesis in the form of new innovation. And yes, I just analyzed fencing footwork using the Marxian dialectic’s model of class struggle … I did learn something in my Philosophy course at university.