Sorry to start out this post with higher order mathematics, but a good understanding of basic grade school math and of equally basic geometry goes a long way toward understanding fencing. I hope everyone understands the basic equation 1 + 1 = 2. In everyday life that is pretty much true all the time, but in fencing not so much.
Before going further I will warn you that this discussion is about tempo, the actual tempo of how the fencers conceives of an action and executes it. It is not about how the fencing rule book describes certain multiple tempo actions as being essentially one tempo or how referees interpret what they see or don’t see.
We can start with the basic measurement of time in fencing: one tempo. One tempo equals one period of fencing time and, in turn, the amount of time it takes to perform one fencing action. You extend your arm – one tempo. You do a quickstep advance – one tempo. You parry – one tempo. You feint or invite – one tempo.
This starts to become more complex when we realize that blade action and footwork each have tempo. They can be the same or different. For example, you extend your arm in a straight thrust or cut simultaneously with a step forward. In this case 1F + 1B = 1 tempo (F is foot, B is blade) in actual time. However, you could do the same movement as extend your arm and then step forward. Now the action becomes 1F + 1B = 2 tempo in actual time.
This can become quite complex. A fencer advances, extends her arm, and lunges: 1F + 1B + 1F = 3 tempo, or the same fencers advances while simultaneously extending the arm and then lunges: 1F + 1F + 1B = 2 tempo. But the problem is that the opponent knows what is happening and can take action on the vulnerable extended weapon in both of these scenarios. A safer course of action is advance and then extend the arm simultaneously with the lunge: 1F + 1F + 1B = 2 tempo, the same tempo but the choice most likely to be successful.
But that is not all there is. Inherently foot and blade tempos are separate parts of the fight. We can pack more than one blade tempo inside a footwork tempo to achieve different tactical objectives. For example, take the advance. For the sake of the example, we will assume that the fencer will execute a lunge following the 1 tempo of the advance footwork. We also assume that the advance step is a marching step, one foot, then the other. When do we execute the blade tempo? Well, there are a number of possibilities:
(1) Fencer does not do any blade work, holding the blade action for the lunge: 1F + 0B = 1 tempo.
(2) Fencer starts the blade action on the front foot movement and finishes when the back foot lands: 1F + 1B = 1 tempo, a relatively slow one for the blade, regardless of the speed of the feet.
(3) Fencer advances and then does the blade work: 1F + 1B = 2 tempo, accepting that there is a break, even if the arm is fast between the step and lunge. The hesitation may allow an attack into the preparation by the opponent. Note that I say may – calls of attacks into preparation appear now to be mostly based on the number of steps taken and distance management.
(4) Fencer understands that effectively the marching step divides the one tempo of the advance in two halves and makes the feint or invitation on the front foot movement: 0.5F + 0.5F + 1B = 1 tempo. This accepts that the opponent is given more time to see the blade and to perhaps make a forward parry or a counterattack. Defeating those attempts becomes part of the attack with countertime or disengage in tempo.
(5) Fencer remains blade-stable on the front foot, and executes the feint on the back foot coming forward: 0.5F + 0.5F + 1B = 1 tempo. This accelerates the attack into the lunge.
(6) Fencer executes blade movements on both the front and the back foot movements: 0.5F + 0.5F + 1B + 1B = 2 tempo. And if we do the same thing in the lunge we end up with a 4 tempo movement.
All this means that synchronization between blade and feet is vital to well executed attacks, forward parries, and countertime actions. Always know the number of tempos involved in your action and how they are sequenced to achieve your tactical objectives.
And it also means that our basic attack sequences have to be well practiced. These include as a starter kit:
(1) The straight thrust extension from a static guard.
(2) The straight thrust or cut delivered on a step forward.
(3) The straight thrust or cut delivered with the lunge.
(4) The straight thrust delivered in the fleche (foil and epee, as a cut in the flunge and maybe the fleche in sabre when fairness is restored to the world).
(5) The straight thrust or cut delivered from the advance lunge or retreat lunge.
(6) The straight thrust or cut delivered apropos in random tactical movement.
If you can do these one and two tempo actions well, you increase significantly your ability to exploit tempo and parts of tempo in more complicated actions.
Copyright 2019 by Walter G. Green III