It seems obvious … but it is worth restating – footwork is the key to modern fencing. If you can’t close the distance on a mobile opponent, you can’t score. If you can’t maintain the distance while waiting to create the opportunity to score, you won’t be able to take advantage of opportunity. If you can’t open the distance when under attack, you will be hit. And if you can’t stop on a dime, and change direction, all of the above …
Footwork exists on several levels, levels through which you hopefully progress as you advance in the sport:
… the “I can do this if I think about it” – footwork is entirely mechanical, one step at a time, and is one of several things you are trying to think about as separate activities as you move, attack, and defend on the strip. Your individual footwork movements are obvious to the observer.
… the “I can put it together with something” – footwork is mechanical, now several steps at a time, but smoother and linked to a specific goal in a phrase – the level of consciously making footwork and bladework into a specific attacking sequence. The observer will see the series of footwork steps and recognize what you are doing.
… the “what footwork?” – now footwork is instinctive, smooth and flowing, and purely in response to the fencer’s tactical choices at a largely unconscious level. You may think about what you are going to do, but it is in the nature of programming an attack or counterattack or defense, not as a “I am going to take three steps and lunge.” The observer will want to watch this on video to figure out what your feet were doing.
There are of course gradations in all of these, and this characterization is completely unscientific. However, I think most fencers will recognize where they are on this continuum. So how do we get out of the mire and to the upper end of the continuum. Well, ah, practice, maybe? Yes, practice, practice, and more practice, but:
(1) identify what footwork you actually need. Not every fencer needs to be able to do a balestra, four advances accelerating into a lunge, followed by a forward reprise, and a final fleche from the reprise lunge.
(2) concentrate on weighing 50% less than you actually weigh. You are not trying to beat the strip into submission with your feet – you are trying to glide along it. Your footwork should be light and quiet.
(3) don’t root. You can see some fencers take two steps and suddenly put all of their weight down on their feet and start to grow tendrils into the strip. This is a perfect solution for your opponent’s tactical problem.
(4) get rid of all of the excess components to your movement. If you look like the gear box of a Shay locomotive going upgrade (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4LDHpNX125U) you have too many moving parts. When you watch elite level fencers, what you see is smooth, coordinated movement that looks almost effortless.
(5) watch where your weight is. If you shift weight in one direction, you put extra weight on the corresponding foot. This makes you either immobile or slow and jerky. Your weight on guard should be evenly distributed between your two feet.
(6) constantly watch your movement – video and the Salle’s mirrors are vital tools that don’t lie to you.
(7) integrate blade movement and foot movement. At first you want the two synchronized. Then develop the ability to do both asynchronously.
(8) don’t pose for opponents. If you finish an action, immediately return to guard and adjust distance, even if your action results in a hit. If you practice relaxing after an action, you are practicing getting rid to be hit.
(9) master the basics – master means to be able to do a footwork technique maintaining, opening, or closing distance as appropriate for an opponent’s movement and your tactical intent while doing eyes open bladework on the same or different tempo from the feet. If you can do that, changing direction, and maintaining fast smooth footwork with advance, retreat, and lunge and recovery, you will be well ahead of the vast majority of fencers.
(10) then add the additional footwork bells and whistles if you need them.
Remember – your objective is to be able to go forward, change direction, change speed, go backward, and react to threats and opportunities with no break in the smoothness of this flow.