As fencers we hear the word tempo used in a variety of ways, some correct, some incorrect, and some confusing. To understand fencing you must understand tempo, what it is, what it isn’t, and how it impacts your fencing.
A note – this discussion is about the mechanics and tactics of the fencer’s movement. It does not address how your referee will interpret your actions. For example, for all practical purposes the advance lunge is now considered a one tempo movement by referees. In reality, it is at least two tempos, the advance and the lunge, and with bladed movement considered, could be up to four tempos.
The first step in understanding is that tempo is defined as the time it takes to complete a single simple fencing action. This is a theoretical time, not an actual one. Thus if I execute a straight thrust slowly, I am executing it in one tempo. If you execute the same straight thrust at maximum speed, you are executing it in one tempo. This leads to two tactical conundrums:
… In the right of way weapons, I start a slow one tempo action. Part way into my slow action you start a fast one tempo action. You land first, and then I land. Clearly you hit me first, but the referee awards me the right of way. Why? I get the touch because I attacked in one uninterrupted tempo that started first.
… In epee, I start a slow one tempo action. Part way into my slow action you start a fast one tempo action. You land first, and then I land. And the referee awards you the touch. Why? You get the touch because you landed first.
How can we have two different approaches to tempo and speed? Especially how can we do this considering that the foil was originally the practice weapon for the epee of combat or the epee of the terrain, in other words the dueling sword?
Paradoxically, the reason for both approaches comes from the duel. The foil attempts to simulate the conditions of the duel and assumes that both duelists are rational and have some knowledge of weapons. If I attack with a straight thrust, what do you know? The point is coming, it will hit your torso and will probably inflict a dangerous, if not fatal, wound. Under these conditions the rational fencer will not attack into a one tempo attack; he or she will evade the thrust or parry it before executing his or her attack (and yes, there were female duelists). The only fencers who will attack into the attack without displacing it is:
… an individual who has not been trained and who panics,
… one who is suicidal because the circumstances causing the duel have disgraced him, he has been cut from society, his business partner has left him, the bank is calling in his loans, people point and laugh at him in the street, and both his mistress and his wife have run off with more socially attractive choices, or
… an opponent who hates you with such a deep and abiding hate that he is willing, even enthusiastic, to die killing you.
Thus right of way is an earlier concept, coming from the period in which the duel had a relatively high probability of resulting in a fatal, or at least severely debilitating, outcome.
But the evolution of fencing with the epee for training and sport occurs in the late 1800s, late in the history of dueling with the sword. The duel, although possibly fatal due to accident or error, is now an event in which honor is served by a minor wound, and the seconds, doctor, and director are most likely to intervene to prevent too serious an outcome. The duel to first blood prizes a quick solution, preferably to the advanced target. Now speed becomes the governing consideration and the counterattack into one tempo actions comes into its own because landing first creates first blood and ends the duel. And that explains why epee was original fenced to one touch, a tradition that continues in the modern pentathlon.
If tempo is one fencing action, what about footwork? An advance step is one tempo. But, because footwork has two feet, the foot tempo can be subdivided in your application of the blade to the feet. For example, if you want to draw a reaction in an advance step, you start your blade action on the front foot’s initial movement (regardless of whether you are doing quick step or marching step). If you want an unimpeded flow into the compound attack, you do nothing on the front foot, but start your feint as the back foot moves. Conceptually, you could have two foot tempos with four blade tempos (front foot feint in preparation, back foot feint in preparation, lunge compound attack). The execution, of course, depends on how your referee interprets the attack.
You will notice that one tempo throughout has no speed. When someone uses the common phrase “vary the tempo,” they intend to say “vary the speed of your action.” Remember that the tempo is a theoretical measure that is independent of speed. Varying the tempo literally means increasing or decreasing the number of tempos in the action, including both foot and blade tempo and/or the relationship between them. So if you want to tell someone to increase or decrease their speed, say “faster,” or “slower,” or “vary your speed.” If you want someone to vary the combination of blade, footwork, or both actions, or the moment of their execution, you would be more correct to say “vary the tempo.”
The British use term “cadence” in relation to tempo in a way that is important in thinking about tempo application. Cadence is the rhythm of execution of a phrase. There are many good examples of this, making cadence something you need to understand. For example, there is a rhythm to a second intention action. The fencer executes a slower false attack to draw on opponent’s reaction, the opponent accelerates sufficiently to take advantage of what appears to be the attack, and the fencer accelerates again to hit. There are three tempos:
… (1) false attack and opponent’s parry, (2) opponent’s riposte and fencer’s parry, (3) fencer’s counterriposte to hit
And one cadence with three speeds:
… (1) relatively slow, (2) faster, (3) fastest.
Thus cadence becomes very important in managing deliberate multiple tempo actions, whether the tempo is all on one side (for example, a compound attack in which the speed of the opponent’s one tempo parry has to be considered, but is not the governing factor) or is in a multiple intention action.
And then there is a thing called broken tempo (also known as broken time), the deliberate reduction of speed or an actual very short pause in the execution to allow time for the opponent to make the error you need to create the conditions for your action. Broken tempo can be applied to a one tempo action so that the first part of the tempo becomes a feint, the pause, and then the second part is the actual attack. One application of this comes in the indirect riposte to allow the habitual recovery by the opponent to parry the original line of the attack. Or it can be inserted between the parts of a two tempo action against an opponent who makes large parries or other reactions to feints.
So, tempo is a complex concept. To exploit it fully you need to be able to apply tempo in the context of your weapon with its application varied through the number of tempos, the management of speed and cadence, and the application of broken tempo when to your advantage.