What is the purpose of footwork? The answer is deceptively simple – to hit the opponent unanswered. In other words your goal is to hit the opponent without the opponent being able to hit you in the phrases before you score a touch or in the phrases after you score a touch. Wait a minute … don’t we do footwork to maintain distance so the opponent cannot hit us? You can if you want to, but if you maintain distance so that the opponent cannot hit you, the odds are good that your are maintaining distance so that you cannot hit the opponent, and a coin flip determining the result of the 0-0 score in overtime is in your future. What you do want is to keep the opponent from hitting you, score your touch, and then manipulate the distance so that the opponent cannot hit you before you score again. Defense by distance does not win bouts. It may limit the number of touches the opponent can score, or it may preserve your advantage when you are ahead, but footwork has to get you to a tactically advantageous position and carry the hit to the target if you are to win.
That said, we can define four functions that footwork does:
(1) it closes the distance so that you can hit, or collapses it so that you can hit and the opponent is hindered from hitting.
(2) it maintains the desired distance for the initiation of the attack in anticipation for the correct moment for starting an attacking sequence or hinders the opponent from achieving the their equivalent distance until you are ready to attack.
(3) it opens the distance to complicate the opponent’s attack, providing opportunities to seize the initiative or take over the attack and to hit with the riposte, attack into preparation, or counterattack.
(4) it provides the movement needed to draw the opponent into a footwork based trap.
The thing about footwork is that there is a lot of it. Each footwork technique requires just as much, if not more work, to master it as does any blade technique. We can define families of footwork movements that share components; learning one can help learning all:
(1) The Basic Step and Jump and …
(1.a.) Marching Step … a step pattern in which one foot is down and the other is up with a rhythm of front foot-back foot-front foot- back foot, etc. Done in either advance or retreat.
(1.b.) Quick Step … a step pattern in which both feet come flat on the floor at the same time with a rhythm of front heel-both feet, front heel-both feet. Done in either advance or retreat.
(1.c.) Balestra or Forward Jump … a simultaneous jump to the front with both feet.
(1.d.) Rearward Jump … a jump to the rear initiated with a kickback of the rear leg.
(1.e.) Forward Pass … the rear foot coming back past the front foot and then the front foot coming forward to the guard position to cover a significant amount of distance on the piste, but with no capability to attack until the front foot is in motion coming forward.
(1.f.) Rearward Pass … the front foot coming back past the rear foot and then the rear foot coming back to the guard position to cover a significant amount of distance on the piste, but with no capability to attack until the movement is complete.
(1.g.) Half-Advance … the front foot stepping forward without completing the step creating the impression of an advance without actual movement.
(1.h.) Half-Retreat … the back foot moving back without being followed by the front foot creating the impression of a retreat without actual movement.
(1.i.) Back Foot Advance … a reversal of the normal sequence of an advance with the back foot coming forward to the heel of the front foot and then the front foot stepping to guard; an old epee technique.
(1.j.) Front Foot Retreat … a reversal of the normal sequence of a retreat with the front foot coming back to the back foot and then the back foot stepping to guard; an old epee technique.
(2) The Lunge Family
(2.a.) Lunge with Backwards Recovery … the standard lunge and recovery backwards to guard.
(2.b.) Lunge with Forward Recovery … the standard lunge with a recovery forwards to guard.
(2.c.) Lunge off the Front Foot … in the marching step a lunge delivered immediately after the front foot lands to take advantage of an opportunity.
(2.d.) Half Lunge … a shortened lunge made to manage the distance in the false or actual attack.
(2.e.) In-Place Lunge … a wonderful technique for giving the impression that you have lunged without actually moving your torso. Executed by a simultaneous jump by both leg in the opposite directions, accompanied by the extension.
(2.f.) Forward Recovery with Lunge or Raddopopio … a lunge, forward recovery, lunge as a continuous series of movement.
(2.g.) Extension of the Lunge … this is a gain in the length of the lunge in the remise, or riposte if the fencer is fencing from the lunge position, by a small kick of the front leg and the action of gravity.
(2.h.) Lunge from the Forward Pass … as the weapon leg comes forward in the pass it continues into a lunge, rather than landing in the guard position.
(3) The Counterattackers
(3.a.) Reassemblement – with the front leg drawn back to touch the rear foot with front heel, the legs and buttocks thrust back, the torso leaning forward, and the weapon arm at maximum reach in the stop hit.
(3.b.) Backwards Lunge – with the rear leg stretched to the rear as though in a full lunge, ready to recover the fencer backwards when the extended stop hit lands.
(3.c.) Inquartata – the rear leg swung 90 degrees to the rear outside, twisting the torso around to avoid a thrust, and actually increasing the forward travel of the weapon arm.
(3.d.) Duck – with the fencer sitting down vertically in a balanced position to lower the target and facilitate a low line tophit
(4) The Distance Stealers – these are techniques to manipulate the distance, hopefully concealing the manipulation from the opponent.
(4.a.) Adjustment of the length of the advance or retreat … to gradually open or close the distance.
(4.b.) Distance Stealing or Gathering Step … a step closing the distance between the two feet as the heel comes forward to reset the distance for the next step.
(4.c.) Patinando … this term has various meanings, but we will use it as a gathering advance step that brings the rear foot up to touch the
(5) The Accelerators – these are actions that you do to move faster, not necessarily a great distance, but to overcome the inertia of being static or to get inside the opponent’s movement time and OODA loop:
(5.a.) Advance-lunge … a short quick step advance or a more normal length marching step lunge flowing immediately into an accelerating lunge.
(5.b.) Appel Lunge … an appel with an immediate lunge using the appel to break inertia
(5.c.) Balestra Lunge … a Balestra flowing immediately into a lunge. Terminology is important here; in some countries the term Balestra includes the lunge, in others it does not.
(5.d.) Fleche … an explosive spring forward initiated from the compressed front leg, followed a run past the opponent.
(5.e.) Back Leg Fleche … the Fleche initiated with an extension of the back leg. This lacks the acceleration of the explosive Fleche, but allows more blade action in the movement.
(5.f.) Flunge … an odd outcome of the FIE’s banning of the Fleche and Forward Pass in sabre; it is execute by explosive movement of the front leg with the fencer landing on the front leg with the rear leg not passing forward.
And I am sure there are more. So practice these 31 techniques, as applicable for your weapon. Some you already know – so practice them regularly to maintain the skill. Some are new – so practice them intensively to develop the new skill. All of them have a tactical application you might need some day.