So what is footwork? Seems like a simple question with a simple answer … work you do with your feet. But that is not quite correct. In fencing, footwork is a wide variety of one and multiple tempo technical and tactical actions, executed with the legs, that move you forward or backward or keep you in place. Technical because footwork is technique, the use of the feet and legs to move or simulate movement. Tactical because footwork is part of the technique used in combination with initiative, speed, distance, appreciation of the situation, the psychological moment, etc. to achieve tactical objectives in the bout.
Another simple question – what is the purpose of footwork? In other words what is the ultimate tactical objective of footwork? we do footwork in order to score unanswered touches on the opponent. But what about avoiding the other fencer’s attacks or counterattacks? Avoidance is defense, and the objective of defense is to change the situation and allow you to score a touch. You can avoid all day, and at the end of the day if all you have done is avoid, you will only win the bouts that were 0-0 at the end of time and in which you gained priority.
In the late 1800s and up to World War II, fencing was not the footwork intensive game that it is now. Although there was a significant range of footwork technique available, the focus was on the advance, retreat, lunge, and after the mid-1920s the fleche. Blade technique was assumed to be the dominant factor. This is no longer the case. Fast controlled footwork allows the fencer to gain attacking distance and score in large measure regardless of the blade technique used. If you are going to survive on the piste today, you have to have a selection of footwork to meet your tactical needs that can be executed on demand to carry forward the attack or to regain the initiative to carry forward the attack. Weak footwork simply guarantees that you are a target.
What defines good footwork? I suggest that the following are the markers of footwork excellence today:
(1) movement from the knees, not the hips. You simply cannot fence straight legged and be anything other than a target.
(2) balance. To be able to change directions, accelerate, decelerate, you must maintain balance. Disproportionate weight on either the front or back leg slows movement. A high center of gravity makes the body unstable. A center of gravity outside the triangle formed by the heels and toes is unstable. Unstable conditions increase your vulnerability and decrease your ability to execute bladework.
(3) correct foot separation for the tactical conditions. Maintaining a narrow separation of the feet causes you to stand higher, raises the center of gravity, and increases vulnerability. Too wide a separation of the feet reduces the effective length of the lunge.
(4) flow. Footwork must not be mechanical … one step, other step, one step, other step, with a nice pause between each step. We teach beginners that way because they have no basis for working with their feet. However, from about one month into your fencing career, you should be working on each step flowing seamlessly into the next.
(5) controlled direction changes. If you go forward, you may need to go backwards when the opponent seizes the initiative. If you are going backwards, you may need to go forward when the opportunity to seize the initiative presents itself. You want to be able to do these changes very quickly, and as seamlessly as possible with the previous movement.
(6) speed, acceleration, and deceleration. You have to be able to move quickly, and to accelerate smoothly to a very fast final action. Similarly, you may need to be able to decelerate to create the distance for a counterattack or attack into preparation. The ability to vary forward and backward movement speed complicates the opponent’s offensive and defensive tasks.
When we look at the options for footwork, it is possible to classify them by essential purpose:
I. Basic forward and backward movement.
I.A. Basic footwork – both of which can be either executed in quick step (front heel hits followed by both feet landing flat simulataneously) or marching step (a distinct one foot and then the other movement).
I.B. Jumps – with both feet landing at the same time
I.B.1. Forward Jump – also termed a Balestra
I.B.2. Backwards Jump
I.C. Passes – executed with one leg passing the other and then the other leg resuming the normal guard.
I.C.1. Forward Pass – prohibited in sabre.
I.C.2. Backwards Pass
I.D. Half-Steps – typically a step with only one leg moving, and landing on the heel (forward) or toe (rearward), but not actually the whole foot coming down on the piste.
1.D.1. Half-Step Forward
1.D.2. Half-Step Backward
1.D.3. Check Step – a variant of the half-step forward with the front foot landing followed by the rear leg driving the torso forward
I.E. Inverse Steps – steps initiated in a sequence with one foot closing up to the other, and then the other foot opening up the normal guard distance.
I.E.1. Inverse Advance – the rear leg moves up to the front heel, and then the forward leg opens the distance.
I.E.2. Inverse Retreat – the front heel moves back to the rear foot, and then the rear leg opens the distance.
I.F. Gathering Step – a variant of the inverse advance in which the forward movement of the rear foot to steal distance is followed by a normal advance or a lunge.
I.G. Bouncing – simultaneous upward and downward flexion and extension of the legs carrying the fencer in guard position forward or backward in small increments.
II. The Lunge
II.A. Lunges with forward movement
II.A.1. Lunge from static.
II.A.2. Appel Lunge – a quick appel, followed by an immediate lunge. The appel serves as an accelerator breaking the inertia of the guard position.
II.A.3. Advance Lunge – the advance lunge in this context is an advance, an assessment of the opportunity to hit an opponent who has not reacted, followed by the lunge.
II.A.4. Advance of the front foot Lunge – in the marching step, when the front foot lands, if the opportunity to lunge is present, an immediate lunge is initiated. This will result in a shorter forward movement in the lunge itself, but an overall extension equivalent to that of a traditional lunge.
II.A.5. Advance-Lunge – the combination of an advance step with the lunge in one flowing, accelerating movement.
II.A.6. Balestra Lunge – a forward jump to accelerate movement, followed immediately by a lunge.
II.A.7. Patinando Lunge – an advance with a gathering step to move the initiating point of the lunge further forward, and a lunge.
II.A.8. Radopopio – a lunge followed by a forward recovery and lunge in reprise.
II.B. Lunges with rearwards movement.
II.B.1. Retreat Lunge – a retreat, often shortened to allow the advancing opponent into lunge range, followed immediately by a lunge.
II.B.2. Backwards Lunge – a rearward movement of the rear leg
II.C. Lunge in both directions – from a guard position the fencer executes a simultaneous extension of the rear leg and of the front leg into a lunge position, with a low jump.
III. Explosive Actions – those which commit the fencer to a course of action involving maximum speed to catch an opponent either static or before a retreat is possible, and from which recovery is difficult:
III.A. Fleche – in at least three variants, the traditional method starting with a forward lean and driving off the front leg, the old Hungarian method starting with a kick back of the front foot to set-up the forward drive, and the more recent epee fleche with the drive coming from the back leg (not as explosive a movement).
III.A.2. Fleche from the Lunge
III.A.3. Fleche executed with the Riposte
III.B. Flunge – a forward leap off the front leg, landing without crossing the feet, primarily used in sabre.
III.B.1. Flunge executed from a series of advances.
III.B.2. Flunge executed with the Riposte.
IV. The Avoidances – footwork movements to displace the target from the normal line.
IV.A. Reassemble – a withdrawal of the front foot to the rear, straightening of both legs, movement of the posterior to the rear, and forward lean with the torso used in counterattacks, especially in epee.
IV.B. Duck – a squat executed in place to lower the target and allow a counterattack under the opponent’s attack.
IV.C. Inquartata – in a counterattack the rear leg pivots to the outside as much as 90 degrees leaving the weapon arm directed at the opponent’s target and the torso displace to the side.
IV.D. Diagonal Lunge – a lunge with the foot landing displaced to either the left or right of the opponent to remove the target and facilitate angulation.
This list is not complete. There are variants of many of these techniques, as well as other techniques not so frequently encountered. The minimum functional sets of technique in the Pan American Fencing Academy Skills Development Program (a useful minimal basic standard) are:
Level 1 – RED – FOIL and EPEE and SABRE advance, retreat, lunge, advance-lunge
Level 2 – BLUE – FOIL backwards pass – EPEE backwards pass, balestra lunge – SABRE backwards pass, flunge
Level 3 – BRONZE – FOIL balestra lunge, fleche – EPEE fleche – SABRE forward jump, balestra lunge, jump back
Level 4 – SILVER – SABRE advance check
Level 5 – GOLD – FOIL and EPEE fleche from the lunge
Each of the techniques in the classification chart above has one or more tactical situations in which it is the best solution. However, to be able to apply the best solution, you must be able to execute the technique. That requires the will to dedicate the time needed in deliberate practice to develop the skill to a useful level. The nice thing about footwork is that you do not need an opponent, you do not need a weapon, all you need is the will to be a better fencer and to do the hard work by practicing.