In 2005 at an Oregon Fencing Alliance clinic Maitre Wang Yung made a comment to the effect that the sabre itself was relatively unimportant to sabre fencing – that you could achieve the same result with an electrified piece of spaghetti. The sabre has not yet been replaced by electrified spaghetti (al dente or not), and hand speed, especially in the parry riposte, continues to play an important role in sabre, but Maitre Yung’s point that footwork had become the critical part of the game remains valid. And it is not just in sabre.
Fencing has always had an extensive catalog of footwork actions. Over the past 150 years we have seen:
(1) Basic movement – advance, retreat, lunge, rearward recovery.
(2) The lunge and cousins – lunge with forward recovery, lunge with a forward slide of the back foot, balestra lunge, patinando (an advance with gather step flowing into the lunge), lunge from the front foot of the advance, push lunge, kick lunge, rearward lunge, raddoppio (lunge with forward recovery lunge as a flowing reprise), half lunge, half lunge-full lunge, jump-lunge in place, passata sotto, rear foot sideways passata soto, angulated lunge, sideways lunge, lean, classical fleche (forward pass and lunge – recently seen, although probably improvised), fleche (in several versions of how the movement starts including from a forward lean and push off the front foot, kick back of the front foot and drive, kick back of the front and use gravity, and starting with extension of the rear leg), fleche from the lunge, running fleche, flunge, and the possible revised fleche for sabre only (an FIE proposal).
(3) Movement forward and back – the quick step, marching step, forward pass, backwards pass, half step, check step, gather or distance stealing step, balestra, jump back, inquartata, lateral steps, diagonal steps, reassemble, slip, bouncing, and movements to maintain the attack while manipulating distance and tempo.
And I am sure this list is not complete …
All of these footwork techniques have several or all of the following characteristics:
(1) purposefulness. Movement creates instability in the fencer’s position, and with this vulnerability. Therefore, movement should be considered, proactive if at all possible, and used to manage the tactical situation on the strip. Move to attack, move to defend, or move to gain ground. Aimless movement just to move makes no sense.
(2) attention to balance. In general, movement should be balanced, and those movements that are deliberately not balanced must consider the costs and vulnerabilities involved. If you are off balance and threatened you have to expend more energy saving yourself. If you are unbalanced and a scoring opportunity presents itself, your chances of successfully seizing that opportunity dramatically decrease.
(3) most movement on the piste is linear. It does not have to be. Lateral or diagonal movement can open up new lines for attack, change the geometry of the bout, and force an opponent to give ground.
(4) distance is measured from the rear foot. Yes, there can be a blade relationship involved (the old “when the blades are cross X amount you are in Y distance”), but how far you can lunge into the opponent’s space depends where your back foot is. Similarly, where your retreat can move you to depends on where your back foot is.
(5) maintain a standard distance between the feet. If every time you take a step your feet end up a different distance apart, you will have a hard time using distance effectively. If you take a standard sized step every time, you can take a bigger or smaller one when needed. However, if every step is a new invention you have to either spend much more attention to managing footwork or you have to accept that you will get hit more frequently.
(6) reduce friction. Sliding is a specific choice for specific objectives. Don’t aimlessly drag your back foot along the floor when you advanced or drag your front foot on the floor when you retreat. It slows you down and wears out fencing shoes. But more importantly, you are not maintaining your feet in a ready condition for explosive movement. That increases vulnerability and wastes opportunities.
(7) reduce noise. Loud footwork on the floor translates into really loud footwork on a metal piste lying on concrete. Your opponent now has dual phenomenology to detect your movement (vision and hearing). And the clump, clump, clump gives him or her your cadence and tempo. If you weigh 120 pounds and your footwork is louder than that of a veteran who weighs 240, you have a problem.
(8) keep the front foot on track to maintain the directing or fencing line. Point your foot at the opponent – if you do not, the odds are good that your body will follow the direction of your foot, opening up target and increasing the possibility of a miss. Oh, and by the way, if you really like to come down the strip with your feet 90 degrees off the line, consider what happens when the force of your lunge and your lack of balance rolls your front foot over and rips the muscles, ligaments, and tendons of the foot and ankle apart. Typically others can hear your screams a very substantial distance away. One less opponent to worry about in the direct elimination … or for the rest of the season.
(9) think recovery. Every action has a possible recovery from it. The retreat is the recovery from the advance; the advance is the recovery from the retreat. If you do one, you need to know what the other is and be ready to apply it.
(10) use the piste as a battle zone. You increase pressure on the opponent, exploit the psychological characteristics of the zones of the strip, and collapse your opponent’s movement options when you gain ground. Use footwork to fight your ground game.
To build good footwork requires the same emphasis on deliberate practice that drives success in any endeavor. Don’t just practice footwork; practice footwork to eliminate all of the bad practices, develop synchronization with blade movement, and build its capability to be a decisive part of your game.