200105 Tempo and Distance

The weekly blog supporting our lessons is back. We have completed a transition to a new internet service provider and after a long illness my mind is again clear and creative.

Let’s review three basic definitions. First, one tempo is the time it takes to perform one simple fencing action. Second, a simple action is an action that can be completed in one tempo. I did not make this up … those two completely circular definitions appear in general use in fencing texts and in the rules of fencing. What this points out is that tempo is a theoretical construct that needs more thought than it is commonly given.

If we apply experience to the problem we can logically suggest that a simple action is one continuous movement of hand and/or foot that is accomplished in one motion in a direction that can be reached by a direct or consistently curved trajectory. All actions consist of one or more simple actions. For example, a beat is a movement that displaces the opponent’s blade in the same direction as the movement of the beat. A parry displaces an opponent’s blade in the direction of the movement of the parry. An advance step carries the body forward for the distance of the step.

Tempo then becomes the relative time required to execute the simple action. By describing the simple action we no longer have to define it in terms of a self-referring measurement. And that becomes important because now tempo is influenced by how the action is performed. Take the case of a disengage. If the disengage, a simple one tempo action, is executed with no excess movement and a smooth, progressive, accelerating forward movement, it requires a very different amount of time from an action that is executed as a disengage followed by an extension and then a lunge. Yes, trainers do still teach disengages this way even though we have known from the days of Prevost and Rondelle that it should not be. One could argue that they are both disengages (although I am not sure that the second is), but the actual time of the tempo is significantly different.

Why is this important? First, tempos allow intratempo actions. A well delivered stop hit or attack on preparation or advanced parry-riposte counts on starting and arriving inside the time that the attack takes to move from start to finish. This is not the purpose of this discussion, so we will put this aside for later.

But the major consideration if we think this way is that distance becomes less influential in deciding how to attack, and tempo becomes more influential. Earlier posts in this blog have emphasized that the traditional static measures of distance are less relevant, and perhaps irrelevant, in today’s fencing. Rather than distance being defined as the distance that measures how far the point must travel to hit the target right now, distance becomes a measure of how far the point must travel to hit the target at the end of the action.

If the opponent remains static and you are at extension distance or at advance and extension distance, you have a very good chance of hitting with a single tempo action, especially you are within the critical distance. You may have a reasonable chance of hitting the mobile opponent with a one tempo blade action combined with a lunge at this distance. And if the opponent is stepping into these distances without a formed attack in progress, your attack in preparation as a one tempo action will score. In each case, the more efficient, progressive, and accelerating the action, the better the chance of a hit.

Outside of the above descriptions of distances, a mobile opponent, especially a fast opponent, who is alert and focused has a very good chance of defeating an attack (or riposte for that matter). This means that every action against a mobile opponent at lunge distance or greater requires multiple footwork tempos to achieve a distance at which the hit can arrive. Under most situations this requires more than one blade tempo as well. The first (or more) tempo is preparation, the final the attack.

What is preparation? Preparation is any action that creates the conditions for a successful attack. The footwork tempos required to get to hitting distance are preparation, and they must be integrated with the appropriate bladework tempos to create an seamless action.

All multiple tempo bladework actions are built up of simple actions combined to create a flow of the steel that the opponent cannot defeat. The same applies to simple footwork actions combined to manipulate the distance so that the final attack is delivered at hitting distance.

We traditionally talked about three types of attacks: compound, on the blade, and taking the blade. All of these consist of two or more tempos, a first one (or more) in preparation to manipulate and control the opponent’s blade to clear a line and the final as one of the simple attacks. For example, in the one-two the feint of disengage generates the attempted parry so that the final disengage can hit in the original line. The beat uses percussion to clear a line so that a straight thrust can score. The diagonal transport of the bind achieves the same thing by leverage.

In thinking about preparations it is important to understand that the preparation tempo is executed with either a feint, an action that hits and departs from the blade (the beat), or an action that remains on the blade (the press, glide, opposition, bind, etc.). Each one generates an opponent’s response or lack thereof that provides the opportunity for the final attack. At this same time the footwork must create the opportunity for the hit by positioning at a distance at which the blade will arrive on the target.

So, the final rule of thumb: (1) at extension, advance-extension distance, or closing opponent probably a one tempo attack, (2) at lunge distance with a static opponent a one tempo footwork, two tempo bladework attack, and (3) at lunge distance with a mobile opponent a two tempo attack at least.

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