Recently a colleague (Chuck Alexander, a Prevot and very accomplished epee fencer) sent me a slide deck to review and comment on. As I read through the slides, I realized that it was perhaps important to review in this blog some thoughts on tempo and distance.
First let me postulate some basic rules:
(1) A tempo is the conceptual time required to perform a single fencing action, either blade or foot. Tempo is essentially disconnected from real time.
(2) Tempos can be anywhere in the range of real time from exquisitely fast to quite slow, and can change speed by acceleration within the tempo.
(3) A tempo can be segmented (realistically, especially in epee, and practically in foil and sabre) into start, in-between, and end. This means that, if you start a real-time slow one tempo action, I can insert a fast real-time one tempo action within your tempo.
(4) Tempo and distance are inherently interrelated. If the distance is relatively short, a one tempo action can hit, move, or parry in a short duration of real time. If the distance is long, getting to the hit will require more than one tempo of physical movement, and each one tempo of defender action generates the requirement of an added tempo of attacker action. In contrast one tempo of forward action by the defender will reduce the number of tempos required by the attacker. This is the basis of the rule of thumb that you do not attack to where the opponent is now, but rather to where the opponent will be when your action finishes.
When fencing was a relatively static game, whether by custom (you could not fence unless you engaged blades first) or by the length of the piste (as short as 20 feet or even shorter), distance was less of a factor and tempo was measured largely in one, two, three, or four tempo blade actions. Classical period textbooks do not address tempo by footwork, only by bladework.
However, static is no more, and the bout has become very mobile in all three weapons. At any given time, an opponent, whether attacking, defending, or counterattacking may (1) step forward closing distance and reducing tempos required to hit or parry, (2) stop, creating the distance, and thus the tempo, described in our normal understanding of disatance as in-fighting, short, medium, lung or out of distance, or (3) retreat, opening distance and adding an additional tempo required to hit.
This means that on the strip you have to typically deal with:
(1) tempo inside critical distance – this is the distance at which you can hit before an opponent can make an effective response. At this distance a fast one-tempo attack can catch an opponent before they can parry or evade. This is normally defined as the distance at which the attacker can hit. However, it seems reasonable to also think about this in counteroffense, where you have the speed to hit with a counterattack in the early in-between of the tempo and successfully avoid the completion of the attack by evasion or closing out the attacking line. The same could be applied to the advanced parry which makes the parry and the riposte while the opponent is still in progress with his or her lunge.
(2) one tempo distance – the distance at which you can score with one tempo of footwork synchronized with one tempo of blade work. This is simple attack or simple riposte distance. It is important to understand that this is not parry and riposte (two tempos) but one parry as preparation flowing immediately into the integrated riposte as one action with the speed of heat. The attack into the attack with a time hit is similarly a one tempo distance action.
(2) two tempo distance – the distance at which you have to use one tempo of footwork to get inside the opponent’s movement time and one tempo to deliver the lunge. Against a mobile opponent this may appear to be traditional lunge distance. As a rule of thumb, two tempo distance requires one tempo of bladework in preparation (attack on the blade, taking of the blade, feint) followed by the final attack in the second tempo.
(3) three and more tempo distance – this is the old advance-lunge distance against a mobile opponent extending into pursuit distance. As a defender, your goal in this arena is to get the attacker to commit to the attack. As an attacker, the goal is to simultaneously (1) hold the final attack until conditions are correct for the finish, (2) ignore provocations designed to make you commit too early, (3) to get the opponent to turn a provocation into an actual counterattack that you can defeat, and (4) manage distance, speed, and acceleration to allow you to close to distance at which you can execute a two or one tempo attack. As a counterattacker, you goal is to open the distance so that it is beyond two tempo so that you can attack in your own right or establish point in line.
The old rules of five distance defined by the physical distance between the fencers offer a certainty that is not certain, and that has been uncertain since at least the 1930s (and maybe even before). Thinking about distance in terms of moving tempos is not easy, and is subject to more issues than I have addressed above (for example the one tempo distance of a tall fencer with a long lunge is greater than that of a short fencer). However, I would encourage you to try thinking about tempo in this broader sense in your training and bouting.