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Introducing Ask An Instructor: Your HEMA Questions Answered!

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by Keith Cotter-Reilly

This is the first of HEMA News new monthly spot where we ask Instructors and Researchers their thoughts on various aspects that hopefully encompasses all that HEMA has to offer. We have attempted to reach out to those who practice different styles, weapons, and have different focuses to their training and their teaching/research.

Hopefully, you will find this as helpful as we do.

The first question posed to them this month is: What is your favorite footwork drill?

 From Ilkka Hartakainen, instructor at EHMS in Espoo, Finland:

Footwork is an inseparable part of swordsmanship. Coming from a background of Bolognese swordsmanship I am lucky to have source material with names for different steps and relatively well-documented instructions for how to step while executing various attacks and defenses.

Still really internalizing and learning to apply these steps while fencing takes a lot of practice, and I don’t believe there is a single exercise that would suffice. Learning the various steps used in a given style is the first part, but after that the way of movement needs to be driven in with multiple repetitions and free-form exercises where the individual movements are used in surprising situations and unfamiliar angles. To be able to practice this way, it is essential to build strength and endurance as well as explosiveness in the feet through various exercises such as squats, lunges and jumps.

I always tie footwork practice into natural walking, which is the basis for all footwork. For a more fencing oriented practice my favorite exercise is to pair up with a partner and move freely – sometimes keeping measure, sometimes advancing or retreating or trying to maneuver my training partner to a corner. This exercise allows me to focus on whatever aspect of footwork I believe I need to work on while maintaining focus on my partner and the surroundings. Finally this free movement can be used as a template where various games of trying to slap and block with hands or doing drills with swords can be tied to, offering a dynamic starting-point for any exercise.

From Alen Lovrič  of Academia Artis Dimicatoriae in Slovenia:

Footwork, while one of the basics of any martial art, is rather tedious to teach, especially in the beginning.. The reason being, it requires that every student gets the proper amount of input, as it’s very difficult to make an exercise which would allow a beginner to correct themselves. Thus, it can get either boring or too fast-paced for the students to follow. So this is one exercise that I’ve recently started employing and find both effective and fun: The students hop on one leg, which would normally be their forward leg in a stance. They lean their body forward and hop so as not to lose their balance. At one point, they perform a strike (oberhau or scheitelhau) and let the strike pull them into the step. The point of the exercise is getting the students to start the strike with the point of the sword, not their body. Plus, it’s fun to do!

From Martin Fabian of Bratislavský šermiarsky spolok (Bratislavský Fencing School) in Slovakia:

In the course of the years we developed and learned dozens of various footwork exercises. If I should pick one which I really like and prefer it would be the so-called “Pizzaman.” Pizzaman is a dynamic flow of quick lunges on both sides with the hand delivering “pizzas” to customer’s tables. The “customer’s tables” are quite far away so the practitioner has to really stretch his arms and legs to reach them. Practically speaking: wide step on the side followed by a deep lunge (arm pointing forward with the palm upwards), return to balanced position and quickly step on the other side, followed by a lunge etc. In the end it looks like a really fast and dynamic way of getting to the other side of the gym doing deep lunges, stretching and warming up the whole body. We chose the silly name and the funny instructions to serve as a mnemotechnic device thus everyone could easily remember the exercise.

From Christian Trosclair of SDA NOLA in Louisiana, USA: 

This is a two man drill that comes in two variations. It teaches strength, endurance, spring and agility. Have one partner lie flat, feet lifted together off the ground with the other partner standing next to their ankles. The supine person begins to wave their feet side to side, parallel to the ground while the standing partner leaps over their ankles. Do this for a minute and switch. The other variation has the same setup, save that the supine person’s legs are outstretched in a `V` with the standing partner’s legs in between. The person on the ground then opens and closes their legs while the standing partner leaps straddling the closed legs and leaps bringing their feet together between their partners widened ankles.

From Roberto Martinez-Loyo of Elite Fencing Club in Mexico:

In regards to footwork, for me it is a great deal, I’ve always said that trees don’t grow from the leaves down, they always groq from the roots up, and if you have lousy roots, the rest of your technique is flawed. Recently a footwork drill we’ve been working with at EFC is what we call the triangle step, where you start in your basic onset guard and basically move your feet in triangle patterns, starting with a right/left foot forward, you take and angled step with your rear foot as you adjust your guard, thus completing the three sides of a triangle. Another favorite at our club is starting from a neutral position (feet shoulder with apart) you take a step forward with just one foot, come back to neutral, a step back, back to neutral, a step to te side, back to neutral, and so on following an eight point star (forward, back, sides and diagonals). However, my all time personal favorite is walking, yes it sounds weird, but that is my favorite drill, I usually have people walk in straight lines to make them aware of the natural body alignment of their bodies as they walk and how their hips are always squared forward (I have seen a lot of people take their guard with a longsword and have their body twist in every direction, so I emphasis keeping their hips as squared forward as possible). Just last week we began walking with a sword in our hand, no guard, nor anything, just holding it next to our body, then we started incorporating different guards while we walked (Von Tag, Alber, Wechsell, Nebenhut, Pflug, Ochs, etc), it really seemed to work as the guys had a very clean footwork the rest of the day. One last drill we like is standing in guard and having a partner come and trying to push us off balance, this has helped us to find our point of balance and a proper stance.

From Devon Boorman of Academie Duello in British Columbia, Canada:

Footwork is an essential and often overlooked part of sword training yet it is the base upon which all sword technique rests. We work footwork training into every class at Academie Duello in a number of ways. One of my favorite ways to practice movement is medicine ball exercises. In these exercises students move around the floor in proper posture while throwing and catching a heavy ball. The ball requires that you have good structure to catch it and that you move in cooperation with its weight and inertia, very much like a sword. While catching and throwing this ball I will challenge students by having them high five each other as they pass or avoid another student who is swinging a synthetic sword through the training space. Students who lose their posture have to do pushups, or in the sword version of the drill the sword wielder pursues students who lose form, if they’re touched by the sword they’re required to do pushups. By combining these elements both your mind and body are challenged without adding the distraction of sword work and allowing students to focus on their base. This type of exercise then feeds well into more integrated footwork drills done later with swords in hand.

From Piermarco Terminiello of School of the Sword in England:

Speed comes through good body mechanics. In rapier you cannot avoid lunges, but preferably having someone critique your form: the position of your feet, your knees, your hips, and your lean. Alfieri (1640) recommends you perform fifty or sixty lunges a day, aiming at a small target with a heavy sword, and marking how much further you can lunge each day.

But footwork itself is secondary to judgement and appreciation of measure, and when it is safe to perform an attack. Gaiani (1619) and Alfieri (1640) state that your practice lunge will be longer than the lunge executed in the salle, which in turn is longer than the lunge used in a duel in earnest.

Alfieri has a drill to test this, which is then plated in Pallavicini’s second book (1673). Your partner is armed with just a dagger, with their off-hand behind the back of their head, and has to parry your attacks. This is a good parrying drill for them, but it also shows from what measure blows are unreliable, and from where they are unstoppable.

Alternatively, if you are armed with equal weapons, it highlights how much your footwork counts against a static but determined opponent.

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One thought on “Introducing Ask An Instructor: Your HEMA Questions Answered!

  1. Pingback: 28 Competitive Shooting And Footwork Drills | Coach Tim McDonald

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