At the still point of the turning world.
Neither flesh nor fleshless;
Neither from nor towards;
at the still point, there the dance is,
But neither arrest nor movement.
And do not call it fixity,
Where past and future are gathered.
Neither movement from nor towards,
Neither ascent nor decline.
Except for the point, the still point,
There would be no dance,
and there is only the dance.
-T. S. Eliot, Burnt Norton
Squeak made the breakthrough when I was lucky to be watching. It was in the middle of a tight bout with Zim. He had been pressing hard, the way he does, when Squeak decided she wanted to be on the other side of him. He attacked, she dodged off to the right. Zim was barely phased by the rapid transition, pivoting on a foot to reach out to her with another blow as she floated off behind him. She parried everything, with seeming ease, and re-established a position behind him. In another beat, he caught up, and the fight continued.
I smiled. Over a year of work had finally paid off. The potential I had seen so long ago had finally shown itself. As Squeak made that transition, she’d moved her center of gravity in a sort of a smooth spiraling arc around Zim. She never let her weapons move away from facing her opponent, and as she moved she managed to keep her height, and distance, constantly changing. Inwards, outwards, low and high…all the while maintaining the momentum she needed to complete the action, at a steady tempo.
Movement is the thing I care most about. It is the key to every martial art I teach. It is the paramount physical skill I want my students to be known for. Good movement is not possible without exceptional fitness, which is why our workouts are so challenging. Balance is challenged constantly, so the students never feel the need to struggle for it when moving…a state of constant falling feels like home to them. This lets them explore whole new dimensions in fighting.
I’ve never enjoyed the more linear play that people think of as being more refined, superior to everything else. It’s so easy for poor fighters to become mired in a fighting style that only exists on a narrow rail, moving only back and forth, reducing the full art to the simplest equation. The best fighters in that style add level changes to their game, and learn to make subtle pivots and evasions…no one can be very good, regardless of style, without mastering movement…but the majority never learn. It’s like having the game of football being done mostly in the style of foosball: Something elemental is missing.
I love the Spanish school of swordplay for the simple reason that they pay attention to footwork. It’s not the posture or the crazy diagrams that give the art it’s strength, but the fact that it recognizes footwork as a core mechanic, a base skill. The Bolognese school does so as well. We don’t know what historical swordplay looked like, we can only infer from the existing evidence. Strong cases can be made for what re-creation should look or feel like, but the modern practitioner is mostly left to their own interpretations at best, to their gut instincts at worst.
The sword is the sexy part, and students want to swing it…to win or lose fights based on the strength of the interesting little tricks they have learned. Teachers want to make students happy by teaching the cool and interesting things. But everything is a shallow trick unless it is supported by deep footwork. If you’ve got the right background, this is common sense. In the modern world of historical fighting, this background isn’t very common. We are self-taught, or students of self-taught teachers, who sometimes lack even the competitive experience to develop a real method.
If you fall into that category, you can find your way to a better understanding of footwork by breaking out of your habits. Find a way to see your swordplay with fresh new eyes. Challenge your core assumptions. Boxing and wrestling are excellent teachers of swordplay. Boxing, with kicks, elbows, knees and punches can teach you all about balance at speed. Work Savate or Thai box drills…Capoeira or Silat if you can find a good teacher…so that you understand how hard it can be to keep your balance while attacking from different angles. Simple 4-counts can be very difficult for a swordfighter who has become complacent about their posture and slumps into a comfortable guard instead of actually paying attention to balance.
Wrestling is an excellent teacher of footwork. Learning a Greco-Roman style Arm Spin throw, most people are going to pay attention to the hands. But that technique won’t work without the footwork. The feet and hips do a lot of complex work in this technique. Much of wrestling relies of being able to put the feet where you want them to go, despite tremendous resistance by the opponent. It’s so central to wrestling that most wrestlers never even think about it…you either get it or nothing works. Swordplay can let us cheat…the length of steel will make us lazy if we aren’t careful.
If you put the work in, and get it right…really, deeply right…T.S. Eliot’s words above will have a new meaning for you. The still point becomes the purpose of the dance. It’s the key to success or failure.