Some of my favourite moments when fencing have been in slow work. Moments of sublime joy, and surprise, can come out of the steady pace. It’s a place of insight into your fencing and your thinking, the kind of learning you can only do in those moments when you drop the pace of your fencing game down to one tenth speed.
It’s hard. Physically, it can be a challenge. If you move honestly, you are trying to maintain some of your awkward fencing transitions for a period of time, while slowly moving the weight that is the sword. It’s a reliable way to get good sweat going. At speed, I can do lunges all day. They are an easy, thoughtless movement for me after so many years of practice. A passing step is like walking, completely subconscious. I am not a champion fighter, but I’ve had more than my share of second places, and you don’t get even that far without being able to attack and defend on pure reflex.
Moving slow changes all of that. There is still an opponent, so the reflexes still fire up, but now there is time to listen to the reflex. I’ve got time to add in a decision loop, if not quite enough time to mentally rehearse consequences. I face my opponent, and sensing a potential opening to the left, I step to the right, hoping to cause them to overcompensate and exaggerate the opening. But as I do, they extend and attack into me. I feel my arm and legs tighten, the sword craving release to parry, to counter.
I’ve seen students react to that instinct. They counter. The opponent reacts, they start to manoeuvre for openings…they get excited about not being hit, and about landing a touch in the opening they see that just appears for a moment…must strike! And then I’m yelling at them to slow the hell down, to stop. To think. To forget winning and pay attention to what’s actually happening. Winning is for mask time, for drills and sparring. This is slow work, it’s learning time. The place where we work with our body to teach ourselves.
I’m supposed to know better than that, so I don’t react to the attack. I listen to the instinct, I try to understand the impulse. It’s easy in this case. I sense movement, threat. I want to fight back. But I don’t. It’s slow work. Perhaps this is why I get hit sometimes, I think, maybe this is my common mistake. I continue my movement, watching to see what my opponents blade does. This is what would happen at speed. I would not have the ability to react so quickly.
If I get hit, it’s because I moved at the wrong measure. Or over-committed my own step. If I watch how I am hit, I can understand better exactly what I have done wrong. I can observe the whole attack from beginning to end, tracing it’s path to see what truth is revealed. I don’t have this luxury in sparring. I’m lucky today, though. I don’t get hit. I have chosen correctly, and trusted in my training. My step, despite the tightness in my stomach telling me lies, has carried me to safety. And from my new safe place, I can see that my opponents attack was in haste, and left an opening to their armpit that I can reach with a simple arm extension.
It leaves me with a decision. Do I attack the opening? Had it been my plan from the start, I would have succeeded. I can also teach my partner a valuable lesson about a hole in her guard. But I’m not teaching in this moment, neither of us are. We are only working on our own game, and my game was to attack on the left. So I ignore the opening, disengage under my partners blade and do a slow beat while retreating my step. We work a bit more, and I finally try for the opening I want. I’ve succeeded, but the effort of holding my sword up and moving low with my knees bent has been a real grind. On the next exchange, I might attempt to go for the armpit opening…or I might just mention it to my partner later, and demonstrate. It doesn’t matter at this point.
It matters more that I noticed that my ankle wobbles when I try to pivot. It matters more that I am unable to consistently change my lines when engaged without tying up in my opponents quillons, and it’s due to my poor posture choices, all of which require me to do more slow work to try and correct. I have to try and force situations that allow me to work on those corrections, over and over again. I learn to manipulate my partner, and myself. I start to build a stronger sense of the structure of combat, and how our motions repeat and build on each other. There are spaces for corrections for both of us, in our choices, our posture, our fitness, our movements and guards.
As a teacher, I can watch my students move through this practice, and find common flaws or strengths. In this class I see everyone trying to land the same shot, with no success. They all fail for the same reason…they see the target from their point of view, but not from the opponents point of view. The direct attack fails because the opponent can easily move from weak structure to strong structure. A successful attack requires more adept footwork. I take a note: For our next session of full speed, mask on drills, we will develop that attack with the correct footwork.
I’ll start that session with slow work, with masks on. I’ll tell the students to move slow, but try to land the shot we are going to work on, while the partner has freedom of defense and counterattack. A few passes serve to illustrate the problem, and I demonstrate the solution. A few more passes at slow speed while they process the solution…maybe a few corrections are needed, maybe not. Once the gross mechanics are down, we move to full speed. The opponent has, again, freedom of defense, but the attacker is limited to trying to land the attack we have mentioned. They have freedom of strategy in setting up the attack, but must still work the one attack. It’s a grind…very hard work. I move from student to student, giving advice when needed.
Finally, we break for open sparring. Students freely partner with each other for single-pass fights. One touch, and find a new partner. The non-fighting pairs observe the fighting pair, adding gravitas to the bout…despite the verbal jocularity. I watch, and enjoy the occasional bout. The students don’t need directions at this point…they look for openings to show off, to land the drilled technique and show they have learned the lesson and can apply it. When the opportunity comes up, sometimes they can, sometimes they can’t. Sometimes they work to make the opportunity, sometimes it comes up by chance and they recognize the opening.
Success or failure, everyone knows that they will get a chance to refine the new skill in the next slow work session. Next class, with any luck. In a few days, or the next week. Never enough classes, never enough time or energy to do all the work you want to do. But enough, today. Time to eat, enjoy a beer, and let your brain reflect on what it has learned.