Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Rapiers and Katas and Such Like That

Some of the things I try to pay a lot of attention to are ways to expand my solo practice. I have people to drill with at practice, and occasionally around the house, but a lot of my time doing drills at home is spent working on things by myself.

It can occasionally be difficult to work on skills solo, and this is coming from someone who is happy to just keep grinding on the same small set of actions because I find it calming. Working individual actions, guards, and conditioning via postures are all possible, but let's be real - we can all get bored just working repetitive things again and again.

I was mulling this over, and I was reminded recently about how much I miss kata from back when I did Eastern martial arts. They were great for working on transitions, and interpreting what's actually going on, and putting your own spin on things. Classical fencing has them in the form of etudes, and Don Christian de Launcy has written two of them for rapier in the SCA that I know of.

What really got me thinking though, was this old video of a student at Acadamie Duello in Vancouver going through a progression of Fabris' rapier and dagger guards. This hit pretty much all of the levers in my head - kata, transitions, movement, and Fabris. (As a note, I know that we could spend time criticizing the guards themselves, and the postures, and whatnot of the person performing them. That's not what this entry is about, so we're going to not do that. I have a couple comments about how some of the positions make it hard to interpret what the guard is, outside of the sequence, but I'm not trying to harsh on Adam's performance here.)

In the video, Adam works through Fabris' rapier and dagger guards in the order of the manual, with the lunges included in the same places as they appear in the book. Let's take a look at the progression, and consider which changes we might want to make to this depending on what we want to get out of it.

Adam starts with Prime guards, beginning with plate 49, then to 50, and then plate 51 for the lunge in Prime. The transitions between these are all done with passing steps forward - plate 49 and 51 have the right foot leading, and 50 has the left foot leading.

From the lunge in Prime, Adam moves to the guards in Second. Adam recovers back from the lunge into plate 52. From there, he shifts into plate 53. He then passes back with the right foot into plate 54, passes the left foot back to plate 55 again and immediately pivots on the balls of his feet to take plate 56 and through into plate 57, both two rarely seen guards in Second, and moves into a lunge in Second from plate 58.

Recovering from the lunge, Adam takes what I'm assuming is the guard in plate 59. (The edition of Fabris that I have puts the guards here in a different order than the scans I'm linking to; I'm not sure what's up with that but in what I'm using, plate 59 is illustrated in that link on the right. I'll note the other changes as they happen.) He then moves into plate 60 (on the left), brings his body up for 61 (on the right), and lowers his body back down for 62, along with the requisite blade mutations. He passes forward with the left into plate 63, and then steps off to the right with his right foot to assume plate 64. Finally, he brings his left foot in for the very uncommon plate 65 guard, and finally lunges into Third as shown in plate 66.

For the final stretch, Adam recovers into a guard in Fourth, plate 67. He extends his arms into plate 68, passes forward with the left foot into plate 69, and then passes his right foot forward to lunge as in plate 70, finishing the sequence.

This sequence covers all the rapier and dagger guards of Fabris. The primary purpose it serves is helping the fencer memorize all of them, though it can also help with some transitions between the guards. But if we change this up a bit, can we focus on different things?

The easiest thing to do would be to add a lunge after every guard. This would increase the length of the form and make it much more of a stamina exercise, but it would also let us practice attacking out of every guard without changing the order of the guards we're doing - so it would be an easier adaptation to make.

Once all of the basic guards are memorized, the order of them could be shifted around. This would let us work on smooth transitions between very different guards, and as a thought exercise we could try to figure out why we'd be shifting from guard to guard, possibly with attacks in between.

Does anyone else do solo forms similar to this? I'd love to hear about it and kick around more ideas.


  1. This is awesome. The Spanish is obviously different in not having so many positions to use, but I have created something to enable my traditional MA training to make the best use of the material. I found the circle stepping mixed with the generals can be very similar to a Bagua or Baguazhang circular stepping pattern that one of my teachers showed me. The material is more of a flow pattern rather than an actual form or kata, which fits very nicely into my destreza stepping and the implementation of the generals. I can change it into a figure 8 pattern as well or move the circle and attack from different points, recover, and continue. I can drop my hand into a position where I would fight an Italian, all while maintaining my posture and profile. I find it great for working on all the basic footwork and blade work in the style while also allowing for flexibility. Thanks for the post.

  2. From my experience in other martial arts, katas tend to be a "realistic" set of transitions between actions that might happen in sequence during a "real fight". That's why Meyer's cutting diagram is how it is - in Meyer's school of thought, if you are attacking then you shouldn't stop until you are forced to, so you should practice transitioning directly from attack to attack.

    The guards in that video seemed to "flow" well - I could picture his opponent, and the positions his opponent was taking which would cause him to respond in that way.

    At the same time, I'm not a fan of "memorization lists". That is to say - a practiced sequence of things, just to remember each thing. This leads to memorization "in sequence", so you can only remember each guard in the context of the ones that come before it.

    Because fighting is a high-speed thing in which one must prioritize quick recall, I think that any rapier kata would need to have an "ordering" that makes sense in the context of a bout. For example, transitioning from guard A to guard B, in which B closes off the most obvious openings left by A.

    I do have a sequence in which I practice my Destreza actions, but that is less of a kata and more of an ordered list just to make sure I hit all of them. They don't flow into each other, and perhaps that is something I should try to integrate.

    1. And yes, I did just say that I do the very thing that I'm not a fan of.

    2. Pretty sure lots of people do things to practice that they think are suboptimal, just because it's the best option they have available. It's just the least suboptimal option.

    3. This comment has been removed by the author.

  3. The very problem you mention - getting stuck in certain patterns because it's what's in the form/kata/etc - came up in (Tai Chi) class the other day.
    Forms have their downsides, but they fulfill a very important role - getting you used to certain particularly useful transitions, making sure your repetition actually includes all the things you intend to repeat, making that repetition slightly less boring. The way to counteract the downsides is to do things in addition to the forms. Just because they aren't Perfect doesn't mean they aren't Useful.
    I say, as someone who loves forms.