Posts Tagged ‘spanish’


Destreza part 3 – Footwork

April 8, 2013

This is the thid part of a series of posts about La Verdadera Destreza, the Spanish rapier style, as I practice it. See parts 1 and 2 for some background.

As in any martial art, footwork is of critical importance in Destreza, and even more so since Destreza puts such a priority on positioning. Using the circle, we can precisely codify the various steps, and having done so, we can describe techniques in terms of those steps.

There are eight possible directions of movement: forward/back, left/right, and four diagonals. The left/right steps are called lateral, and the diagonal steps are called transverse (these are historical terms). In all simple (as opposed to passo, which we’ll get to in a moment) stepping, the feet do not cross – that is, the closest foot in the direction of movement moves first. When stepping forward, the front foot moves first; when stepping left, the left foot moves first, and so on.

All steps are done in balance and in control. Destreza has no ballistic movement – that is, there is never a moment when both feet are off the ground, nor when the body weight is projected beyond the base (that is, moving out of balance). Once the diestro begins moving, weight is always on one foot or the other – the only time he is double-weighted is during the transition between feet. For each step, he will dip the post leg (bend his knee) until the free foot can touch the ground (without shifting his weight at all), transfer his weight entirely to the new root, then bring up the trailing foot.

Normally, the trailing foot is not planted. It is left ‘light’, because we expect continuous movement, and the simplest and most natural way to move is to alternate feet (see the description of passo, below). Therefore, usually you’re going to want to immediately step again with the trailing foot.

The basic guard position, called afirmarse, looks like this (see part 2 of this series for an explanation of these diagrams):


The forward step takes the diestro to this position; the backward step returns him to his original place:

Forward Step

The left and right lateral steps are as follows. Note that they follow the circumference of the circle rather than moving directly to the side:

Lateral Steps

The left and right forward transverse steps are often used to leave the diameter while gaining distance for a counterattack. Note that they turn inwards to address the opponent, rather than maintaining the original orientation towards the top of the diagram:

Transverse Steps

The left and right backward transverse steps leave the circle (but, of course, the circle will follow the diestro – you can’t really leave your own circle, by definition). Note that they also turn inward, just like the forward transverse steps:

Back Transverse Steps

Rather than always moving the closest foot, I can move the opposite foot first, crossing my feet in order to step. This is called passo, and it is useful in particular for performing passo naturales – natural stepping, where one foot passes the other. If you take any of the above diagrams and simply reverse the numbers, you will get the passo version of the step. Some of these steps are awkward, such as a forward transverse right passo; that doesn’t mean they’re useless (in particular, one might take that step and then spin to the outside so as to “unwind” the feet), but it does mean that their use should be carefully limited to only specific situations.

So, what’s the point of all this diagramming? What the circle tells us is the area in which action can occur. If I’m at one end of the circle and you’re at the other, I know that I can hit you if I take a single step. I could take a forward step, but I probably don’t want to, because if I walk down the diameter I’m walking onto your sword. So, instead, I’m going to take a transverse step so as to hit you at an angle.

If you attack me, I may take a transverse step (as shown in the example in the previous post) and counterattack; if you attack deeply, say by doing an extended lunge, a transverse step may be too far forward, so I may take a lateral step instead. If you walk the circle, I will initially pace you, using passo naturales. At some point, I may decide to enter the circle in order to attack; again, I will most likely use a transverse step to do this, while you might use a lateral or backward transverse step to evade.

By having all of this drawn out on the ground, you can practice the steps individually until you develop muscle memory. This allows you to fix your range; by knowing that you can take the same transverse step each time, you can memorize precisely how far that step takes you. This, in turn, lets you fix the distance you can reach with an attack, the angle of that attack, the defensive angles you can achieve, etc.

By practicing our footwork until it becomes second nature, we can devote our available brainpower to higher-level concerns such as strategy. In the next part of this series, we will look at the fundamental concepts of bladework; once that’s done, we’ll have all the pieces we need to start assembling some compound motions and examining actual techniques.


Destreza Part 2 – The Circle

April 3, 2013

This is the second part of a series of posts about La Verdadera Destreza, the Spanish rapier style, as I practice it. See part 1 in the series for some background.

One of the central, and most misunderstood, features of Destreza is the “Spanish circle”. It looks complicated and mysterious, and in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries many people would have considered it magical. All of this contributed to Destreza’s reputation as being abstruse and academic, but in fact the circle is a very practical training tool. It is simply a diagram, drawn out on the ground, of various possible movements, attacks, and defenses that one might execute.

The first thing you must understand about the circle is that it exists in the mind of the fencer. One does not fight in the circle, that would be ridiculous. One trains in the circle, until the dimensions and angles of the circle are engraved indelibly in the mind and muscles of the fencer, and one no longer needs to think in order to step out at the right angle and strike at the proper distance.

Being a construct in the fencer’s mind, the circle can move whenever it is convenient for it to do so. In practice, it is usually convenient to think of the circle as remaining stationary during an exchange, and resetting whenever there is a pause in the action or the fencers return to guard. One therefore starts at one end of the circle, and (potentially) walks across the circle during the action, and returns to one’s starting point (by resetting the circle) whenever it is convenient to do so.

The second thing you must understand about the circle is that it is specific to a given fencer. In my school, the diameter of the circle is defined to be one step plus an extended arm. This means that it depends upon the fencer’s height and build, and also upon the length of their sword. A longer sword results in a larger circle, which requires longer steps; thus, it is important that the sword length be well-matched to the fencer’s height and style of movement.

There are many variations of the circle. Originally, the circle was simply that – a circle, illustrating the space between the two fencers where action might occur. Soon, the diameter line was added, showing the line of engagement between the fencers; this is a crucial concept in Destreza, where most techniques involve leaving this line. Later, further embellishments were added, showing other angles and distances. This reached its extreme with Thibault’s circle from Academie de l’Espée, which shows extraordinary complexity:

Thibault's circle from l'Acedemie de l'Espée

The circle used by my school is somewhat simpler:

My circle

The diestro stands at one of the cardinal points on the circle, by convention at the bottom when the circle is illustrated in this way. His opponent stands directly opposite on the circle, at the top, with the vertical diameter line joining them. This line, the line of engagement, is commonly referred to as “the diameter”, despite being one of eight diameter lines on the circle.

There are three sets of eight lines on the circle: the diameters, the obliques, and the chords:







We will refer to various points on the circle by letters, as illustrated below:
BigCircle with letters

With that established, let us look at a simple Spanish technique. We will illustrate the fencers’ positions using footprints and swords (since my art skills are down there with my Spanish) – green for the diestro, and red for his opponent. The numbers on the footprints indicate the order of the step – “1” means the foot moves first, and “2” moves second. Since Destreza was designed primarily to work against the Italian and French schools, most techniques begin with a counter against a straight attack down the diameter:

Drill 0 - step 1

Note that the diestro in this example is in a “hanging guard” – that is, he is standing with his point in front of his left hip and his hilt in front of his left shoulder, with the sword angled out towards the opponent. This is a compromise between the historical “right angle guard” (with the sword pointing straight out from the shoulder) and an angled guard such as the French or Italian guards. It provides a greater defense without losing too much of the reach advantage of the right angle guard.

In response to the straight attack, the diestro steps with his left foot to point B (this is known as a transverse left step). Due to the turn inwards, the sword ends up on the diameter with no (or minimal) change in arm position, closing the line:

Drill 0 - step 2

With a short step along the oblique to point F, the diestro then drives his sword in along the diameter. This is a very difficult attack to defend against, first because it starts so close, but also because even if it is successfully parried, it is very easy for the diestro to angle his sword out to the left and strike around the parry.

Drill 0 - step 3

There are a few things to note about this technique. First, at no time was the diestro in any danger of being struck. When the attack came in, he performed a double defense – leaving the line, and interposing his sword. Either of these would have sufficed to defend against the attack. If the attacker was able to counter the diestro‘s attack successfully, the diestro could always retreat back along the line of the oblique without ever being exposed to an attack.

Second, note the use of the circle to shape the technique. By training on the circle, the diestro has learned that by stepping to point B, he can remove himself from the line of the attack, close the line, and simultaneously set up a counterattack, all with a minimum of motion. The circle also tells him the range at which he can respond to the original attack, and the range of his counter.

Next time, we’ll codify the footwork, and look at range issues.


La Verdadera Destreza

March 28, 2013

Attribution: Wikimedia

This is a slightly different topic for me. I’ve mostly been posting about kenjutsu, the Japanese sword art, but in fact that’s only one of several arts that I practice. Another is the Spanish rapier style La Verdadera Destreza (lit. “true art and skill” – in fact, the image at the top of the blog is my wife and I practicing this style.) A note about my background here: I was taught Destreza by a man who learned it while serving in the Army and stationed in Panama. He was taught by a Spanish expatriate living in Panama, who was taught the art in Spain. Assuming that all of this is true, I learned this as a living art, and (other than the few others who were taught by my teacher and the folks I’ve taught myself) I don’t know of anyone else who can say that.

Many people (notably the amazing Puck and Mary Curtis, with their Destreza Translation and Research Project) are attempting to reconstruct the art from the period writings. I’ve read their work, and as much of the period writings as have been translated to English (my Spanish is, shall we say, weak…or, more accurately, completely nonexistent). The principles of what they do are very much the same as what I was taught, but many of the specific techniques are different, and there’s a body of technique around my art that isn’t documented in any of the writings.

So, I thought I’d write a series of articles about Destreza as it was taught to me, for the benefit of anyone else who might be trying to learn. This first article in the series will be about the basic philosophy of Destreza, and how it differs from other similar systems; subsequent articles will look more closely at specific techniques and principles.

The central tenet of Destreza is don’t get hit. That probably seems unsurprising, but it’s actually quite different from other contemporary styles, such as the far-more-common Italian and French styles. To illustrate this, picture a simple attack-defense sequence in each style. In the Italian style, a typical version would be: attacker steps straight in and attacks; defender parries (possibly attempting to hit in a single tempo). The thing to note here is that if the defender misses his parry, he’s hit. He has no backstop.

An equivalent Spanish exchange would be: attacker (who we’re assuming to be Italian, since that’s what Destreza was primarily designed to work against) steps straight in and attacks; defender steps off line and interposes his sword, keeping his point in line but not necessarily attempting to hit in a single tempo. The body movement is the critical thing: as long as the defender gets off the line of the attack, it mostly doesn’t matter how badly he screws up his defense, he isn’t going to get hit regardless. Conversely, if he succeeds in interposing his sword, he’s safe even if he didn’t successfully get off the line in time. Of course, he’s sacrificed some time by stepping – his riposte isn’t going to be as fast as it would be if he stood still – but he’s a great deal safer.

The theory here is to build an impenetrable defense, and wait for the enemy to make a mistake. Of course, we (the Spaniards) are going to do everything possible to encourage that mistake. In particular, by moving offline, we force the enemy to turn to address us, which Italian and French fencers aren’t necessarily used to doing; if there’s a fractional hesitation before they can reestablish the line, we have our opening.

Even once the opening is found, however, our attacks are carefully chosen to maintain the exit line. Given a choice, we won’t attack straight down the enemy’s sword, because if he counterattacked simultaneously we’d both get hit. Double kills are not an acceptable outcome. We’ll nearly always move away from the sword, and preferably cover the line as well to prevent it from following us. Alternatively, we can control the sword as we move in, so that we can attack without risk of being hit.

If, at any point, we feel like we’re not completely in control of the situation, we’ll abort the attack and regain our chosen distance. If an opportunity is risky, says the practitioner of Destreza (diestro), it’s not really an opportunity. We have a strong defense, time is on our side, we can wait for the next one.

This philosophy shapes everything in Destreza. Next time, we’ll look at a few specific techniques, and relate them back to the central tenets. Also, in order to describe the techniques properly we’ll have to introduce the famous Spanish fencing circle, so there will be pretty pictures (or, well, pictures, anyway) next time, I promise.