Fighting is footwork.

Let me put that another way:

Footwork is fighting.

Let me put that another way:

All fighting is footwork.

Mastery of stance, swordwork, and shieldwork is a brief prologue to the first understanding of footwork. There are many ways to look at fighting.

Some say the most important skill is to hit the opponent so quickly he has no chance. This is probably best. I cannot do this.

Some fighters develop an offense of bewildering complexity, stand in front of the foe, and confuse him to death. This is less fine. But I never figured this one out either.

Some say that all you have to know is "hit the enemy with the sword and block with the shield." Good too. Good luck.

I believe footwork guided by an understanding and anticipation of your movement and your opponent's footwork overwhelms all other skills in the formation of a competent swordsman. The basics of my style of footwork are very simple. They are also fiendishly difficult and astonishingly easy to screw up.

Get in stance. Look at your feet. These are what we will use for footwork in cooperation with the legs and hips.

Move your swordside foot one foot-length in a tiny sweeping semi-circle so that the heel of your swordside foot is against the heel of your shield foot. Avoid moving your foot in a straight line.

OK. That's too close. But now you see the correct path. Now back in stance. Do that same motion again, but this time move your foot a few inches the other side of the shield foot heel. Is your center of gravity still centered? Now, without moving your swordside foot, pick your shieldside foot up and return to stance. Place your shieldside foot decisively. No adjusting it after you've placed it.

Some things to watch for. Keep the motion of your swordside foot small and close to the ground. Shuffling is good. Make sure that it is a semi-circle and not a straight line. Check that you did not step directly to the shieldside. The swordside foot's motion at end should bisect or cut in half the 90 degree angle the feet started at.

As you return to stance, the action of increasing the distance between your legs should place you about a half a foot forward and a half a foot to the shieldside of where you were before.

Now to the swordside. Beginning again with the swordside foot, move it in a tiny, sweeping semi-circular motion close to the ground on the other side of the shield foot so that your feet form a 90 degree angle. There will be three or four inches between the heels.

Return to stance. The actual "moving" part of the step is done by your swordside foot. Your shieldside foot is just along for the ride. It moves when it returns to stance because the swordside foot has come forward and to the side.

The position of your shieldside foot is dependent on your swordside foot. Why? Because your swordside moves more radically and powerfully than your shieldside. Throwing blows is what throws out your stance and defense. So the shieldside always ends up compensating after the swordside creates mistakes.

So by returning to stance, you shift your whole position. You moved six inches forward and six inches to the swordside. With practice one can do a very fast flurry of these little steps very, very quickly.

To effect a quick retreat, the swordside foot steps directly backward. Return to stance.

On those rare occasions when a lunge is called for (see Chapter 8), move the swordside foot forward to the shield foot. Return to stance.

Moving straight forward is done, but usually only very close to the opponent. When moving straight forward, it is almost always when the opponent is twisted off-line and is done to take advantage of his being out-of-position.
Stepping sequence

Like shield work, the basic principles are to move as little as possible at a time and to limit the number of ways in which you move.

The steps are small because large steps swing your hips involuntarily. We want to swing our hips when we wish to move them to the maximum effect, i.e., for hitting the enemy with our sword. Large steps drag your hips and shoulders out of stance. Stepping in stance with small steps does not move your shoulders, hips or anything in between. Your torso glides as your feet and legs transport it. Large steps jerk your center of gravity around giving you far less control of, well, everything.

Keeping your steps low and shuffling reduces the herky-jerkiness of your movement. Move like water.

Small digression for those of you who like Japanese films --Think of Mifune or Nakadai (Japanese samurai films, lacking available teaching samurai, are very good study for footwork) in a courtyard battle. How they seem to float. They are taking small, low shuffling steps.

Keeping your steps low to the ground reduces the chance of pulling your swordside foot up when throwing a blow.

Not moving directly sideways or directly forward disguises your intent and your opponent's reactions will often reveal your opponent's plan.

And there are more reasons too. The natural thing is to take large steps walking forward. Never do this.

Always move your swordside foot first.

Your swordside foot decides direction. Your shieldside foot merely comes into stance with your hips, shoulders, and hands. This means that your shieldside foot never breaks for freedom leaving your shieldside hand and your shield scrambling to catch up. (What happens when your shieldside foot moves and your shield doesn't? Do large openings appear near your head and thigh? Does it make the sound . . . BANG?)

When moving, never let your swordside foot travel in front of your shieldside foot's heel.

This will rarely, rarely happen if your hips and shoulders are correct. It is a fine diagnostic aid, however. If hips and shoulders are wrong and your swordside foot is in front of your shieldside foot, returning to stance will correct the problem.

Practice stepping whenever you can. When you do, check that
  1. your steps are small;
  2. your steps are not directly sideways;
  3. you plant your feet decisively;
  4. you don't adjust the position of your shield foot once planted on the ground.
If you can find a partner, practice advancing and retreating from each other in turn. For movement, especially, an extra set of eyes is invaluable.

Once you can step well, put on your shield and sword. Your shieldside hand, shieldside knee and your nose work together as a unit. Like the three musketeers where one goes, the other two follow. If your shield moves to a side, so do your nose and knee. (If you move your shield up or down, they stay in place, however.) But any lateral movement causes them to move, to track together with the shield. They define a plane from which they dare not stray. Your shield can travel up and down in this plane, but never, never, never does it jump out of it. And, truth to tell, it doesn't do much up and down travel either. It drops or rises often simply because the hips go up and down. Your swordside moves all over the place, it pivots about your shieldside constantly, but your shieldside is inflexible and rigid. It moves as a unit. It only moves when the shieldside foot is replanted as you come to stance.

You can maneuver over any terrain, at any speed, but your shieldside toe, shield edge, and eyes always remain fixed on the enemy. This is called "tracking." Tracking is an important skill. Aligning the plane of your shield on your opponent's center allows the fighter to "control the center."

You always want to be able to defend, attack, and move through this imaginary place called the center. When someone tells you that you are out-of-position, what is always really meant is that you are cock-eyed to the center.

Remember when we talked about shields I stressed that shields are moved with the hips. Let me review my four shield blocks and keep score in the never-ending battle between hips and arms.

  1. For head blows in front of my ears on my shieldside, I do nothing. My shield's already there.

  2. Arms 0 Hips 0

  3. I have a leg block for all leg blows. I place the bottom tip of my shield against the center of my knee while bending my knees.

  4. Arms 0 Hips 1

  5. For deep head blows on the shieldside, I begin a blow. I start to bring my hips forward and drop my spine.

  6. Arms 0 Hips 2

  7. For blows to my swordside, so-called offside blows, I cock my hips further back. My shoulders no longer are in a line with my feet so that my sword shoulder is behind the heel of my swordside foot.

  8. Arms 0 Hips 3

Hips win in a three-zip shutout.

Sure, sometimes I move my shield with my arm. It's always wrong. My hips drive both offense and defense so that they complement each other. Remember I said in the introduction that I'd rather not be hit than hit. My decisions are made in such a way that my hips can always move to defend. And movement in my style allows me to throw a blow or block at any time . . . with the hips . . . with strong second answers to whatever my opponent chooses to do.

Continue to Chapter 7