A common problem for almost every practitioner of HEMA (and indeed, of many martial arts) is that footwork is difficult and could always use improvement. But how to go about improving footwork? Common exercises involve standing in line and practising this kind of step going forward, that kind of step going backward, this other kind of step going forward, and so on. It is an activity that is totally denuded of context, and in my opinion, it is a problematic way to approach the development of footwork skills.
Instead, I suggest that one of the best ways to improve your footwork skills would be to play simple games, as children do.
Think of childhood games that you played in your youth, or that you watched others playing. The list could include hopscotch, tag, “don’t step on the floor because the floor is lava”, or just generally running around. When I was in the Scouts, we played a variety of games that required running from one side of the hall to the other, sometimes to teach compass directions, sometimes with the rule that we had to stop and be still like statues at a word of command. In the playground at my primary school, we played all kinds of variations of tag, although in the local dialect we called it “tig”.
So many of the games involve running around, with quick changes of direction, or rapid changes in speed. How often did you fall over as a child when playing these games? Probably not so often. Children who play these games regularly tend to develop excellent footwork, balance, and coordination. These are exactly the skills we need to develop for fencing footwork.
How often have you begun to launch a cut towards your opponent, only to notice that he is now striking at you instead of defending himself? What can you do about the situation, realistically? Would it not be wonderful to be able to bring your body to an instant halt, to change direction, and go somewhere else, out of reach of his strike? This is not such a difficult thing to do, it just requires the ability to control your body while in motion.
The “good general lessons” at the beginning of the 15th century Liechtenauer glosses contain the phrase that you should “fight with the strength of your whole body”. A very naive interpretation is that you should always hit as hard as you can. A better interpretation is that you should perform all your strikes with the full support of your body, rather than just using the strength of your arms or upper body. An even better interpretation is that you should perform all your strikes with the full support of your body, and that you should in fact perform every single motion, no matter how small or seemingly trivial, with the full support of your whole body. So at no point in time should your body be lazy and disengaged; you should remain in a state of readiness, balance, and control, at all times.
How well can you balance on one leg? Time to practise this skill! Balance on one leg and throw an Oberhaw from each side, an Underhaw from each side, a Mittelhaw from each side, and a Zwerhaw from each side. Do the same, but this time balancing on the other leg. Throw the strikes quickly; throw them slowly; at whatever speed you are working, make sure that the strikes are good and have the support of your whole body, that you are striking THROUGH the target and not just AT the target.
Now practise making these cut with a passing step. Begin with both feet on the ground, with the sword at your dominant shoulder and with the other side forward (so a right-handed fencer should have the sword at the right shoulder, and should stand with the left foot forwards). Step forward with a passing step with the dominant-side leg, striking your Oberhaw from the dominant shoulder. Immediately upon landing with that foot, bring the other leg up so that you are once again standing with one knee raised off the ground, balancing on one leg. Cut around from your initial Oberhaw to strike to the other side, but balance with your knee in the air. It is common to step forward with the initial strike, then to step off to the side with the following action. However, most people fall into the second step, rather than controlling the motion, and so this exercise will teach control of the body in that second technique.
Spend some time flourishing, but have the instructor call out “pause!” from time to time. The moment you hear the command, pause completely, in exactly the position in which you find yourself. You should have sufficient control of your body to be able to stop on the spot, without any wobbling and certainly without falling into the final part of the technique. Once you can do this at slow speeds, increase the speed. Do this exercise in pairs, with one person flourishing and the other trying to catch out the first by calling “pause!” at the most awkward moments.
Play games such as dodgeball or tag, but focus on the footwork and the ability to change direction quickly and in balance. It doesn’t matter about winning, and don’t let yourself become caught up in “playing the game” the way you have always played it, but focus on learning to move better.
When you are walking along the pavement, avoid stepping on any small stones or on any marks or blemishes on the surface. Or, alternatively, step only on such blemishes, and avoid areas of plain tarmac. On a quiet street (preferably without any traffic), walk on the kerbstones along the edge of the pavement, and try to keep your balance without falling off. Similarly, walk along low walls instead of walking beside them, and again work on your balance. Play all the silly little games that you see children playing when they go about the streets, and that you may remember playing when you were younger!
No game is “too silly” if you develop useful skills of footwork, balance, and control, as you move in a line or change direction or stop moving entirely. All of these are useful skills for fencing and martial arts, and they are functional skills that will become applicable immediately in your sparring. Standing in lines, doing “passing step, passing step, passing step, lunge, passing step, lunge” and so on will teach you what the different steps are, but the exercise is devoid of any context. No matter how much you practise footwork like that, it is the rare person who will ever actually learn to use those steps at the right time in sparring.
Instead, focus on the SKILLS of good footwork: balance, coordination, precision, stability, changing direction. Learn these skills through games and through exercises that cause you to feel “off balance” as you perform the motions. The better you learn these skills, the better your footwork will become, and the better your fencing will become.