Possibly the most important and necessary thing to becoming a superior fencer*–a great fencer–is the ability to control movement on the strip. I’m not just talking about one’s own movement (although, if you can’t control your own movement, your fencing will always be a disaster), but the “play” that takes place between you and your opponent.
The play of movement–the way the distance changes between the opponents, the variations in speed and rhythm, the preparatory actions used to illicit reactions and hide intentions–is the basis of everything that happens in a bout. If you control the movement–the play–if you use the strip correctly, you can become a superior fencer. More simply: He who controls the movement, wins the bout.
I’m confident most people would agree with the obviousness of my above statement. Surely that’s why it’s become a verbal reflex to insist on the importance of footwork in fencing. The inherent contradiction in that agreement is that only the smallest percentage of fencers and coaches train to develop the ability to control movement.
What does “footwork practice” look like at most clubs? A coach standing in front of a group of students, saying “Advance, advance, retreat, lunge!” Or a coach moving forward and backward in front of the group, expecting the students to keep distance (“Follow the leader”–a concept that is completely antithetical to successful fencing). What does the movement in most individual lessons look like? A coach moving rhythmically and the fencer following him until the appearance of some extremely artificial cue for a desired action. These boring, rhythmic activities not only don’t develop a student’s ability to control movement, they develop habits that are contradictory to that goal. Students trained this way become passive, uninventive movers. It is then only the most talented or experienced that eventually discover the value of dynamic, active movement.
It seems absurd to rely exclusively on talent and experience to teach the most fundamental and necessary part of the sport. It seems even more absurd to train fencers to move in a way that would be detrimental to them in competition.
By constantly reinforcing the need to control movement, even the least talented and experienced fencers can quickly make enormous progress and be on the path to becoming superior.
* I’ve decided to use the term “superior fencer” because adjectives like “good” or “great” are usually adopted into the listener’s own competitive context, confusing the conversation. If I say “good fencer” and the listener thinks “oh, like so-and-so who won that Div 2 event”, there has most likely been a serious miscommunication. The term “elite fencer” is often used, but I dislike the connotations (and not just the economic ones).