Modern Arnis and the Long Blade:
An Expository Essay Regarding Good Footwork
By Jerome Barber, Ed. D.
Mataw Guro and GM
Independent Escrima-Kenpo-Arnis Associates
(Imagine that your stick is a sword and that you are “slicing” your opponent’s arm. (Modern Arnis, Remy Presas, page 83, 1983.).
Strictly speaking (writing) for myself, I believe that mobility, footwork and body-shifting needs to be emphasized more in the training of most Modern Arnis students in the United States. If there is one constant that I have observed in my 28 years of training within the Modern Arnis System, it is that most of the practitioners do not demonstrate a mastery of good footwork and body shifting. They typically ‘plant’ their feet, thereby ‘rooting’ themselves in one spot as they practice their striking and/or defending in the various system drills. These people tend to rely heavily on their stick and empty supporting hand in defending themselves against an attack. Many of my fellow Modern Arnis instructors will talk mightily about mobility and movement, but in actual practice they fail to execute the very behaviors that they claim are so integral to their art or instructional formats.
I have found that most of my fellow Modern Arnis instructors, regardless of current ranking, have failed to establish any sort of definitive pattern with regard to triangulation stepping as described by the late Grandmaster Remy A. Presas, in his various books. Without that essential footwork foundation these instructors can not establish any sort of alternate supplemental patterns for evasive footwork to augment the primary evasion triangulation steps that Professor shows in his books, particularly the Ohara Publications version of Modern Arnis (Modern Arnis: The Filipino Art of Stick Fighting. Remy Presas. 1983, p. 26). Merely talking about footwork and mobility is not enough. One actually has to use it in his/her own training sessions and drill it into their students until it is a reflexive habit. If one were to closely examine Modern Arnis stick strikes 5, 6, 7, 10 and 11 it would be readily apparent that these attacks can be evaded and neutralized by merely shifting your body off the line of attack with either a single step and/or rotation of upper body.
The integrated transitional concepts which are inherent within the logical philosophy of blade avoidance in Professor Presas’ system should be readily apparent to anyone who has studied Modern Arnis in depth. The thing that makes the Modern Arnis System so effective, efficient and logical is the built-in economy of motion that establishes the foundation of the system. At the very core of the system is the reality that Modern Arnis was built on the principles of the long Filipino blades, such as the bolo, itak, kris, barong, machete and kampilan among others.
Professor wrote the following statement in his first Modern Arnis book in 1973:
“What should be emphasized, however, is the fact that the cane is only for practice purposes for its basiclly less lethal in nature. For in actual combat, the standard weapon is still the bolo or any bladed weapon which is more stable and convenient for this kind of combat technique.” (Modern Arnis: Philippine Martial Art “Stick Fighting”. Remy Amador Presas, Founder of Modern Arnis. p. 9, 1973.).
Blocking incoming bladed strikes is simply not at all practical in many cases. Evasion and counter-striking are really much better defensive actions. In Modern Arnis as conceived by Professor Presas, the 12 stick strikes are “…the life and soul of arnis. They are the things around which all other techniques revolve.” (Remy Amador Presas, 1973, p. 32). With that idea in mind, blocking, whether with a stick or empty hands must be seen as a secondary behavior which compliments body shifting and evasive footwork because these strikes are conceived of and presented as originating from bladed instruments.
In his books Professor always included information about stances and body shifting. Professor believed that “… your body shifts almost automatically into the proper stances as you execute each strike.” (Presas, p. 31, 1983). But, how can one learn to step and shift effectively if one has not been taught the correct methods for doing so? Learning to shift is tied to striking and striking relies on footwork to place ones self in the proper position to effectively execute the strike.
“Learning to employ body shifting in arnis is extremely important. Virtually all the techniques in this book employ some degree of body shifting to move your body away from the opponent’s angle of attack, yet close the distance so that an effective defense can be used (counterstrike, disarm, takedown)”. (Presas, p. 26, 1983.).
Professor Presas was quite adamant, in his printed materials, about the importance of evasion and he wrote, “Body shifting is very important. An eskrima player should be shifty in positioning his body at a vantage point so that he can strike with utmost power. Proper body positioning will also enable him to be outside the effective range of an opponent’s blow or strike. Body shifting consists of stepping, sliding, turning or (a) combination of these movements.” (The Practical Art of Eskrima: 2nd Edition. The Filipino Martial Art of Attack and Defense with cane or barehands, otherwise known as Arnis. Remy Amador Presas, “Father of Modern Arnis”. 1994, page 26)
When Professor actually taught seminars and camps he often skipped right past any references to stances and body shifting. He would immediately began teaching the 12 angles of stick attacks, plus the single stick and empty hand translations, joint-locking, double stick and disarming techniques that were based on the 12 striking angles. In his later years (mid to late 1990’s) he included and emphasized sinawali boxing and tapi-tapi concepts. Professor Presas also made the following statement regarding the importance of the 12 stick striking techniques, “In the twelve striking techniques, the learner is taught how and where to deliver a strike in order to achieve the maximum power and efficacy.” (Remy Amador Presas, 1974, p. 32). Combine the above quote with the following two statements that Professor wrote in his 1983 version of Modern Arnis:
“Notice that your body will shift almost automatically into the proper stances as you execute each strike”. (Remy Presas, 1983,
p. 31.). “You must stay loose and move quickly, always pivoting to face the strike and keep your balance.” (Presas, p. 45, 1983.).
It appears to me that Professor Presas is making a strong case for assuming that his Modern Arnis students would automatically find, use, as well as fully understand the proper positioning and body shifting methods without his formal input. Unfortunately this assumption and instructional omission on Professor’s part may be the major contributing factor to the tendency of many of his top instructors (and by extension, their own students) standing-in-place, relying on their hand and stick skills when practicing the art. Professor Presas was a strong and powerful man with good upper body strength. He was also a very good counter-fighter who could effectively stand his ground and prevail in an armed confrontation. Therefore he was prone to say one thing yet actually do another when it came to evasive footwork and body shifting. A large number of his students followed his physical examples rather than his spoken or written words when it came to evasion and footwork.
In the Kenpo-Modern Arnis curriculum that I developed for the Erie Community College credit bearing self defense program, I included 4 basic methods of footwork and body-shifting. These methods of stepping are based on the traditional premise that Modern Arnis is a bladed art and the primary striking tool is in reality an 18 to 26 inch blade. My own choice for a training tool to replicate the blade is a wooden replica of the Negrito Bolo, which is found on Professor’s home island of Negros.
There shouldn’t be any doubt that Professor Presas clearly saw bladed weapons as being at the heart of Arnis as he understood it. Then, so as to remove any lingering doubts, Professor added the names of some of the blades that were featured in the art as he understood it, and taught it in the Philippines, “…kris, bolo, kalis, laring, barong, gunong, kampilan, gayang,pira, punal, itak banjal, bangkcon, lahot and the panabas.” (Remy Amador Presas, p. 10, 1973).
In conjunction with good footwork one should also have a firm foundation in terms of stances and Professor mentioned this as well in his publications. Professor wrote:
There are only a few specific stances or ready positions in Modern Arnis, but learning them is essential before they become a part of your automatic response in a self defense situation. Effective balance and the ability to move swiftly backward and forward to facilitate blocking and striking are the backbone of arnis or any martial art. ...Stances or ready positions are not static things to be assumed and then maintained throughout practice. The body flows into each appropriate stance as the situation demands. (Remy Presas, p. 21, 1983.).
Perhaps one of the reasons that Professor Presas skipped right over the stance training and footwork when he taught in the United States, Canada and Europe is because he was initially teaching accomplished black belt martial artists who were in reality studying Modern Arnis as an ‘add-on ‘ or secondary art to their original karate or kung fu systems. Most of these people were already well established instructors within their ‘mother arts’ and were well beyond the basics. While this methodology worked very well in 1975 when Professor first came to the USA, but as time advanced and a good number of his first generation students became Modern Arnis instructors, the lack of footwork and stance training became more pronounced within the art. These newly minted Modern Arnis instructors were concentrating on the stick-work and consequently the emphasis on footwork fell by the wayside. Professor apparently assumed the instructors were teaching footwork within their schools when in reality they were not. The 2nd and 3rd generations of Modern Arnis students in the USA do not appear to understand the importance of footwork within Modern Arnis. In addition, the concept of Modern Arnis as a bladed fighting art has been lost, in part because Professor did not want to teach that aspect of the art. He wanted people to see the grace and beauty of the art not the carnage that someone could create with a long blade.
The 12 zone stick striking system is mirrored by the 12 zone stick blocking system. A very important aspect of the blocking system requires the defender to move to a safe zone while defending against the incoming strikes. The blocks are supposed “…to be executed in one smooth and swift motion with no distinct pauses between the block, check and counterstrike motions.” (Remy Presas, p. 45, 1983).
Immediately after learning the basic striking and blocking patterns with the stick, the student must learn how to defend against random, non-sequenced strikes to different areas of their own body. The empty hand translation stick defenses are most often taught in conjunction with the stick training. According to Professor, “The beauty of arnis is in the translation from stick to empty hand defense with no major modifications in reaction. This helps accelerate a student’s training in arnis since he or she can learn both forms in practice at the same time, and see the correlation between the two.” (Remy Presas, p.45, 1983). The necessity to reflexively move, step and use body shift are critical parts of Modern Arnis training strategy. It should have become very apparent to the serious student at this juncture of their training that mobility is actually a hallmark feature of Modern Arnis. The basic training ideas mentioned above thereby sets the stage for the next level of intermediate Modern Arnis skills which should also be acquired and mastered.
Professor Presas was not the only FMA system leader or GM who espoused the importance of body shifting, footwork and mobility.
According to Steven K. Dowd:
“Stances the foundation to any style of fighting. For without the proper stance, attacking, defending, or countering an attack will not have the power, coordination, timing, or balance required for success. Proper stances with the proper body alignment give mobility and the ability for executing blocks and strikes with confidence.
Shifting from one stance to another with agility and strong footwork is an art within itself. This is essential in combat for without it balance and timing will not be correct and failure is assured.” (Arnis Balite: The Filipino Art of Hand, Foot & Stick Fighting; as taught by pundador Manuel M. Aguillon. Steven K. Dowd. Page 4.)
As the certified inheritor of the Arnis Balite System, I believe that Punong Guro Dowd must know a thing or two about the FMA as taught and practiced in the Philippines, where he studied under the founder (pundador) of the Balite Arnis System, Manual M. Aguillon. Since I have had the opportunity to work with as well as observe PG Dowd, I can attest to his applicative skills as an arnisador.
Another FMA system leader who advocates the importance of
footwork and evasion was the late GM Leo Giron. GM Giron was one of the masters who helped Guro Dan Inosanto gain his understanding of the FMA. GM Giron was a scout for the Filipino Army which battled the Japanese troops in WWII. His very practical and pragmatic understanding of the importance of evasion is battle-tested in the field of actual combat rather than some theoretical paper constructions of what ‘might be’, ‘could be’ or ‘should be’ considered effective. GM Giron stated:
“To evade is to move out of the path of an incoming blow. This does not require the assistance of a weapon, although for maximum protection an evasion is best done in conjunction with a deflection. Evasion is the most graceful motion in the art of escrima, for this movement reveals the amount of training a player has.” (The Secrets of Giron Arnis Escrima. Antonio E. Somera. P. 52, 2003.).
The late GM Antonio Ilustrisimo, a highly celebrate escrimador from Cebu, Philippines, stated that:
“Any weapons-based fighting art must employ the skills of footwork and evasion to a high degree.” (The Secrets of Kalis Ilustrisimo: The Filipino Fighting Art Explained. Antonio Diego & Christopher Ricketts. P. 61, 1999.).
Anyone who seriously doubts the skills of the late GM Ilustrisimo, need only talk with the American author of numerous FMA books, Guro Mark Wiley. He studies with the GM in the Philippines and believes that the late GM was absolutely the best escrimador that he ever studied under.
I am a firm supporter of the idea that Modern Arnis is a ‘living martial arts system’ that should never be relegated to nor considered or treated as a “traditional system”. As far as I am concerned Modern Arnis, in reality, has to evolve as it is moved from one culture to another. Furthermore the practitioners of the art have to adjust to the changing times where ever it is practiced. As Professor Presas stated:
“Arnis today has experienced changes in the weapons used. Although the art still makes use of the itak or bolo now and then, it has relied considerably on the use of the cane as a self defense weapon. This is not because the cane is less deadly than the bladed weapons but mainly because in the later years, Arnis is engaged in more as a sport.” (Remy Amador Presas, page 12, 1973.).