Rethinking Kung Fu Footwork (Lessons from the FMAs)

17 09 2016

Today’s post is brought to you, compliments of your Southeasternly neighbor, the Filipino Martial Arts (FMAs). In case you are one of the few who have never been exposed to the Filipino Martial Arts, take a look on YouTube at it. The term “Filipino martial arts” can refer to any number of styles from the Philippines ranging from weapons-based styles–which we are known for (I’m speaking as a Filipino right now)–to boxing arts, to our own lineages of Chinese martial arts, which have evolved in the Philippines for the last few centuries into arts with Chinese names but little semblance to their origin. A few characteristics that you may find with the Filipino arts that are quite unlike those of other countries:

  1. Filipino arts traditionally have no forms. Most Filipino arts are sparring-based, and this is perhaps the main difference that makes FMAs unique. Because of the emphasis on sparring, many of the practices that restrict fighting ability do not exist in the FMA. For example, while a gripe about TCMAs is that tournaments lack fighting divisions–most Filipino tournaments are sparring tournaments that do not have forms divisions
  2. Filipino practitioners are not bound by tradition or strict adherence to custom. The grouping of techniques into stick/blade/empty hand is blurred. Often styles will start out teaching empty hand techniques and then draw a knife. FMA practitioners will spar stick versus knife, two weapons versus one, one opponent versus two, etc. The unpredictability of the streets is brought into classroom training
  3. FMA systems are created and practiced by the common man, rather than isolated groups of monks and warriors
  4. Every new generation of FMAs will evolve from the last. Teachers are not expected to keep curriculums and techniques intact. Nearly every school owner has created his own method, although he may keep the name of his teacher’s art–innovation and blending is acceptable and encouraged
  5. The practice of challenging is not frowned upon in the Filipino arts. A teacher who does not have challenges under his belt is not considered “polite”, he is considered “inexperienced”. While many masters will talk of past teachers and classmates–Filipino teachers often speak of sparring partners and rivals
  6. Speaking of rivals, many masters’ rivals are not lifelong enemies as in other styles; rivals often become co-founders, friends, or even the inspiration for a whole new art. Two good examples of such are the rivalry between US-based, late pioneers Angel Cabales and Leo Giron–whose rivalry lasted a lifetime and history is peppered with many matches (which exists even to this day); and Katatapado, a Filipino long-stick system created just to defeat Eskrima, the dominant weapons art of the Philippines
  7. Emphasis on footwork rather than stance work. In fact, most FMA styles do not have stances

FMA styles are almost the opposite of the Chinese arts, but some of those differences can be used to benefit Kung Fu fighters. Let’s explore some of them:

FMA footwork is similar to boxing footwork, in that FMA styles are more mobile that our northernly neighbors. This practice of being in perpetual motion is considered “alive” feet, versus “dead” feet that are heavy and flat footed. This may first appear to put fighters at a disadvantage because of a lack of stability. However, because of the heavy presence of blades, including the possibility for blades to be produced during a fight–FMA fighters are light footed other than times that power is needed for finishing blows. There are no set stances in most styles, so students practice attacking/advancing, retreating/withdrawing, side-stepping/flanking as much as a Kung Fu student would practice stances. Footwork is also heavily integrated with weapons practice. While stance training and footwork is considered a “beginner’s” skill in Kung Fu–even advanced FMA students practice footwork every class. This emphasis on movement does tire out the fighter more, but also produces a more agile, evasive, quicker, and fit fighter–with quickers reflexes. Watch a few rounds of Eskrima sparring and you will see how the emphasis on movement and speed can heighten the senses of your students. How can this be integrated with Kung Fu? Limit stance holding to lower ranking levels, but once strength is built in your students’ legs–switch your emphasis to movement. The goal is to make your students difficult to escape from, but equally difficult to catch. It is not necessary to neglect strength training or other skills, but giving your fighters the gift of superior mobility will insure that they will catch and opponent they are attacking while being difficult to hit when attacked. Footwork, then, is not to be an additional skill; footwork should be an integrated skill. Meaning, there is no “Footwork” Day. Every day is footwork day. Each time you drill a skill–whether you are training punches, blocks, even dagger and sword skills–find a way to incorporate footwork.

Also, let us say here, that in speaking of “mobility”, we are not trying to get Kung Fu students to practice while doing the “Ali Shuffle”. It’s so much more than that! By mobility, we mean that your students should not practice in a fighting stance where they are a sitting duck. Look at the average Kung Fu class, you will see lines of students in a perfect formation. Everyone has a dot they are standing on, and no one leaves that dot. Whether doing jumping jacks, punching, kicking–everyone in class has a spot, and that student is encouraged to stay in his place. When fighting, there is a little movement, but it is unnatural as Kung Fu students are trained to set down in stances and not move. A sniper-fighter’s dream opponent. (Edit: In case you were wondering, a sniper-fighter is an aggressive attacker who attacks quickly and violently) Train without movement, your students will find much difficulty when it is time to move, regardless if he is attacking or defending. When training for mobility, you must decide whether the technique you are training is being used as an attack, a defense or a flanking technique. For example, the basic punch in the Kung Fu classroom can either be done in a Horse, Bow, or sparring stance, and that’s about it. Yet in the FMA classroom, the punch is designated an attacking-punch (your student is the attacker), a defensive punch (your student is punching when attacked), or a flanking punch (student steps off-line and punches, whether initiating the attack or not)–and each has it’s own footwork movements. Make this one change to how you run your classes–within months you will see a great improvement in sparring ability.

For the sake of space, let’s end here, but I’d like to give you a few things to think about:

  • footwork can be used to lure the opponent into traps. a mongoose attack, for example, named for the Philippine mongoose, uses a retreat to get the opponent to follow–and then attack when the opponent is mid-stride while following you
  • advancing on the opponent can be more than just moving forward to get close to the opponent. advance on the opponent to upset his balance (difficult to keep balance while moving backward), run the opponent into unstable ground (off sidewalks, etc.), or into barriers (walls, furniture, or the ropes of a boxing ring)
  • keeps even an opponent with the strongest stance off-balance, as your movement can force him to leave his stance and follow or move. this makes him vulnerable to attack
  • cut off an opponent’s movement. study movement, and plan two or three steps ahead so that if he continues in the direction he is moving–he moves right into the direction of your next attack
  • can be used to make an opponent miss. practice what you can do if the opponent misses an attack. this MUST be incorporated into training. many styles plan for follow ups if the opponent blocks, but what about throwing an attack, allowing the opponent to block you, then waiting for his counter, and then firing on him after you make him miss? in the FMA this is called “counter-the-counter”, something I have not seen in any style besides the Filipino art other than Wing Chun–and even Wing Chun does not have techniques to make an opponent miss his attack
  • for those who enjoy fighting from a strong stance–you could use movement to set up that strong launching position. move to force the opponent into a place where you want him. land into position while he is still moving by moving quicker–and then firing on him as he arrives to a position you were waiting for

There is still much more to add to this subject, but we will put up another article in the near future. We hope you found something useful! Thank you for visiting the DC Jow Ga Federation.

In case you forgot to take a look at the link I embedded above, here is a clip of a tournament. Enjoy!