Back to basics, the reason for this blog …. This is the essential theme of what I teach, and why I place such a premium on understanding why we do what we do in Serrada right from the start. I should make up a checklist of rules for learning, and right at the top this would be the first:
“If you understand the basics, you understand the system.”
If you question the importance of this fundamental point, try reversing the statement. How can you possibly understand the system if you don’t know and understand the basic principles on which it is built?
I don’t care if you are a rocket scientist; violate the tenets of your discipline and you’ve got nothing. UC Berkeley has more Nobel laureates than perhaps any other university in the world (certainly any other public one) and one explanation for this phenomenon is that even tenured professors there are required to teach bonehead classes to underclassmen. What this means is they are always reimmersing themselves in the fundamentals of their field of study, continually deepening the core of their craft.
My Kenpo teacher, Al Thomas, was one of the most awesome martial artists I’ve had the privilege to know. He started in the arts at age 5; by 12 he’d reached black belt level in Shotokan, Taekwondo and Judo, and by age 17 added black belts in two completely different systems of Kenpo. He was indomitable, the kind of fighter who would and could continue to ramp up his performance beyond any opponent I ever saw him face, and he regularly sparred some of the best in the country. When he was about 30, he walked into his school one day and announced that he felt he’d finally mastered his basics! That was scary but also awesome, because it gave us perspective on what basics meant to the art. As beginners we always wanted to grow beyond basics, but if you read Bruce Lee’s statement about “a punch is just a punch” that is exactly what it means, that basics are everything and without them you cannot expect great success.
As Al explained to us often, there are no advanced techniques in martial arts, just basics done increasingly better. No matter how complex a technique looks, it all breaks down into using the footwork, stances and strikes that one learned in the beginning. You can create longer sequences, you can do them faster, but always they are rooted in simple moves. Kenpo grandmaster Ed Parker explained this by creating his “alphabet of motion,” which used the analogy of learning letters, then creating words, then sentences. From those components one can write a masterpiece.
As a teacher of Serrada, I see certain common flaws in students, both my own and many who come through from other younger generation teachers. The most common one is uncertainty in response to some particular situation. People then begin to improvise and make up moves. Now I have no problem with creativity per se, as long as it is effective. Angel himself said that “When it comes to ‘for real’ forget about the name of a technique or the number of the angle, just react.” Still, one must recognize he said this from the perspective of great mastery over his basics. He could rely on always knowing where he was and where he wanted to go. The art provides a template; learn the rules before you break them, then if you need to go beyond the structure, at least you can justify your reasoning. Serrada is an art that is simple on the surface, but takes real discipline to do well. That’s because simple structures don’t hide many flaws, and the elegance of good performance is in clean, smooth execution. This is true in any performance art.
In martial arts, or music, or whatever, timing is essential. If you have to expend too much energy thinking about what you are going to do, you lose that rhythm. If, on the other hand, you innately understand how to go about executing the basic patterns, those establish a template within which one can flow effortlessly, and the art emerges from being able to weave those elements together in various combinations. The complexity emerges through sophisticated manipulation of the key elements. Getting lost in one’s own thought process is rarely a better option, and certainly not when working with split second decisions. The purpose of practice is to eliminate those hitches and hesitations that destroy continuity and flow.
I have seen students in other arts go into their technique and then at some point lose focus. They get vague, wave their hands a bit and say things like “and then you could do this or that …” I knew a top Silat teacher who used to criticize Filipino martial arts as being too wishy-washy, and it was this observed behavior to which he referred. After he saw Serrada, he made an exception, because we always knew where we were and where we were going. Finish a technique, end in the “lock” position. This gave us certainty, a place from which to execute all our moves, a beginning and an ending. All of Angel’s first generation students knew this. Now, however, I’m seeing 3rd and 4th generation students who don’t understand this. Their techniques start strong and smooth but then degenerate into some sort of “anything goes” free-for-all that loses touch with essential patterns of movement that define Serrada. Getting lost happens, but one can always find a familiar place to reconnect with the known. Physical repetition in practice burns in neurological pathways, allowing faster, more spontaneous sequential firing of neuromuscular activity. Those patterns will always be more efficient than consciously trying to direct new and unestablished ones.
Serrada is a system where everything is tightly and logically interlocked, from the length of the stick to the coordinated patterns of hands and feet that maximize its potential. Deviate too far from the norm and you lose the cohesiveness of the system. That’s a truth that applies to many things, whether aerodynamics or architecture, and really, if you examine design, usually the most beautiful ones are those that express simple elegance.
If I could (and I do) stress knowing the basics, what are those things I see getting lost or watered down in the art?
One, as I’ve already mentioned, is the “lock position.” Anytime we finish a technique, this is where we should go. It allows us to move quickly in any direction, and knowing where we are, we can be efficient in so responding to any new input. In basic techniques and in lock-and-block, this is where we should always finish. It has to be a habit!
The next thing is using papeet, our replacement step. This allows us to hold our ground against an attack, utilizing the male triangle to cut the opponent’s centerline. This gives us the footwork to follow the fight in whatever direction it goes, supporting us as we pass the opponent’s attacks or respond to alternate side strikes. It allows us to correct our balance at any point, and to generate “shock” power in an instant. It closes the low line (below the waist); this is a common mistake, turning from one side to the other while leaving the feet static, thus opening up our stance to a quick groin kick. Stepping too wide does the same thing, and often reflects a habit of using largo footwork from other styles in our closer range. Nothing wrong with largo, but everything in its appropriate place! We have our female triangle stepping offline in Serrada too, but always we should adjust our footwork back to that alignment on the centerline of the opponent.
How does this look? In Kenpo we taught heel/toe alignment in a side horse stance. This means that a line from the heel of our rear foot to the toe of our front foot should be aligned with our opponent’s centerline. This allowed direct kicks from the rear without the front leg blocking the path, while slightly triangulating the footwork for greater stability. In Serrada, we use a forward stance, front foot pointed in the direction we face, allowing both hands equal reach for checking parrying, etc. However, we STILL have that same heel/toe alignment to target the opponent’s centerline and for stability!
Here’s a simple test. Pretend you are doing Western fencing and simply lift the front foot and step straight forward, allowing yourself to drop into a lunge. If your feet are aligned correctly, your step will close the gap toward your opponent. If your footwork is wide, you will be lunging off towards the side. Now there are lateral attacks that can work off that tangent, but those are not the core concept of Serrada footwork.
I always say to learn one thing, then when you compare it to something else, you will understand the difference. First, though, you have to know something, have a place to start. People who throw different concepts together from various arts without understanding the integral timing of each wind up with what Angel called “spaghetti Escrima.”
The final point I’ll make here is one of the more advanced concepts in the system, but one integrated right into the basics, and that is “reversal.” Any time you encounter strong resistance, go the other way to get around it. John Wong, my Tai Chi teacher, explained this by saying that humans can only do one thing at a time, so if someone is resisting to the right, they cannot also be resisting to the left. Sure they can change, but that’s still only doing one thing at a time. In Serrada, we understand and utilize this principle in various ways. We can spill an attack by using a cross block or shoulder block, allowing our opponent to go the direction he wishes while using circularity to flow into our counterstrike. When we attack and meet resistance we change direction to go around the opponent’s defense. It’s simple, really, but takes sensitivity to feel and apply in real time.
What are some of the fundamental components to reversal? Use papeet to follow the direction of the fight, and finish up our technique by returning to the lock position while monitoring the opponent for further threat. See, it’s really simple stuff. Remember the acronym KISS? It means “Keep It Simple Serrada” and it works! Adhere to the basics and you will stay out of a lot of trouble. Even better, as you practice with certainty in your movement, you gain mastery over yourself and your timing in the moment, and that is a path to successfully using the art.