Saturday, July 15, 2006

Insight Delight

It’s a surprise when something one has done for years suddenly flashes fresh insight. The experience can be both pleasant and disconcerting, the former for obvious reasons of discovery, the latter more a sense of “what took so long?” followed by “What else am I missing here?”

Some things need to percolate and evolve, often waiting for that moment the right question is asked, the key that unlocks the door. We have an “Aha!” moment, but it’s really been there awhile for us to see. It isn’t called “insight” for nothing!

This is also a benefit of teaching, since one is always going over basic information, the raw material feeding our creative unconscious mind. It’s been said (and I’m repeating myself) that UC Berkeley has so many Nobel winners because tenured professors are forced to endure giving those horrid undergraduate courses. This allegedly keeps them grounded in the fundamentals of their disciplines. Same thing here.

So yesterday I had an unexpected insight on “the pass” for angle #3, also known as “the two-step”. Serrada’s angle #3 is thrown as right-handed horizontal forehand slash across the mid-section; the defender sees it coming in left to right. This does what the name implies; it passes the attack through to the other side. In essence, it is an outside parry for a low attack on the left, analogous to the outside block on angle #1. “Inside” refers to being between an attacker’s hands (in front) vs. “outside” which is to the outside of one arm or the other, angled away from the opposite arm.

There has been some controversy within the Serrada community about how this technique is properly done. The majority of people I know do it the way I learned it, which is how Angel Cabales taught the move throughout the 1980’s. The move begins by cocking the left hand and foot, then doing a papeet (replacement step or quick step) with the right leg back. Vincent teaches this as a papeet with the left leg back.

This isn’t insignificant, because it changes the balance, angles and range of the counter-strikes all the way through to the end. Furthermore, there are things in the later version that appear inconsistent with basic Serrada theories, like always facing the attack. Vincent’s method is clearer on that regard. He told me that his way is authentic, and that his father changed the move while training Jimmy Tacosa because Jimmy did it that way.

This never made sense to me, because Angel didn’t do things arbitrarily like that. In fact, I often heard him reply to questions about why certain students would do things differently, by saying “He wants to do it that way and doesn’t listen, so I let him.” In other words, the student might change things, but Angel didn’t follow their lead.

There was a mystery here, a deeper truth to uncover. I’ve always felt I had a piece of this puzzle, because Angel also showed me – once - the footwork pattern Vincent uses, only Angel referred to this as Serrada’s version of a largo mano technique (largo mano is the range where your head is out of your opponent’s reach but his attacking hand is within your reach). Like Vincent, Angel moved back slightly on the first move, then surged in on the counterstrike. (It’s a bit like Sonny Umpad’s “pendulum” this way.)

Since I had seen both versions from Angel, I didn’t think of them as incompatible but rather as complementary. The way I was taught kept things a hair closer, relying more on the check hand to suppress the incoming attack, thereby altering its range. By keeping these as separate and discrete, I didn’t get confused. I spent some time trying Vincent’s version as the “only” way, but it just messed my timing up with either pattern. Once I realized it matched Angel’s “largo” I could keep it safely categorized as an alternative move.

This, however, was an old perspective from 15 years ago. I still had not fully deciphered the reason Angel allegedly changed the footwork so radically. In particular his later method seemed to leave the last strike off-balance and at an awkward angle. This strike is a right downward chop with the right leg forward. While our basic #1 strike steps in like this, here we are stepping back with the left leg, so we do not get the benefit of dropping our weight forward fully into the strike. This actually tends to pull energy away from the blow, which seems odd. I often tried to explain discrepancies as the move setting up for the reverse backhand strike (angle #4) to follow, but that also presented some technical inconsistencies which then had to be explained away.

Then last night as I was teaching this technique to someone new, I heard myself say something I’d never heard or thought before. This was regarding that finishing strike. I’d been thinking for some time that the power comes from torquing the upper body counterclockwise, which was somehow at odds with a vertical right forehand finishing blow. What I heard myself say was “you can chop diagonally to your opponent’s inside, towards the centerline, to take the upper arm.”

This tied together several other pieces of information. I’ve often told the story, related to me by a Modern Arnis teacher who had worked as a doctor in the Philippines, that after knife or sword fights, corpses frequently had cuts to the upper sword arm, but survivors almost never had such a wound. The implication was clear that such a cut incapacitated the loser’s ability to further defend, a good example of “killing the fang.”

What triggered this association was recognizing that if an attacker throws a powerful #3 strike and misses, it will likely carry his arm all the way across his body, removing the forearm as a target, at least until he comes back with the reverse #4 strike. With the forearm out of range, the logical target changes, and the closest and most effective is the upper arm.

This is consistent with defender’s direction of power in that hard torso twist to the left. Using a short chop, followed by a quick abanico to the “lock” position (weapon held across the body in an on-guard position) put one’s focus right on the opponent’s centerline. Previously I’d been targeting back to the forearm, which meant either striking towards my own outside line off the hip (as opposed to keeping power in towards my own center, which is more fundamental to our theories) or stepping wider across my opponent to orient power but exposing my low line to greater extent.

I’m sure others have had this insight too, but I’ve never heard it. There has always been vagueness as to why this technique looked different from so many others. By analyzing the power structure and alignment of both attacker and defender, an odd technique suddenly feels technically sound.

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