Monday, April 14, 2008

Dan Donzella Silat Seminar Review

This past Saturday Sifu Dan Donzella gave an excellent presentation of Silat, covering basic principles for both standing and ground fighting. Dan was quick to emphasize the importance of understanding principles rather than just learning techniques, pointing out that in a real confrontation, we’ll never think “do technique #17”, but if we understand principles we will flow according to the situation as it evolves. This is an approach I wholeheartedly endorse, and it was a treat to be on the receiving end of his approach.

Having been in the martial arts a long time, I’ve seen a lot of stuff, which kind of flattens the learning curve. I consider it a good day if I come away from an event with one good bit of information. That being the case, Sifu Donzella’s seminar was a banquet. The three hours passed too quickly but was long enough, as everyone seemed saturated by the end. Whether novice or experienced Silat practitioner (there were a couple), Dan presented information in the most simple and effective manner, with impressive results.

Here are a few things I took away from this seminar, some of which I’m only starting to fully recognize as they soak in:

Triangles. FMA is famous for geometrical imagery, but Silat is similarly scientific in its analysis. The FMA typically use triangles to denote footwork and angles of defense with weaponry, while Silat seems to place a greater emphasis on empty hands and body control. One of the first things Dan showed was how Silat looks for natural triangles of the body as points of entry to attack and control. Basically this means bisecting joints. While many technical elements were familiar, seeing a new way to frame entries simplified and connected attacks to different body parts in a highly effective manner. Right then and there I knew the day had been worth it, even if I learned nothing else, though of course I would.

During the latter part of the seminar, when he was covering Harimau, Dan used triangles to define his space going to the ground, his opponent’s space going to the ground, and the importance of controlling both triangles. This then transitioned again to those body triangles to overwhelm, control and destroy the opponent.

Dan expressed repeatedly this principle of self-defense, which is maximum damage with minimum risk or effort. Self-defense isn’t fighting, as in squaring off to duel, but a means to an end, which is to go home intact. Thus his art is efficiently structured so even a small fighter can quickly destroy a larger, stronger opponent before those attributes of size and strength become factors in the outcome.

One of the key principles is taking the opponent’s balance. As Dan put it, a punch may miss but the ground never does. (An old Aikido teacher described throwing to me as “hitting the guy with an 8,000 mile thick punch!) Through the concept of triangles, the opponent is already assumed to have compromised balance. The Silat practitioner simply moves through the opponent to utilize that imbalance. Leg or foot traps, simple pressure points and redirection of momentum all conspire with gravity to put the opponent at severe disadvantage, whether one puts him down or chooses to leave him a standing target.

Another key covered was the Silat principle of dividing the body into zones. FMA generally goes by variations of high/medium/low and left/right. Dan’s style of Silat breaks the body alignment by centerline, plus 1/4 lines and 1/3 lines, defining both points of attack and attacking weaponry, particularly useful for finding pressure points that control balance such as in the shoulder and hip.

Hand positions contain important details, and Dan gave perhaps the best functional breakdown of a common Chinese martial art hand position I’ve ever encountered, the classic index finger extended palm (what my Kenpo teacher called kue-soh). With the thumb open, it has the elements of the Serrada C-hand, and the index finger, supported by the bent middle, allows for pressure point jabs. Many martial arts recognize the extended index finger as pointing or directing energy of the technique. The middle, ring and little fingers are bent together, allowing powerful claws, grabs and twists.

Lest it seem like this is too much a finesse system, one of the most impressive aspects was the generation of whipping force in all Sifu Donzella’s strikes. I’m a proponent of relaxed power too, but I’ve rarely encountered anyone who generates whipping energy with such abandon. Even with controlled power at demonstration levels, Dan’s strikes crackled with explosive power not unlike a bullwhip. Whipping blows to the spleen, liver, bladder, carotid and femoral arteries, for example, are designed to create shock in conjunction with entries that unbalance the opponent,

Whereas FMA often attack sequentially, such as the famous parry/check/strike patterns, Silat seems to favor more simultaneous defense/offense. This is not to say one is necessarily more effective than the other, and each can be explosive. There certainly are many similarities between versions of these related arts. A difference in timing might be in milliseconds, but it just feels to me that the Silat approach is to overwhelm right from the entry on multiple levels (hand, foot, balance), making it extremely difficult to counter. There is no retreat, just attack. All this (timing, tactics, power) confirmed my initial impression of Dan when we met in the parking lot, that he looked like someone I would not want to fight!

A special thanks to Reginald Burford and his Oakland Eskrima Club for a solid turnout for this event, to Maija Soderholm for helping arrange the use of the Suigetsukan Dojo, to Bernie Langan for sharing his insights during the class, and to the guest who drove down from Oregon, a true commitment to the art.

Now, a small rant at the end! It still surprises me how many people do not take advantage of events like this, especially when they are priced low enough for most to afford. As martial artists we should always be curious because we don’t know what an opponent may know. We should want to be able recognize their skills and how to counter them. Some things we may see often, such as in movies, on TV, or even just watching a class through a dojo window. Other things are more subtle or rare. This does not mean less effective, it might just mean it’s been kept more secret, or it’s too scary for most people to try. Those are precisely the things that give practitioners an edge and are precisely what add breadth to our experience, not just more of the familiar.
There were a dozen people at this event, a nice size for the dojo and a single instructor, but considering how many folks were informed or expressed interest, it’s too bad more didn’t avail themselves of this opportunity. There’s a chance Sifu Donzella will be back later this year, so perhaps more folks can make it then.

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