In ecological dynamics, the term Attractor or Movement Attractor shows up every now and then. Attractors can be seen as preferred motor pattern solutions in the current activity context. When an action is seen as intuitive or habitual, it might be the attractor at work. Habit and intuition can be nebulous concepts however, so to define it more distinctly, Attractors fit inside the ecological landscape, like trails and roads to navigate among the impassable mountains and rivers of task constraints and affordances. As you change the landscape, new motor solutions become attractive (and in turn, other might become unattractive).
I believe that in fencing, keeping your dominant side forward is a very common attractor within the affordances of the activity, both with one-handed and two-handed weapons. Assuming no instruction given what so ever, the fencer might just stand with the weapon by their side, but if they hold it in their dominant hand and you ask them to try to reach for you, chances are their dominant foot will be the one to start following their arm extension. As it happens, this pattern can break when people with previous experience try it, and even more so (maybe not so surprisingly) when the previous experience comes from an activity that usually attracts keeping the non dominant foot forward, like other unarmed martial arts, or people who trained how to shoot a rifle a lot. Nevertheless, for my class I am interested in making the non-dominant foot forward an attractor in my fencing movement, so I need to look into creating an attractor for that, and also making it comfortable, so it lasts.
Why the non-dominant foot?
In my longsword class, I follow Lew, which has a lot of his pieces start with the fencer approaching with their left foot forward (and seemingly assuming a right dominant fencer). In the interest of finding out the utility of this as an approach to fencing, I have a bias towards it. To put it very briefly, I work of an interpretation that you approach with the left, pass into the engagement, and after perform footwork freely as needed. I have put this info aside as this article is not about source interpretation. As I note later, I also believe there are genuine functional benefits of this.
See below for context:
“The first lesson of the long sword is that, before all else, you shall learn to hew the hews correctly, if you otherwise want to fence strongly. And hear it like this: When you stand with the left foot forward and hew from the right side, the hew is false and incorrect if the right side remains behind. Therefore the hew will be too short, and may not have its correct path to the correct side”“Codex Lew”, Stephen Cheney’s translation, used with permission
When starting out with an unattractive or “unintuitive” option, you have to consider how to best prime the field for making the motion attractive in future contexts. Since this refers to a starting position that is also quite simple, I start off with a training game with the starting position defined. It’s a small one that I sometimes call “head and shoulders redux”, and it’s quite simple, no weapons needed.
Both fencers are asked to start with their non-dominant foot forward, quite close to each other. One fencer uses their dominant hand to attack shoulder or knee, the other fencer may attempt parry with their dominant hand. Fencers may not move anything apart from their arms at this time.
This is just to prime fencers a bit, and I generally only ever run this game once or twice in warmup with new fencers. In priming, I hope to show fencers that actions are possible from this starting position, and not much more. I believe in showing that the position is “actionable”, i.e. that you can do things from it. The progression from this game is to let fencers move freely (apart from a constraint that the legs shall not cross), remove the parrying options and instead let both fencers attempts attack or void as necessary, (together with a priority for the high hit in case of a double). At this point, you hope to generate a result like this:
Small lunges, advances and retreats, interrupted steps for feinting, etc. Through task-specific constraints we have created a landscape where actions with the non-dominant foot thrive. Fencers are exploring solutions within their affordances (as an additional note, participants in the vid are about 9 minutes in on their first ever session here).
Now, someone may quibble that giving the start position is too explicit, which I would understand. An option, if you want to entertain it, is to specifically make the dominant knee and both shoulders targets in these activities, and hopefully over time degenerates fencers to keep their dominant foot behind. As I believe the variability in targets is important to create a stronger tactical challenge, I prefer to do the more explicit variant.
Generally, for non-dominant forward footwork I dont add a lot more than this. Fencers tend to start non-dominant even if future games or exercises don’t specifically ask them to. Since this is part of how I start off new fencers, the next exercises I usually run are the Direct Attack game and Soviet Foil (Longsword) in some variation. Through this, I hope to further expand the field of possible movement solutions. As fencers are primed for non-dominant footwork, and know that it’s possible to work from there, they end up likely to explore solutions. If it holds, then in these games they also get to experience that its possible to achieve success with body engagement, small (or larger) lunges, and hopefully even explosive passive steps. In this way, I hope to have massaged or eroded the environmental landscape, so that the current attractor is more likely to seem like a viable way forward.
All in all, by the time class reaches free sparring, fencers will generally start with their non-dominant foot forward and keep working from there. As the dominant foot forward is still a comfortable attractor to fall in when given no constraints, I usually don’t focus on it specifically until a lot later. Already in this moment I find that fencers will start to experiment with both feet, and indeed, maybe by the end of a class they will strongly work from the dominant foot instead. While I do believe the non-dominant position can achieve everything the dominant position can (a topic for a future article), it is also included a bit as a performative goal rather than pure optimisation, so fencers who end up not finding solutions this way will revert to dominant-led footwork. Which is fine, really. If a fencer ends up finding more workable solutions the other way, it is only natural then, that they will attract to it.
If you find that what you would like to see in a self-organising exercise doesn’t appear at all, go through your constraints and affordances and see what needs tweaking in order to have the preferred solutions appear. Sometimes, you might have to be a bit more aggressive in what you restrict and allow in the exercise.
Attractors are a way to describe specific solutions that appear frequently in the provided environment. It applies to a lot more than the examples given above. If you are performing exercises where you wish to see fencers self-organise a solution, and you think they are either struggling or not organising towards the solution you prefer, then it’s mostly a matter of seeing how you can change the environment. But always keep in mind that a fencer’s innate ability, or Action Capacity is a part of their environment, and so can be a very large influence on what attracts, your exercises notwithstanding.
Thanks Sean for proof-reading!