Friday, August 16, 2013

Doing It For Real, or: What Are We Trying To Do?

When I meet new people (at work, say), they are often interested in my social dance hobby.  It is an interestingly difficult thing to describe.  "Dance" is certainly too broad for what I do, in that there are many kinds of dance I know virtually nothing about and in which I have no particular skill.  "Ballroom dance" is also too broad - as the Dance Master rightly points out, "ballroom dance" can be done in a competition setting, in a performance setting, or in a social setting.  I only really do the latter.  But of course, one of the things I liked most about dance at Stanford was that we were learning social dances as they were done in their heyday (we often called this approach "vintage" social dance); for instance, the Viennese Waltz that I know is actually not the same as the Viennese Waltz taught by, say, an Arthur Murray studio.  And yet, the Viennese Waltz that I actually dance is not the same as the Viennese Waltz as danced in 1804, or 1840, or 1880, or indeed any time period except my own; it incorporates at least some figures and features that are outside the figures and features within the range of "Viennese Waltz" in any meaningful historical time period (following the usage of some of the Dance Master's senior students, I sometimes call this "radical" vintage social dance).

I distinguish radical vintage social dance from vintage social dance or historical social dance in that radvin is informed by historical practice but goes beyond it.  It is not a reenactment discipline.  I learned the waltz of the 1810s, and I incorporate some of its features into my normal waltzing, but I almost never waltz like they actually did in the 1810s (and at this point I'd need to be reminded of many of the finer points in order to do so).  As in the physical movements of the dance, so in the philosophy - radvin waltzes to contemporary music because historically, waltz was done to contemporary music (whatever that meant at the time); we take to heart the admonitions of the 19th century masters about ballroom courtesy without adhering to all of their actual rules of courtesy, and so forth.

This is not a form of social dance that is widely practiced.  And yet, I sort of pride myself on my ability to dance both with historical reenactors and with modern ballroom students.  In fact, it is integral to my identity as a dancer.  When I say, "I know how to waltz," what I mean is that I can give pleasure to myself and my partner in a social, freestyle setting while engaged in a dance that both of us will recognize as "waltz," regardless of my partner's style, skill level, or training background.  That may sound very broad, but in many ways it is very narrow.  It doesn't include skill at recreating the waltz of any historical time period, whether modern or vintage; it doesn't include freestyle competition settings, or freestyle performance settings, or choreographies in any setting.

Yet this is the definition I incorporate into my identity as a dancer.  This is what intuitively feels to me like "doing it for real."  Now, I would dishonor my training if I were ever to say that somebody who defines their identity as a dancer in another way was not "doing it for real."  But whenever I want to know if I can dance something "for real," that is the meaning I use for myself - can I dance it in such a way as to bring pleasure to myself and my partner in a social, freestyle setting, regardless of my partner's style, skill level, or training background?

I am still formulating a definition of what "doing it for real" means to me in a fencing context, but I know that it shares at least some features of what it means to me in a dance context.  I know that it will be style- and background-agnostic.  To me, "doing it for real" with a sword means (among other things) being able to use it against weapons other than swords, against opponents who have primarily studied a different style or under a different teacher.

I am also pretty sure that, like dance, I am interested in the historical texts as inspiration.  I don't want to fight like Joachim Meyer or Hans Talhoffer any more than I want to swing like Frankie Manning or waltz like Charles Durang.  I value the example of those masters (in dance and in KDF) because they know more than I do, had access to cultural context that I can never have, and you have to learn from somebody, but I want to dance, and fight, like me.  Not all historical fencers feel this way; there are those who prefer to ape a particular master because they think his teachings are superior to others (a claim that I think is structurally dubious), or because it serves an independent interest such as historical reenactment or historical research - which I think is a perfectly valid activity, even if it's not a project I wish to engage in.

I am also struck by the similarities between training for [freestyle, social] dance and fencing.  Current historical European martial arts training, regardless of system or tradition, consists of four general types of activities: solo drills, paired drills, free sparring, and test cutting.  Solo drills are fencing-related actions that can be performed by a single person with appropriate training equipment.  When I drill on the knoll in Prospect Park, I am doing solo drills - challenging myself to improve things like my footwork or my sword handling (it is surprisingly difficult to do even something as simple as swing a sword through thin air without having it wobble, for instance).  This isn't something that social dance training emphasizes much, in my experience, but it does exist.  Every approach I've seen to teaching the basic lindy hop swing-out, for instance, has the practitioners go through the motions without a partner before adding another person into the mix.

Paired drills are quite common in social dance training, since very few techniques are meant to be performed in isolation (there are a few, but in general, social dance is meant to be done with one or more partners).  The same is true of fencing - the fact that you have a sword in your hand implies that there is another human being in the picture, whom you intend to put in a wheelchair, coma, or body bag if necessary.  Except for those rare techniques that are meant to be performed in isolation (certain free spins in dance, for instance; or perhaps the act of drawing a weapon), the techniques of the art can only be understood with another person to work with.  Just as you cannot perform a dance figure on the fly without practicing it in isolation with a partner many times, neither can you perform a fencing technique.  By practicing families of related figures and techniques in a controlled, deliberate setting, you begin to break those figures and techniques down into their constituent parts, understanding the function of their individual pieces so that you can apply them in ways that you have never practiced.  I am best at this in cross-step waltz; partners ask me on a semi-regular basis "where I learned" a given figure, and at this point, I often can't tell.  It's entirely possible that I never learned that figure, but rather unconsciously assembled it on the occasion from my library of tiny, well-understood pieces of figures.  I don't think you can do that without lots of paired drills.  This is my favorite part of fencing class, because I derive a significant amount of satisfaction from this breaking-down process.

For some dancers, and fencers, that is enough - and I don't mean that in a derogatory way.  There is genuine thrill and achievement in a well-written and well-executed choreography, whether in dance or in fencing (choreographies being, essentially, very long custom-written drills).  The measure of skill that I want, though, is skill in a freestyle setting.  In dance, I think this offers a unique opportunity to experience the things that made social dance so popular in ages past - the social interaction, the romantic and sexual tensions, the athletic exertion sustained effort, the musical expression of interpreting music as you hear it - all the pieces are, or can be, present on the social dance floor.

For fencing, I value free sparring because it lets me discover whether I can perform my techniques spontaneously.  That is to say, it lets me know whether I understand the technique (and its constituent pieces) enough to know when to apply it without somebody telling me so, and whether I have physically mastered the technique enough to apply it against an opponent who is moving at full speed.  Whether I win or lose the bout is not really the point; I would rather win than lose, but competition in general makes me uncomfortable.  The pleasure is not so much in the interaction with my sparring opponent as in the opportunity to test my own mastery.

The last mode of training, which I don't think has any analogue in dancing, is test-cutting.  Test cutting is the practice of using sharp swords to cut targets (Japanese tatami mats, rolled and soaked in water, are common, and pig carcasses have many desirable qualities as practice targets, but anything that offers resistance to being cut will do in principle).  This is to cover an important hole in free sparring's coverage: nobody gets cut in sparring.  As a result, it's a fair question to ask ourselves whether any of the blows we strike in a sparring bout would actually have cut a real opponent.  If I throw a krumphau in sparring and it connects, would that same blow struck with a live blade have amputated my opponent's forearms, or simply bashed them?  Cutting things with a sword is hard, after all (there are eastern martial arts dedicated to nothing but learning how to cut with a sword).  Test cutting has its own limitations, of course - no matter how hard you may try to pretend that you are cutting an opponent instead of an inanimate object, the fact remains that there is no way to test cut an opponent.  It's not a substitute for the other three modes of training, merely a supplement to them.

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