Tuesday, November 02, 2004
The 12 Pairs of Balintawak Eskrima
Over the past two decades, I have been training in a Filipino martial art called Balintawak Eskrima. It is one of the arts developed on the island of Cebu, in the central Philippines. The founder of the art, Grandmaster Venancio (Anciong) Bacon, was a member of the Doce Pares Society earlier in the century, but then left it to develop Balintawak. I have seen several articles and a book on Doce Pares as taught by the Canete brothers, and have seen little similarity to my style.
Some of the video tapes that I have seen done by other Balintawak Grandmasters show differences from my own style in crucial details, although the style is quite recognizable. In the period between my teacher’s instruction, and today, there has been a great deal of change in some schools of Balintawak. Our school has kept the art fairly close to the way it was taught by Master Jose Villasin in the early 1960s in Cebu. Since we have been cut off from the mainstream of Villasin Balintawak for over 30 years, we have preserved the past.
My instructor, Dom Lopez, has had no training in other Filipino arts, and therefore did not mix the style with another. He has continued to practice Balintawak as it was taught to him. Over time, he has introduced his own interpretations, but the changes are slight. Perhaps the most signifcant is his preference for a longer stance than is common amongst other teachers.
When he started training in 1960, he was a student of Master Jose Villasin, an Attorney in Cebu City. After learning the full curriculum from Master Villasin, he was sent for more advanced study under Grandmaster Bacon. From the Grandmaster, he learned the finer points of the art, and was given specific training in the techniques for fighting a duel.
At the time of Dom Lopez’s training, duelling was a part of life for an advanced Eskrimador. Even then, duels were illegal, but Eskrimadors still fought them. In fact, if a Master refused a duel, he would lose creditability, and would have no support from students or fellow Eskrimadors. Duels had to be accepted from all comers, all styles, if you wished to retain any stature within the Eskrima community.
At that time, my instructor witnessed duels on two separate occasions. One involved Grandmaster Bacon, and one involved Master Villasin. In each, the Balintawak master prevailed. In fact, Grandmaster Bacon has been credited with fighting (and it should go without saying) winning over 100 duels. Injuries resulting from these duels would often bring an Eskrimador’s career to a dead stop. Sometimes, it would bring the Eskrimador to a dead stop as well. In recent years, it appears that duelling has mainly vanished, and contests are conducted with armour, padded sticks, and rules for safety. Eskrima has become more of a sport.
Training the Angles
The Balintawak style is based on the notion of “12 Pairs” or “Doce Pares”. This has been explained to me as referring to the twelve angles of attack, and the 12 corresponding defences. The drill used to train these twelve pairs is fundamental to our version of Balintawak.
The basic drill of Balintawak is unlike any which I have seen elsewhere. It has several key features which set it apart. Firstly, it is done at close range, what we call “Corridas” distance. This is the distance at which you can strike with your left hand, without having to step. Secondly, at this range, all blocks are done with the stick held upright. There are no roof blocks, umbrella blocks, or wing blocks in this style. The only time the stick tip is dropped downwards for a block is at long range.
The drill consists of two distinct parts, one for offence and one for defence. One student, the more experienced, will take the offensive role, as the instructor. The other, the less experienced, will take the defensive role as the student. There are specific lessons in the drill for both.
Beginners sometimes find the drill frustrating, as they seem never to fully succeed. This is because the deck is stacked against them. In the drill, each technique has a rationale; it is there to train some specific fundamental of the art. In pursuit of this goal, the beginner is not allowed to go on the offensive, and must always play “catch-up”. This means that he never quite manages to deal with the barrage of techniques thrown at him in the drill. Both parties are learning however.
There are a number of principles for stance and stepping which are characteristic of Balintawak. Without going into detail, let me say the style encourages fluid motion and a naturalistic method for moving about. It is reminiscent of boxing as much as anything. However, every now and then you will see elements which would be at home in Tai Chi Chuan, or even Wing Chun.
Positioning yourself properly with respect to your partner is crucial. The student is given the role of maintaining the correct position at all times. When this is done, keep several key points in mind: always face the blow as it approaches you; always keep at the correct distance; don’t take two steps where one will do; step in a natural fashion; stay balanced; duck and dodge as necessary; and give way and dissipate the force of an overpowering attack. The instructor will make subtle pushing and pulling motions on the student’s hand or stick in order to provide a cue for the direction to step in. This is not done with more advanced students, so that it will not become a crutch.
Since a student can’t block a blow if he doesn’t see it, he must learn to look without blinking. In addition, it is our belief that the gaze should always be directed towards the chest of the partner. Under no conditions do you turn your head to look at the stick.
The Basic 12
In the following discussion, assume that the stick is held in the right hand. The stick is vertical, with the forearm being parallel to the ground and the arm held comfortably close to the body. The stick is gripped about 2 inches from the end, with the thumb, index and middle fingers held tightly. Strikes are done with wrist motion and a twist of the hips. The arm does not draw back before a move. There is good follow through. In the basic strike, after the blow, the stick returns to the ready position.
The strikes are named as follows:
- #1 is a forehand cut to the head or neck;
- #2 is a backhand cut to the head or neck;
- #3 is a forehand cut to the torso;
- #4 is a backhand cut to the torso;
- #5 is an underhand stab upwards towards the mid-line;
- #6 is a forehand stab to the arms or torso;
- #7 is a backhand stab to the arms or torso;
- #8 is a forehand cut to the legs or feet;
- #9 is a backhand cut to the legs or feet;
- #10 is a forehand stab to the head or neck;
- #11 is a backhand stab to the head or neck;
- #12 is an overhand cut to the head or neck, or a punch to the head.
There are twelve blocks to correspond to these twelve strikes. However, this number can be reduced if we keep in mind that for blocks on the same side, the only difference in defence is how low you crouch while defending. That is, #2, #4, #7, #9, #11 are dealt with identically, except for the amount that you drop down. Similarly, #1, #3, #6, #8, #10 are dealt with identically. That leaves #5, which is handled very similarly to the second group, and #12, which has its own unique response. Let me describe the blocks for #3, #4, #5, and #12.
The Eskrimador on offense strikes with a #3, which is a lateral forehand blow to the arms or torso. The student steps to face the oncoming blow, and blocks with an upright stick. This is followed by a check with the left hand, on the stick or on the stick- wielding hand. Next, the student gives a #2 strike as a counter- blow. The instructor blocks this with a flipping stick block done on the right side of the body. This is followed by a check on the hand, with the sticks adhering together, and then by a secondary check on the stick. Then the next strike is made, on the other side of the body.
The instructor strikes with a #4, which is a lateral backhand blow to the arms or torso. The student steps to face the oncoming stick, and blocks with an upright stick. This is followed by a check with the left hand, on the stick-wielding hand. Next, the student gives a #1 strike as a counter-blow. The instructor blocks this with a flipping stick block done on the left side of the body. This is followed by a check on the hand, with the sticks adhering together, and then a secondary check is made on the stick. Then the next strike is made, on the other side of the body.
The instructor strikes with a #5, which is a rising underhand stab to the mid-line on the torso or neck. The student twists to face the oncoming stick, and blocks with an upright stick. This is followed by a check with the left hand, with the checking arm being held downwards, on the stick. Next, the student gives a #2 strike as a counter-blow. The instructor blocks this with a flipping stick block done on the right side of the body. This is followed by a check on the hand, adhering stick to stick, and a secondary check on the stick. Then the next strike is made.
The #12 angle has the most complicated structure, when done in the classical form. After the instructor has blocked a #1, he will make a subtle deflecting motion to expose the student’s right elbow. This deflection is done with the right forearm. Then the instructor pushes down hard on the elbow of the stick-holding hand, to push it towards the floating ribs. Simultaneously, the right hand makes a simulated butt-end attack at the face. The student is expected to block this with the left palm. This block has the same trajectory as would a palm heel strike to the face. Keep this crucial point in mind. The instructor then lets the student perform an additional block with the right forearm. This block has a trajectory identical to a back-handed strike to the face with the butt-end of the stick. At this point, the student turns his stick hand so that the elbow comes down close to the ribs, and the stick holding hand turns so that the palm is up. This will serve to expose the instructor’s right elbow. Now the student goes through the same sequence just completed by the instructor. This drill is accompanied with good evading motions. After a number of these exchanges, the instructor does a normal block and check, and then delivers either a #1 or a #2 strike in the basic fashion.
As the strikes are delivered, the instructor calls out the number of the blow, so the student may learn this as the name of the technique. Initially, the student is given the strikes in the basic order. Soon after, the order is varied. As the student grows in ability, the instructor speeds up the drill, just pushing the student a bit beyond his current skill level. Improvement is fairly rapid under this regime. At some point, the student has learned enough to move on to a more varied repertoire of techniques. I will discuss these below.
The Advanced Techniques of 1 to 12
The instructor will hit with #3 and then block, while guiding the right hand of the student into the blow and then away from it, this sequence will be repeated half a dozed times in succession. This is designed to train the instructor to use the left hand fluidly for checking and controlling.
The instructor will hold down the student’s stick and deliver a #6 strike. The student will use the left hand or forearm to pull the stick up into a block. This block should point at the eyes of the instructor. This is designed to train the student to recover from an attempt by an partner to control the stick with a grab.
The instructor will deliver a #1 strike then a #9 strike, without waiting for the student to counter in between blows. The student will block both strikes. The #9 strike may be blocked with the left arm, palm upright, or with the left arm, palm down. This trains a crucial close range block, and also trains defending by aggressively moving into a technique.
The instructor will deliver multiple #1 and #2 fanning strikes. The student will defend by rapidly twisting the body. The instructor tries to stick to the student’s stick hand as he strikes. This trains the instructor’s ability to flow between these strikes. The student learns how to twist as sway rapidly to hide behind the stick, as though it were a shield.
The instructor will deliver a rapid #1 and #12 combination. The student will block in standard fashion. There will be no time for the student to counter after the #1 strike. This gives the student and instructor practice in dealing with rapid changes in technique.
The instructor will deliver a #9 and #1 combinations. The student will block and respond. This give the student practice in changing both the height and the side on which the block is done. The instructor gets practice in rapidly changing the angle of attack.
The instructor will deliver #12 and #9 combinations. The student will block and respond. These may be interspersed with doubled up #12 strikes. The student will find these extremely difficult to deal with.
After blocking, the instructor will grab the tip of the stick and pull it down. The student will counter by shoving the butt end at the attacker. This trains the student in retaining control over a stick when it is grabbed, and in aggressive blocking techniques.
The instructor will grab the stick with the left hand and strike from various angles. The student will counter by moving to the outside or by moving to the inside. The instructor will attempt to flank the student by back pedalling to the outside. The student must move faster to avoid this. The student may regain control of his own stick by using his left hand to hold it for additional leverage. With this extra degree of control, he can still use his stick to block.
The instructor will grab the checking hand and pull. The student will move with the pull and counter. This will train the student in the ability to move the stick independently of the left hand, and to counter a grab.
Stick against Left Hand
The instructor will start to develop the student’s ability to deal with a blow without blinking. This is done by striking at the eyes from outside of the partners stick arm, using the palm. This strike is delivered as a light touch to the face. The student will sway backwards to avoid the blow, and block it with the left palm. At the same time, the student should strike with a #2 strike.
The instructor will also strike at the eyes from inside of the partners stick arm, using the palm. This strike is delivered as a light touch to the face. The student will sway backwards to avoid the blow, and block it with the left palm. At the same time, the student should strike with a #2 strike.
The instructor will also strike at the eyes from inside of the student’s stick arm, and also underneath his own stick arm. He will use this to jam the student’s stick arm, by thrusting towards the face. This strike is delivered as a light touch to the face. The student will sway backwards to avoid the blow, and block it with the left palm. At the same time, the student should strike with a #2 strike.
The instructor will hit with the left hand to a low target and the student will avoid this and counter. If this hit is to the ribs, the defence will be to bring the right elbow down close to the hipbone for a block, and then immediately hit with a twelve.
Stick against Kicks
The instructor will also deliver low kicks in order to train the student’s ability to defend against them. These will be a low right leg roundhouse kick, which is considered a #8, a low left leg roundhouse kick, which is considered a #9, and a low front kick, which is treated as a #5. The kicks are generally simulated with a light touch on the shin. There are three general types of defence against the kicks. These are by blocking, by evasion, by jamming, or by off-balancing.
The defence may block with the stick, the hands, or the legs. At the same time, the leg being attacked may be picked up, away from the blow. The block may be quite aggressive, in order to stop the blow before it develops any force. Also, with proper timing, a push or pull on the arms will disrupt the kick by destroying the attacker’s balance.
If the instructor chose to attack with high kicks, the defence against them is the same as the defence against any stick blow. Since this nearly always results in defeat for the kicker, high kicks are not encouraged as part of the art.
When using the leg blocks to block the kicks, there are three possibilities. If the instructor kicks with a #8 low roundhouse kick, the student blocks with the right shin. If the instructor kicks with a #5 low roundhouse kick, the student blocks with the right sidekick position. If the instructor kicks with a #5 low front kick, the student blocks with the right sidekick position.
Let me conclude by saying that just about everything you need to perfect for the basics of Balintawak is found in the 1 to 12 drill. It trains balance, reactions, positioning, distance, blocking, striking, timing, perception, speed, evasion, ability to flow from technique to technique, and ability to stick to your partners’ limbs in order to control their attacks. You learn solid defence and you learn effective offence. For that reason, nearly all classes in our school involve some time spent with the drill. Someday I hope to discover if it indeed has disappeared from the curriculum of other schools. In the meantime, I will continue to rely on it as the core training method for our art.
The author: G. Michael Zimmer has been a martial arts dilettante for 30 years, and is modest about his abilities. Many say that he has much to be modest about.
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