If I had to choose a favorite exercise, one of the top contenders would be working on engagements.
I love engagements. They are so simple, and yet, so subtle, and so important.
Also, the nature of the engagement, and how to manage it, has obvious parallels to daily life that most students can easily understand and find useful.
This exercise assumes that the student already knows how to make and change an engagement. It is for perfecting the engagement, not introducing it.
There are several elements.
1. Timing, control, and the coordination of the hand and foot.
Begin the exercise by making an engagement on the presentation of the blade, without footwork. Depending on the focus of the exercise, this may be an engagement on either side of the blade, and it may begin on the same side, or on the opposite side. Most often, we'll start with an engagement in 6te, made on the presentation of the blade to the student's inside line, necessitating an engagement going underneath the blade.
When the student is able to do this fluently and smoothly, we'll add footwork, and require the engagement to be made on the front foot on an advance. This is where timing is important. In order for the blade to make contact at the same time as the front foot, it must begin to move BEFORE the foot moves. The student must learn to coordinate beginning the movement of the point, and then the movement of the foot, so that both end at the same time. For this part of the exercise, I'll present the blade for each rep, so that each engagement will be made in the same way.
Further variations include making the engagement on the front foot of a retreat, or on the back foot, either advancing or retreating. The purpose is to foster control of the timing of the movement of the point, independent from, but coordinated with, the feet.
Once the student is able to make an engagement in 6te, on either foot, in either direction, we begin doing the same exercises, but with an engagement in 4te, with the blade presented to the inside.
Eventually, we work on engagements in all guards, made from any other guard, on any footwork, in any direction. Having a very solid foundation making an engagement in 6te makes all the other engagements much easier, since the ability to control the blade is the important part. Once the student has the ability to control the point, it is a fairly simple matter to translate that to any direction of movement. Likewise, once they can coordinate hand and foot movements at all, it is relatively easy to expand that ability to include a wide variety of combinations of handwork and footwork.
2. The coordination and movement of the hand. This includes how we hold the foil, and how we use the fingers.
The development of the hand begins the moment the student first holds a foil, and continues as long as they fence. It begins with larger movements and becomes more refined as the smaller muscles in the hand strengthen and the student improves his coordination. We have a variety of exercises for the student to develop his hand; working on engagements is one of them. I often refer to these as "finding your point muscles." You must be able to manipulate the point as a part of your hand, and in order to do that, you must develop the ability to use the muscles that do that- which starts with figuring out what muscles those are.
It starts with hand position. In the guard of sixte, the hand must be supinated and relaxed, with a straight, relaxed, supple wrist. The foil is cradled in the hand, making contact with the thumb (on the side of the grip, NOT the top) and first phalanx of the forefinger (on the side across from the thumb), and with the fleshy part of the hand at the base of the thumb, with the other three fingers making light contact on the upper edge of the grip. In this position, the blade will be held so that if it had edges, they would be to the sides, making the widest part of the blade parallel to the ground. While making a touch from this position, the blade will bend upwards, not to the side or at any other angle.
I am well aware that this is different from how many people hold the foil, but am not addressing all the reasons for that now, instead, focusing on the engagement exercise. We will post further description and reasoning of this hand position separately, but this brief description is necessary in order for this section of the exercise to make sense.
Engagements and change of engagement are made using the fingers, not the wrist. The wrist remains relaxed, but does not contribute greatly to the blade movement. Using the wrist to raise and lower the point is one of the most common errors, so focusing on correct finger movement is important.
Another early error a student often makes is to allow the point to be moved by gravity, rather than by intent. For the change of engagement, the point must move nearly straight down to begin with, and beginners often simply release the grip and allow gravity to drop the point. This method of movement does not allow sufficient control of the point, either in space or time. Instead, you must use the last two or three fingers to "lift" the grip and lower the point, and then again, to bring the grip back into your hand. This lifting requires significant practice and development of the hand, so a beginner may not be able to do it at first. They should be shown correct movement and encouraged to emulate it, while paying careful attention to not allowing the wrist to move, as they develop the ability to have that level of control of their hand. They need to be able to use their fingers to both lower and raise the point.
Developing sufficient control of the point will also develop the ability to feel with the blade, which will be vital for making and controlling the engagement itself.
3. The movement of the blade from the guard position to the engagement.
Each engagement, and each change of engagement, has a particular, specific pattern in space. The student must know these patterns, and be able to control the blade during the entire path of the movement, not just describe it. They should be demonstrated frequently, and it may also help some students to draw them. Another thing that may help is to use your hand over the student's hand to move the blade through the path. The entire pattern of movement is important, not just where the blade ends up.
This is why each pattern must be practiced- making an engagement in each guard, and making changes of engagement from every guard to every other guard.
An added benefit of this practice is that the more time spent sword in hand, with careful, focused practice of movement, the better the hand will develop. Sentiment du fer is critical, and there is little you could do that would be of greater benefit than to etch these patterns more and more deeply, to incorporate them more fully and completely.
4. The direction and nature of the contact with the blade.
This is another area that deserves more attention than it often gets.
It is also the part that is the most obviously analogous to other parts of a student's life, to any relationship and specifically to any attempt to communicate with another person.
The engagement is what gives you the ability to read your opponent's hand, to feel where they are and where they are going. It allows you to feel the level of tension in your opponent's body, to note any change in that tension, and to feel any change of pressure or direction. This is all critical information to have.
The nature of the engagement also allows you to give information to your opponent- information that you want him to have. This is how you suggest to your opponent what you might be about to do, intentionally giving him misinformation, and how you encourage your opponent to do what you want him to do.
In order to gain or provide this information, your opponent must allow you to engage, and to maintain the engagement. You must be able to do so without superimposing your own tension, while controlling the movement and pressure so that it communicates what you WANT to communicate, rather than giving away information you would prefer that your opponent not have. Communication through the blade is the heart and soul of fencing. It is what separates those who have a connection with the sword from those who are simply playing at swords.
To begin with, in order for your opponent to allow an engagement, you must do so in a way that does not alarm him. You must offer contact in a way in which it will be accepted, just as you would start a verbal conversation. To start a conversation, you might ask a question or offer information. You would not likely begin by yelling or screaming, or slapping the other person.
This means that the engagement should be a small, controlled, soft movement. Contact with the blade should come up along the blade, to enable a gentle contact, rather than a perpendicular, bouncing contact, which rattles your opponent's hand. Your opponent should feel enough presence on the blade to know where you are, and to believe they are gathering information from you- as well they are, since you are providing information to them. If there is too little presence, they are likely to do something else, just as in a verbal conversation, too long a silence will cause the other person to say SOMETHING. You want to control this conversation, so keep it comfortable, with no awkward "silences." If there is too MUCH pressure, there may be alarm and discomfort, and your opponent may again feel like they need to do something, to change something. In fencing, and in conversation, if you press (or pressure) someone, they will disengage. You want them to allow the engagement for as long as you want to stay engaged, so keep them focused and involved in the engagement by controlling the tone of the "conversation."
Learning to control that moment of contact takes a lot of practice. It requires the ability to control the transition from "hard" to "soft," from tense to relaxed. You must be able to control both the movement of, and the cessation of movement of, the blade, with both precision and sensitivity. Plus, you must be able to do so from any guard to any other guard, while moving in any direction, remember? And, as always, while maintaining perfect balance.
5. The nature of the engagement once contact is made.
This, again, is about controlling the conversation. The nature of the engagement once contact is made will depend on what you want to do.
You may want to gain control of your opponent's blade, gradually increasing the pressure while changing the physical relationship of the blades, the angle between them, so that you have a stronger part of your blade on a weaker part of your opponent's blade, in such a way that by the time they realize this is what you are doing, it has already been done. This may be in order to emphasize your domination of the situation, or it may be to immediately facilitate an attack with opposition. Again, you want the optimal amount of pressure, that which facilitates your aims, without eliciting an unwanted reaction from your opponent. Like Goldilocks, not too little, or too much.
You may want to immediately leave the engagement, in order to attack in a different line. In this case, the more accepting of the engagement your opponent is, the greater the contrast will be, and that contrast can be used to your advantage.
You may want to control your opponent's blade while you change distance, keeping the engagement as you get inside, if you are in the shorter/weaker strategic position.
There is a wide variety of different things you may want to accomplish with the nature of the engagement, and each of those different types of contact needs to be practiced. The key is to be able to choose the nature of the contact to suit your needs in the moment. The more confidently and smoothly you can do this, the better. Any hesitation will defeat your purpose- unless, of course, you are using that hesitation itself intentionally.
6. Maintenance of the engagement while moving.
If you make the perfect engagement, with exactly the right blade contact, in the right way, at the right time, with the right amount of pressure, but then, when you move, it all goes to hell in a handbasket, then it isn't going to help you much. You must be able to maintain that engagement through whatever footwork you need to do, and eventually, you must be able to leave the engagement, in whichever way you choose, at the right moment.
This starts with simply engaging, and holding your blade steady as you advance and retreat, with minimal movement of the blades against each other. Once that is mastered, move on to changing the engagement, and then maintaining that contact, both the location and the pressure.
Putting it all together: the Engagement
My favorite exercise, of working on engagements, includes all of the above elements. The student must be able to recognize when to engage, must be able to make blade contact with the appropriate pressure, in the correct direction, on the right part of the blade, on the correct foot, in any guard, in a controlled and balanced way, and must be able to control that engagement while moving, and change the engagement or leave the engagement at will.
This is a lot.
It is not possible for a beginner to work on all of the elements at the same time, so we'll temporarily artificially separate them to focus on each one, and then put them back together, as soon as the student is able to do so.
I like to come back to this exercise often, and to revisit it each time my student makes a conceptual leap. It combines basic footwork with some very subtle fingerplay and is infinitely variable. Once a student is able to perform all of the various combinations of movements with ease, it then becomes an excellent centering exercise, or a good focused warm-up. I often use some variation of this to begin my training when working with a fencing dummy. It is a very effective way to start out and make sure everything is working together, much like tuning a musical instrument.