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Many different systems of Eskrima exist. In most systems, skills with weapons and with empty hands are developed at the same time, using training methods designed to emphasize the common elements. Practitioners of these arts are noted for their ability to fight with weapons or empty hands interchangeably. Most Eskrima systems include fighting with a variety of weapons, striking with hands and feet (kickboxing), grappling, throwing, biting, and all the other skills that would be needed for a warrior's complete training in the old days of tribal warfare. Perhaps the only major exceptions are that the skills needed for fighting effectively in groups are being lost, and traditionally, Eskrima would have been taught alongside Hilot, a Filipino system of healing and medicine that has now virtually disappeared.
An Eskrimador or Kalista is a practitioner of Eskrima, while Arnisador is also used for the variant name Arnis.
There are basically no differences between Arnis, Eskrima and Kali. The general martial arts community uses the different names to refer to any Filipino martial art, although most teachers have a preferred name for their art. Originally, the difference in the name implied the region from which the art originated.
Eskrima and Arnis are the names primarily used in the Philippines today; the term Eskrima is mostly used in the Visayas region. The name Kali is seldom used except for a few areas in the Southern Philippines, but has seen revival due to the teachings of modern masters such as Dan Inosanto, Cacoy Canete, Edgar Sulite, Leo Gaje and Leo Giron. The name Eskrima is the Filipino spelling which comes from Spanish-language esgrima, "fencing". The name Arnis is thought to derive from the phrase arnés de mano, Spanish for "harness of the hand". The origin of the name Kali is not certain, although some suggest it is related to the traditional weapon called a kris or karis. Another explanation is that the word is a portmanteau of the Filipino words Kamot, meaning hand or body, and Lihok, meaning motion. this explanation may be a more recent innovation, retroactively fitting an acronym to the existing name.
As with most martial arts, the history of Eskrima is surrounded by legends and it is difficult to pin down facts. This is complicated by the fact that there are actually many different fighting systems with different histories that are called Eskrima (or Kali or Arnis de Mano). The most commonly accepted explanation for the origin of Eskrima systems is that they were originally the fighting systems possessed by every tribe in the Philippines and used by them to fight and defend against each other.
When the Spanish conquistadors arrived, some tribes fought them, using native weapons and techniques. Magellan, in particular, was killed in the battle of Mactan by forces of the Mactan tribal chief Lapu-Lapu when Magellan landed in Cebu. From this point sources differ on the history of Eskrima. Certainly by the time the Spanish reached the Philippines, they were extremely experienced conquerors, and had their own highly effective fighting systems, along with higher-quality steel and weapons. The degree to which this affected the practice of the native fighting arts is a matter of debate, but it seems likely that the Filipinos borrowed what worked and discarded what didn't (or at least, the Filipinos that survived to pass on their fighting arts did so).
Since the time of the Spanish conquest, there have been guerrillas in the Philippines, fighting the Spanish, the American, the Japanese, and finally the native Filipino government (current guerrilla and sometimes considered terrorist groups include the Philippine Revolutionary Army and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front). However, most Eskrima practitioners were farmers training to protect themselves with machetes, flails and other farm tools.
For the last century, the most important practice of Eskrima has been in dueling, which is common in the Philippines and among Filipinos elsewhere. The founders of most of the currently popular Eskrima systems are famous duelists; legends circulate about how many people so-and-so has killed in duels. Certainly duels did happen and deaths did result. Duels would often be fought with hardwood sticks, to reduce legal problems, but some duels were fought with blades.
Even today, people in the Philippines are much more likely to carry knives, and much more likely to use them when tempers rise, than people in North America or Europe. As a result, knife-fighting (and to a lesser extent, fighting with machetes) is still very much a living skill there.
For a more precise history, one must distinguish between the different systems of Eskrima (see below). One must then attempt to trace back the lineage of their teacher as far as possible in order to understand where the techniques came from. Often this is difficult; for example Antonio Illustrisimo seemed to have learned to fight while travelling around the Philippines (and the rest of the Pacific) as a sailor, while Floro Villabrille claimed to have been taught by a blind princess in the mountains. Both teachers have passed away.
When stick fighting was starting to be taught in actual classes, in California in the 1960s and 1970s, for example, the teachers of this martial art were reprimanded by elder Filipinos, for publicly teaching what had been traditionally kept secret.
In recent years, there has been an increased interest in martial arts from cultures all over the world, including Eskrima, Capoeira, Savate, Muay Thai and others. As a result, most Eskrima systems have been modified (to varying degrees) to make them more marketable to a worldwide audience. Usually this involves a greatly increased emphasis on locking, controls and disarms, as well as "self-defense" aspects, along with some influence from Asian martial arts (sometimes in just the name). It also tends to decrease the emphasis on careful footwork and low stances.
Eskrima has also begun to be practiced as a sport, although there is as yet little standardization or uniformity. The rules, with their corresponding effect on technique, have yet to be decided upon, although several tournaments have been held with various sets of rules.
The most obvious feature of an Eskrima class is that it is usually weapon-based. Most systems begin by teaching the student to work with weapons, and only progress to empty-hand techniques once the stick techniques have been learned. This is reasonable because most systems have unified their teaching so that the empty-hand techniques are learned through the same exercises as the weapon techniques.
The most common weapon used in training is a rattan stick about the length of the practitioner's arm; in the Philippines, these are known as sparring sticks as they are light enough that they can be used for sparring with no protection. Most North American and European schools use hand and head protection when sparring with rattan sticks.
Other sticks used for training and for some duels are made of hardwood, such as molave or kamagong (ebony), that is burned and hardened. They can also be made out of alminum or other metals, or modern high-impact plastics. The sticks can also be padded for training purposes, though this practice is usually only used in schools in North America or Europe.
The length of the sticks used in Eskrima classes varies from about 45cm to 70cm for single-handed sticks. Some schools prefer sticks of a particular length, while others expect students to learn which techniques are appropriate for a variety of lengths.
Many systems in fact begin training with two weapons, either a pair of sticks or a stick and a wooden knife (called espada y daga, Spanish for "sword and dagger"). This is sometimes justified by pointing out that warriors would not have gone into battle with an empty hand; another common explanation is that having two weapons forces the practitioner to use both hands, which is valuable even when working with one weapon: the extra hand is used to control the opponent's weapon and to strike when the range is sufficiently close. (Such uses are banned in modern sport fencing, so sport fencers generally hold the unused hand away from danger.) Historically, people all over the world, including Filipino warriors, samurai and Renaissance fencers often trained with a long weapon in one hand and a short weapon in the other.
The stick techniques used in Eskrima fall into two categories: the stick techniques that are training for sword fighting, and the stick techniques that are training for stick fighting. As usual, most systems are designed so that the practitioner can adapt their training to either weapon. Other weapons traditionally included in Eskrima training include spears, shields, whips and flails.
This last item, the flail, is usually called nunchaku, the name for the weapon used in Japanese martial arts. It was popularized by Bruce Lee in several movies and inspired a wave of people to study Japanese arts for using the nunchaku. This is odd, since Bruce Lee was depicted using flail techniques from Eskrima, and the two look rather different: the Eskrima usage focuses on striking, while the Japanese usage focuses on gripping and breaking.
Most systems recognize that the technical nature of combat changes drastically as the distance between opponents changes, and generally classify the ranges into at least three categories. Each range has its characteristic techniques and footwork. Of course, some systems place more emphasis on certain ranges than others, but almost all recognize that being able to work in any range and to control the range are essential.
In order to control the range, and for numerous other purposes, good footwork is essential. Most Eskrima systems explain their footwork in terms of triangles: normally two feet occupy two corners of the triangle and the step is to the third corner. The shape and size of the triangle must of course be adapted to the particular situation. The style of footwork and the standing position vary greatly from school to school and from practitioner to practitioner. For a very traditional school, very conscious of battlefield necessities, stances will usually be very low, often with one knee on the ground, and footwork will be complex, involving many careful cross-steps to allow practitioners to cope with multiple opponents. The Villabrille system is usually taught in this way. Systems that have been adapted to duels or sporting matches usually use simpler footwork, focusing on a single opponent. North American schools tend to use much more upright stances, as this is much easier for the legs. There are, of course, many exceptions.
Eskrima training is also notable for its emphasis on flowing, looping drills. Several classes of exercises, such as sumbrada, contrada, siniwali, and hubud-lubud, are expressly designed to allow partners to move quickly and experiment with variations while remaining safe. For example, in a sumbrada, one partner feeds an attack, which the other counters, flowing into a counterattack, which is then countered, flowing into a counterattack, and so on. The hubud-lubud is frequently used as a type of "generator" drill, where one is forced to act and think while fists are already flying. Initially, students learn a specific series of attacks, counters, and counterattacks. As they advance, they can add minor variations, change the footwork, or switch to completely different attacks; eventually the exercise becomes almost completely free-form. Disarms, take-downs, and other techniques usually break the flow of such a drill, but they are usually practiced beginning from such a sequence of movements in order to force the student to adapt to a variety of situations. A common practice is to begin a drill with each student armed with two weapons; once the drill is flowing, if a student sees an opportunity for to disarm their opponent, they will, but the drill will continue until both students are empty-handed. Some drills for practicing disarms use only a single weapon per pair, and the partners take turns taking it from each other.
Rhythm is also an essential part of most Eskrima drills; to ensure the safety of the participants, most drills are done at a constant pace, which is of course increased as the students progress. Traditionally, Eskrima classes would have had a drummer beating out a rhythm for the students to follow.
Subsections of Eskrima
Special terminology is used to refer to some of the subdisciplines of Eskrima. Some schools teach separate classes in these disciplines, and some schools teach only one.
- Pangamut is the empty hand component.
- Dumog is the grappling component; often it emphasizes disabling or control of the opponent by manipulation of the head and neck (neck breaking is very common). Usually too dangerous to allow free sparring.
- Panantukan is the kickboxing component; it focuses on striking with (empty) hands and feet, although it does not assume the opponent is unarmed.
- Pananjakman is the kicking component; it is a subset of panantukan.
- Gunting, meaning scissors, is the component that focuses on destroying the opponents ability to wield their weapon. This can be done by cutting the hand or wrist with a pair of blades (hence the name) but it can also be done with a single blade or with the empy hand by striking nerves and tensed muscles.
- Espada y daga is the use of a sword and knife (often simulated with a stick and a wooden knife).
- Doble baston is the use of a pair of sticks.
- Solo baston is the use of a single stick.
- Mano mano is empty hand combat.
Many Filipino systems focus on defending against angles of attack rather than particular strikes. The theory behind this is that the technique for defending against an attack that comes straight down the center is very similar whether the attacker has an empty hand, a knife, a sword or a spear. Older Filipino systems gave each angle a name, but more recent systems tend to simply number them. Many systems have twelve standard angles, though some have as few as 5, and others as many as 72. Although the exact angles, the order in which they're numbered and the manner in which they're executed vary from system to system, most are based upon Filipino cosmology. These standard angles are used to describe exercises; to aid memorization, a standard series of strikes from these angles called an abecederio is often practiced.
Some angles of attack and some strikes have characteristic names.
- San Miguel is a forehand strike with the right hand, moving from the striker's right shoulder toward their right hip. It is named after Saint Michael or the Angel Michael, who is often depicted holding a sword at this angle. This is the most natural strike for most untrained people. It is also referred to as a "#1," in 12 systems which employ 5, 12 or multiple angles.
- A redondo is a strike that whips in a circle to return to its point of origin. Especially useful when using sticks (rather than swords), such a strike allows extremely fast strikes but needs constant practice.
- An abaniko (from the Spanish for "fan") is a strike executed by whipping the stick around the wrist in a fanning motion. Not very forceful and not well suited to swords, this strike can be very quick and arrive from an unexpected angle.
- Hakbang is a general term for footwork. For example, hakbang paiwas is pivoting footwork, while hakbang tatsulok is triangle stepping.
Perhaps because of its recent history as an art of duelists, Eskrima techniques are generally based on the assumption that both the student and their opponent are very highly trained and well prepared. For this reason, Eskrima technique tends to favor extreme caution, always considering the possibility of a failed technique or an unexpected knife. On the other hand, the practitioner is assumed to be able to strike very precisely and quickly. The general principle is that an opponent's ability to attack should be destroyed (rather than trying to hurt them to convince them to stop). Thus many strikes are to the hands and arms, hoping to break the hand holding the weapon or cut the nerves or tendons controlling it. Strikes to the eyes and legs are also important.
Major systems of Eskrima
- Cabales Serrada Eskrima - Founded by Angel Cabales .
- Doce Pares Escrima - Founded by the Cañete family, headed by Dionision Cañete .
- Inosanto Kali - developed by Dan Inosanto from various other styles; he does not call it a system in its own right, preferring to refer to his teachers.
- Kalis Illustrisimo - Founded by Antonio Illustrisimo ; important as the ancestor of many current Eskrima systems.
- Lameco Escrima - Founded by Edgar Sulite . The name comes from the three ranges of the system, largo, medio, and corto.
- Pekiti Tirsia - Founded by Leo T. Gaje, the name means "to cut into pieces at close range", although the system includes techniques for all ranges.
- Villabrille System - Founded by Ben Largusa on the teachings of Floro Villabrille , the system pays an unusual amount of attention to traditional weapons such as the spear or the sword and shield.
- Sayoc Kali - Knife based style of Kali, but contains various weapons. Mainly taught by the Sayoc family.
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