This is a follow-up piece on Arnis, check out the main article here.
On the last day of my honeymoon in the Philippines, I found myself wandering the Quezon Memorial Circle on a very early Sunday morning. Thanks to a fellow blogger (check out her site here) I had been able to get in touch with an Arnis teacher in Manila and would now be able to participate in one of his classes. After getting through the market and food stalls I reached the main area where the classes were held, next to public aerobic classes and other sporty groups. After quick introductions I gave Master Cris a pair of hardwood sticks that I had bought earlier in my trip, as a thank you for letting me train. He certainly earned those sticks as I needed a lot of extra attention since I was new to the style, yet my Kung Fu training enabled me to quickly pick up the instructions so I probably got to try out more than the average beginner.
Master Crisanto Pasindo
In comparison to other martial arts, I get the impression that Arnis has a reasonable culture in terms of teacher-student behaviour – maybe the style’s lack of popularity keeps the teachers’ egos down to earth, but it also seems that the instructors themselves realise that they are not the centre of the universe just because they know their system well. For example, check out this article written by a Sydney-based Arnis teacher. It points out some behaviours that all student may want to hold up against their own martial art schools.
In the next hour and a half Master Cris led me and two other students through the basic strikes, blocks and some disarming manoeuvres. In spite of him not knowing that much English, and I knowing even less Tagalog, I still managed to get what he was trying to show me. Most of the time, anyway. After the class I understood better why his sessions would start at 7am, as I was soaked in sweat from the training and the intense heat. I also had the beginnings of what would grow into some stubborn blisters as well as some sore leg and shoulder muscles (it’s scary how fast you lose fitness when you’re on holidays). But apart from that, I didn’t find the training particularly taxing – unlike the Kung Fu training I was used to, most stances were pretty high and the stress on arms and shoulders was bearable.
Speaking of Kung Fu, I found many similarities within the techniques themselves. In particular the concept of the ‘Live Hand’, which is featured throughout the teachings for single broadsword and straightsword in my school. Also, some of the double stick drills was identical to the ones used for double broadswords. Even though the practise was done with sticks, Master Cris still instructed strikes to be done with awareness of where the edge would be (on your imaginary sword). I’ve always loved weapons training, and the fact that Arnis gets you going with a pair of bad boys straightaway is great.
I think this kind of weapons training would benefit any and all martial artists, just like a basic knowledge of grappling should be a prerequisite. Having an awareness of how to use a stick-like weapon and the principles of the ‘Live Hand’, and how to efficiently disarm someone with a knife or other weapons, can make all the difference if you’re ever unfortunate enough to face such a situation. In particular, I would recommend this to women interested in learning effective self-defence. Its focus on speed and accuracy makes sheer physical strength less important, and the practicality of the techniques (and how they can be applied to unarmed scenarios) makes the student efficient in a short amount of time. As an example, the dulo-dulo techniques show you how to use your phone as an improvised weapon – which would obviously come in handy in a number of scenarios.
Something I was not aware of was that Arnis also has forms (or katas), similar to other traditional Asian martial arts. By scouring YouTube I have seen some great examples of these anyos, and am a bit surprised I haven’t seen anything like this in the all styles tournament I’ve competed in as they would hold their own against the Chinese and Japanese weapon forms. I’m tempted to approach one of the schools here to see if anyone would be interested in competing – it would certainly be healthy for the Karate/Kung Fu/Taekwondo hordes get a glimpse of Filipino Martial Arts.
But something that kept occurring to me during my research, was how Arnis seems to be an estranged twin sister to Capoeira. It’s like the two martial arts got separated at birth and were raised at different ends of the world, growing up to become wildly different from each other. Yet, when you look closer you can see how they faced the same challenges and developed some idiosyncrasies. Consider these similarities:
- People’s art – in contrast to some martial arts that stems from revered warrior classes or nobles, both Capoeira and Arnis originate from the lowliest levels of society. Perhaps as a natural reflection of this, it’s very hard to find solid written records and studies from the early days.
- Oppressed by colonists – in both locations, the colonists (Portuguese and Spanish) forbid the practise of martial arts in order to prevent any resistance to their rule.
- Disguised as a dance – The dance aspect of Capoeira was promoted to disguise how the slaves were practising their fighting skills. Meanwhile, Arnis was hiding in plain sight by being camouflaged within the folk dance Sakuting. Even today, the form aspect of Arnis can be referred to as Sayaw, meaning dance.
- Occultism – Whereas the slaves would “arm” themselves with amulets called patuás, the Filipinos would carry their own talismans called anting-anting. Both were believed to provide supernatural protection or similar benefits.
- Cultural ties – Apart from being part of Filipino cultural exhibits such as the aforementioned stick dance and the Moro-Moro theatrical mock fights, Arnis duels would often take place right after cockfights, a popular feature in the Philippines that pre-dates the colonial times. In Brazil, Capoeira practise often involves other cultural expressions such as Maculele (a warrior dance with either sticks or machetes) and samba.
- Modern revival – both styles have undergone a revival in the last 100 years, with not only a lifting of the ban but even rising to become national sports of their respective countries.
- Global expansion – Nowadays schools and practitioners can be found all over the world, causing some to fear that the level of expertise may rise higher ‘outside’ than in the motherland.
Once you start looking for it, Arnis can be found everywhere – not only in terms of teachers and schools, but also in TV shows, movies, games and comic books. It even has its own Wiki entry, highlighting how it appears in the movie 300, the Bourne movies, the Batman: Arkham City game, the Arrow TV show, and so on and so forth.
However in spite of being highly efficient and widespread, the style is nowhere near as popular as the more common martial arts. This became increasingly apparent during our trip in the Philippines – wherever we went, I would enquire if anyone knew of an Arnis school in the area. But even though we spent three weeks in several different locations, I got nothing but blank looks in return. After clarifying that it was about Filipino stickfighting, they would invariably go “Ooh, Arniiiis!” (as if they would pronounce it any different than I) and then tell me there was nothing like that in the area. Thinking back, I was actually more aware of Arnis and FMA from having seen ads and posters for it in Sweden. For a people that are fiercely patriotic, it’s surprising that the Filipinos aren’t embracing this martial art more than what they have so far.
It seems to me that Arnis needs a champion – a movie star or athlete that shows the world how much worth the style has, heralding its usefulness and value. Not just using the style, but proclaiming the style itself and showcasing its potential which is what Bruce Lee did for Kung Fu and Tony Jaa did for Muay Thai. The key is to rub the name of the style in people’s faces. When Jason Bourne takes out his opponents in mere seconds the audience goes “Wow, Bourne is awesome”. But when Donnie Yen assumes his fighting stance and declares in a dignified voice “Wing Chun, Ip Man” the audience invariably goes “Wow, Ip Man is awesome. I should learn Wing Chun!” The difference there is pivotal.
If this champion hasn’t appeared in about 15 years time, I’m going to matters into my own hands by having my son take Arnis and acting lessons. Between his mother’s talent for martial arts and his father’s good looks, there’ll be no stopping him. You just wait, and remember I said it here first.