American Arnis- The Evolution of An Art (TEXT ONLY)

FULL TEXT OF ARTICLE, as published in Black Belt magazine, January 1984 :

AMERICAN ARNIS- THE EVOLUTION OF AN ART

by Dana Michaels (alias Mike Replogle)

The year was 1521. As the Portuguese sailor stepped off his Spanish-made boat onto the island beach, history saw the realization of a dream and a milestone in modern naval navigation- the first man had circumnavigated the globe.

But history demanded a high price for the sailor’s fame. As the explorer raiders invaded the tropical isle, they were met by local natives who fought savagely and effectively for their land, using only fire·hardened sticks and primitive blades, The ensuing battles saw the Spanish swordsmen routed and their Portuguese captain killed at the hands of the island chieftain. The fleeing sailors escaped to their ship and managed to return to their home port, where they recounted the tale of their dead leader’s historical “first,” and of the “savages” who ended his life.

The explorer: the renowned Magellan.
The chief: Lapu Lapu.
The island: one of the Philippines.
The natives’ martial arts: kali and escrima- the forerunners of modern arnis.

The Spanish invaders returned in force, determined to capture the Philippine Islands for their king. The fighting was violent and Spanish losses were heavy. The natives had the uncanny ability to instantly perceive the style and flow of the Spanish swordsmen, to see their weaknesses and leap to the advantage. The adaptability of the natives’ art was so effective that only the sheer weight of numbers and the firepower of the invaders’ guns enabled the Spaniards to claim victory in the Philippines.

The islanders’ art, which the Spaniards dubbed escrima (skirmish), so impressed the conquerors that they feared it would precipitate an effective uprising against their rule. Spanish governors therefore outlawed the practice or teaching of escrima, believing the art would thus die. But the hallmark of this Philippine art has always been its flexibility, its adaptability, its ” flow.” Escrima was indeed outlawed, but dancing was not, and the art was subsequently preserved in the form of native dances, where participants used sticks and performed basic blocks, attacks and movements in the form of “dance.”

As Spanish occupation of the Philippines progressed through the years, missionaries sought to convert the natives to Christianity. In an effort to aid their assimilation, the friars introduced the locals to the Mora-Mora, a socio-religious play dramatizing the earlier Christian victory over the Muslim Moros. The play called for the use of swords and bladed weapons by the actors, who portrayed Spanish soldiers. Spanish soldiers wore a colorful harness, called “arnes” in Spanish, which the Filipinos donned to perform the Mora-Mora. Under the guise of Mora-Mora practice, the ancient fighting art was revived and came to be known as “arnis.”

In this way, for the period during and after-the Spanish occupation, arnis continued to evolve and adapt. The island nature of the Philippines lent itself to the semi-isolation of arnis practitioners, and thus individual styles, family styles, and geographical styles of the art developed- nearly as many styles as the over 7,000 islands of the Philippines. Each style developed and enhanced a particular aspect of arnis. Stylistic variations often occurred as a result of the particular weapons used in each system of arnis. For example, a style employing two blades would tend to use more complex weaving and slashing actions than a system using mostly sticks. More stabbing actions with the left hand come into play with styles using a sword and a dagger, while a one-stick style will use the empty hand more as a check or to unbalance and push the opponent. The variations are, ofcourse, many- limited only by imagination and practicality.

The savage effectiveness of these Filipino styles has been witnessed not only by Magellan and the Spanish invaders, but in modern times as well. American marines fighting in the Philippines had serious problems defending against variations of the Filipino martial arts. So many U.S. soldiers were killed by slashed throats that a leather collar was devised to encircle the neck and protect the marines from knife attacks. Hence the marine nickname “leatherneck.”

It is also said that blade-wielding Moras (Philippine Muslims) could hack and fight their way through entire squads of soldiers, finally reaching and killing the senior officer before their bullet-riddled bodies would expire. These all-out attacks forced the American armed services to develop the .45 automatic, a handgun with more stopping power, and to issue it to officers for protection against the fanatic Moros.

Apart from actual combat, the instruction and practice of arnis was often quite painful, instead of lethal knives, short swords and bolos (long, single-edged knives), fire-hardened sticks were employed so practitioners would not be seriously injured. However, many of the attacks and defenses of arnis were directed to the forearms, wrists and hands— areas very sensitive to blows, or even light attacks, from a stick. Students would often become discouraged with the study of arnis, since the injuries, while not fatal or crippling, were quite painful.

In modern times, several major breakthroughs have been made in the instruction and practice of arnis which have greatly enhanced the propagation of the art. Thanks to the efforts of a man named Remy A. Presas, there now exists a form of modern arnis which allows the student to learn this fascinating art without the risk of grave or painful injury. Vast training in arnis in the Philippines, along with black belts in both karate and judo, enabled Presas to observe the style’s patterns and adapt them to more modern teaching methods.
He changed many of the attacks and defenses aimed at unprotected hands or wrists so students could practice striking stick to stick, thus avoiding injury while still perfecting the art’s motions. Studying the multitudes of arnis styles in the Philippines, Presas observed various underlying principles and techniques common to all the systems and condensed them into relatively few simple and easily taught basics. These techniques give the student an understanding of arnis, without the limitations of a specific style.

One of the most important aspects of modern arnis lies in an innovative concept introduced by Presas. He found each of the actions with the stick or blade translate directly to empty-hand offense and defense (see KARATE ILLUSTRATED, September 1983, “Trapping Hands and the Art of Arnis”). The same motions, the same flow, the same angles of attack and defense, and the same disarm actions can all be applied with or without the stick. The student finds the transition from stick to empty hand easy and logical, with practice of each variation helping the performance of the other. Modern arnis has subsequently become a comprehensive martial art, using weapons, hands and feet.

Arriving in the United States to promote the acceptance and understanding of modern arnis, Presas has traveled extensively, conducting seminars for thousands of students across the country. His efforts have not been spent in vain— arnis is one of the fastest growing martial arts in the U.S. today. Presas has the uncanny ability to transcend nearly ail barriers of style and language. His “magic,” his ability to give a student of any style a piece of arnis which will enhance their own art and enrich their lives, is something to see.

Aside from the love and admiration of the thousands of students who have trained with him, Presas has been publicly lauded as the 1982 BLACK BELT Hall of Fame Instructor of the Year. He has accomplished incredible feats in modernizing arnis and adapting it so it can be easily assimilated by the American martial artist. The adaptability of arnis, as in the days of Spanish rule in the Philippines, has proven itself an important survival factor.

The evolution of arnis continues, and no doubt always will. Exposed to Americans, arnis has now been subject to that famous “Yankee ingenuity.” Americans are known for taking a traditional style or system and applying it to their own needs in the modern world. The adaptability of arnis particularly suits it to assimilation within American martial arts.

As the American martial artist becomes more familiar with the principles of modern arnis, many of the movements, blocks and attacks in one’s own style can be seen as variations of the applications of arnis weapons techniques to empty hand. This awareness can lead one to an entirely different concept of their own art.

It is a natural progression that a martial artist with such an awareness would seek to communicate this understanding to others, and would be able to build a structure of basics similar to the “traditional” training approach but done with an understanding of the stick-to-empty-hand transition. The integration of stick training with the performance of basic emptyhand drills (done as a transition to empty hand) gives a balance to the system and results in a well-rounded martial artist equally competent with his hands, feet, or weapons.

The inclusion of arnis into American systems has irrevocably changed the development of modern martial arts. Two modern arnis instructors, Jeff Arnold and Michael Replogle, have long felt the need to integrate the style with the more standard American arts to create a comprehensive system of training. With black belts in tae kwon do, modern arnis and Philippine karate, both instructors found that a symbiotic relationship existed between their original arts and modern arnis (see KARATE ILLUSTRATED, March 1982, “Tae Kwon Do and Arnis: A Link Between Divided Arts”). Independently, they began to structure systems that would combine the important aspects of each of the arts they had studied. A chance phone call led to their discovery that they both were independently striving for the same goal -a unified martial art. They decided to meet in Los Angeles to combine forces and set up a structured system of study. The culmination of this effort is a comprehensive system of modern martial arts called “American Arnis.”

American Arnis, as originated and structured by Arnold and Replogle, is currently being taught in Los Angeles and in Flint, Michigan. Whereas modern arnis, as developed and taught by Remy Presas, can give martial arlists tremendous insights and enhance their own arts, American arnis can take the new student and give him the basics of martial arts training and the flow of arnis from the ground up.

The beginner in American arnis learns basic stances, punches and blocks along with basic stick techniques. These fundamental concepts of motion, balance, strength and endurance are essential to the training of any martial artist. But as the student advances in training, he discovers that stances are not something to be locked into; rather they are a training aid to develop one’s ability to move. Stances are not statiC, they are transitions in movement. By training with formal stances, one can be freed to use them or not, as the situation dictates. Training in basic punches and strikes gives the beginner an understanding of how to effectively use his hands and feet as weapons and how they relate to the angles of attack. These are all essential aspecls of martial arts training.

Following logical progressions of increasing difficulty in technique, the advanced student of American arnis will gain strength and coordination from stance work due to the fluidity of movement inherent in arnis; familiarity with weapons ranging from slicks to knives to swords; ability in empty hand and foot defense; ease of disarming actions, with or without a weapon; effective takedowns, sweeps and throws; an understanding of locks and joint manipulation techniques; and most importantly, perception of an opponent’s motion and intention and the ability to “go with the flow.” In short, the advanced student of American arnis will be a well-rounded martial artist.

American arnis did not develop overnight. It came about as a result of years of observation and teaching experience, and the student’s need for a structure of basics which would allow for a solid foundation, yet with the freedom to expand and develop one’s own abilities and assets into a personal “flow.”

The evolution of arnis has followed a long and torturous path: from the ancestors of Lapu Lapu, through the Spanish conquerors, to present-day America. Through it all, arnis has survived.

The introduction of modern arnis to America was yet another link along the style’s long chain of growth, and the inevitable has come to pass. Arnis has adapted and conquered in this country. We now see the result emerging upon the martial arts world- American Arnis