ARTICLE ON ARNIS

ARNIS: CLASSICAL VS. MODERN

By Carlomagno Seletaria
Lakan Tatlo (Third Degree Arnis Black Belt)
Second Degree Sikaran Black Belt

 

Should a Martial Artist Cling to the Classical Methods or Catch Up with the Times and Modernize?

I hope that my fellow students in martial arts (we are all and will always be students) read through this article with an open mind and leave their slippers of judgment and conclusions at the door before they enter. A mind without judgment and prejudice is closer to realizing the truth than that of a mind constrained with the burden of bias.

The Classical Era

The massive wave of Filipino martial art systems that came into the scene and out of the woodwork in the last three decades is phenomenal. A whole slew of Grandmasters and styles were developed when before were unheard of.

Carlomagno SeletariaBut what is not widespread knowledge in the history and development of these systems is that in the pre-Remy Amador Presas and the Modern Arnis phenomenon era (prior to circa 1960s), there was no organized and systematic approach in teaching Arnis, Kali, and Eskrima. Before the Modern Arnis of Remy A. Presas, the Arnis masters (or maestros as they were called) imparted their students, who were outside of their family line, with limited knowledge due to issues of loyalty and secrecy. Arnis was taught in a pedigree, and knowledge in the arts of the blade and the stick were held in great secrecy by its practitioners, while the influence and pressures of the dominating western cultures of the Spaniards and the Americans entombed any chance of the re-emergence of the art as a national symbol of the Filipino's cultural strength. Thus Arnis was doomed to die a silent death.

A very important aspect of their training was that most modern concepts of the art seen today were absent, especially the most civil way to teach Arnis where the student will not be hurt badly or in a way that minimized injuries. Secrecy and pain were synonymous with the name Arnis to non-practitioners.

The Maestros clung to their traditions. One such was that they believed the cane was sacred, because it held the power of life and death, and the soul of the art, and with it the soul of the ancestors who wielded it. Thus blocking was directed to the hand and the forearm and not at the cane itself. This mentality in teaching proved to weed out students who were not actually serious in learning and at the same time discouraged large numbers of students who got hurt and subsequently lost interest in learning the art. This in turn slowly led Arnis to the brink of extinction.

The Maestros did not have a progressive system of teaching both on the striking and blocking techniques. It was largely a notion of teaching technique after technique in a disorganized fashion. The sticks were swung in a very ferocious and uncontrolled fashion, simply disregarding that in order to learn and minimize injuries there has to be control in practice. The students were given tools, yet no instructions for its complete comprehension. The students did not learn the techniques in a sensible order and with it no progression on the different applications of the methods, as most Maestros focused largely on one style (i.e. Abanico style for one or Contrada for another) and neglected to expand the fundamentals into a more comprehensive system. This unorganized and deficient approach of the art in its "rawest" form, though not entirely negative in itself, did not help in the propagation of Arnis. For if one can only grasp a single aspect of the art, how can he/she continue to teach it well and proceed with his/her own path? This is akin to a painter who has but one color to use when he wants to paint an entire rainbow. His picture would be incomplete.

These men were not fools however. They knew how to fight. They knew the method of combat. They knew how to apply the art, yet like any other doctrine or school of thought, it started with an idea, some sort of truth. A wise man realized and experienced the truth, yet he did not set it down and write in stone. He instead, preferred to keep it raw in his mind and the minds of others. As time passed, the wise man passed away as well, and his disciples took what has been shared, what was given, and what was raw and vibrant, and turned it into doctrine and crystallized it as Awhat was, what is, and what always will be. What was once alive and real has been dried of its life force, ceremonies were fabricated, the truth set to adhere to critical standards and the approach formalized, and the wisdom became Atradition.

Modernization

Then came Remy Amador Presas and his revolutionary style of teaching in the form of Modern Arnis. In the late '60s the art started gaining ground in the city of Bacolod. By the '70s it had reached Manila and became nationally renowned. Through his efforts and countless exhibitions later, Modern Arnis had caught the eye of Col. Arsenio de Borja, director of the Philippine Amateur Athletic Federation (PAAF), and encouraged and supported Arnis to be taught as a regular subject in Physical Education throughout various colleges in the Philippines. This in turn led Remy A. Presas on a crusade to re-introduce the art of Arnis to the general public and Modern Arnis as the first Filipino martial art to be taught in high schools, colleges, and universities in the Philippines.

Carlomagno SeletariaRemy A. Presas' wife, Rosemary Pascual Presas, renowned for the title "Mother of Modern Arnis", aided him in his dream of reintroducing the art of Arnis, donating her years of experience as a college teacher in devising a modern approach and developing a progressive curriculum from which Arnis can be comprehensive in a way that was void of all the classical burden that nearly extinguished it from the Philippine culture. Many of the antiquated techniques in Arnis have been modified in order to be easy to learn and to avoid injuries to students, and its presentation to help students grasp the intricate styles and techniques without sacrificing the soul of the art. As a fruit of their labor the first book of the art entitled, Modern Arnis: Stick Fighting was published in 1974 and remains as a template of the teaching curriculum taught today by its practitioners.

Controversial as it may sound, Remy A. Presas was the first to devise a 12 striking structure of the angles of attack. The previous methods did not have such an order, which explains why it was more challenging to learn. The students were taught how to control the strikes in practice, and when to let loose in combat. This type of practice ensured not only safety of the students, but a simple step by step pattern in muscle memory. After Remy A. Presas 12 angles of attack and the success of the methodology of teaching that Modern Arnis was gaining, other Eskrimadors found it necessary to pattern their striking order from that of Modern Arnis, this in turn helped in the propagation of the Filipino martial arts in general.

An Arnisador's Values

Seeing the fears of the old masters in the misuse and disloyalty of students in the art, Remy A. Presas devised and emphasized morals values in Arnis in the form of the Six Cardinal Principles. These principles emphasized that an Arnis player must be of good character, sincere to himself, his partners and his teachers on his intentions in learning and practicing, a person of discipline, a person of self-control, a person who treats others with the same etiquette they would wish upon them, and most importantly, a person who values his or her loyalty to the teacher that he or she owed so much of his knowledge. The opposite of these values or the misuse of the art is a spit and slap to the face of those who came before them.

Extension of the Hand

In the revolution that Modern Arnis stirred in the Filipino martial arts, the classical way of teaching was the first to go, as Remy A. Presas emphasized that Arnis can be practiced just as safely as any other sport. Instead of hitting the hand and forearm in practice, the stick would hit the stick, or in cases of stick versus empty hand, it would be with controlled force. The stick of course, is just an extension of the hand, and whatever weapon an Arnisador can wield may be effective and lethal when one understands the concept of Extension of the Hand. This is very important in learning the essentials of Arnis, and this methodology of teaching attracted new and large amount of enthusiastic students. Arnis was no longer seen just as a violent man's game as it had been perceived, but that it can transcend itself as an aesthetic and cinematic art, as a sportsman's passion, as an effective self-defense technique, and of course, as a lethal form of self-defense.

The Essential Concept

Webster's New Universal Unabridged Dictionary defines Modern as, characteristic of present and recent time, contemporary; not antiquated or obsolete. Modern Arnis was founded on a basic concept that one must adapt, evolve, and grow in accordance with what is necessary in the moment, so that one can survive. Almost Darwinist in a sense, but not necessary as brutal. Remy A. Presas modernized classical Arnis so that it would catch the public's eye, and in turn helped the Filipino realize the beauty of the art, and saved it the from the state of cultural oblivion. Techniques that were forbidden to be taught were exposed in the art, such as the empty hand disarming against stick, of which the Maestros deferred from teaching, because the very notion of teaching someone how to take away the stick of an Arnis player was absolutely abhorred, thinking that the emphasis was that the stick should be the one that would end up to be much more superior and in turn come out as winner. But that had to be changed. Such mentality was neither practical nor beneficial for the propagation of Arnis. And so Modern Arnis broke ground by defying classical methods of teaching, and coping with the necessities of the times. Growth has been emphasized, the force that drove the will of the art must be fluid and never crystallized, for there was no growth in stillness or preserving tradition, as this very notion defied the essential element from which Modern Arnis was concocted from.

A Criticism of Today's Modern Arnis

Since the death of my grandfather, Remy A. Presas, in August of 2001 in an uncomfortable care home in Victoria, Canada, various factions have continued to expand his legacy and the legacy of Modern Arnis. Whether it be my family's MARPPIO, Kelly Worden's NSI, Tim Hartman's WMAA, Rodel Dagooc's AAII, Jerry de la Cruz's ACP, Vic Sanchez, and too many others to mention worldwide (of which most are legitimate and some are hacks), their efforts ensure that the teachings of Remy A. Presas will not be forgotten.

Carlomagno SeletariaBut then again history can inadvertently repeat itself. With no clear and present leadership in the art today, people cling to what have been taught to them, and even worse, claim that it is better than the other, or its predecessor. Arnis is Arnis. For one to think that: This is the way it was taught to me, and to keep the art alive and the Professor alive in me, this is the way I shall keep it, is thinking backwards. One must grow with the art and the art must continue to flow.

On another note, don't limit yourself to one aspect of the art, just because it is contemporary, or Ait's what the professor emphasized," whether it is the Sinawali techniques or the Tapi-Tapi method. Take for example, a student who practices his tapi-tapi drills so rigorously, that he focuses on it day and night. So much so that he envelops himself into believing that Tapi-Tapi is a martial art of its own, and not part of the broad spectrum of techniques that Modern Arnis has to offer. After all, how often do you have an aggressive encounter with someone on the streets with good knowledge of Tapi-Tapi? Oh, and the fact that you and him are both armed with a rattan stick! And the fact that you both engage in attack in such manner? In this case, the word Alethal takes an entirely different definition.

Liberate yourself from the negative mentality that the old maestros have had and value their strategy in combat. What it really comes down into is that Arnis is Arnis, and it shouldn't get any more confusing than that. Do not crystallize it; share it, and share it and continue to share it. The old maestros have died with their own techniques unknown and unshared because of their paranoia in loyalty and secrecy.

Modern Arnis is not just a martial art, it is a way of discipline and morality, and to learn it is to express one's fluid knowledge in an uninhibited and unrestrained manner.

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