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The “alive hand” in arnis-escrima pertains to the non-weapon hand. It is called “alive hand” because though at times it may not be holding a weapon, it is never passive but plays an active role in combat.
When an escrimador wields long and short weapons as in the case of espada y daga, which was borrowed from western fencing, the “alive hand” is the hand that holds the shorter weapon. In the West, historically, the dagger was originally used mainly for parrying. Pertaining to the rapier fencing techniques of the 16th century Aldo Nadi in his book “Nadi on Fencing,” wrote, “Most parries were made with the dagger, or by moving the body out of the line of attack.”
If the escrimador is using two weapons of equal length, the one in the “alive hand” plays a secondary role. When not holding any weapon, the “alive hand” is usually positioned near the center of the chest.
In an active mode, the “alive hand” can dart above or beneath the weapon hand to accomplish the following objectives: to check on the opponent’s weapon hand while delivering a counterstrike, to jam an oncoming attack, to apply a joint lock, to execute a disarm, to push to destroy an opponent’s balance or to hit.
Of all these objectives of the “alive hand,” the easiest to come out in a real fight are the push and the hit. In most film footages of real contact stick fighting, it is not uncommon to see fighters driving their opponents backward with a push on the face with the non-weapon hand while delivering thrust on the upper and middle body with the stick hand.
Hits like punches on the head and body were also prevalent in close range but I have yet to see a perfect disarm or lock done by the “alive hand” in a full-speed stick-fighting match.
The use of the “alive hand” is taught at length in FMA styles that favor close-quarter fighting. Balintawak, a Cebuano close-quarter style of escrima uses the “alive hand” extensively. John Russel, author of “The Balintawak System of Arnis-Escrima,” describes the system’s use of the “alive hand” with the following words: “The empty/live or submissive hand in initial defense with the weapon/stick, can do two simple things; it can break/stop or flow through the opponent’s primary weapon hand or even the opponent’s empty/live hand. What it does after this initial contact is entirely up to the individual and their style.”
In his classic book “The Filipino Martial Arts,” Dan Inosanto relates how escrima’s “alive hand” worked against the Spanish swordplay, it reads, “During the Spanish reign in the Philippines and in combat situations where the ancient Filipinos fought against the Spanish in swordplay, the “alive hand” played an important part in confusing the Spanish swordplay.”
Training in the use of the “alive hand” develops important psychophysical attributes like kinesthetic sensitivity, spatial judgment, reaction time and flow. While arnis-escrima is generally a weapons oriented martial art, its practice of the use of the “alive hand” particularly in disarms indirectly teaches its practitioners the basics of joint manipulation and grappling.
By understanding the principles of how weapons could be dislodged from the opponent’s grip by manipulating the joints of the wrists, elbows and shoulders (twisting it beyond its range of motion or pulling it towards the opposite direction of its natural bend), the student would soon realize that this is applicable to the other joints of the body as well.
In contrast, largo mano styles of Filipino stick fighting that favors engaging an opponent from long range pay scant or no attention on the use of the “alive hand.” In my conversations with Manong Eric Olavides, founder of Eskrima De Campo- JDC-IO, he related that his teacher, the late juego todo [all-out, full-contact stick-fighting match] champion Grandmaster Jose Caballero scoffed at the idea of getting close to an opponent and grabbing his weapon hand with the “alive hand.”
Olavides said that Caballero emphasized on targeting the weapon hand from long-range with fast and precise strikes. It is a testament to the potency of Caballero’s fighting techniques that he fought the best of the bests in escrima and retired from juego todo fighting undefeated.
Another important function of the non-weapon hand but often unrecognized by many fighters is that it acts as a counterbalance to the offensive or defensive moves of the weapon hand. A good analogy to use is the tail of a tiger. While the tiger’s teeth and claws are the dominant and more observable body parts when it fights or stalks a prey, a tiger’s agility would be greatly reduced if you cut off its tail.
These movement dynamics are also evident in the practice of western fencing. In my study of fencing with the foil, I have observed that the non-weapon hand acts as counterbalance and enhances the forward motion of the lunge the same way a tiger’s tail whips backward whenever it pounces on a prey. This characteristic of the “alive hand” is ubiquitous in all forms weapons fighting regardless of range and whether the practitioner is aware of it or not.