An edited version of this article was originally printed in The Rapid Journal martial arts magazine within The Philippines in 2004.
Balintawak Arnis is a Filipino Martial Art from Cebu City, in the central Philippines. It was formed in 1951 by Venancio ‘Anciong’ Bacon whose instructors were part of the famed Saavedra family. The Saavedra family were among the founding members of both the Labangon Fencing Club of the 1920’s and then again among the group of the founding members of the Doce Pares Club of the 1930’s. The Saavedra’s style greatly influenced Anciong’s personal fighting style, which later, would put him at odds with some members in the late 1940’s and early 1950’s Doce Pares Club. These members were from another famous family of instructors, also containing founding members of the Labangon and Doce Pares Clubs – the Cañete’s.
With personal and instructional disagreements on his mind Anciong broke away from the Doce Pares and began teaching and training in Balintawak Street in downtown Cebu City. He and his friends/students would later call the new club “Balintawak”, both for the recognition of their new training grounds but also because the word Balintawak refers to the area where the famous battle cry of Bonifacio took place in his revolt against the Spaniards.
From the beginning, Anciong’s style, while being a great fighting style, had no clear lines of instruction. His students were taught techniques and fighting skills at random. The style led to some great fighters but took a very long while to learn. One of Anciong’s students Jose Villasin set about to systematize the style. Villasin collected randomised fighting techniques and skills from Anciong and formed them into similar stylistic groups and categories. Now his students could master one set of related techniques and then move onto another set of related techniques.
Villasin showed students a systematized “method of teaching”, for learning how to defend and attack, or more simply, how to learn faster and train better. Villasin believed that this procedure would result in a superior fighter in less time.
This is the juncture or point where several distinct schools of Balintawak Escrima emerged. Many of Anciong’s Balintawak Eskrima students not being students of Jose Villasin (they being his contemporaries) and some not agreeing with Villasin’s views, continued to teach in the old style random instruction or went their own way forming their own teaching methods. Jose Villasin’s family and close friends/students such as Teofilo Velez who would later teach Henry Jayme, moved on and used this unique grouping or groups method. There has been some debate as to how this has changed the Grouped Balintawak Arnis style from the original created by Anciong. Henry Jayme who has also learnt Balintawak Eskrima from another first generation student of Anciong’s Timeteo Maranga often recounts that: “While Timoteo has his own variations, the style is generally the same”.
This is also my view, as having trained with another first generation instructor of Anciong, Celso Mabalhin. Mabalhin’s style is almost exactly the same as Henry Jayme’s (and other Velez and Villasin instructors) except for the method of teaching. He also often taught the Balintawak Escrima moves not with a single stick and empty hand (or live hand) as most Balintawak Escrima instructors teach but taught exactly the same moves with a stick and dagger.
The techniques and principles of Grouped Balintawak Arnis from Villasin and Velez in my view were not made different in form, restricted, varied, or limited in any manner and have been observed to be still, the same as the ungrouped school. It is simply the method of teaching of Anciong’s Balintawak Eskrima that was examined and refined. Basically, Grouped Balintawak Escrima method is a systematic style of teaching, it is an attempt to show randomised fighting skills and techniques in a methodical way”.
The fundamental core of Grouped Balintawak Escrima as taught by myself in the Visayan Martial Arts School, is a reactive counter to counter style and is taught virtually and is more effectively learnt one-on-one. Balintawak Eskrima being a one-on-one teaching system, that is, one instructor, one student, is why Balintawak Escrima is not massed produced. This does seem to be a drawback to some, as it does result in a small following but it does have the outcome of a highly skilled class of Escrimador. One does not stand twenty people in a line and teach them to spin sticks in Balintawak Arnis. There may be several people in a class but each in their turn will receive personal training with the instructor. One fights in this style as he is trained and the training is intended to heighten ones instincts. It drills into the student the ability to form effective fighting habits and allows a student to learn quickly and subconsciously. The student constantly moves and counters an opponents (the instructors) attack or feint, learning contact, speed, distance, timing and tactile response, all through Balintawak Escrima’s Grouped Method.
As I always say, “Real fighting is not choreographed and your assailant is not going to be locked in any pattern of attack, so this Grouped method allows the techniques in each group to be torn apart and recombined, to form different combinations of attack and defence”. The attacks will come from some direction however and this is called the “Pattern of Bipedal/Bilateral Motion”. Plainly stated, “The attacks come from one side (the left) or the other (the right). If the attack comes down the imaginary centre line, you simply step to one side or the other”. So the slashing, thrusting and butting of the primary weapon in Arnis-Escrima can be combined and recombined, then struck at different target points and heights. Also the combination of the empty or live hand and the many ways it can be used by grabbing, punching, palming, pushing and pulling, etc. in conjunction with the primary weapon, make countless variations in fighting techniques of attack and defence.
Balintawak Escrima is one of the rare martial systems, that can realistically be expected to deal with random acts of violence. In real fighting situations you must learn to protect your vital areas with lightning actions and natural movement, so no moves will work for you unless you are able to use them instinctively, instantly and simultaneously. Each move learnt in Balintawak Eskrima has an obvious purpose, there are no superfluous movements, with every attack a defence and every defence an attack/counter. Balintawak Escrima teaches to constantly block and counterstrike. Never ever, merely block and then block again or not counter with an effective return strike. Learning to always block and counter is the quickest and most effective way of developing instantaneous response.
As the training is designed to ingrain an instinctive reaction, so much so that in a sudden confrontation, one do not become paralyzed by your own thoughts and fears. Split second reaction is fundamental to combat survival and Balintawak Eskrima constantly drills the student, that timing in every move is the difference between skilled Escrimadores, not simply the techniques that anyone can mimic. When and how a student delivers a technique are more important than the technique itself. Through Balintawak Eskrima’s tactile training you are enabled to feel instantly the force of your opponent and the holes that can be in their attack and defence. This feeling learnt through proper training, becomes an automatic response, not a cognitive thought.
Balintawak Arnis is one of the last true fighting systems that has not been adapted for sport or entertainment. You do not have to be super fit and can be of any age to train, enabling ordinary individuals to learn this art for self-defence.
Often Arnis-Escrima is relegated to being only weapon work or stick work. Remember the basic principle of Arnis-Escrima: “Most moves are able to be translated into empty hands”. So whether one has sticks or any type of weapon in hand/s, one simply modifies the Balintawak Eskrima movements that have been taught to defend oneself.
Special thanks go to John Clark-Naldoza y Lopez, Alicia Cinco, Vtaliano Fernandez, Pachito Velez and John Villasin for the photographs of the “Great Men” Of Balintawak.