Sunday, September 20, 2020

Understanding Rhythm and Broken Rhythm in Sparring by Badger Johnson

I’ve talked in other essays about the use of music and tempo and time, and the use of beats to augment your martial arts training. Someone was asking me what the concept of ‘broken-rhythm’ meant. They said that Bruce Lee was actually listening to ‘weird’ Indian and maybe African music with headphones and trying to use that to give him an advantage. Then they said that Joe Lewis, his partner and student back in the day, and a tournament and early full-contact European and American kickboxer champion said that Bruce Lee was a master of broken-rhythm.

To clarify I said that the first kind of training learning unconventional musical beats was not the same thing as Joe Lewis was talking about. To simplify I said that the first kind was ‘internal broken rhythm’ in which you would be trying to move in a way that was not ‘standard’, or the convention beat of say 1-2, or 1-2-3-4, which we see in typical music, but was trying for a non-standard type. The second type involved a person finding the opponent’s rhythm or beat and following it for a short period then ‘breaking their rhythm’.

What is Internal Broken Rhythm?

For simplicity's sake you could say the first type was Internal Broken Rhythm, and the second type was External Broken Rhythm. Both are equally important methods but to understand them it’s better to explain each one separately.

The use of 'unconventional' or unusual beats in music is a way to give a person/fighter a library of internal beats in addition to his normal standard way of moving. In music we have a number of different notes and rests of different duration and other elements, such as grace notes, and triplets, which are 'off the beat' or 'insertions' or moves or rhythms which are between the normal beats.

We also have things like long beats and staccato beats. By adding to your internal repertoire or library you can then almost 'hum along' and use that internal song to guide your external movement and footwork. In Filipino Martial Arts (FMA) they make use of 'insertions' inside an already non-simple way of moving their stick(s) so that while the opponent is following their sticks, they are adroit enough to put in between their strikes or parries, a quick insertion, deluding, or eluding their attempt to follow, or parry and thus gain a 'hit'.

This is what Bruce Lee was trying to do. You can google 'grace notes' for a better explanation if you don't understand the musical notation or subsequent movement. One of the great ways that FMA can work to 'defeat' a typical eastern or western martial art is that they tend to follow a triplet or 'three-in-one' beat, while typical martial arts in the past at least followed a one-two-three-four or in music, 'standard time'. This move to a non-synchronous three-beat follows somewhat 'in between' the beats of standard time and essentially can 'get there’ (to the target) first.

The .gif below is a pretty good example of ‘Internal Broken Rhythm’ (IBR) in Return of the Dragon. Look near the end of the .gif just after Bruce Lee does a low leg check kick. Just before he follows with a high kick watch his right hand. He does three quick, though slight hand movements. This is a pretty good indication that he’s doing a triplet count in his head to subdivide the beat and initiate the kick to the head on an odd beat (maybe on three or five of six ‘beats’).

Another advantage to IBR is that it allows you to move 'faster' than someone doing 'standard time' even if that standard time is already fast. If you go 1-and 2 and I go 1-and-a-2, then you have two movements and I have three counts. So you might be playing an internal 'song' of 1-2-3-4, and I'm doing '123-123-123-123' on each downbeat (triplets) which is the Filipino timing in Sinawali (which means 'weaving' in Filipino), and you see here you can have an opportunity for two insertions or a parry and an insertion to each of your opponent's single 'beats' which they would perceive as faster and also a bit confusing to them as they struggle to keep up but even if already moving quickly will be, for a moment, behind the beat and thus miss a parry and get hit.

What is External Broken Rhythm?

The other type (Joe's reference) of "Broken rhythm" or what I’m calling external broken rhythm is the visible movement and footwork and then changing that and attacking in a way to try to find the opponent's 'natural rhythm' and then kind of follow it so that you're almost 'taking turns' as you see in a lot of dojo sparring or a ‘match’, then suddenly, using various changes ups, you 'break the opponent's rhythm' and get them on the wrong foot or moving the wrong way or get inside their movement, allows you to 'score' while they are caught up in their natural rhythm. Those might include a ‘stutter step’, a switch step, a switch kick and things of that nature. Bruce Lee was a master of this using his understanding of the way people move.

The .gif below is an example of ‘External Broken Rhythm’, in that Bruce Lee has timed Bob Wall’s own rhythm and is waiting or timing an ‘insertion’ or ‘interruption’ (a type of interception that his style is based upon), and as Bob initiates, Bruce Lee is ‘spring loaded’ to land his kick as Bob squares up, proving a good target, and getting a direct and solid hit.

How do we use this in practice?

To give a quick how-to addition to the topic of 'Internal Broken Rhythm', if you go to the workout area and throw some light strikes while humming a waltz, which is ONE-two-three, ONE-two-three, (emphasis on the first beat is a waltz beat), then suddenly change your internal 'song' or tune you're humming to a Jazz tune or another type which might be 'ah-One-ah-Two-ah-Three' and put in a quick little flick before the previous 1-2-3 you'll find an 'insertion'.

Layering all these concepts lead to his impression of extremely fast speed

So I suspect what Bruce Lee was doing to seem 'super-fast' and able to get in his technique, is he was combining (with his natural speed advantage and use of 'non-intention' speed and MPH speed, and non-telegraphic speed), moving while humming an internal tune which was so 'strange' or unconventional to the normal person doing a waltz or a standard 1-2-3-4 beat internal rhythm that they just could not keep up. When he combined this with his natural ability to break your rhythm using footwork and timing and being able to see what you were likely to do next, he not only had you at speed and rhythm, he also had you on the 'wrong foot' as well. No wonder his student-opponents’ would be flummoxed. (See my other essays on what non-intention speed is.)

Now consider this, which was ahead of its time, that all of this he was doing was invisible to the student, and I seriously doubt he would explain it quite well enough for them to know what he was doing, let alone learn it themselves, it made him seem truly magical. Yet it's a simple layering of several concepts which can be learned fairly well by an intelligent and dedicated trainer using progression and practice, even solo practice. Even his direct students say that broken rhythm is not understood and I have doubts they understand it themselves (as combination of internal and external broken rhythm, breaking up your own rhythm and also breaking the opponent’s rhythm to your advantage).

One very common method of seeing external broken rhythm was Muhammad Ali's 'Ali-shuffle'. This was not used to showboat, but was use to distract and to break the opponent's rhythm, because the opponent could not tell when he was going to 'break out of the shuffle and throw a strike, but it also increased his internal 'hummed rhythm' so he was on super-speed and got in as an 'insertion'.

Muhammad Ali demonstrates his "Ali Shuffle" for Wilt Chamberlin

As advanced as it was, I think that if Ali had 'hired' Bruce Lee as a trainer, and Lee was willing to tell him about internal and external broken rhythm (which I think Ali did almost naturally, not as an intellectually derived plan), and was willing to explain non-intention and non-telegraphic movement that he could have made Ali even better. However, at the time, these were all closely guarded secrets for Bruce Lee. He did let out the 'name' broken rhythm, because that was an already known subject, but he didn't really explain it in depth as I just did above.

It also explains why Bruce Lee was not terribly "interested" when Dan Inosanto introduced him to FMA and tried to sell him on the sticks, since Lee was already doing triple times and insertions and had learned it on his own, so FMA didn't really have a huge amount of new stuff there to teach him. He did use double sticks, but he did it his own way which did look a little like the FMA methods anyway. I would hasten to add that FMA is not just about timing and insertions. I'm just talking about that aspect for brevity. Bruce Lee would have looked at it for the cinematic and screen-fighting aspects and thus found it nice to have Dan Inosanto represent an aspect (single stick and long and short) Filipino martial arts in Game of Death. Bruce again uses a lot of broken rhythm in his match against Dan’s character, and even Bruce’s character’s weapon (the wikit stick) can move so much faster and unpredictably that it incorporates an innate capability to break rhythm.

© Badger A Johnson

September 20, 2020

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