In defence of dance


When I started this blog, I wanted to explore Cossack culture in general and, more specifically, the interaction between the cultural and combative elements of song, dance, and martial arts – particularly as expressed in systema.

This seems, recently, to have become a political issue, and is behind a low-level flame war rumbling along in one of the English-language internet’s most significant communities about Russian martial arts, Paul Genge’s Combat Lab International on Facebook. On the one side are those who think that the cultural and combative elements are of equal significance; on the other are those who are solely interested in combatives, and who dismiss the other group as Cossack wannabes.

I, for what it’s worth, am in the first group – which will surprise nobody.

To begin with, I think the whole debate is caused by poor communication on both sides. I’ve spent many years in the education field and one of the first things you’re meant to do is set out clear learning objectives and specific outcomes. Neither side of the debate in Combat Lab has done this. Paul himself, who belongs to the combatives group, took a first step with a recent article, Congruent Training. His main point, made emphatically, is [W]e need to identify what sort of martial artist we are trying to be and then to train accordingly. To this, I say: hear, hear. It’s a point I seriously started asking nearly a year and a half ago, when I wrote What is the point of martial arts?. Martial arts are not all the same: they originated from different environments, and some are better-suited for a particular context than others. What is that context?

Having decided what context you are training for, what training techniques are best suited to develop the skill set you need for that context?

So. Let me try to outline my imagined context, and my learning outcomes, in order to explain why dance is an important training practice.

Those of us who are advocates of including dance in training – Andrey Karimov and (as a result) myself and Olivia – are concerned with martial culture in a broad sense. For us, the prospect of violent, face to face combat is a
relatively unlikely prospect in our day-to day lives. I’m pretty happy to suggest that the same is true for most, though of course not all, people who attend classes in martial arts. Our focus might rather be said to be on collective self-defence against a spectrum of threats, of which hand-to-hand fighting is only one element. The philosophy across the spectrum is that the individual is stronger as a member of a strong group.

Most martial arts classes only train at individual level. Andrey’s approach is to build a strong and resilient community, one which can collectively face threats including criminal activity, invading armies, and economic crisis. Self-protection takes many forms.

Dance, in this context, is a social glue, binding members of all ages and both genders together. In addition, together with elements such as the use of the shashka and the nagaika, they are elements of culture: signs of membership (see: Hofstede’s theory of cultural dimensions updated: I was writing in too much of a hurry; I meant symbols, rites and rituals, and stories as used by Johnson.).

Andrey teaches Cossack dance, because he’s a Cossack. It’s rather missing the point, though, to say “I’m not a Russian, so there’s no point in learning this”. Andrey wants his non-Russian students to learn what he’s doing, derive the key principles, and then apply them to their own cultural context, in whatever way works.

The whole point is: strength in numbers. I once learned this after a confrontation when I was attacked in the street by a drunk guy with an empty pint glass. It wasn’t hard to take him down (and because of the glass, it’s the only one of my street encounters where I’ve needed to make physical contact) but – it turned out – he was a member of a football supporters’ group. The other members weren’t the least bit interested in the rights and wrongs of the matter… Similarly, on a rowdy Friday night in my hometown, I’m far more likely to have my local rugby club (including family, neighbours, and schoolmates) to hand than any other members of my systema class – and I’d rather have the rugby club.

A significant part of what Andrey is doing, and doing successfully, is establishing groups which not only train together as families but also socialize together. He’s establishing a culture, and inculcating shared values. This doesn’t mean – to repeat myself – that I, or Olivia, or other Western students would teach (hypothetical) students of our own to emulate the culture and values of Russian Cossacks, but it does mean that we would think very hard about the ethos and values which we, as teachers, would want our students to acquire.

So, continuing to clarify context, is this focus on group culture as an aspect of martial arts training relevant to the UK/US members who dominate the Combat Lab group? Absolutely. I wrote about this in Systema and the Zombie Apocalypse. Analysis of trends in politics, the economy, society, and other fields has been my professional field of interest for many years, and I see an Argentine / 1990s Russia / Greek / Yugoslav-style crisis coming to the US and to the UK. In such a context, hand-to-hand combat skills are useful, but so also will be ensuring that you have a group to belong to. Your PESTLE analysis may be different (but if you aren’t regularly doing one, you’re a victim of other people’s decisions).

Still, even in this context, there’s still training for the time when the brown stuff hits the fan, and things have to go head to head. And, let’s face it, there are plenty of people who will want nothing to do with all this cultural stuff, and only want to train for their own individual fighting skills. What then? How would dance training help with A or B, and assist in defeating an opponent?

Well, lots of things have already been suggested in the Combat Lab comments. Timing, & tempo; footwork, & distance; endurance, and breathing. All of these are true, but all of them could be trained in other ways as well.

My answer, and I must stress that on this point I’m purely speaking for myself, is simple: POWER.

So, again, context is needed. Systema is not my primary martial art. I only started getting interested in martial arts in my 30s; I’m now in my mid-40s, and I have a sedentary job which involves a lot of travelling. Even in my 30s, I realized that learning a style, or techniques, which depend on muscular strength is a waste of my time, because I’m getting older and I won’t be able to use them against a younger and stronger opponent. Instead, I train in neijia; specifically, I focus on Yiquan, with a fair bit of taijiquan on the side. The neijia styles are very badly misunderstood in the West; people see the slow moves of taijiquan, and make fun at “arm-wavers” and “floppy martial artists”. This is not what neijia really is.

I recently tried to explain this in a post on my other blog: Pooping, squatting, fighting, hopping. Briefly, neijia works by using the mind in training to eliminate muscular tension. Everybody, even in old age, has huge muscles in the legs and back which generate sufficient power to fight with. Muscular tension in the back, shoulders and arms, traps this power, so it can’t be used. Removing that tension allows the power to be transmitted to the arms and hands. Furthermore, the base of the spine has to be relaxed, so that the pelvis is tucked underneath the body. Without this… no power.

Westerners habitually carry huge tension in these areas of their bodies. I can pretty much guarantee that this includes you.

Yiquan clears this tension through zhan zhuang standing postures. Taijiquan does it through its slow, contemplative movements. The trouble with these? They take a lot of time and, to be blunt, they can be bloody boring. The results are worth it, don’t get me wrong, but it can be very hard for people to persevere.

The Soviets came to this point from another direction entirely, but they did indeed arrive at exactly the same point. If you read the background on Systema Kadochinikova, it’s clear that the Soviets asked themselves: “When is hand-to-hand combat necessary in age of mass armies armed with firearms?” and, based on their experiences of the Second World War, decided that the answer was “When everybody has run out of ammunition, but has to keep fighting anyway”. Let’s face it: if you’ve been fighting long enough that there’s no ammunition left: you’re going to be physically and mentally exhausted.

This is the origin of the 25% principle: fight using only 25% of your strength. When I first read this, I took it to be something you actively decided; these days I take it to mean you can still fight when 25% of your strength is all you’ve got left… and you do it by using those big muscles in the back and leg, which can keep going when there’s nothing left in your arms and shoulders.

They trained for it via the “internal wave”. This led to the relaxed style which was such a signature element of the early days of systema/RMA. It’s why Vladimir Vasiliev, and Alexander Retuinskih, and so many of the current crop of Russian instructors, move so fluidly. It’s what got me interested in systema.

The “internal wave” and, to an extent, the figure-8 element were derived… guess what… from Cossack dance. In theory, it stripped away the cultural aspects, and presented the physical principles as a training method.

But… but… in the West, this has been dropped. I gather even Vasiliev isn’t partiularly teaching it any more. Because, just like zhan zhuang, the Western market says This is boooooooooorrrriiiiing. Those Westerners, they want to get to the fun stuff. They want to hit something. Let’s do some techniques! So, a lot, really a lot, of Western systema practitioners are very stiff. One teacher I can think of seems to move his back and shoulders and neck as a single unit. Stiff.

So this is why I say: let’s dance.

Let’s dance. Get into a circle, and clap, and sing. Move your hips, move your pelvis, move your back and your shoulders and your arms in figure-8s… Because dance will relax you, and get your spine into shape. It’ll also develop your prioperception, your endurance, your footwork, and all the other stuff.

But more than anything else: it’s fun. So people will do it. And if you do it consciously, nd with attention to what you’re doing, you’ll get your spine corrected and your relaxation sorted out, and you’ll be able to fight when you’ve got no strength left.

Image credit: Cossacks at the Fringe Festival Canberra by user David Burke on Flickr. Used unchanged under a Creative Commons license.


  1. I just discovered your blog. I have to say, this is fantastic. Robert Heinlein once had a character quip that “the true test of another man’s intelligence is the degree to which he agrees wit you.” By that criteria, you’re a genius. 🙂 Many, many of the themes you’re hitting resonate with me. Your thoughts on resilient communities, Russian martial arts, dance, culture, etc., and the intersection of all of those, are spot on and reflect things I’ve been trying to work my way towards with my own family and community here in the middle of the US. Let me ask you, the downloads in the “Cowboys and Cossacks” store, are they all in Russian? Dubbed? Subtitled? Frankly, my college Russian is nowhere recent enough and was never really good enough to do instructional material.


    1. Hey Eric, thanks for leaving a comment. Sorry it took a while to respond, I’ve been busy at work. I think a lot of people, from a lot of different backgrounds, are struggling with these issues at the moment, and trying to find solutions. Glad to hear that someone else is interested in the solutions I’m exploring! As for the downloads, most do seem to be in Russian. There are a number which were filmed in the St. Petersburg seminar in 2015, and they have an interpreter giving an English translation. Similarly the ones from SPB in 2016.As for the others, even if they’re in Russian, it’s usually fairly easy to work out what’s going on! The product description will usually tell you, anyway.


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