I presented at a local comic book/sci-fi convention this past Saturday, and really had a lot of fun. I gave a 40 minute presentation on the whip, its design, and its history in Hollywood action, sci-fi and pop-culture, and then manned a table with brochures, whips, and books on whips laid out on it, answering questions and generally schmoozing. But there are lots and lots of barriers to really getting the point across.
“So, what exactly do you DO?”
Drawing comic books, selling collectables, doing cosplay, writing sci-fi, even telling people you're do sword fighting. People typically get that immediately.
“Whip Artistry” is a difficult thing to explain, which I feel I did with some skill, but people really don't get it until they see it. And that's not the easiest thing to demonstrate at a table at a convention with a bunch of other vendors and people roaming around you.
There is a quote that I find I use quite often by Tom Meadows from the introduction to his book, “The Filipino Fighting Whip.” Tom says “the whip is a fundamentally antisocial weapon,” (referring to his desire to train with a whip as a student of Martial Arts Legend Dan Inosanto, only to be sent out to the parking lot so as not to accost and annoy the other students) and I wholeheartedly agree. It's not something easily done in a crowded room, especially one with young kids too busy looking at all the cool stuff around them rather than where they're going. I can crack a whip in a very small amount of space, but it's not that impressive. To really demonstrate how pretty a rolling whip is, I need space to let the whip stretch out. Plus, whips make a lot of noise and can be intimidating. It's just not being neighborly toward the vendors at the tables around you to scare their potential customers away, which it does for some folks who are very timid or don't like the noise.
The opposite is also true. Whips also attract a lot of attention. During a lull on our end of the room, I went out into a clear area and did a couple brief combos and volleys with a short bullwhip, and that brought people running. But that also means they tend to crowd in toward your table, and you don't have the room to work anymore and have to stop for safety sake, (unless you've really had the chance to plan your space with the con staff, which I didn't get the chance to do this year. I did see an empty corner of the room that I plan on staking out as my own for next year.)
So, for folks that didn't make it to the demonstration, you just have to say “Well, we manipulate supersonic whips in an artistic manner in order to produce intricate dance and artistic kinetic motion patterns as well as percussive rhythmic cracks.”
I've heard a few other whip professionals and performers kinda scoff or show some distaste at the term "Whip Artistry," but I prefer the term “Whip Artist/Artisty” to “Whip Cracker/Cracking,” or the ultimate in vanity "Whip Master"/"Mistress" (I've heard folks called "Whip Master" by announcers before, and they tend to accept the compliment and not be rude about it. But in conversation, the people I have met or interacted with that I feel are deserving of the title "Whip Master" tend to refer to themselves as "Students of the Whip," as they're still learning from this amazing tool every time they crack it.)
I have preferred "Whip Artist" since a handful of amazing whip performers and I began the Society of American Whip Artistry back in 2008. I don't lump myself in with those “amazing whip performers,” and still don't. They were earning some...if not all..of their living through the whip. Back then I was a college professor and a media producer who just was just working on taking his passion for supersonic whips to the next level, and felt fortunate and honored to be working alongside them.
It was our goal to establish an organization of professionals in which we would offer training certification and membership benefits, (discounts through certain whip makers, blanket liability insurance rates, etc.) in a way similar to how the Society of American Fight Directors certifies actors and stunt performers in stage combat. If you were a producer/director who needed a whip performer in a show (and there are lots of Wild West/Circus/Horror/Burlesque/Cabaret shows that do), and you saw the SAWA certification on a performers resume with their headshot, you would know beyond a doubt that they would have a certain level of skill, and would be aware of safety protocols one must be very conscious of to keep themselves, their fellow performers, and their audience/crew from harm.
Simply put, we wanted to raise the bar on the skill level and professionalism of the average whip performer the way that the Society of American Fight Directors brought a level of sophistication to stage combat in the American theater during the late 70's and early 80's.
This is why we decided on the term “Artistry” when we formed the SAWA. It is an art, just like any martial or physical art form, like dance, yoga, acrobatics, and juggling.
Any fool can swing a bullwhip around and make a big noise with it, (and there are a great many who do,) but it takes a special kind of person to do intricate cracking patterns, slow, sinewy routines choreographed to music, or be capable of hitting a particular target, on cue, on stage, every night without getting hung up in stage rigging, or posing a threat to others. Unfortunately, most people don't know the difference because they haven't actually seen a trained whip professional using a quality whip.
I met a guy this weekend who is a martial artist and a seasoned stage combat instructor. We got to talking and he said that he'd learned a little bit of whip work from a guy years ago, but asked me to show him a little bit to refresh his memory. He was quite surprised that I didn't pull back on the whip, and that it didn't look like it was cracking against the ground.
I immediately knew the kind of “Whip Cracker” he'd learned from, (who was probably quite skilled in other areas of stage combat or Wild West performance, and had not himself learned from a skilled instructor with a finely crafted whip.) I then showed him that I could place the crack anywhere I really wanted to, and that I didn't pull back because I wanted the whip to crack away from me, dispelling the energy away from myself and anyone around me in a safe but dramatic manner, then I handed him a whip and showed him how to do it.
I am pleased to say that he is sold on the beauty of a quality whip and proper technique, and we have plans to work together in the not too distant future.
All these years later, when the SAWA has gone from an organization with those lofty goals to a small group of us that still seem to unofficially stick to SAWA standards for our own individual work, (because it works,) I still use the word “Artistry” almost exclusively when referring to what my goals are with a whip, and what I try to instill in others.
It is a skill that takes far more practice hours to gain proficiency and demonstrate safety around others with than the bare basics of sword form for stage. Swords don't have as long a threat range and aren't flexible the way a whip is. When you stop the movement of your arm and wrist with a sword, it stops (unless it breaks, then you've got a whole other mess of problems to deal with). That does not happen with a whip. You can't just stop the whip from swinging by stopping your arm, and if distances are misjudged, it takes a lot of practice and experience to either prevent or minimize injury and "de-energize" the whip. Stage combat weapons are not sharp and are often made of aluminum or fiberglass (not AS dangerous as steel if done correctly) or even foam or rubber.
You can't exactly fake a whip. If the whip cracks, it's moving at the speed of sound, and that means it's dangerous. Subsonic whips (or supersonic whips that are being used subsonically) do not move in a predictable manner, and therefore become dangerous as an “unknown variable.”
I'm not saying "What I do is so much harder than swordsmen/women." because it is not by any means. I enjoy watching good fight choreography and am well aware of the hard work that goes into well done dramatic violence.
What I am saying is that if we as whip artists, enthusiasts and crackers truly want to elevate what we do to a recognized art form here in North America...If we want to see good whip work in more movies, TV shows, and live performances, (hell...If we want to get hired to DO those jobs,) then we need to collectively raise the bar and raise awareness that we've raised the bar.
That is what I continue to work toward in my own whip exploration.
That is what I teach and try to instill in my students.
That is what I love.
And that...is all for now.
Thanks! Feel free to comment here or in the forums.