Journal of Western Martial Art
by Tony Wolf
Juego del Palo ("stick play") is practiced as a folk art, sport and self-defense system on the Canary Islands, a mountainous island chain off the coast of Morocco. It features a wide variety of Estilos (styles), which are usually named after the families which have preserved and perpetuated specific teaching systems, and also many distinct juegos (games) featuring different rules, strategies and techniques.
Juego del Palo may be described as a form of stick fencing between two jugadores (players) which is characterized by the spontaneous interplay of attacking techniques (ataques) and defense techniques known as atajan. No protective equipment is worn in traditional Juego del Palo, safety being maintained through the skilled control of attacks, which are indicated (marcan) rather than being made with full force upon the opponent's body.
The various combat games and self defense methods that can be subsumed under the title Palo Canario (Canarian Stick) are traditionally attributed to having originated in the martial arts of the Guanches (aboriginal Canarians).
The Guanches are understood to have been descended from Saharan nomads, who sailed from Northwest Africa and settled on the Canarian archipelago at some point during the first millennium BC. Notably, the Guanches are remembered today both as master shepherds and as skilled warriors, who mounted a remarkably effective defense against successive waves of Spanish colonialists during the 1400s. Many traditional folk sports of the Canary Islands are traced back to the recreational activities of the Guanches.
The first record of stick combat among the Guanches is to be found in the Spanish Bethencouriana Chronicles, written in 1402. This document makes reference to the Bimbaches - inhabitants of the island of El Hierro - and their skill in fighting with long spears, or lances, "made without the use of iron".
Two further historical references illustrate the nature of early Juego del Palo. In 1478, Antonio Cedeno wrote -
"... on the day of the wedding ... the women went into the house and there were feasts and games ... and a contest of sparring with short sticks, coloured with the sap of the dragon tree."
A Spanish engineer named Leonardo Torriani wrote a history of the Canary Islands in 1590, and included a valuable record of early Juego del Palo, accompanied by an illustration of two Guanche warriors performing a type of ritual combat with short staves in a small arena.
Torriani wrote -
"When two Canarians went to duel, they went to a special place established for this purpose. It was a small enclosure with a level, raised stone platform at each end. Firstly they each stood upon a platform, armed with three of the smooth throwing stones they call tahuas, and also with the stick called magodo or amodeghe. Then they dodged the stones as they were thrown, skillfully twisting their bodies without moving their feet. Next, they stepped down and fenced with the staves, each one trying to gain advantage over the other, as is our custom also."
There are also many records of recreational contests of Juego del Palo at fiestas (celebrations), such as weddings and the religious Festival of Benesmen.
AJUPAL, a Juego del Palo association with a strong academic focus, is presently undertaking research into Basque, French, Spanish, Portuguese, Egyptian and African stick fighting styles, to determine whether these arts may have influenced the development of modern Juego del Palo.
The Canarian palo (stick) is associated with three interrelated functions - self defense, animal herding, and traveling across difficult terrain. The latter function has developed into the spectacular folk sport of Salto del Pastor, "the Shepherd's Leap", which features a form of pole-vaulting down rocky precipices and across ravines.
The weapons of Juego del Palo may be fashioned from the wood of the sabina, paloblanco, macanero, tarajal, eucalyptus, acevino or bitter almendiero trees, but is usually made from membrillero wood, which is known for its lightness and strength. The diameter of the wood also varies according to type.
The various types of palo are defined by length. There are three traditionally recognized lengths.
1 - The Palo Chico or short stick, also known as the palo boyero (cowherd's stick), palo camellero (camelherd's stick), sorinque, garrote, porra, porruno, tolete and macana) is of a length reaching from the ground to the jugador's (player's) hand, comparable to the length of a European walking stick. The palo chico typically tapers from outwards from grip to point. It is short enough to be hidden behind the player's leg or back in self defense situations, and to be easily manipulated with one hand.
At present palo chico is seldom practiced, but there are numerous oral and documentary records of its use as a weapon in sparring games and in battle. Most teachers of traditional PaloMedio (medium stick) styles can demonstrate juegos de tecnicas (technical games) which are suited to the dimensions of the palo chico.
2 - The Palo Medio (medium stick - also known as the vara and latita) is of a length so as to reach from the ground to approximately the level of the player's heart. It generally tapers from the trozo (grip) to the punta (point). This is the most common length of stick used in Juego del Palo, and has the widest variety of traditional styles dedicated to it.
Palo Mediano styles includes los Estilos Deniz, Morales, Verga and Acosta (all on the island of Tenerife), Quintero (El Hierro), Vidal (La Palma), and Conejero (Lanzarote).
3 - The Palo Grande (great stick, also known as the garrote, lata, astia or lanza) is any staff of a length greater than the player's height, and may reach up to four meters in length. The diameter of the palo grande is generally uniform, rather than tapering as do palo medio or palo chico sticks.
Palo Grande styles include Juego del Garrote, practiced on Gran Canaria, and Juego de la Lata, practiced on Fuerteventura.
The present resurgence of interest in Juego del Palo started during the early 1970's on the island of Tenerife, due largely to the efforts and inspiration of Maestro Tomas Deniz (1899 - 1983). Maestro Deniz founded numerous escuelas (schools) of the art on several islands, and became the headmaster of the Universitario del Palo Canario.
In the mid 1980s another organization, the Asociacion de Juego del Palo (AJUPAL) began attempts to regulate the practice, encompassing the majority of jugadores across the Archipelago. AJUPAL tried to adapt the art to modern social and cultural conditions, without losing the essence of the traditional schools.
At present, Juego del Palo is legally organized by two associations, registered as sporting federations in 1997; the Federacion Canaria del Juego del Palo and the Federacion Canaria del Lucha del Garrote. The latter society emphasizes sporting applications, and has staged official competitions and tournaments. Because of a perception that the traditional cultural elements of Juego del Palo were in danger of extinction, a group of traditional practitioners and academics re-founded AJUPAL in 1996.
Maestro Tomas Deniz was born in Maria Jiminez (Santa Cruz de Tenerife) on December 29, 1899. He began training in Juego del Palo with his father, Don Jose Juan Deniz, and perfected his skills at the famous Escuela de San Andres, run by the brothers Jose and Nicholas Morales.
Maestro Deniz founded training groups in La Laguna, Santa Cruz de Tenerife, Las Palmas and Fuerteventura. He was an active teacher and promoter of Juego del Palo until his death in 1983.
The Deniz style is a game of rich and varied techniques. Deniz jugadores generally play from a high guard, and follow the defensive principle of Atajado Pleno, complete interception of the attacking technique. The style features fast combinations of circular strikes (palos) and linear thrusts (puntas), and is characterized by precision targeting of attacks to areas including the eyes, groin and ears. The Deniz style features continuous changes between the Juego Corto (close-range game) and the Juego Largo (long-range game), and employs a variety of defensive body shifting strategies including Esquiva (evasion), Vacio (emptying) and Desvio (deflection).
The Morales style is, with the Deniz style, the joint heir of the old Escuela de San Andres, which was founded by Jose Morales and Pedro Pestana in the mid 1870s. The characteristics of the modern Morales style were defined in the 1940s and 50s, under the guidance of D. Pedro Dominguez, a popular and enthusiastic jugador of the San Andres school.
The Morales style is principally played at close range, although unlike most other Juego Corto styles it emphasizes the Juego de Recogidos (circular game) rather than the Juego de Trezo y Punta (game of strikes and thrusts).
This style is native to Pueblo de Esperanza, although it is historically related to the Escuela de San Andres, as are all the styles of Tenerife. The headmaster and founder was Eugenio Diaz, nicknamed "el Verga" or "the Yard". His nom de guerre and fighting style were transmitted to his descendants, including his son Elicio and daughter Luciana. At present Elicio's two sons, Chencho and Elicio, are the Maestros of the Verga style.
The Verga style is habitually played as Juego Cerrado (a closed game), fighting at great speed from a high guard, with relatively few changes of guard position. Typical techniques include Ataje Contrario (blocking by opposition), Atajado Medio (close range strikes) and Cambiadas (techniques involving crossing the hands at the wrists).
The Acosta style traces its origin to the early 1890's, and may represent an evolution of el Juego del Palo de la Zona, an apparently extinct fighting art of La Esperanza. It is conjectured that the Acosta style has also been influenced by Cuban sabre fencing.
Traditionally a closed family style, its lineage includes Sebastiano Acosta Bacallando and his nephews Hernandez Acosta and Leopoldo Acosta Acosta. Leopoldo's son Santos inherited headmastery of the style, but as the result of a tragic accident he has subsequently delegated this position to his younger brother Anastasio.
The Acosta style is described by its practitioners as Palo Corto (short stick, i.e., close range), to differentiate it from the other styles of Tenerife, which they call Palo Largo (long stick, i.e., long range). Among its unique characteristics are that Acosta jugadores tend to grip their sticks in the centre, and frequently employ jumps in order to displace their bodies in defense and outmaneuver their opponents guard in attack. Acosta attacks are typically initiated from a low guard position.
Defensive techniques with the stick are generally Atajo Pleno (oppositional blocks), passing the stick between a variety of low frontal guard positions.
The only style of Juego del Palo known to have originated on the island of El Hierro, the Quintero style has been preserved due to the determined efforts of the local city council. The headmaster of this style was D. Juan F. Quintero Zamora, and at present the style is headed by D. Juan Cabrera.
The style is practiced within a small but dedicated group of jugadores. Characteristically gripping the stick at the point of greatest diameter, they play from a high guard position, generally at long range. The game is fast and closed, typical of the Atajado Pleno type, with few evasive techniques. Close range thrusts and circular strikes at long range predominate, passing the stick through various high guard positions without crossing the hands.
The Vidal style is traditionally practiced within a closed family circle on the island of La Palma, in the Localidad de Garafia. The elder master was Tomas Hernandez. Public training in the Vidal style was initiated in 1989 under the auspices of Antonio Cabrera, and there are now organized training groups in La Palma and Tenerife.
The style is played predominantly,
though not exclusively, at close range. Defense is based upon Esquiva
(evasion). Vidal jugadores rarely cross their hands at close range, although
the cruzando las manos (crossed hands technique) is employed at
long range. Traditionally the stick is held at the thicker end in recreational
sparring, and at the thinner end in combat.
The only style of Juego del Palo known to have originated on Lanzarote, the Estilo Confiero - known as the "Rabbit Hunter's style" - has been preserved due largely to the determined efforts of the local city government. The senior teacher at present is D. Cristin Feo.
The Juego Corto y Agachado (close and bent game) predominates, with both attacks and defenses being initiated from a low guard. Defense is usually achieved through parries of opposition, although deflections are not unknown.
The Confiero style is unique in its strategy of Ataque-Atajado-Contra, which can be loosely translated as "counterattacking the counterattack".
Literally translated as "Game of the Staff", although informally it is also referred to as "lucha del garrote" or "staff fighting", Juego del Garrote is the only complete style known to exist on the island of Gran Canaria. It is a traditional long stick style practiced in the central and Eastern zones of the island. Prominent practitioners of this style have included Manuel Perez, the Calderin family, Manuel Antonio, "Pispi" Calderin, "Maestro Paquito" Santana, and Maestro Miguel Calderin.
Traditionally there were some subtle distinctions between games played in different provinces, but the modern game has tended to synthesize these variations into a single common style. Juego del Garrote is a game of frontal confrontation, with few lateral shifts or deflection techniques. It combines long and close range combat techniques as required. Imbalancing techniques, in which the staff is used to entangle an opponent's limbs or to press against their torso so as to cause them to fall, are also characteristic of Juego del Garrote. These techniques are common to all traditional Palo Canario systems, but are most developed within Juego del Garrote because the length of the staff is thought to facilitate their execution.
Modern practitioners of this style
change hands frequently, playing an Abierto (open) game in which
attacks and defenses are applied from both sides, although traditional
players did not do so, playing a closed game of greater speed and simplicity.
The Juego de la Lata (Game of the Staff) is practiced on the island of Fuerteventura. Similar systems were also known on the islands of Lanzarote and La Palma, having been transported there by immigrants from Fuerteventura. The primary style of this name was founded by Maestros Simeon and Domingo Alberto of La Antigua, although it is likely that other variants existed in the islands.
During the 20th century, teachers including Angela Morera and Frascorro Sanchez perpetuated the art of Juego de la Lata, and at present there are stable schools based in Puerto del Rosario and La Antigua. In 1990 a branch was established in Tenerife, as this style was incorporated into the curriculum of the Colectivo Universitario de Palo Canario under the guidance of trainers Gerardo Mesa and Concepcion de Vera.
Juego de la Lata is played as a frontal confrontation, with few evasive techniques. It is a closed game, with players align="justify" seldom changing hands or orientation, incorporating circular and linear techniques as required.
This style is characterized by spectacular circular strikes and cuts, and by the disarming and imbalancing techniques which are common to most palo grande styles.
EL JUEGO DEL PALO CANARIO; http://www.ull.es/congresos/juegopalo/el_juego_del_palo_canario.htm. 1998
EL JUEGO DEL PALO CANARIO - Antigua; http://www.ctv.es/USERS/cnc/ponencia.htm. 1997Journal of Western Martial Art