For the light, mobile fighting stance which is mainly on the balls of the feet we can thank Western Boxing and Bruce Lee.
This may not be the popular fighting stance in your dojo, but Chinese fighters did very well using it.
And we have teachers saying that you can't move fast enough from this stance...
I remember my days as a white belt (and even up to Brown Belt) obsessing over my footwork. Like many karateka we were taught a fighting stance that did not feature in any of our kata. Legs were kept bent and ready to spring forward, but we never leapt towards or opponents- or maybe we did, but very very low above the floor...
At the time I made a point of retreating very quickly, but when the time came to counter-attack I was not so quick at reaching my target. Also- I often got hit on my way to attack.
By the time my fighting improved, however, my opponents found themselves getting hit while they have not yet even finished attacking. They found my attacks to be quick and my withdrawals equally speedy.
The reason behind this was simply a change in fighting stance.
Despite what you are being told and how you feel, the distance you need to move in a fight is no further than the space between your feet in a full forward stance. If you feel the need to do more your timing is out- or your opponent's reach is enhanced by the length of his limbs or a weapon. In the instance of an opponent with enhanced reach, however I'd rather take two steps toward him than trying to reach him in a single lunge.
Three types of fighting stance exist. Below is a brief discussion on the benefits and drawbacks of each:
1. Light even-weighted stance:
This is the kamae we find in sports karate, the light, bouncy stance of the boxer and the bouncy fighting stance that we see in competition Taekwondo from time to time. Users of this stance tend to drive off the rear leg to shoot towards their targets. They also do not remain static, but are constantly moving to confuse their attackers.
Arguably- the mobility, speed and reach cannot be denied, but my number one reason for not liking this stance is the lack of control it inherently displays. If you want to know what I mean- try fighting with it on a slippery surface. You'll find yourself doing the splits in no time. Another reason I don't like it is that it's is very vulnerable to grappling attacks and sweeps as it is really not stable.
Tip from me- if you encounter a bouncy opponent the best time to hit him is that brief moment in which his bounce is at its highest point. :D
This way of fighting also uses a lot of energy. It tires one out.
2. The single weighted stance:
In kungfu we talk about the tiger stance and false legged stance, but other variations exist in other fighting arts as well.
The stance works by having the body's weight in one foot while the other is kept light. This foot is usually moved in the direction the fighter wants to go before he shifts his weight onto it. We actully find this way of movement in a lot of known katas. Muay Thai fighters use a stance like this to enable them to launch quick front foot kicks.
Why I like to use this stance is that it enables swift movement when it is needed, but gives you control over your own momentum. You can use this stance to fight on a slippery surface.
The only drawback of having your weight on one leg is that it is not the best position from which to strike. It is basically asking to be swept, thrown or pushed off balance...
You may want to start from this stance to get into striking range, but you do not want to be in this stance when you are already there- or when your opponent has come within range...
Xingyiquan exponents might argue that the following step- which entails shifting body weight onto the leading foot and taking it off the rear foot enhances the power of one's push or punch. They would be right, but bear in mind that if such a strike misses an alert Aikido exponent or Jujutsu fighter you will find yourself in trouble.
3. The flat footed stance.
Weight distribution may be 60/40 either way or 50/50. This type of stance is found in all known katas and forms in martial arts.
It is the stance in which you want to be at the very moment you hit your opponent. Throws, joint locks and pushing also rely on the stability provided by this stance.
I like the balance this stance provides.
The drawback of this stance is that it feels heavy and you can't "fly like a butterfly" as Muhammad Ali would have it. The power it provides, however, is what makes this my choice of stance for the street.
Now- Wenhsiuquan does not use that bouncy ball of the foot method of getting into and out of fighting distance or to sidestep- so how do I do it then? The answer is simple: If I need to move quickly from a long stance I simply move into a short stance. That means for instance that if I a in a forward stance and have to avoid a straight punch I just shift weight onto my rear foot to land into a cat stance and slap the fist aside. Now- to counter in that moment after the fist has missed its mark, but before a second attack can follow I extend into a forward stance again to shoot my own fist into its target.
Even in the Tao Te Ching is written that one is not strong when standing tiptoed. This universal law is demonstrated well enough in footwork.
With what I told you here you ought to be able to not only move backwards and forwards, but also to sidestep. I'll just mention that I would not sidestep if a simple hip rotation will also cause an attack to miss its mark. :)
If you have any questions about this way of fighting you are welcome to ask me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Train well! :)