Stances are part of the basic vocabulary of martial arts. They are elemental reference points for the legs when learning choreography.
In ballet, there are five basic positions, which are numbered 1 through 5. In martial arts, there are five basic stances called: horse stand, bow stance, empty stance, resting stance and drop stance. Other stances include: “T” stance, crossed-legs sitting stance, half horse stance, side bow stance, one-legged stance, ready stance, upright stance, and neutral stance.
While the general shape of each stance is nearly universal, the precise execution of these stances varies from school to school. In modern wushu, the requirements are different from those of traditional martial arts. Also, internal styles such as taijiquan (Tai chi), xingyiquan, and baguazhang, emphasize a dynamic relationship between the legs that makes them seem different from other styles. But this difference is more a matter of pedagogy for beginners and is less relevant to advanced students.
The stances are described here as they apply in the tai chi classes that I teach. If I were teaching different styles, the requirement might be different.
Common tai chi stances
Standing upright with the feet parallel to each other, approximately shoulder distance apart. The legs are nearly straight, but the knees are not locked.
This stance is part of “Wuji” posture, in which one attempts to clear the mind and relax the body.
Feet parallel, at least shoulder distance apart, or as much as three or four foot lengths apart. A low horse stance will have the thighs horizontal, whereas a high horse stance is nearly upright, with the quadriceps at a position of maximum contraction.
Both feet flat on the floor, with one leg bent and the knee above the foot, the other leg extended behind with the toes turned out a little. The effort is in the lead thigh. The stance should be wide enough to preserve balance while allowing the pelvis to turn. The stance should be short enough that one can step without leaning. Stronger students can do so with longer stances.
If the stance is too low, students will feel suspended between the legs. One should feel as if the body is supported almost entirely by one thigh.
The entire lead thigh should be in line with the lead foot.
The torso is oriented in the same direction as the lead foot.
The supporting leg has the knee bent and the foot flat on the floor.
The empty foot lightly touches the ground in front, with the heel, the toes, or the ball of the foot. The knee of the empty leg should always be a least slightly bent.
A low empty stance will have the supporting thigh horizontal. A high horse stance will have the supporting leg barely bent.
Drop stance is similar to a bow stance in which the hips relax and the pelvis turns toward the straight leg, allowing the body to drop toward the ground. The result is that one has one hip touching the heel of the bent leg, and the torso is oriented toward the other foot.
One-legged stances are technically any in which one has all of the weight on one foot and the other foot is off the ground. The main variations occur when the raised leg is either bent at the knee or extended as a kick.
To improve balance, the pelvis is typically rotated horizontally toward the direction of the supporting leg, and the waist is usually twisted additionally in the same direction.
Cross-legged Sitting Stance
Half Horse Stance
Side Bow Stance