They’re a real and important part of training, but the chances of using them in combat is close to never. About the most you’re ever likely to use are the transitions and the smaller combinations. Every martial art has their own term for “Pattern Dance”. In Japanese, which are the martial arts Pierce pulls heavily from in Protector of the Small, it’s “kata”. Kel’s glaive “pattern dances” are from naginatajutsu. (Or, at least, they’re supposed to be.)
The usual, convenient english terminology used is “form” and that’s how I’ll be referring to the practice in this post.
Definition: A form is a routine or set pattern of movements, either preset or freestyle that is a major component of many different martial arts. Basically, it’s just a routine like any other. In concept, it’s not actually different from dances or the routines seen in competitive gymnastics. They can be performed in single or with a partner, as is often the case when practicing with weapons.
Forms predominantly emphasize their focus on technique and act as a means of of testing a student’s training by putting what they’ve learned together into a single routine. They advance in complexity as the student themselves advances in their training. Sometimes, you’ll hear martial artists refer to them as techniques usable in combat, but they’re not. Live combat itself has no room for such fixed patterns. Think of it like working from a script. Combat requires you being able to adjust yourself, to put your techniques together, and be spontaneous. Sparring is where someone the actual practice for combat occurs, but sparring is useless if your technique is crap.
Forms are where all the technical details are honed and perfected. It’s the student putting what they’ve learned into practice, in a specific pattern of movement designed to teach them about flow, transition, and synchronizing breathing to attack. The transitional flow from one technique into another, moving from one combination to another, from one stance to the next, changing direction, all while managing to nail each technique is exceedingly difficult. Forms aren’t where you learn to face multiple opponents, but they are where you learn how to change direction. They’re where you start to familiarize yourself with attacks outside of a single line and transition into different ones.
Mostly though, it’s a combination and compilation of every technical you’ve been practicing in training. The way one shows they’ve mastered their base and their techniques. How skilled your student is in their technique actually depends on how well they perform their forms rather than their sparring.
“Building your base” refers to the beginning, the way you stand, the way you breathe, your stances, and your single techniques. You start at the beginning and work your way up, repeating the same techniques over and over until you do nothing but eat, breathe, and dream them. The form is the culmination of that base, of those techniques, and how well it’s come together. Without a solid base, your technique suffers. If your technique suffers, nowhere will that be more evident than in your forms.
It’s a rote pattern, set practice, and beautiful when set into motion. Forms themselves comprise the major portion of the performance art aspect of martial arts.
If your character has “beautiful technique” then their forms are where that’s actually established. If they’re in a regular martial arts school training, then the forms are a part of their instructor’s evaluation of their ability and testing between belt ranks.
So, yes, they’re real. No, you don’t use the full thing in combat. What gets used is the smaller combinations inside them and the techniques practiced outside of that, often drills performed with a partner. Combat is, in large part, about pattern recognition. One of the major aspects of training is to teach your body to react before an attack begins or notice it’s early stages, to predict, and then either act or counteract while on the defensive.
It will be a major part of any character’s training, both by themselves and with a partner. Rote patterns practiced over and over and over in drills until they can do it while they eat, breathe, and dream.
As for the term “pattern dances” that’s the term Pierce chose to use for her fantasy setting. The Yamani culture is basically just medieval Japan with the serial numbers filed off. Patterns, forms, routines, or the proper corresponding term for the martial art like “kata” for Japanese/Okinawan martial arts are all acceptable.
Kel’s habits, like getting up early to practice in her quarters, those are good traits to have your character pick up.