The spinning (the spinning of the blade not the body) or figure eight rotation in front of the body is what’s usually called a “flourish” or flourishing. It’s more of a training technique used to limber up the wrist/practice control of the blade while gaining momentum. The other big use for the flourish is as a means of intimidation, essentially it allows you to show off your skill to an opponent before the fight begins. Much like bouncing on the balls of your feet, it can be used to hide the tells of an incoming attack. It’s going to work better (or at all) with shorter blade than a longer one, and it works especially well with longarms/polearms. The lightsaber is in the range of too long for it to really be effective and does end up in the range of a lot of wasted movement if it’s used during a regular fight. You do see a lot of flourishing in some of the Chinese styles (though not all of them), and it’s especially common in Wushu.
On terms of the Star Wars prequels versus the Original Trilogy, the OT is more accurate while the prequels are more exciting (but will also get you killed quickly). Actually spinning/turning your back to an opponent in while combat with a sword will just end you.
In terms of real fighting versus movie fighting, quick small motions are generally better than large, swinging ones. Where as large motions are easier for movies because they are more exciting and easier to see. Large motions are both a waste of energy and come with obvious tells which announce what you’re about to do to your opponent. A combatants are trained to read the body and its minute tells like the movement of the eyes that tell where the strike is going, the twitching of pectoral muscles in the chest, the shifting of the hips, long before we get to obvious aspects like a clenching fist or stepping back into a stance. Observational skills like reading your opponent in order to predict what they’ll do are a standard part of the martial arts training package. Some people are better at it than others, but everyone does learn them simply via practice.
There are things a person can do, whether they are aware of it or not, to mitigate an opponent’s ability to read them.
Moving around the way boxers and many other martial arts schools do when they bounce is one. The shuffling step you’ll often see in Taekwondo sparring when they shift their front foot, lift their knee slightly, and stamp in a jerky motion which can transition into a feint in order to hide the leading leg is another. And the flourish can be used in this way, though not as effectively.
Loose “baggy” clothes (which fit well), for example, that cover the chest and the legs are preferable to tight clothes that expose most of the body. (They also breathe better.) Loose clothing can camouflage the beginning microseconds behind your movements and give you a small advantage. This is also where the “distraction defense” for women wearing sexy women’s clothing comes from. The assumption is that a woman’s body is so distracting it will leave men senseless and offer the woman some advantage over them by attacking. The “distraction defense” is just a stupid justification made, primarily by men, to put female combatants in stupid sexy clothing. Seriously, that’s all it is. It’s not on par with a male predator asking a woman for the time in order to trick her into looking at her watch, purse, or phone so he can grab her by the hair and knock her out. The woman in question loses out on freedom of movement, protection, and a host of other aspects which are important to her ability to fight. It’s a situation where the disadvantages far outweigh the benefits. If she starts the fight in a disadvantageous position due to her choice of clothing then it was not, in fact, an intelligent choice and no amount of mental gymnastics will make it so.
It’s also insulting to everyone involved. Not only does it assume that all male combatants are heterosexual (which they are obviously not), it also assumes the outrageous Puritanical belief that when faced with the prospect of sex every male individual will immediately lose his goddamn mind. It also assumes the women in question will always be facing men. Finally, it assumes that a woman will always be more concerned with looking good than her ability to survive. (If you must, honestly, be Helen Mirren in Red.)
Now, back our regularly scheduled discussion on flourishes.
You’ll actually see a flourish or two in some of the videos, including the spinning on approach but they also tend to stop just shy of the strike if the intimidation fails.
And, of course, scholagladitoria on what movies get wrong about longswords. He’s a HEMA instructor and talks a lot about the different kinds of historical fencing. Very helpful for anyone wanting to write about any kind of historical sword combat (or swords in general). His video on dual wielding, is worthwhile for anyone interested in looking into it. He also reviews television and movies, like this one Oberyn Martell versus the Mountain.
Skallagrim is a great Youtube resource. His video 101 Common Beginner Mistakes (and Basics) is probably a must. And he does a lot of delving into fictional representation of sword combat, weapons, etc and whether or not they’re unrealistic. (They usually aren’t.) He and Scholagladitoria really are best for “real talk”.
On the subject of using flourishes in writing:
Flourishes are best used as an expression of a character’s personality rather than a sign of their combat skill. This can go two ways because flourishes are among the easiest techniques to learn to do.
You have The Mask of Zorro approach where Alejandro uses it in this training sequence. Here, it’s an expression of his inexperience and his preference for flashy, showy, “impressive” looking moves that emphasize how little he knows about sword combat. Don de la Vega shows us this by knocking the blade right out of his hand with a single swipe. It’s a great comedic moment, but it also allows us a little into of Alejandro’s personality that mirror the other aspects of him that we witness throughout the movie. The short answer is that like Oberyn Martell, he likes to play around and will often take chances he doesn’t need to because it’s more fun that way. He doesn’t just know he’s better, he needs to show he’s better.
This is a trait particularly common to swashbucklers as a genre and the excessive confidence to the point of overconfidence can be both a positive and a negative.
If you’ve got a character who likes to do a lot of flourishes when they fight, it might simply be that they like to be the center of attention. They like to showboat. They like to use big, flashy, impressive looking techniques in the lead in as a means of intimidation. It’s essentially a mind game.
The trick as the writer is not to be tricked. If they are actually as good as they think they are (and they may well be), they do need to prove it. As de la Vega shows when he slaps down Alejandro’s blade, it can all just be an illusion. All flash with no substance and no technique to support it.
Control, in addition to knowing how, when, and which weapon to use it with, is the difference between a master and an apprentice.