Defining Moments in the Life of a Capoeirista

17 02 2008

(Inspired by—read: totally stolen from—a post I read yesterday, titled “Defining Moments in the Life of a ProBlogger”.)

There’s no doubt that for many if not all of us, starting capoeira was a vivid catalyst in life. Maybe you refer to events in your past as “before capoeira” and “after capoeira”; maybe these days you wonder how exactly you used to kill all that time you now never seem to have enough of to train. Looking back over your life within capoeira, though, what are some of the torch-igniting, heart-propelling, or end-of-the-rainbow-finding moments that instantly flicker onto your mental projection screen? Which are the scenes of instant recall, indelible word-for-word, gesture-for-gesture, in your mind?

It’s different for everyone, of course, but I’m going to share just a few of mine here. Feel free to join in, under Comments!

My first capoeira class: “You should take your socks off…”

Attempted bananeira leg switching thing.One thing that I failed to mention in the post about my first capoeira class was a “conversation” I had with a girl there—actually, I don’t remember if it was in my first or second class, which may have been why I didn’t include it. Before I go on, you should know another thing I didn’t include was that for my first couple capoeira classes, I kept my socks on. (Hey, it was in a public place, I was wary of germs, fearful of slivers, and had no protective calluses yet to speak of!)

So halfway through class, one of the higher-level girls (who was also really pretty, and tattooed, so that was like three times the intimidation) came up to me and told me I should take my socks off. I forget exactly what I said, but basically waived her off politely; at any rate, I kept my socks on. Then I was scared I’d been rude, so at the end of class I went up to her and thanked her again for the advice and said I’d kept my socks on because I didn’t want to get a sliver, etc. Her reply?

“It’s better to get a sliver than to slip and fall on your ass.”

It was so <insert name of total underdog reaches the top against all odds feel-good movie here>.  If we really were in a movie, she’d probably have become my mentor, or I would’ve earned her grudging respect about an hour in, after a dizzying montage of intense training scenes, haha.

Anyway, she was/is actually super nice, of course, but that was my first taste of capoeira tough love!

Getting my apelido: “And it only took one year, four months, and eight days!”

Gearing up for macacoFor roughly the first year and a half of my training capoeira, my mainstay was one of our academy’s branch classes, and I only ever went to the academy for occasional rodas or near batizados times. Since my teachers at our branch didn’t speak Portuguese, and I wasn’t really taught, thus known, by teachers who did, I suppose that’s why I never got an apelido. However, I’d started taking dance classes taught by one of the academy’s teachers, and thanks to summer vacation, had started venturing into the academy more often.

We had a major fundraising event on December 10th, and it was two days before that that our dance teacher was taking down names for who would be going (which is how I remember the exact date I got my nickname). She was reviewing the list, and it went something like this:
“Altaaa”
“Nativaaa”
“Caladaaa”
“Pricessaaa”
“Spongiaaa”
“Capivaraaa”

At this point I interjected with my real, non-Portuguese name somewhat lamely (at least it rhymed)…but then!

“Oi, I thought of a name for you.”

And thus wast Joaninha. 😛

My last capoeira class: “NO, I will not cry for you guys!”

Blurry bananeiraActually, that quote was from after my last roda with my grupo, before leaving home for a while, and it was true because I had cried driving home from my last class, two days before. (By the way, tears and night-time and pouring rain and trying to pass a bus pulling out from the curb all at the same are never a good idea.)

It was the weirdest thing, because I’d been a little nostalgic of course, during the class at our academy, but other than that I’d been fine. It was while saying bye to someone from my main branch class, and telling him to tell the others I said bye and would miss them in case I didn’t finish packing in time and wouldn’t make it to the roda the day before my flight (in hindsight: yeah, right!), that I started choking up, and so suddenly and quickly it actually startled me.

Then while on the way home, you know that line about your life “flashing before your eyes”? I’m not comparing having taken my last class there before leaving to death or anything (even I think that would prove non-capoeiristas right about my sanity, or lack thereof!), but the only thing my mind played on the drive home was an endless filmstrip of capoeira memories, including all the ones mentioned above, plus thinking over everything I got out of capoeira, and how utterly different my life would be if I’d never started, and general things to be missed, such as capoeira friends, training sequences, teachers, rodas, etc.

And I can say with complete and absolute honesty that even after I was away for months, even though I have great family and friends, the only thing I missed about home was capoeira!

Getting my second belt: “Did he call my name???”

Unfortunately, this shot is based more on good camera timing than muscular strength!I suppose getting my first belt was kind of a big deal, but to me it seemed more of a formality than anything else. To be honest, I’m not sure if I can even remember who played me on the stage, and I suppose it didn’t hold as much significance for me because I knew anyone could get the first belt just for three months of regular attendance; it was only based on “participation marks”, in other words. My second belt, however—I never expected to receive that when I first started capoeira, and when I did receive it, I hadn’t been planning to let myself start hoping for it till about 6-12 months later.

There I was, watching my friend play for her corda on stage, my hair figuratively and literally let down, when all of a sudden one of my main teachers comes up to me through the crowd of students:

“Hey, do you know your nickname?”
“Yeah; Joaninha, right?”
“Okay, good.”

And without another word, he melted away into the crowd—leaving me in complete mental turmoil! “Wait. Did he mean…? But no…but then, that would’ve been really cruel…so…okay…what?! Okay…I am so glad I have a hair-tie on me right now!”

Then even when my name was called, I wasn’t sure. I definitely did not want to go up there only to find out I’d heard wrong, so I grabbed my friend’s arm (apparently a lot harder than she thought necessary) and frantically whispered, “Did they call my name?? Did you hear my name??” She didn’t know and told me to ask our head teacher, who had luckily just walked past us (the orixas must have been smiling on me that day; who knows if I might actually have stayed in the wings if I hadn’t been able to get confirmation that I was supposed to go up there?). So, I ran and grabbed his arm: “Did he call my name?? Am I getting my second belt?? Did he call my name??” (Meanwhile, the line of other students getting their second belts is shortening; I have absolutely no idea how any of their games went.)

Of course, at this point, while I’m probably leaving finger nail-shaped bruises on his arm and nearing critical peak panic point, our head teacher, in true capoeirista fashion…makes fun of me. “What do you mean, did he call your name?? Nobody here has those names; they’re all fake names!”

Long story short, I went up, I played, I got my second belt. And I think that’s when it became real, not just trying something new, and for good, not just a phase: Alright, so I guess I’m really doing this now.  Of course, that still didn’t stop me from expecting my belt to go poof into thin air or find out it was all a big mistake throughout the next few weeks!

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21 responses

18 02 2008
Mariposa

Nice stories, Joaninha!!!!!

Wearing socks, too eh?! I did the same for quite a few classes 🙂
Had a nice pair of thin cotton socks which did not let me slip. And it was nice that nobody ever said anything to me… The instructor let me be until the day I took them off all by myself!

18 02 2008
Shayna

November, 2002 – First ever public performance not only for me, but for my entire capoeira group in college

We had only existed for a year, and we were so nervous – but it was awesome! The crowd loved us and within a few years we were performing multiple times every semester. I still have an old VHS of that first performance, and we enjoy watching it and laughing at how, um, inexperienced we were. Ah, good times!

December, 2006 – A decision that foreverchanged my capoeira journey

It was the last capoeira class of the year and only four people showed up, so my little group in São Carlos (interior of São Paulo state) decided to go bowling instead. It was POURING – I’ve never seen it rain so hard in the south of Brazil – and I ended up in a car alone with my instructor, both of us completely drenched after the 5-second sprint to the car.

I knew this was coming, but it was still hard to hear… he gently explained that I needed to choose between regional and angola (I was training with two groups, one of each style, at the time). I won’t go into all the discussion, but that day took me in a new direction in capoeira. It was really tough, but I’ve never regretted it.

Other significant moments for me:
– First time leading singing in a roda in Brazil
– Our final college roda right after our commencement ceremony
– Turning down a full scholarship to grad school to stay in Brazil

I’m sure there are more… actually, that reminds me that I kept a pretty consistent capoeira “journal” for the first 4 years of my training. I should go back and read that!

Oh and BTW – I cried when I left my group in Bahia. I couldn’t even say goodbye to my mestre; I would’ve fallen apart.

18 02 2008
cenoura

Honestly, most of my defining capoeira moments involve food fights-from getting asked to leave a Chinese buffet to throwing things out car windows. okay, that said, my first belt and nickname was actually a big one-I didn’t think I was considered the level I was, so when they stopped the level before, I was convinced nothing was happening for me that batizado, then my name was called(real name, didn’t have another yet). Also, afterwards, hearing the teacher trying to translate why my name was carrot-my quicker version is, I looked like a scared little rabbit, the mestre was being ironic-but that started and continues to remind me to be push my comfort levels and help others who are less comfortable.

20 02 2008
Joaninha

Mariposa:
Haha, that is such a cute mini-story! I can totally see that being turned into an illustrated children’s book…

Shayna:
Thank you for sharing all of that! Hehe, once in a while some of my teachers would video tape us training during class and make us watch ourselves afterwards…I never knew before then that “for your own good” was another term for pure sadism!
What I want to know is, how did you ever get away with training as part of two groups simultaneously in the first place?? You must have had amazingly understanding mestres/teachers/grupos.
Wow…yes, it was hard enough saying bye temporarily, I can’t imagine what it must be like to permanently leave a group you didn’t actually want to leave.
I’m impressed, by the way, that you kept up a journal for so long! I have a little capoeira notebook I use to write down sequences, etc., but even that goes through large phases of use/disuse.

Cenoura:
Hahahaha, that’s awesome. 😛 You must have a pretty crazy (in the good way) group! I like your apelido story, too…and it’s cool that it helps you in your training like that. 🙂

Thanks to all of you, for sharing! =)

21 02 2008
Shayna

Well, the two groups had training on different days, so I simply went to both. The instructors knew I was doing it. I was only going to be in that city for 10 months, so maybe they didn’t care as much since I was only a temporary presence. Also, the teachers were instructor-level, not mestres; I’m guessing mestres wouldn’t take as kindly to a divided loyalty.

After the angola instructor confronted me about it, though, the regional instructor wasn’t too happy when I told him I’d no longer be training, and why. He didn’t erupt in anger or anything, but made some clipped comment like “Fine, if he’s too insecure to have a student training with someone else, that’s his problem.”

It was right to make me choose a primary group, though. It’s not so much about the different styles, more about membership and loyalty. After all, we don’t go to capoeira just looking out for “what *I* can get out of it”, we should also be looking to give back and build community. And when you’re training equally with two different communities, which one can count on you?

22 02 2008
Joaninha

Hmm okay, that makes a little more sense. I’m really impressed though that you were able to train yourself/your body to become competent in the two different styles simultaneously! You must have a really good game, being able to draw on what you’ve learned from both…

For your last point, that’s actually really interesting that you said that. I’ve discussed similar things with my friends, and I almost thought it would be more about the different styles rather than membership and loyalty, and that even if most people don’t, it still *is* legitimate to do capoeira for what you yourself get out of it. But I think this is also potentially a really touchy and complex subject, and definitely too big for one comment on a blog!

Thanks for all of your responses, by the way, Shayna; I always learn something from you!

22 02 2008
Shayna

That’s not to say the styles had nothing to do with it. I don’t think a person can, in fact, become competent in the two different styles simultaneously. You can train both, but what you end up developing is one game – yours – that is somewhere in the middle.

I’ve seen both angoleiros and regionalistas stay within their style and get so good that they can play compatibly with anyone; however, I have not seen someone be able to just “switch” between styles at will. It’s actually not possible, as angola has a completely different kinesthetic – way/philosophy of movement – than regional (or, I should rather say, contemporanea). It takes months if not years to unlearn and learn – and this I know from personal experience!

About the loyalty thing: at first I found it a bit off-putting that my current group’s policy for visitors from other capoeira groups is that they can train 2-3 times and then have to decide if they want to join our group or not. If they join our group; great, they must stop training consistently with their former group. If they decide not to join our group, they’re still welcome for rodas and the occasional drop-in class, but they can’t train with us consistently.

Although I thought that was a bit harsh at first, I now understand it. Teaching capoeira requires a lot of physical and mental energy, and not only that, but the instructor is investing a lot of himself in it, passing on the tradition that was passed to him and that he holds very dear. If the class is filled up with a bunch of people who just want a lesson but their loyalties and commitments lie elsewhere, why would the teacher even want to put in that effort to teach them? He/she would much rather invest in a group of people who are committed to the art and to each other, and who can be counted on.

(Of course, if you’re teaching capoeira primarily for the money, then forget all that high-minded nonsense – just try to get as many students in the door as possible ;))

22 02 2008
Shayna

Oh, and forgot to mention, I’m definitely enjoying reading this blog and participating in the dialog too! You have a great writing style and bring up some really interesting thoughts.

22 02 2008
cenoura

I’ve always been sort of divided about the whole “one group, only all the time” issue-it has come up in my group, even though we don’t have a strict “x number of practices, then you must quit training with other groups” -but then again, we’re the only game in town(smallish town) but that said, not everyone who trains with us is a true member of the group-part of why my food fights were actually defining moments(you get pranked a lot less if you aren’t really in the inner circle). We have a lot of people that come for university, and thus keep ties to the groups they started with. sometimes they keep training with us, sometimes they don’t. I respect the time and effort argument, but when does it become a control/cult issue? I second Shayna on the interesting thoughts here too. also Shayna, how would you say the kinesthetic styles inherently differ?(I don’t have any real experience with regional, so can’t compare). A lot of the differences I’ve seen in videos seem to be emphasis rather than inherent, with some group philosophy(which can vary from group to group, so I don’t really want to say just comes from style).

26 02 2008
Shayna

cenoura, as to when it becomes a control/cult issue, I would say that there’s no hard defining line but it happens when the instructor starts to micromanage and manipulate. But there’s nothing wrong with keeping a general focus/expectation for the group.

Maybe a couple examples would help me illustrate better.

A capoeira group’s focus is to do capoeira, although members can develop their own unique flavors of jogo. Let’s say one particular student really likes to incorporate grappling into his game. The instructor is perfectly within his bounds to say, “Look, that’s not our focus here. If you want to do that, you might fit better with X group of capoeiristas or mixed martial artists over there. But if you want to stay, please develop your game within the group’s parameters.”

Another example is that in my group, people who are “group members” are expected to “contribute” in some way. But it’s left open as to exactly how that happens. So some members might help out by creating a songbook, others might focus on publicity and event organization, others might help care for the group’s finance & administration, others might organize a cabaca-painting party, others might research historical background and present it to the group, etc.

Examples of things I’ve seen that I would consider cultish/controlling:
– Students not allowed to play in other groups’ rodas… ever
– Students forbidden or discouraged from asking questions, instead they must take everything the mestre says as gospel truth
– Requiring students to conform to an excessively specific and inflexible standard in order to advance to new levels (you must be able to do X move and sing Y song, no exceptions)
Coercing students to do things for the mestre (could be anything from doing the group’s finances because the mestre is too lazy to do so, to sleeping with the mestre) by offering punishment – physically in the roda, socially via exclusion, withholding of level advancement, etc – if the student doesn’t do them.
– Cultivating a culture of violence and “only the strong survive”; encouraging students to beat up those who are weaker in the roda.

Anyway, great question, I hope this provided some clarification, but again there are no clear-cut lines. I’ll speak more to the angola/regional issue in another post.

28 02 2008
Joaninha

Hey Shayna, and Cenoura,

I’m loving the discussion that’s going on here right now. Loyalty/”cult” issues are something I’ve thought about a lot since I started getting more into capoeira, and Shayna your examples and list are really helpful. I want to do a post on the topic eventually, as well, but it’s so big I feel like I need to keep mulling it over before I can write anything good on it!

I’m interested in the angola/regional kinesiological differences as well. It makes sense though, what you said about doing both or switching between styles!

I think my thoughts are along the same lines as Cenoura—I respect the time/effort argument as well, but am still very wary of the control/cult line. I don’t actually know what my group’s policies regarding new or “transfer” students are, but I know for students trying to move from the inside out, it’s very difficult or even impossible if you want to keep good relations with the entire rest of the grupo.

About the instructor teaching, however: like I said, I can see how it would be better for an instructor to teach people who are invested philosophically as well as loyalty-wise, but at the same time I can’t help seeing the money argument flipped around, as well. That is, even if a teacher isn’t just doing it for the money, the student is still paying, so shouldn’t the teacher, being a teacher, teach the student to the best of their abilities regardless (especially since, at least at the start, the student is probably paying precisely for the lesson, and not for philosophy, etc., so they’re still interested in learning it, even if they’re not yet there to become part of a somewhat exclusive group)?

28 02 2008
Shayna

Just wanted to address your last paragraph, Joaninha:

The student may want to pay, but the teacher is free to refuse the money and the student. It’s like if I were a private math tutor, I might have 10 people willing to pay for my services, but I only choose to work with 5.

Or to use an extreme example: let’s say there’s a capoeira student who is nothing but trouble – tends to be violent in class, uses drugs, abuses the beginners, whatever – who refuses to change his/her behavior after repeated warnings. The teacher is completely free to refuse to teach that student, though the student may want to pay and take the class.

What would be unethical, obviously, is if the teacher took the money and then didn’t let the student train. But I think the teacher’s perfectly within his bounds to decide who he will and will not teach. Of course this can be abused – like a teacher choosing only to teach people of a certain race, or only people who are good-looking, or only people whose names begin with “D” – but this is the exception rather than the rule.

Also, to clarify my group’s policies a bit – members of other groups are more than welcome to participate in all our rodas, and also to train occasionally. What they can’t do is train consistently, like coming 2+ times a week. Does that shed some light on what might otherwise seem like a “harsh” policy?

Incidentally, this policy may be for just this “season” of my group’s existence – in our group in Salvador, anyone from anywhere can train as much as they want – but that group has been established for years and has 8 classes per week with a solid core of members, whereas our branch has only existed for a year, with 3 classes a week, and we’re still establishing our identity and membership.

Plus, here in my group I’ve seen several people move from the “inside” out with no trouble from the instructors or anyone else – we recognize that peoples’ life circumstances change, and we always welcome them when they can come back and train.

28 02 2008
cenoura

Shayna, your examples are good ones. I know for sure we have kicked people who were causing real problems out. which is, I agree, totally within the rights of the teacher. I don’t think I can think of any examples in my group of people who have gone from the inner circle to the outer without a lot of ill will-and they usually end up either explicitly leaving the group for another or just quietly stop showing up. but, at least for the part of the group I see, getting to the inner circle takes a while-the people who aren’t sure they want to be there are already weeded out by the amount of time. and I don’t think the policy is necessarily harsh-I meant strict as in strictly spelled out. It’s the being forbidden to ask questions that I see as coming closest to cult pressure here-where do you draw the line between learning and being expected to use the groups capoeira philosophy and a life philosophy, particularly if, as our mestre says “capoeira e vida”(I don’t know how to make the accent work) also, you say people are expected to contribute, how much time is reasonable?-this will obviously vary according to circumstances, but I think it is a question to define when things get too pressured.

28 02 2008
Shayna

cenoura wrote, people are expected to contribute, how much time is reasonable?

It’s a good question, and in my group it varies. Some put in a couple hours a week, others a couple hours a month, and others don’t do anything on a regular/ongoing basis but they can be counted on to help out when special events/fundraisers/etc come up. Or it could be something as simple as being dressed 10 minutes early and sweeping the academy floor before class starts.

There’s no pressure to dedicate tons of time – we’re New Yorkers; we don’t have tons of time! – but rather, the expectation is that if you say you’ll do something, then you’ll actually follow through and do it, or if you can’t, you’ll request help. Pretty reasonable, I think.

As for “capoeira é vida,” I don’t think it’s the mestre’s business what you do or how you act while outside the academy (it only becomes his business if it affects what you do in class – like if you’re showing up drunk, or you don’t shower for 3 weeks and other students are passing out when they try to vingativa you). So although they may encourage you to use capoeira philosophy in life, they shouldn’t try to force it… that would indeed be a scary level of control.

2 03 2008
Joaninha

Hey Shayna,

That’s a good point; I was more concerned with the situation of students who had already paid, and didn’t really think about before or at the point of payment. And you’re right, that teachers of course have a right to expel students who are disrupting the class, etc., no matter what.

However, I still think there’s a difference between someone who is actually a bad student, coming to class drunk or being disruptive or clearly not interested in learning from the teacher, and someone who is a perfectly good student capoeira-wise, who pays attention in class and works really hard and does their best to improve, but just isn’t interested in the group mentality or doesn’t have time to contribute to the academy in addition to taking lessons there. I’m just wondering if it would still be fair to kick the second student out?

Also, just to clarify, I don’t really have any issue with your group’s policies as you described them; I think that’s reasonable (especially if, as you explained, your group is trying to build a core), and for all I know my group is even stricter than that!

Cenoura, and Shayna as well actually, I have another question. For students who have explicitly left your groups, are they still welcomed back anytime? Not for regular training, since obviously they’re doing that somewhere else now, but for open rodas or even just social visits?

2 03 2008
Shayna

…I’m just wondering if it would still be fair to kick the second student out?

We haven’t had this situation, but I don’t think they’d be kicked out. If they’re bringing good energy to the class, maybe that’s the most they can contribute, and that’s fine.

For students who have explicitly left your groups, are they still welcomed back anytime?

For the most part, yes. Our mestres respect the fact that everyone needs to find their own path in capoeira. If that path leads you away from our group, that’s fine, no hard feelings (maybe just a little teasing ;)). My mestre would say, “There is no ‘best’ group, there’s only the group that’s ‘best’ for you.”

The reason I say “for the most part” is because if the student left under some sort of bad circumstance – was kicked out, had a serious & divisive argument with the mestre, etc. – then they probably wouldn’t be very welcome back, unless there was some serious and heartfelt reconciliation of the issue.

2 03 2008
Cenoura

I’m with Shayna, people who left the group for reasons other than a fight would probably be welcomed back to play, though probably not really into the inside. those who had a serious fight-well, the only example that I can think of isn’t people I have contact with enough to know exactly how it’s playing out, but it’s pretty ugly. Really though, the only people I’ve seen leave the group and try to come back has mostly been people moving away, and if/when they’re in our town they’re always welcome.

2 03 2008
Cenoura

wow. forgive the grammar in the last content, please.

2 03 2008
Joaninha

Thanks Shayna, all of that makes sense and is clear now!

Same to you Cenoura…haha, done. 😛

But no one’s ever been ostracized for the mere fact they left for another group (because of the “better path” thing), when there weren’t any other factors at play?

3 03 2008
Cenoura

well, I haven’t seen any of those who left for another group that they thought was better try to come back. People who have moved away have trained with the group that’s available, but at least within our town, there isn’t another group to go to unless you want to drive at least an hour and a half of highway for class. So I can’t say there wouldn’t be ostracism, I just haven’t seen it. We really can get away with pretty lax group loyalty policies in terms of attendance because of location.

3 03 2008
Joaninha

But if they wanted to (not to train or rejoin, but like, just to say hi or hang out), would they be welcomed, or not since they joined another group? Ahh okay fair enough, if you haven’t come across the situation…you’re kind of lucky actually, not even having the potential of having to deal with anything like that!

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