Respect in Capoeira: How Much is Too Much?

2 05 2008

When it comes to respect—or rather, respecting hierarchy—in capoeira, how much is too much? How do you tell what is just capoeira, just context or politeness, and what is pure ridiculousness or taking things too far?

This post is slightly related to the “What is the Role of a Capoeira Mestre?” one, only looking at how students and mestres are specifically treated in capoeira groups. Before going on, I should clarify that in the headline, “respect” refers more to things done in the name of respect. There are two main issues here: 1) Just how much respect should be shown a mestre/mestra, and in what ways, before it goes too far? and 2) Respect in capoeira should go both ways.

1. Respecting Mestres

When your group’s mestre comes to town, how are they treated? Are they everyone’s pal, going around the room to shake every person’s hand, joking with beginners and graduadas alike, or is it as if your little academy village is hosting the Royal Entourage for a week, student serfs lining up to greet the king or queen, your normally alpha male and female teachers reduced to vassals and footrunners?

Eating before Mestre does feels weird/wrong…it’s not about protocol; it’s about respect.”

Although these are slightly two extremes (slightly), the examples I’ve seen are really not too far off. And seeing such contrasts makes me wonder if the concept of “royalty” has a place in capoeira at all, if it’s taking respect too far? For instance, I can understand that at a group meal in a restaurant, it would be polite and a sign of respect to let the mestre order first. However, is it still right if the mestre becomes engaged in an hour-long conversation, and his students are still not allowed to order until he does?

In another case, is it okay, right, or normal to expect that, during meals, a mestra sits there while a student or teacher fetches her food for her? Would it be considered too “plebian” for the mestra to get her food on her own, or is that just simple hospitality and accomodation on the part of the event’s host teacher?  It is not as if capoeira students would suddenly lose respect for a mestra who couldn’t snap her fingers and send people to fetch a drink or cutlery for her; in fact, the opposite is probably true.

How much “respect”, privilege, hospitality and accomodating at others’ expense, or going-out-of-one’s-way, is reasonable before one’s capoeira group could be mistaken for a cult of personality? And if the mestre or mestra comes to expect this attitude and attention, do they have the right to?

2. Respect is a two-way street.

In response to the questions above, some—or many—people would say that the mestre/mestra deserves it all, purely by virtue of what they have done and accomplished. I agree that they deserve respect and admiration for their accomplishments (provided that they are also good people who have managed to keep their feet on the ground), but there is a limit as well, and you will know when you’ve hit it by keeping in mind that simple respect between human beings should go both ways.

You know that saying, “My rights end where your rights begin”? I think the same concept applies here: “Respect” for high-ranking people in capoeira should end where disrespect for capoeira students begins.

“You wait for Mestre; Mestre doesn’t wait for you.”

For example, it is always stressed that students arrive on time for class, rodas, workshops, and events, and they usually get in trouble for being late. This is fair, makes sense, etc. Showing up on time shows you respect your teacher, the rest of the class, and everyone’s time, while being late implies you don’t (whether or not that is actually the case). Likewise, it’s fair enough to expect mestres and teachers will sometimes (or always) be late, especially during big capoeira events (read: logistical nightmares).

However, something is off when students are threatened with push-ups for being five minutes late so they show up on time, but then are kept waiting for 1-2 hours for the mestre to arrive so things can begin. I mentioned this to one of my non-capoeira friends the other day, and even then it didn’t hit me how extreme that actually is in the context of real life, until she stopped and stared at me in shock and possibly even a bit of horror.

Because it’s true, if you think about it—where or when else in life ever is it acceptable to keep someone waiting for 1-2 hours? I was an hour late for my friend once (ahh, it’s contagious!) and was actually almost scared to show up at all, because she was (rightly) in a more or less homocidal state by then, and in the end I baked her a batch of rice krispie squares to make it up to her. Has your mestre/mestra ever given you a batch of rice krispie squares for being 1-2 hours late? Come to think of it, have you even ever received so much as an apology?

“Yes in capoeira we have high belts and low belts and students and mestres, but outside of capoeira we’re all people, all human beings.”

If you think about it, making a group of people stand around waiting for 1-2 hours at every roda and event isn’t really a way of having them show extreme respect for the mestre, or it’s a completely unecessary way to show/ensure respect (and those who disagree need to ask themselves why their mestre is so insecure), but is really just blatant disrespect for the students and their time. Since we’re just lowly, star-struck capoeira students so obviously we have nothing else better to do in our lives than stand around waiting for two hours at a time.

Let’s see, that’s…dishes/laundry done and apartment cleaned, or half a book read, or half an afternoon’s work (and wages), or one blog post written, or one kid’s doctor’s appointment, or one or two job applications, or an exam crammed for, or a short date with your boyfriend/girlfriend, or a thesis outlined, or taxes done, or a car fixed…the list goes on. But of course, none of that is important if it means you’ll be on time for Mestre/Mestra, even if they have absolutely no compunction to even try being anywhere near on time themselves.

Moreover, late students don’t matter because the mestre/mestra doesn’t have to wait at all; they have every right to start the roda once they arrive, and too bad for the late students. However, it doesn’t work the other way around because students aren’t allowed to start the roda on their own.

Yes, a mestre/mestra probably does have dibs over students on not being kept waiting, but in fact, neither side should be expected to wait as long as capoeira students often are. Mestres and students should respect each other’s time. This is just one example of two-way respect in capoeira (or lack thereof) that I’ve gone into pretty deeply here, but I’m sure there are others.

“…as always, a lack of respect by teachers for their young students…”

All of the pull-quotes in this post are things I’ve heard said in capoeira, and this last one struck me for such an important reason that I felt compelled to write about it: it was the first and only time in my two and a half years of doing capoeira that I’d EVER heard someone talk about students in capoeira needing to be respected, instead of needing to respect.

That was definitely a wake-up call for me, and what inspired a lot of the other thoughts in this post.

Students have a responsibility to respect their teachers and mestres, but don’t mestres have a responsibility back to their students? Even if the capoeira world is slightly off-kilter from the “normal” world, aren’t we all still entitled to the same common courtesty and simple respect? Because the last time I checked, capoeira students are people, and mestres/mestras are people, too.

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20 responses

3 05 2008
Jon (compromisso)

[Because the last time I checked, capoeira students are people, and mestres/mestras are people, too.]

I could not agree with you more. . . =)

3 05 2008
Pirulito (D-cal)

Funny, I’m reminded of high school when reading this.

I used to be in Citizen’s Army Training (or Junior ROTC is other schools). It was always protocol to always wait for anyone, that means anyone, who has a higher rank to eat first before you do.

Again, this was a matter of respect. They earned their stripes, literally, that’s why you waited. I remember watching a documentary on the marines where the plebes not only weren’t allowed to eat before higher officers but also not allowed to eat in the same table till they received a rank.

But again, capoeira in many ways is not the military. But we cannot help but be reminded of the similar hierarchy, and, as a student, show that kind of respect. They earned their stripes.

I’m also reminded of an orchestra. If the conductor isn’t their it wouldn’t be right for the rest of the band to start. There are so many parellels that one can think of. Our instruments too have a hierarchy. A student deciding to start with the atabaque without waiting for the berimbau would just… sound so wrong. Or even just the berimbaus. If the medio decides to follow its own pace and not listen to the gunga, the whole roda is out of whack. Same I guess with a school.

I’m glad in our school when our teacher is late their is protocol that the highest belt starts the class with stretching and most probably basic moves unless told otherwise (in your point, as not to waste anyone’s time, including the teachers).

I can’t help but remember a conversation me and some other students from my school had with Mestre Ousado (a very familiar name in the Capoeira world). He was speaking of how different times are now. We were just enjoying a nice meal after an event, very freely.

He was talking of when he was a student. Then, if he tried to sit and talk with mestres while they were talking they would scold him and punish him by not letting him train. He told us how conversations like this one (the one we were already having) were not likely to happen.

It’s funny how much times have changed.

I don’t know. I’m all for respect and if we were in an ideal world, we would never have to worry about things like this because a good teacher would always think twice before abusing a students respect or trust. But were not, sometimes we do have to distinguish that line that gets crossed and speak about it.

I’m only lucky to have been blessed with a teacher (Professor Fantasma) who listens to what we have to say and is always willing to share what he knows.

Great post Joaninha 😀

3 05 2008
Pirulito (D-cal)

wow… i just realized… I made a blog post on my own on that one lol

3 05 2008
Joaninha

Thanks, Compromisso =)

Great comment, Pirulito! (Or should I say great post, as well? :P)

I agree about the “earned their stripes”; in fact I was going to write another bit in there except it would’ve prolonged the post and wasn’t *immediately* related so I didn’t, but it was about buying into rodas, and how higher belts can go in whenever and sometimes end up taking over the roda and lower belts end up not playing or are prevented from playing so a higher belt can buy in…I can understand that, because assuming everyone goes through the same system, as one of my friends put it, by the time you’re a higher belt you’ve “paid your dues” as a lower belt, so you’ve kind of earned the right to buy in more, since you can do more, as well.

As for the orchestra, what you said was actually my point. ^^” That is, I wasn’t suggesting that students be allowed to start rodas without the mestre/mestra; my point was that since the roda shouldn’t and can’t start without them, that’s exactly why it’s even more important that they show up on time, rather than a few students, without whom the roda *can* start.

I don’t mind and actually understand/support protocol and signs of respect in general; it’s just like what you said, I only mind when it seems to be abused or taken too far. I.e. I don’t mind waiting and arriving before the mestre, but not by one and a half or two hours when I could be doing something productive or important; I don’t mind eating later, but not when we’re told to arrive at a certain time, kept waiting for an hour, then told we have to “eat quickly” because we have to be somewhere else in 15 minutes. I also might not even mind any of that, if it were at least acknowledged what they were doing, and a simple apology like “We’re sorry for the inconvenience,” or “Sorry guys we know it’s annoying but you know how it is,” but there’s just nothing. We’re completely taken for granted.

It is amazing to see how much has changed…not let him train?? Wow. I would say at least in this case based on your story, it’s definitely been for the better!

3 05 2008
Mariposa

Joaninha, there is a saying: “The culture of an organization is the behavior of their leaders”… But, don’t forget that the beahvior of the leaders is very much enforced by the behavior of the “lion’s crew” – the people who are fidgeting around the leader and request a certain behavior from the “ordinary” group members.

It’s all about taking a stand and being assertive. Saying what you think in a positive way. Humor provides everybody with the possibility of saying what you have to say but in an agreeable form, don’t forget about that!…

I am sooo very lucky – here in Toronto all the Capoeira group leaders are humble, simple and deep. The groups that I visited have a similar open and trully friendly environment. We laugh, we have the support, if there is something that our teachers don’t like we are told right away and – I will speak for myself – I hope I am showing my respect and friendship as well by being open, speaking up my mind, asking questions if I did not understand a situation. I found out that sometimes this approach might be annoying – but at the end of the day it all adds to a solid basis for a true friendship 🙂

3 05 2008
cigana

Ha! If I added up all the hours that I’ve waited for mestres (or teachers) to show up I could probably write a book in that time…I’m no angel when it comes to punctuality and have been late for my share of events in and outside the capoeira world but it is pretty extreme just how late, and consistently late, mestres can be. The double standard of expectations can be pretty frustrating.

Here’s an idea for when you’re waiting around for an hour or two before a roda: instead getting more and more annoyed about all the lost time, take advantage by getting another student to show you and new toque on the berimbau or practice a new movement, or do some extra stretching, or write a mournful ladainha about waiting in vain for your mestre to show up…

3 05 2008
Highlander

Great read, thanks Joaninha,

For a lot of beginner students who train with an Instructor/Professor, the Mestre may be someone they have never met, or only met once at a Batizado or workshop. This can make it difficult for the student to understand the logistical demands on a mestre when visiting a school for an event, and some may not even understand why this stranger is now in control of everything.

A healthy disrespect for authority and hierarchy is an important part of daily life, and will inevitably be a part of any Capoeira group.

As with everything, a little give and take from everybody can go a long way.

3 05 2008
Onça

All of this is very interesting but I would also like to point out that the concept of Mestre is an historically constructed concept. The “Mestre” is a product of taking capoeira off the streets in Brazil and attempting to define it more as a sport. The professionalization of capoeira meant that leaders had to create these hierarchies and be sure that they were at the top. Mestre Bimba did wonders for capoeira……but he also undermined much of the equality and communitas (in the Victor Turner sense) that came from having capoeira exist in the streets.

I have a hard time deferring to Mestres. Yes, they have “earned their stripes” but at the same time they come once or twice a year to their “outback” locations and not only expect royal treatment (which costs the group(s) immense amounts of money in addition to our membership fee in our capoeira organization) but they also expect us to worship at the altar that is the Mestre. I have a fairly high belt and it continues to shock me at how the lower belts hang on the Mestre´s every word, dote on him as if he were a king….I just kind of laugh at the situation.

The point is, that this professionalization of capoeira has been both good and bad. Certainly bringing capoeira off the streets and into the training studio has helped to advance the artform immensely; it has included men and women that otherwise would not have considered the arform, etc. On the other hand, professionalization created a hierarchy in an artform that traditionally rejected hierarchy. At times, this creation of such a contrived and false hierarchy seems somewhat suspect and false. The roda seems to me a place of inversion of normal hegemonic concepts existing outside of the roda, in mainstream society. It was a space for play, for having fun, for creating resistance in both space and body, and if the situation demanded it, for actual fighting…..but this was a space that was not dominated by one or more people (historically). Now, the roda can many times be just as hierarchical and exclusive as any of the hegemonic constructs of slavery.

Just my two cents…..we just finished our batizado and I couldn´t stand all of the deference taking place, nor the fact that we had to pay well over 200.00 in addition to our membership fees in order to have the Mestre grace us with his presence…..so it has been something on my mind.

3 05 2008
Daria

Great post! I enjoyed reading the thoughtful comments as well. It actually made me feel better to see that others have been irritated and annoyed by some of the same things that bother me about capoeira. So many times I have said to myself–I wish I could learn capoeira without all this extra stuff!. Extra stuff meaning-the cultish aspects of being part of a capoeira group. The more I see of capoeira the more I see that all this stuff is just part of the game. You have to set limits for yourself and do what you feel is right.

4 05 2008
Joaninha

Mariposa:

Ola! You know what, you have totally hit the nail on the head here in my opinion! It’s true; I’ve seen teachers who are more aggressive authority-wise than the mestre himself, but all on the mestre’s behalf. On the other hand, part of their mentality also comes from the attitude the mestre projects, so I’d say it’s still a mixture of both things.

Yes, humour is like magic…where else would the concept of “Brazilian time” come from?! 😄

Have you trained with a lot of different groups, Mariposa? And do all the groups in Toronot get along?

4 05 2008
Joaninha

LoL Cigana, the mournful ladainha! Yes, it’s not necessarily just the double standard, since it’s fair enough to show the mestre/mestra more status, but just how extreme the double standard goes that’s the frustrating thing!

Hahah yup that’s what I do…practice instruments, socialize, practice moves…however, they still shouldn’t take it for granted that that’s what we’d be doing anyway! Maybe we’d planned to do capoeira for only the scheduled 2 hours that day instead of 4…and, again, had other things we really needed the time to do. Mais…c’est la vie x_x”

4 05 2008
Joaninha

Hey Highlander,

Thanks to you, too =) That’s a really good observation…I’m sure I’ve felt similar sentiments myself, about the “stranger”…especially when we had to throw a surprise birthday party once and were all made to feel obligated to attend, and I told my friend it felt weird because I didn’t know that person at all and would’ve much rather thrown a party for our own teacher(s)!

Yes, give and take, but just be aware of how much you’re doing of each…and we need just enough “disrespect” for us to remain able to think for ourselves, I’d say 🙂 (So actually it’s not truly disrespect, but really just critical thinking skills.)

4 05 2008
Joaninha

Hey Onça,

Thanks so much for your long and thoughtful comment. I agree that sometimes it does feel “suspect”, and I can definitely understand about the resentment, that so much trouble and money is going towards someone who you don’t think has ever taken any personal investment in you, so why should you have any personal investment in them? If anything, it should be your teachers who run the classes and teach the students day in, day out, who get all the hoopla, right?

On the other hand, it can always go back to the whole “well if they didn’t create the group, you wouldn’t be here”, which is kind of fair enough (again, as long as that line of reasoning isn’t abused or used for beyond what it warrants).

If you read the comments in the “What is the Role of a Mestre?” post, you’ll see more discussion about how the concept of “mestre” has evolved, where it used to mean “teacher” and then somewhere along the way was transformed into “master”.

I don’t really laugh at the situation (although I can see where the humour would be), because sometimes it kind of scares me…how I meet intelligent, smart, interesting people, and then they turn around and say something that makes it sound like they’ve been completely brainwashed by capoeira groupthink.

In short, I hear you, Onça. I still do think we should be careful though, that while trying to retain our independence/reason we don’t cross the line into actually being rude or truly disrespectful ourselves. 🙂

4 05 2008
Joaninha

Thanks, Daria! I agree, all of you guys are absolute stars when it comes to commenting.

It does make me feel better as well, to know that it’s not just me, that I haven’t just gone off my rocker or gotten up on a high horse.

Actually, I think we had a discussion about that too somewhere…about people who want to learn capoeira but not necessarily be part of a group in the way capoeira usually demands…ah, here it is (in the comments section):

“Defining Moments in the Life of a Capoeirista”

5 05 2008
cenoura

No, this is definately not just you, and it’s an important topic-I mean, yeah, you should respect those who took the time to learn and are now willing to take the time to teach. although I find it interesting how many people were told “don’t buy out someone with a higher belt than you” My instructor has actually made a point of saying that isn’t true. which is not to say that I’ve ever seen ANYONE buy out our mestre. but yeah, the lateness is one of the big ones-I’ve heard a mestre actually say “I’m Brazillian, so I can be late, but you guys are Americans, you should be on time” I’m still not sure what to think about that. I’m kind of curious about the “royal treatment” and the eating thing, though-am I just missing something? like, you can’t order dinner before the mestre? or if your food comes you actually have to wait for him to finish his conversation and take a bite?(this would kill with our mestre) or at least have a few people going to the hospital. I don’t know, maybe we’re just lucky.

5 05 2008
Joaninha

Hey Cenoura,

I think I’m okay with the not buying out someone higher than you part, unless I’m really, really hungry to play, because I personally feel like I want to/should accord them that respect, not just because I’m told to. Part of it is because I feel like even though we all become desensitized to it (luckily!), there is still some element of showmanship in a game since you’re playing in front of everyone in the roda, so if I buy out a higher belt sometimes I feel like that looks like I’m implying I can give as good as they’ve been giving…which is also why I don’t like buying in when two higher belts are playing, even if protocol-wise it’s okay, because I feel like I’m ruining a good game/their fun/the “show” for those in the roda.

About the Brazilian/American time thing…for some reason, that rings a bell with me! I’m pretty sure everyone would’ve laughed though at the actual saying of it…so it wasn’t a joke when that mestre said it? He was actually serious? I doubt he’d think that way if it were the other way around!!!!!

And nope, you didn’t miss anything, what you said is exactly it. Although theoretically/usually, since he’s ordered first, his food would arrive first anyway, so by the time yours arrives he would’ve started already.

5 05 2008
cenoura

wow-I guess I’m glad we go to buffets then. and yeah, I think it was meant to be a joke, though it is still how things go.

5 05 2008
Joaninha

Haha, in buffets though, the mestre goes first, then once he’s gotten his food everyone else gets up for theirs. Like I said though, I don’t really have a problem with this in general; it’s only when they make us wait beyond reason, purely for the sake of protocol (or “respect”), that it’s annoying.

Okay, as long as he wasn’t stating it seriously then…but it does imply they really are taking us all for granted, or at least our culture! Actually, that reminds me of a quote I read somewhere once…: from Bahia-Capoeira Blog: “At the beginning, I felt a certain difficulty in teaching capoeira to foreigners, but today it’s become easier after the time that I’ve spent working with them. They are very faithful, and very disciplined; if we tell them to do the same movement a hundred times, they do it. ” Haha…yup…that’s us…

8 05 2008
Shayna

Couple thoughts…

– I think mestres deserve the normal respect you would afford to 1) a guest; and 2) an elder. This means some deference and special attention – letting them go first, doing little courteous favors like arranging their transportation or bringing them a glass of water or whatever – but NOT fawning all over them or causing the students undue inconvenience. For one thing, because mestres are human and if that type of excessive “respect” is offered to them, they will be tempted to take advantage of it – who wouldn’t? Especially when a lot of them are coming from an environment where they didn’t get ANY respect (from families, from society, from peers) – sudden “superstar” status will be very, very appealing.

– Some mestres demand respect, others inspire respect. Quite a few do a little bit of both, and I think there’s a place for both. Either extreme end of the spectrum will have its problems – a mestre who does too much “demanding” is going to be seen as heavy-handed or egotistical and his students may feel taken advantage of; a mestre who does solely “inspiring” may find himself with discipline problems or unruly students if he is not firm at least once in a while when necessary.

– Finally… o mundo da volta. You reap what you sow. Mestres who abuse their students will eventually have most of their students – especially the higher-level ones – leave (I’ve seen it happen in multiple cases). Mestres who respect their students will have loyal students for life.

9 05 2008
Joaninha

Agree with everything, Shayna!

I especially like the distinction you made between “demanding” and “inspiring” respect.

One of my friends has told me how their teacher fully encourages them to explore other systems and ways of doing capoeira…because he knows that they’ll know that if they come back (and it will always be to open arms), it will have been because they made their own choice as to who/what they prefer and weren’t just told, and so from then on can be certain in the knowledge of that. That is someone who inspires my respect!

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