Lessons from Brazil: Whetting Attitude on the Stone of Capoeira

7 12 2009

[I went to Brazil for the first time this past August, with my capoeira group. This is something I wrote last night and seeing as the thoughts in it have been seminal to my personal development as a capoeirista, thought I’d share it with all of you…or whomever still visits! Thank you all as well for the “birthday” wishes on Facebook—that date is actually not my birthday but the birthday of this blog, so the timing of this post works out kind of nicely, as well. Apologies for disappearing off the face of the planet, and I hope you are all doing awesome, in capoeira and otherwise! -Joaninha]

[Note: I think it will become clear that this post is very much rooted in the specific context and values of my capoeira group, our academy culture, collective philosophy, etc. I only mention this in case some parts seem a bit cold or harsh, and realize that not all of what I wrote may click with everyone. Also please note that despite any of that, I’m still the same friendly and approachable (ex?)blogger as ever!]

***

Before I went to Brazil, so many capoeiristas talked it up as if it were some miracle procedure–it’ll change you, you’ll be a different person, you’ll never be the same, etc. Well, after returning back to normal classes at home, I can’t say they were completely wrong.

If I had to say I gained anything by going to Brazil, it would be: an edge. Not in the sense of a competitive edge (though in light of how perception and presence works in capoeira, possibly, but that’s a whole other post in itself), but personality-wise. In the sense of a hard, if not necessarily sharp, edge.

But the more time passes, the more I’ve felt “the Brazil effect” wearing off. So I’m writing this as a reminder to myself of what I learned and to capture some of that post-Brazil essence back, before I blithely slip into post-post-Brazil (which would equal pre-Brazil) mode.

Basically, I learned–and learned to live–four major lessons:

1. Fight, fight, fight.

I didn’t get into any actual fights while inside the roda, but on one level, it’s practically all I did while out of it. I learned to fight for my place in the roda, fight to see what was going on, fight to be seen, fight not be blocked by people just because I was below their eye-levels, fight not to be effortlessly shoved out of the way by arrogant higher-belts, fight to play, fight to even train, fight to prove that lower-belt/female/small/asian/whatever doesn’t equal sucky training partner or a lightweight capoeirista.

I think the best class of my life was during one of the batizado workshop days. Our mestre’s wife started a dance class with all the girls during lunch, and shortly after we’d started…the mestre started a capoeira class with the rest of the students–i.e. all the guys. This was the second time in as many days a class was “accidentally” all guys, and there I was in a freakin’ ad hoc colheita audition thinking I don’t even dance in the classes back home and was this what I came to Brazil for? So I mentally apologized to all the actual dancers for thinking “f this” and ran across to join the capoeira class.

And I swear I had never felt in more top form than in that class where I was the only girl in a class of at least 30-40 guys and from which I was initially excluded (however “inadvertently”). I got every sequence right away, my macacos were perfect, and I made sure every vingativa went in hard (as someone found out the hard way…sorry again dude, you were the absolute last person in the class I would’ve wished that on!). The mestre even walked by me once, made a correction to my vingativa, and…nothing else. Validation!

That’s when I realized that alongside all the unspoken rules in capoeira, each of us also has an unspoken amount of agency. Though it didn’t seem like it due to environmental factors, attitudes, assumptions, event structure, etc., theoretically any other (non-performance) girls could’ve also left dance for capoeira. Maybe a rule is unspoken because it’s actually non-existent, but the onus is on us to use our personal agency to discover that. They just make itreally hard to figure out, so you have to fight to realize and to take advantage of the fact.

2. It IS all about me.

In my implementation of lesson #1, it’s possible that there was maybe this one roda where in my eagerness to buy in and play I maybe possibly slightly accidentally not-proud-of-ly more-than-bumped into one of our profesors umm hypothetically 3 times in a row. Needless to say, he wasn’t pleased about it. So afterwards when I went to apologize properly he lectured me about how there’s a time to play but how I also have to be aware of other people in the roda and “it’s not all about you”.

But here’s the thing. I completely get what the profesor meant, and I agree with everything he said, in principle. The thing is, my natural setting is to be aware of all others first. I spent years going from letting anyone who showed inclination buy in before me when I wanted to, to just letting people I knew, to just friends/teachers, to only holding back when to still buy in would be blatant, shameless game-“stealing” (and maybe even then, since I suspect there’s no such thing as it’d imply the game “belonged” to the other person when clearly they were just too slow). And the only way I’ve been able to do that, to “de-Canadianize” as my teacher would say, IS to force myself into an “it’s all about me” mentality.

The rodas in Brazil were especially helpful in bringing this out, when I was so roda-starved to the point that I’d have broken games between advanced students without a second thought because I JUST DIDN’T CARE. And that’s the lesson I brought back: to play as much as I’m told I’m supposed to, I have to want it beyond caring, about consequences or anyone else or what they might think. And if that seems arrogant…that’s actually a bonus, because I’ve also come to believe that arrogant-seeming behaviour is rewarded more often than not, and WAY more often than the alternative, in capoeira (at least where my group is concerned).

3. Don’t be nice.

Also known as: if you have a choice, assume you’re going it alone, since you’ll likely end up doing so anyway and this way you’ll actually be prepared. Strangely enough it was North Americans who taught me this one, not Brazilians. This doesn’t actually have that much to do directly with capoeira in itself, and doesn’t apply so much now that we’re not traveling anymore, but as it was also a MAJOR Brazil lesson, thought I should mention it for the record. With a more community-oriented friend’s amendment, the final decree reads, “Be nice to others where you can, but don’t expect others to be nice to/for you.” Not unless you’re with close friends. ESPECIALLY where anything logistics-related is concerned.

If you really wanted, I suppose this applies to capoeira in terms of buying in. Letting other people go in front of you is being nice. Letting other people go in front also means not playing. So being nice = not playing. Don’t be nice = eu jogo capoeira!

4. Getting into trouble is REALLY, ACTUALLY, LITERALLY okay.

This one kind of combines all of the above: taking agency for your own access to capoeira & the roda, fighting to challenge unspoken rules, not caring about what others may think, and not projecting bonds of loyalty or courtesy where there is none. This one actually applies when all of the above goes wrong and instead of getting a huge boost of confidence that your audaciousness paid off, you end up getting reprimanded by a teacher or mestre–like yours truly.

So, there was the profesor thing. Then during a practice roda, also during the all-guys-plus-me class (Mestre & Sons Plus One?…sorry, couldn’t resist xD), I guess I bought in too “early” and the mestre stopped me and said to let the higher belts play first. Both times…that was all there was to me “getting in trouble”.

I didn’t lose my belt. I didn’t get kicked out of the group. I didn’t get hurt, or get detention or expelled from school or a failing grade. I didn’t get fired or arrested or fined.

Looking at that list, I wonder if that’s why Canadians (or whoever) are so scared of getting in trouble, in class? Since in the society we’ve been raised and conditioned in, “getting in trouble” has always meant material consequences: a note to take home, freedom restricted, money to pay, repeating a course–some sort of tangible loss. Not to mention the stigma attached to “getting in trouble” itself. (Cue third-grade class: “OOOHHHHHHH.”)

But in this case, there is no real “loss”. (In fact there’s gain, because as mentioned earlier, it pays in capoeira to show too much initiative rather than too little. Case in point: “You got in trouble already? Good!” -one of our teachers) But really, it’s all psychological. Getting yelled at may hurt your pride or be embarrassing for a bit, but in the larger scheme of things–nothing more. It’s like practicing floreios on cement your whole life and then entering a room with a mat. Why would you hold back as if the floor is still cement? Falling no longer means broken bones.

[DISCLAIMER: This refers to being scared of getting into trouble for stepping up or any keenness-related mistakes. Obviously if someone actually has lost a belt or been expelled from a group, what I wrote doesn’t apply and those cases are probably a completely different story.]

Anyway, this last lesson is what gives me confidence to follow through on all the others. It’s the knowledge that even if I do overstep some actual rule, for instance, it’s OKAY. Gratuitously quoting now, “…bought in to play. I got in trouble, I got yelled at, but so what? The point is, I got to play.

And when it comes to capoeira, isn’t that the whole point?





What I Get Out of Capoeira

10 01 2009

This post is nearly verbatim from a personal Montreal blog I started for my friends back home. Capoeira doesn’t come up until about two-thirds of the way through, but it was kind of a revelation, and an important one for me about capoeira, so I thought I’d share it with you guys and see if it resonated with any of you at all.  Montreal, by the way, is awesome!  Work hasn’t started yet, but I’ve already started training with a new group, I love my place, my roommates are great, and I love being in this city.

SATURDAY JANUARY 10 | 3:28 am | Musings

So, I moved back into the living room because I’d thought everyone was done but somehow my two roommates had ended up in the living room drinking more wine and chatting, so thought it probably wasn’t a very good idea to miss out on roommate bonding right from the start.

Ended up having a really interesting talk with Annick, that was both slightly inspiring and slightly depressing.

I was telling them how I’ve been coming to realize that a lot of big things I’ve decided to do (living in France, moving to Montreal, going to Brazil) have been fueled by me looking for that life-changing metamorphosis that I feel people are supposed to get from going away to university and that I never got (due to never moving out and my university just being a bigger version of my high school). Not only that, but my life has always been pretty…stable. I’ve never needed an adjustment period for anything—starting university, moving to France, moving back to Canada, moving to Montreal—and these are supposed to be defining events, during formative years. If someone were to chart my emotional/life-living state on a graph, I feel like it would consist of shallow peaks and troughs all the way through, whereas with most other people it seems like there are at least intermittent spikes in both directions.

Take exchange, for instance. Most people I know LOVED LOVED LOVED exchange, and then were genuinely depressed upon returning home. I had fun and enjoyed myself, but I don’t yearn for or dream of France each night (…or at all), and as I said, I slipped back into my life at home within a day—it was, in fact, almost disconcertingly as if I’d never left at all. I was absolutely dismayed when the first thing someone said to me was, “Wow, you’re exactly the same as you were in high school. You haven’t changed at all.” So what was the point? I’m still looking for something big to happen to me, something exciting and if not life-changing, something-changing. So if Montreal doesn’t do it, there’s still Brazil.

At least, that’s what I told Annick. But she said this, something she’s learned now that she’s left her 20’s and gone well into her 30’s, and after working at a job that was going great and leaving it to travel around the world for a year: There is no major change. There is no one big thing that happens to you and then changes the person you are. At the very core, everyone is the same person at 30 as they are at 20, 5, and 90. It’s only gradual little changes that happen to us, day by day, until one day we look up and realize, “Wow, I’ve changed.” But even then, it’s not so much your personality that has changed, as your values and what you want and expect out of life.

But then, what about all those people you knew in high school and then barely recognize five years later? “Well, yes, teenagers they are still changing.”

EXACTLY. So now I’m just afraid that the “same at 90 same at 20” rule only starts applying at twenty. What if your formative years don’t stretch into your 20’s, but include only your teens? It’s as a teenager, after all, that most people start “practicing” for all of life’s major mechanisms: moving away from home (independence), getting their first job (self-sufficiency), dating people (mating? life companionship? perpetuating the species? throwback to Megan: negotiation and compromise?), etc. Does that mean the “window” for truly major change has closed, and that anything I do from now on will have but little effect on who I am, because I’ll always stay who I am anyway? I found the idea of gradual/minute but perpetual change inspiring/encouraging, but this last thought is kind of discouraging.

Plus, I still don’t know if I buy it. I think people can and do change.

Actually, I should take back what I said earlier. I think capoeira has come the closest to doing what I’ve been looking for. During dinner, Annick asked me what I get out of capoeira. I told her all the usual reasons—a good work-out, music, the endless variety, the atmosphere/people, etc. It wasn’t until later that I realized what’s probably been THE reason for my devotion to capoeira, the one thing I get out of it that I couldn’t get anywhere else. I know I’m not the same now as I was as a new beginner. In terms of experience/outlook and character, let alone physical changes, sticking to capoeira has probably contributed more to my development than France and Montreal will combined. If any changes occurred within me while in France, I can name them and they all came from my experiences doing French capoeira, not living in France alone.

One of my friends said that you don’t grow if you’re “comfortable” (a.k.a. “stable”) all the time. And I’ve had an almost shamefully comfortable childhood, in all senses of the word, and been comfortable with pretty much every major transition in life, including both inter- and transnational moves. But I’m pretty sure I have never, in my life, been more uncomfortable than during that first class at the community centre—followed by first roda-viewing at the academy—and probably every capoeira class following over the subsequent year.* So, if discomfort equals growing, then within the context of capoeira, I’ve grown a lot.

(*Actually, a berimbau-stringing incident my friend refers to as “getting banished to the storage room” in France might eke out a win in that one, but it was still capoeira.)

So, I think this is how I’ve finally put my finger on what it is about capoeira that completely sucks me in and holds me fast. But not even just clear, overt and internal personal growth/change, but also constant acknowledgement and affirmation of it, from your friends, your capoeira teachers, other capoeira students, and perhaps most importantly, yourself, empirically (i.e. by actually doing something you wouldn’t’ve been able or even dared to do at an earlier point in your life). What do you get out of capoeira? Why do you do it, really?





Oi/Hallo/こんにちは/Ciao/Ni hao/привет? “Capoeira Cultures” Around the World

23 11 2008

We know that capoeira is part of a culture and has begun working its way into the hearts of many other cultures around the world. But have you ever looked at all the different cultures within capoeira itself?

What kind of capoeira cultures do different geographical cultures create?

A long time ago, I wrote a post about how it hit me that capoeira is truly an international sport. While I trained with a capoeira group in France, for instance, I would hear in French some of the exact same lessons and ideas I’d been taught in Canada, in English (which, of course, were all first conceived in Portuguese).

At the same time, I couldn’t help but notice a world of differences, as well. In fact, I’m pretty sure that it’s safe to say I experienced more culture shock within French capoeira than within France in general for a lot of other things on my exchange!

I was thinking about this recently, and it made me wonder: just putting aside for a minute the bottom line that capoeira is capoeira, no matter who, what, or where…how does (or might) being nested in a particular culture affect the capoeira that capoeiristas there practice?  Does “Capoeira” mean the same thing to people in Russia as it does to people in Spain?  If we all had a turn on Freud’s couch, would hearing “capoeira” trigger the same words and associations in a Swede’s mind as in that of a New Zealander’s?

I know my mental tag cloud for (my experience of) Canadian capoeira, infused with North American culture and mentality, would definitely hold a different set of words than the one for (my experience of) French capoeira.

The first would be something like “training, dedication, quality, tough love, relentless, standards”. Although capoeira still involves fun and games and playing around, at the end of the day, training, we’re told, is serious business. Being late is definitely not a smart thing to do (unless you enjoy push-ups, squats, and/or sprawls), and, except for total beginners, anything less than pushing yourself to the limits is not good enough.

The second tag cloud would feature words like “training, relaxed, laid-back, playful, casual”. People thought I was crazy when I trained with a frequency normal to my Canadian group, and I thought they were crazy for closing on weekends and school holidays! If someone was late, nobody batted an eye.

While in North America I’d always associated capoeira batizados with “training harder, goals, being ready”, in France (and Italy) I learned their new meaning as heralds of “road trips, partying, hooking up”.  Just last week, one of my teachers and some students laughed uproariously at the ridiculous and unheard-of idea of “going for drinks with Mestre”. In France, that’s totally what we did; the mestres bought the drinks!

Then, there’s this slightly amusing quote I found on Capoeira Connection, citing Mestre Val Boa Morte on capoeira in Australia:

“The only difference is that Australians are less spontaneous, they have a little less energy, and take a bit longer to fall in love with the art. In the roda, they’re slightly less competitive and they don’t have evil intent.”

(Chan, any comments? 😛 ) Finally, at a batizado in England I met a capoeira teacher from Poland whose students basically constitute his crew of friends, only nobody drinks or smokes because—he doesn’t allow them to.  Not that I necessarily condone drinking or smoking, but can you imagine that level of…integration…between you being a capoeirista and the other parts of your life, so much that someone who is essentially “one of the guys/girls”, by virtue of also happening to be your capoeira teacher, has that kind of “authority” over you? To me, at any rate, that’s mind-boggling—but to them, that’s capoeira.

At the same time, I absolutely realize that such comparisons/observations are to be taken with a grain of salt.  Leaving aside grupo-rooted (not country-rooted) differences, the very fact that they constituted a “culture shock” to me might have made such differences more pronounced than they actually were, and of course, that works both ways, between everyone. For instance, in France I saw my Canadian capoeira academy turn into a military regiment run by a brainwashing dictator, and back in Canada my French capoeira friends were revealed to be drunkards stumbling high around a roda. Neither, needless to say, is the truth!!

At any rate, that’s what I mean by capoeira being a different sort of activity depending on where you find it. And it’s not like the French capoeiristas I met cared or liked capoeira less, or that capoeira is more important to people in my Canadian group than in my French group.  In fact, I met a lot more students there who had already been to Brazil or knew some Portuguese, than I’d met in Canada.  It’s just that practicing capoeira, or being a capoeirista, connotes different things for each—and really, isn’t that just like capoeira?

——

REMINDER: November 30 is Mandingueira‘s ONE-YEAR ANNIVERSARY! I will be releasing my secret project on that day to celebrate, so be sure to drop by and check it out! I’m also hoping to have a second MAJOR surprise for you guys, but as it’s not yet a sure thing I’m waiting to announce it. One more week!!





Feminism and Other “-isms” in Capoeira: Explanations, Not Excuses

9 11 2008

Believing in an ism may not mean it works for EVERYTHING...

Last year, I randomly came across a blog that said something along the lines of, “Feminism is a crutch that self-indulgent people use as an excuse to keep themselves and other women in a state of perpetual, self-exonerating victimhood.”

(I tried to find an exact quote that summed up the argument, but had to stop after an unsuccessful and depressing hour and a half of trawling through antifeminism blogs and articles.)

Basically, the statement says that feminism is just an excuse for people who haven’t achieved more to go, “It’s not that I’m lazy; the system is working against me!”

While I firmly disagree with the overly reductive and pretty offensive idea that that’s all feminism is (the system and society DOES in one way or another work against practically anybody who isn’t all of white, heterosexual, and male), I have to say that I can see how becoming invested in an “ism” can cause somebody to inadvertently end up using it the way antifeminists mean it. Interestingly enough, I came to this conclusion through capoeira—more specifically, through a maturing of my ideas in last-last week’s post about floreios, strength, and image in capoeira.

When Explanations Go Wild

First off, let me make one thing clear: ISMS (feminism, sexism, racism, homophobia, agism, etc.) are meant to be explanations, not excuses.  If a woman who has earned and deserves a promotion does not get it because of sexism, that is an explanation, rightly used to point out social injustices in the world and how they work, in hopes of fixing the system. If, however, the woman has not earned nor deserves a promotion but cites sexism as the reason for not getting promoted, then she is using sexism as an excuse, in order to exonerate herself from the fact she didn’t work hard enough or needs to work harder in the future.

What I think is that while everybody starts off with -isms as explanations, the more they become immersed in the world of their particular -ism and the more they learn about it and see just how prevalent it is, eventually, there may emerge a potential danger of unconsciously using that -ism as a personal excuse in addition to a legitimate explanation for “failure” or lack of achievement.

As I mentioned, this thought came to me while further thinking through my views on the “floreio effect”. (If you have not yet read the post I wrote on that, it might be a good idea to do so before continuing, so you don’t get lost.  Click here to read it. Don’t worry; we’ll still be here when you return!)

One Thing Needful

In the floreios post, I pinpointed two things that I believe contribute to a capoeira training system that allows certain capoeira students to derive additional benefits from their capoeira training, as compared to less athletically-gifted capoeira students.  These were (1) having or looking as if you have much physical strength and (2) an academy-wide strength-oriented, floreio-centric attitude regarding capoeira training that I termed “weight-class mentality”.

In truth, there’s a third major factor involved, which I left out because I didn’t think of it until after having formed the full theory as I presented it, and because I was saving it for today’s post.  The third factor is the mentality of the “bigger/stronger” capoeira students themselves.

What I realized is that even though capoeira students do benefit hugely if the first two conditions of the “floreio effect” apply to them, it’s not as if they just sit back and do nothing all the while.  Part of how the floreio effect works is that not only are premature impressions of the student’s “advancedness” reinforced in other capoeira students’ and teachers’ minds, they are reinforced in said student themself. So then it becomes a case of them not just attracting “enriched” training, but one where they also gain the confidence to put themselves in positions that enriches their capoeira training.

For instance, sure big/strong capoeira students are challenged more often (and thus have their skills developed at an accelerated pace) by advanced belts in the roda, because some advanced belts assume that because they’re big and strong, of course they can take it, nevermind how long they’ve actually been training for.  But part of the reason that happens is that the students themselves have the confidence to, and do, regularly buy in to play with the advanced capoeiristas!

Are you turning your -ism into an excuse?

“Anything You Can Do…”

Here’s the important thing: That third factor?  It’s not an external circumstance. It’s completely in the person’s control how much confidence they exude and whether they behave like they’re a beginner (shying away) or a more advanced capoeirista (taking chances and putting yourself out there), triggering further impressions in others that affect their perceptions of you as a capoeirista, despite whether or not you actually are beginner or advanced.

Once I realized that, I felt that my floreio theory had begun to show a slight tear between the stitches.  In a way, it was another -ism. For the purposes of this post, let’s call it “strengthism”. So while I still believe “strengthism” provides a legitimate explanation, without recognizing that third factor it was also possibly functioning as an excuse.  Full disclosure: I never bought in with solidly more advanced capoeiristas in the roda, in my own group, before the “floreio effect” theory and everything I just wrote about occurred to me. I do now!!!

Returning to feminism, or sexism/misogyny, in the context of capoeira there is also a danger of falling back into that as an “excuse” for not advancing.  First, in no way am I discounting the sexism and misogyny that exists; it does, in all the forms and with all the effects on people that feminism describes. At the same time, the point where you take an -ism beyond what it can explain is when it turns into an excuse.  Thus, sexism affects women in capoeira, but since there are still many women succeeding and advancing in capoeira, if you are a woman who isn’t, then it’s probably (for the most part) not completely fair to blame non-success totally on sexism.  Does that make sense?

Tell Me Something I Don’t Know

To make it really clear, I’ll use another “strengthism” example from my own experience.  Over the past couple months, for one reason or another, I’ve started to hear a refrain that goes, “technique’s fine, just need more strength [to do the move properly]”, or “good game, you would’ve killed if you were bigger”, and other similar comments that eventually did make me feel strength[ism] was the ONE thing holding me back from actually being good (or, to follow Angoleiro’s prudent example: “good” 😉 ). To be honest, I’m pretty sure my frustration over that was what brought the “floreio effect” to my attention in the first place.

What made me realize the danger of stretching an explanation into an excuse was just another normal instance of the above during a capoeira class: I couldn’t quite get a certain move, and sure enough…”your technique’s fine; it’s just strength”.  By then, I think I’d heard this message often enough that my mind reached a certain point and almost got sucked into some sort of ironic backwards somersault: “Okay, you would be good if you were stronger.  So basically, you are good, since the only thing missing is strength, and you can’t help that so it’s not your fault, especially with the floreio effect in play.” (The unsaid implication: “So now you can rest on your system-is-against-me laurels and become a complacent capoeira student.”)

So obviously, a few problems with that. Firstly, lack of strength is definitely not “the one thing missing”; it’s the weakest point, but that doesn’t automatically mean I’m particularly good at all the other stuff.  Secondly, not having more strength is my fault if I know that’s the problem but still do nothing about fixing it when I have the means to. (Just so you know, I started working out regularly for the first time in my life this past summer, precisely to get stronger for capoeira, and that was before all this came up. And yes, I am proud of myself for actually having kept it up, thank you very much. 😛 )

Finally, what?! “Would be” to “is” represents a somewhat large mental leap there.  It’s like that comic strip with a huge scientific equation on the chalkboard, and halfway through there’s step labelled “then a miracle happens”!  This is complacency: if I really did believe I was already “good” in all the non-strength aspects of capoeira (which I’m not, assuming good means “above average”), then it would be easy to blame all future non-success on lack of strength alone and not on possible weaknesses in those other areas. So then, I’d end up dismissive of moves I can’t get, stop paying attention to non-strength abilities, and ultimately become weakened in everything.  Complacency is sneaky like that.

Of course, that hasn’t really happened.  But it did make me realize the potential “trap” one could inadvertently slide into by investing too deeply in or drawing too deeply on the explanatory powers of a particular -ism.  It’s becoming complacent in the face of discrimination or extenuating circumstances, precisely because you’re so aware it exists. The ultimate irony is that if that happens, you will have kept yourself down even further than discrimination alone might have, completely defeating the purpose we have and learn about -isms in the first place.





Strength and “Image” in Capoeira: Why Floreios DO Matter

24 10 2008

Floreios--important but not in the way you think?Image is everything—or so the saying goes. The use of floreios in capoeira, in a way, is all about image.  Ergo, aren’t floreios everything?

[NOTE: As you may have figured by now, this post might be more regional-centric than usual, and for all I know not even apply to many other regional groups, depending on how much they value strength and floreios in a capoeirista.  To angoleiro/as and others to whom this note applies, I apologize in advance!]

Alright, for those of you currently shaking your head going, “Dear lord, Joaninha, have you learned nothing?”, let me explain. Based on some observations I’ve made over the past few months, I’m going to argue that while floreios probably are as inessential to a good capoeirista’s game as most people like to say, the ability (or lack thereof) to do them does matter and does affect your training in the long run as a capoeirista in a typical academy setting, particularly beginners, which thus ultimately affects your overall level in capoeira.

Let’s (not) Get Physical

It has nothing to do with the floreios themselves. Physically, being able to throw your entire body over your head or spin 360 degrees sideways in the air has zero correlation to whether you can just as skillfully strategize, emote, manipulate, flow, and/or converse inside the roda. The thing is, physicality has to do with facts.  And as I once heard someone say, “Facts are clear, they’re straightforward, they’re organized, you can understand them.  It’s when people get involved that everything becomes all messy.”

And capoeira involves nothing if not people! This is where the notion of “image” comes in.

First Impressions

Basically, right or wrong, being able to do floreios is often associated in people’s minds with being a good or advanced capoeirista.  I also think this happens on a subconscious level more often than not; even if people consciously know—and dutifully say—that pulling off floreios doesn’t necessarily mean you’re good or advanced, it’s natural to be impressed whenever anyone, especially a beginner, does something fancy, and so that makes an impression on you, consciously or subconsciously.  For supporting evidence regarding image/impressions and the (sub)conscious: how do you think advertisements, the media, and political campaigns work?

What helps to make this impression on people (i.e. teachers and other students) is size and strength.  Naturally, capoeira training involves a lot of strengthed-based exercises. Since a lot of classes put advanced students in front based on the assumption they can do the exercise properly for more beginner students to watch, students who aren’t advanced but still strong are also put in front as examples, because their strength allows them to pull off the exercise equally well.

My point is that while these students are considered “advanced” for those exercises purely for their physical strength, it is all too easy to see them as more “advanced” overall, especially as strength-based exercises are common/frequent in training, and so one sees the stronger students put ahead more often. Thus the impression of those students’ “advanced-ness” continues to build in people’s minds and subconciousnesses.

Seeing Is Believing

The more often certain students are seen in a position considered “advanced”—given to them strictly through size/strength and not taking into account experience, technique, strategy, etc., simply because the nature of the drill doesn’t require it—the more people will believe in and treat them as advanced capoeiristas, or capoeiristas with more potential, pushing their training more and playing more challenging games with them (for instance), until, all other things being equal, they truly are good, advanced capoeiristas.

Now, what’s wrong with this?  Absolutely nothing.  It’s a nice, normal, great example of someone with some natural advantage being trained by their capoeira teachers so they can work their way to the top (since no amount of strength precludes some effort in capoeira). The only thing is—at the risk of sounding somewhat small-minded here—that sometimes, sometimes, that given prominence and pushing forward of bigger/physically stronger capoeira students comes at the expense of seemingly smaller/physically weaker capoeira students, regardless of other, non-physical factors. (And perhaps rightly so, but I’ll come back to that later.)

Case Study

For example, let’s say that a class is told to go into partners to practice a sequence. Now, so far I haven’t mentioned anything about gender because it’s not directly related to the point of this post (physically stronger/weaker students as opposed to female/male students), and often throwing feminist views into an argument seems to have the unfortunate side-effect of making people dismissive of the entire thing. But in this example, quite a few women in my group, beginner and advanced, are smaller and slighter, while there are a lot of pretty big guys, both beginner and advanced. So what happens in partner work is that all the guys end up with each other, and same for the girls (based mostly on size, I should point out, rather than gender).

So, let’s say there’s a male capoeira student and a female capoeira student looking for partners.  The woman is a higher level than the man, but being smaller, is “supposed to” go with a smaller partner.  So based on statistics (and observations), the guy ends up working with a more advanced student (as a higher percentage of advanced capoeiristas are male) and the girl ends up working with a more beginner student (as there are more beginner than advanced female capoeiristas).

Obviously, size and strength matters when you’re training something like martelo or chapa de costa.  If just practicing sequences, however, you’d almost want students to go with completely differently-sized partners, as, for instance, a really short person would learn to kick higher while a tall person is forced to esquiva lower. But in most cases, no matter what the exercise, you’d think the academy was a boxing ring with uptight referees, the way people zoom (or encourage others to zoom) towards their own weight class.

The thing is, whom you work with and are exposed to on a regular basis does affect your training in the long run. Imagine five years of consistently being partnered with more beginner students. Now imagine five years of consistently working with capoeiristas who have more skill, knowledge, and experience than you do.  This is important when you consider partner work isn’t just for one isolated drill, but for many exercises and activities over a long period of training capoeira.

Thus, returning to our example, what happens? The guy’s training is slightly but steadily “accelerated” by his constant training with advanced students, and the girl, while maybe not exactly “brought down”, repeatedly loses out on training with a partner her level or higher—purely because the guy is bigger and stronger (not, please notice I’m not saying, just because he’s a guy; that’s incidental). The only difference between the two, deciding what kind of training each gets, is strength and size thanks to “weight class mentality”, not experience, technique, game, or any of those “more important” aspects of capoeira.

All Capoeiristas Are Not Created Equal

Thus, all of the factors I’ve explained above—rooted in having physical strength which is often displayed through floreios—add up and build into a snowball effect of subtly yet consistently “enhanced” capoeira training for the student who happens to walk into the academy athletically blessed.

And though it may be hard to believe after reading all I’ve just written, I’m not grudging them that (much). How can I??  That’s what I meant by “perhaps rightly so”, earlier.  Shouldn’t those who have more potential be encouraged to get ahead? Isn’t that what happens everywhere else, from kindergarten to grad school to the workplace? At the least, it would be quite unfair to stronger students to hold them back and turn each class into some Communist-like capoeira camp, where carefully divided training is rationed out in equal portions to each and every capoeira student.

So, I really hope this post didn’t come off as ranting against what I wrote about, because it’s not supposed to be.  I didn’t write in order to decry the “floreio effect” (as I christened it as of 1 second ago); I wanted to simply point out it exists, at least in my experience.

The Floreio Effect

Being able to do floreios doesn’t matter for its own sake, but for the sake of the consequences and implications of you being able to do them as a beginner capoeirista, starting with the impression you make on the teachers and students around you with shows of physical strength. Because strength is the one immediately applicable attribute of capoeira that’s flashy when you’re a beginner with not much else, it helps to overtly build one’s image of “advancedness”.  This opens you to further attention and some advantages of training as someone who is more advanced even though you’re still a beginner, until you really are advanced, allowing you to reach that point sooner and more quickly than someone who lacks physical strength, connected to the the ability to do floreios. Thus, when it comes to training capoeira, in the long, overarching scheme of things: even if they don’t matter the most—floreios do matter.

***

p.s. I developed this theory a month or two ago, so I’ve had further thoughts relating to it since then.  They’re on a pretty different topic, though grown out of this one, so I will be articulating them in another, upcoming post.

p.p.s. The more I think about it, the even less I think this post might speak to many other groups besides my own. Mainly, I’m remembering the capoeira group I trained with in Europe all last year, also contemporanêa, and I don’t recall “weight class mentality” (or gender distinction) in partner work or rodas making an appearance at all.





Looking at the “Capoeira” in “Capoeira Regional”

5 08 2008

Capoeira regional

Something very interesting occurred to me as I was typing up my responses to the “Feminism, Capoeira, Cultural Appropriation, & Black Self-Determinationdiscussion. The funny thing is that after I published and reread what I’d written, I realized that my “epiphany” was actually a really common and oft-argued viewpoint. So common and oft-argued, in fact, that I’d never felt terribly interested in discussing it on here before. But thanks to that conversation, I ended up arriving at this one point from the complete opposite side. It felt exactly like the difference between arriving in China by plane, and arriving in China through a tunnel you started digging in your own backyard.

(*For context and background information, before continuing, I strongly recommend you first click here and read the original discussion):

In the very wide-ranging, thought-provoking, and possibly inflammatory conversation we’ve all been sharing in, several points have been brought up in direct reference to capoeira, such as cultural appropriation, changing or ditching tradition and bringing in your own values, and focusing on what you like and distilling out the rest.

Now, what I realized—is it just me, or does that describe exactly what happened in the development of capoeira regional?

If Greg Downey’s Learning Capoeira is correct, and if I recall it correctly, he wrote that regional is faster, flashier, and more focused on kicks and acrobatics because that’s what the majority demographic of its practitioners were interested in. This demographic consisted of middle-to-upper-class, white students who urged or convinced Mestre Bimba to concentrate more on the martial and acrobatic aspects of capoeira in their learning, while simultaneously encouraging him away from the ritualistic and traditional aspects, out of disinterest. At the same time, these students possibly incorporated one or two things they had learned from previous martial art experience, as well.

So if you think about it, it really seems like capoeira regional was created precisely through cultural appropriation, infusion of own values, and discarding of under-valued aspects by “outsiders” to capoeira’s original community—but still with the help and cooperation of part of the community itself. Yet, it was because of precisely such changes that capoeira had its big explosion, paving the way for regional and thus opening up opportunities for angola’s revival later…paving the way for capoeira, period.

So, where does this leave us? With the conclusion that capoeira regional “is not capoeira”? Or is that an example of change happening from within a community…yet with outsiders’ “help”, or “hybridization” (and if so, does that legitimize those concepts to at least a certain extent)? Or is it just a fact of life to accept—that things change, in and of themselves (especially considering, moreover, that we haven’t lost the “original” [if one takes angola as that] despite such change)?





Feminism, Capoeira, Cultural Appropriation, & Black Self-Determination

22 07 2008

Last week, a very important and unsettling (for me) but necessarily tough conversation began underneath my “Why ‘Sexist Capoeirista’ is an Oxymoron” post. Kimbandeira raised many deep issues that span across feminism, anti-racism, social values, and of course, our own positions in relation to capoeira.

...taking the time to take Africa and the cultural and intellectual production of African seriously.

These included issues such as the “position of privilege” from which “white [or, I suppose, ‘whitewashed’] feminists” seem to speak while advocating feminism, disregarding or trampling over (inadvertently or not) the not necessarily similar positions of black or brown women in the process, or of other women of colour.

A second major issue was cultural appropriation and sense of entitlement: As “gringas/gringos”, do we have the “right” to change capoeira from its original form/context and modify it into better suiting our own values (even a value such as gender equality)?

Finally, how valid is our 21st-century belief (exemplified in my own short story post, “Contours“) that the individual is what matters, freedom of choice and self-expression, options and unrestrained pursuit of happiness, as opposed to the values system of social responsibility, where duty to society, community, and family comes before the individual, no matter what?

The first issue, regarding mainstream feminism and anti-racism, is one I’ve wanted to approach for a while now, but didn’t because I knew I’d be going in way over my head. So, I have Kimbandeira to thank for giving me the opportunity to bring it to all of your guys’ attention. Please read her comments, and all of the responses, for what I consider to be a completely thought-provoking and eye-opening read. Click here.