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?





The Brazil/Africa Capoeira Metaphor: Seeing Through Stereotypes

12 05 2008

Do you see through stereotypes?Before/while/after writing the “Is Brazil the Mother or Father of Capoeira?” post, I had some tiny, niggling misgivings about it at the back of my mind, but ignored them for the sake of the post and saying what I wanted to say about the metaphor. However, the more I thought about it, the less comfortable and the more, well, intellectually dishonest it seemed to just leave it, especially when what was bothering me stood out even more clearly with Xixarro’s first comment and then my own response to it. So, I’m going to distill all those thoughts out now.

In the post itself, I noted how the original metaphor and my rationale for its correction were based on stereotypes, something I’ve touched on before here. Thus, the first problem: was I reinforcing those stereotypes by bringing it all up, and basing my rationale on them? The second problem: I felt it was feminist to advocate for Brazil as the mother of capoeira rather than as the father (in addition to it being first and foremost logical, of course). But I was relying on (and so possibly reinforcing) gender stereotypes in order to make that advocation. So then wasn’t that counterproductive, and maybe even hypocritical, feminism-wise?

Okay, first things first. I think it was right to point out that Brazil seems more like the mother instead of the father of capoeira, because when I first realized why the comparison didn’t seem accurate, I felt like there was some hypocrisy going on: “Oh sure, pigeonhole women and femininity as the nurturing, childrearing, breeding-is-their-function ones, until it’s time to give them credit for it (i.e. parenting capoeira), then switch it all around.”

Then, there was the idea that capoeira is “masculine”, so therefore of course Brazil would be the “masculine” partner as well, and the idea that of course the country that’s the most majorly/obviously associated with or seemed to play the biggest part in something (in this case, capoeira) would be the “male”. So, my objection was in order to deconstruct the seeming hypocrisy and system of thought there.

As for reinforcing the stereotypes…I actually realized just how entrenched they were even as I started writing this post: “in addition to it being first and foremost logical”, I wrote, referring to my “correction”. Well, the only reason I found it “logical” in the first place was because my premises were the very stereotypes I was trying to deconstruct!

It all became even more obvious and more uncomfortable when Xixarro made his comment and I replied to it, and I realized I’d somehow gone from arguing against stereotypes to arguing for which stereotypes seemed more “right”! In truth, no stereotypes are right, let alone “logical”—by definition!

It’s not logical that woman = childrearer or = background/minor role*, and it’s not logical that man = leader/fountainhead/major role. Again, those are all purely social, (hu)man-made constructions. Somebody just upped and decided those things, with really no basis whatsoever except for his own inflated superiority complex.

So, in conclusion: While I relied on stereotypes to make my argument against one instance of (mis)use of stereotypes, at least I recognized that I was doing it, and then went on (in this post) to deconstruct those stereotypes themselves. And hopefully, this provided a good case study for you in the recognition and disconstruction of stereotypes, whether as obvious statements or as subtle underlying premises in yourself!

Picture source: http://thegreatconnect.wordpress.com/category/brasil/





Brazil: The Father of Capoeira—or the Mother?

8 05 2008

Despite the title, this post is not exactly about how capoeira originated. It’s about something I heard recently, and wanted to…question? Correct? Mostly because I didn’t say anything at the time I heard it, and slightly kind of regret it now; so I’m saying it here!

Capoeira, the child of Africa and Brazil

I was at an event when a mestre (well, okay, my mestre) started talking about capoeira, and partway through he said, “Africa is the mother of capoeira…and Brazil is the father.” At this point there was a rippling of “oohhhhs” and laughter among the students, and a self-satisfied pause at his own joke. But I just wondered…why was that funny/how was it a joke? I thought making the comparison was fine (though inaccurate, as I’ll discuss shortly), but were people laughing because of the idea that Brazil “overpowered” Africa, or seized its flower of capoeira, or something? Because in that case, it really wouldn’t have been funny at all.

As for the comparison itself, first I thought it was fine (without the supposed-to-be-funny part), but thinking upon it further, I realized it was actually wrong. Assuming that the way, way-back roots of capoeira are from Africa (safe general statement #1) and that the actual sport/art as we know it today came to flourish in Brazil (safe general statement #2), then…Africa is actually the father of capoeira, and Brazil is the mother.

Why? Think about it. (Note: This is going to be all based on stereotypes…since that’s how metaphors work.) Africa provided the seed of capoeira, but it was the environment in Brazil that nourished and raised capoeira (even if at one point Brazil actually tried to abort it, but you get what I mean…though even in that respect, to whom do abortions usually apply?). The genes and chromosomes of capoeira came from both Africa and Brazil, but it was inside Brazil where they actually combined and merged and grew into the fully-formed art of capoeira (or as fully-formed as a constantly changing and evolving art can get). The gestation period of capoeira took place in Brazil—that is, Brazil was the womb. And who has those?

So, with all due respect to the mestre…if one insists on making this particular comparison, it’d be more accurate to say that Africa was the father of capoeira, and Brazil the mother. Not the other way around. And that doesn’t mean Brazil is weaker than or has been subjugated by Africa. Just my two cents!

Picture source: http://masscapoeira.com/HistoryofCapoeira.html





Calling All Capoeiristas! Who Do You Know is Working for Change?

12 02 2008

Is your grupo building a school in Brazil?  Has your mestra/e organized a panel on women in capoeira?  Does a capoeirista you know inspire change wherever s/he goes, through their love of capoeira and passion for the art?

If so, I want to hear about it! 

Readers/fellow capoeiristas!  This is your chance to contribute, and moreover your chance to turn the spotlight on that deserving someone or worthwhile project that you feel the world needs to know about.  Here’s how it works:

1. You send me an email describing who or what you want to spotlight, and why you think I should write about them.  The only criteria is that it has to have something directly to do with how capoeira is helping to make a difference in the world.  I won’t put a word count limit on it, but please keep in mind time constraints and that your submission will not necessarily be chosen.  Send the email to axejoaninha[at]gmail[dot]com, with subject line: Spotlight Capoeira and Change.

2. If your email is chosen, I will send a reply asking for more information about the person/project/story, including contacts and possibly photos.  The article I write will then be featured on Blue Snake Books Blog, as part of their/my ongoing Capoeira and Change series (and of course publicized here on Mandingueira).

What’s in it for you?

Well, first of all, those warm fuzzies that we all love so much!  But in more tangible terms:

  • You will receive the very cool custom-made Mandingueira spiral-bound capoeira notebook featured in the picture below.  (Perfect for keeping track of all those sequences and song lyrics!)
  • Your spotlightee(s) will receive a donation ($20 CDN), if a current project and accepting, or also a notebook, if an individual person.

Tell me how you see capoeira changing the world, and win this Mandingueira notebook! 

So, what are you waiting for?  If there’s a time for you to speak up, it’s now!  And don’t just tell me—tell your sister about this, your partner, your best friend, your contra-mestra, and every capoeirista you know!  This will be an ongoing project, which means unless I indicate otherwise before then, I’ll still be accepting emails for this six days, three weeks, two months, etc., from now.  Please keep in mind, though, that it doesn’t count if you tell me about something already mentioned on this blog or that is obvious/easy to find (e.g. ABADA Capoeira San Francisco, Grupo Nzinga), unless you are writing about a specific project or movement that may or may not be widely known yet.  Finally, also please know that if you email me about something and I don’t write about it right away, that does not mean I won’t write about it some time in the future!

To find out more about the thoughts and ideas behind this, or what exactly I mean by “capoeira and change”, please read these posts (if you haven’t already):

Can Capoeira Change the World?
Can Capoeira Change the World? Part 2
Capoeira as a Force of Change

 

To: axejoaninha[at]gmail[dot]com
Subject: Spotlight Capoeira and Change

Body:

Over to you!

Update:
I’ve created a page on my site (see navigator bar) specifically for this project, for easy reference in the future.  Also, upon further thought I decided to pick a subject to spotlight no more than once a month.  Which means that you guys get a whooooole month to put in your proposals!





Capoeira é Dança, Part 1: Maculelê

17 01 2008

Welcome to Part 1 of Mandingueira’s newest series, Capoeira é Dança!  Maculelê has always been one of my absolute favourite things about capoeira since the first day I saw it (“That’s even cooler than the backflips!”), and I hope you enjoy finding out more about this spellbinding dance as much as I did!   

Myths and Legends

Maculelê may have been named for a village hero who single-handedly fought off an enemy tribe.Maculelê has its origins steeped in waters as murky as those which surround the origin of capoeira. Some say it came from Africa. Some say it came from indigenous Brazil. One story features slaves on a sugarcane plantation; another features two tribes at war. What is agreed, however, is that maculelê is a warrior dance—clashing blades, flying sparks, and heroic movements all blend together in a whirlwind performance against the pounding of hypnotic drums.

One of the most popular origin stories of maculelê attributes it to African slaves working on the sugarcane plantations in Brazil. The maculelê sticks were to represent stalks of sugarcane, and machetes the large knives used to cut them. Slaves, according to this theory, either formed the dance for entertainment in the fields or senzalas while resting between work, with the dance movements representing the motions of cutting sugarcane; performed it to vent their anger and frustration; or, like capoeira, practiced it as a form of self-defense disguised as a dance, later using the sticks, knives, and movements to protect themselves from physical punishment. Maculelê performances have also been known to use flaming torches in place of sticks or machetes; these represent the sticks some say slaves used to fight their “captains”, which were pulled, still burning, from the fire.

The other principal version of maculelê’s origins features a village hero, and there are variations even within this. As the story goes, all the men of a village went hunting and fishing one day, and left only one man or one boy to protect the rest of the village (i.e. women, children, and the elderly). An enemy village attacked, and the hero fought them all off with only a pair of wooden sticks he picked up off the ground. In some versions he dies in the attempt, but always when the rest of the village men return, they celebrate his bravery and spirit, creating the dance of Maculelê (possibly the hero’s name) in his honour. This story is said by some to have taken place in Africa, and one source goes so far as to give specifics: it was not one man, but 22, and they were from a village in Nigeria.

Maculelê

Finally, maculelê seems to be partly yet very strongly rooted in the indigenous culture of Brazil. Popular Brazilian legends tell the same tale of a sole man or boy fighting off an entire enemy tribe and saving his own, then being celebrated in the dance of maculelê. According to one, the battle was actually part of an ongoing conflict between two tribes, a warlike one and a peaceful one. The latter could not defend themselves against repeated attacks by the former, until during one attack, a young boy named Maculelê ran around with such ferocious energy holding two sticks in his hand that the warlike tribe never came back.

There is much talk of African culture having mixed with Brazil’s indigenous culture in the creation of maculelê, especially as the dance resembles some Brazilian aboriginal ones. A study by Manoel Querino, on the other hand, claims that maculelê was actually derived from the Cucumbi natives in Angola, whose battle traditions involved a “more elaborate and complex warrior dance” that “included group dance formations simulating actual combat”.

That’s it for how maculelê came to exist in the first place, but what happened after? How did this “dance of sticks” migrate from indigenous tribes, whether in Africa or Brazil, into the academies and performances of capoeira schools today?

All the World’s a Stage

Maculelê is performed as a popular part of many festivities in Santo Amaro.That would be thanks to one Paulino Alusio de Andrade, also known as Mestre Popo do Maculelê, in the city of Santo Amaro. Apparently, Mestre Popo first used the movements of this near-forgotten dance in the street, with a friend to attract the attention of women. Then, he gathered family and friends in 1943 in order to teach them maculelê based on his memory. He refined and revived it through a folkloric dance company called Conjunto do Maculelê de Santo Amaro, with the intention of reintroducing maculelê in local religious festivals. As a result, Mestre Popo is now considered by some to be the father of maculelê in Brazil.

If Mestre Popo is the father, Santo Amaro may well be the home. A city in interior Bahia, Santo Amaro is known for its African cultural heritage, which strongly includes maculelê. Incidentally (or perhaps not so incidentally), Santo Amaro is apparently also known for “the green of its sugarcane fields”. It’s not surprising then to hear that maculelê is supposed to have developed in the sugarcane fields of Santo Amaro, where the dance has been performed in local festivals for over 200 years. It is a leading number in the Nossa Senhora de Purificacao (Our Lady of Purification) festival every February, and plays a role in other religious and harvest festivities as well.

Although no one knows exactly how old maculelê is, the role it played in Santo Amaro is unmistakeable, with records such as the following newspaper obituary, published in O Popular, December 10, 1873:

“On the first of December the African Raimunda Quiteria passed away at the age of 110.  In spite of her age, she still used to cut the grass and sweep the front and back of the ‘Church of Purification’ for the maculelê festival.”

The popularity of maculelê declined after the abolition of slavery in 1888, coinciding with the death of great maculelê masters in the early 1900s, until it was revitalized by the efforts of Mestre Popo (purely for the tourism, one source claims). Now, the dance takes centre stage once again, especially among festivities in northeastern Brazil.

Maculelê performance by a capoeira grupo

As for maculelê’s association with capoeira, this supposedly began in the 1960s, through the students of Mestre Bimba. Many capoeira groups today incorporate maculelê into their schools due to its similar Afro-Brazilian roots to those of capoeira.

Dance this Dance

Maculelê dancers using machetes, or facãosMaculelê is immediately recognizable for its dramatic, expressive motions, high-energy performances, spectacular choreography (if applicable), and mesmerizing rhythms. The sticks, called grimas, were originally 24 inches long and 1 1/8 in. thick, but today have a range of 12-20 inches. Traditionally, grimas are made of biriba wood, the same used to make berimbaus. Maculelê knives, normally machetes, are called facãos, and they were traditionally around 40cm long (about 16 inches).

The dance is performed to a 4-count rhythm: for three beats, players strike their own sticks (or knives, or flaming torches) together in combination with expressive and athletic movements, and every fourth beat, partners strike their right-hand sticks together. Grass skirts are normally worn for performances, and sometimes bodies are painted. Although today many maculelê performances are choreographed and have dancers performing movements individually in straight lines, true maculelê is done in a roda just like capoeira is. Someone begins singing, then two people enter and begin to play. According to one source, the original basic step of maculelê was a “broken gingado” similar to that found in frevo, but through the years has been turned into “a hardened ginga with little swing”.

Maculelê by Grupo Abada CapoeiraMaculelê songs are sung mostly in Portuguese as well as in Yoruba, one of the languages spoken by the African slaves in Brazil. Songs can lament working in the sugarcane fields, celebrate the abolition of slavery, recall the bravery of the hero Maculelê, or evoke the battles of Brazil’s indigenous peoples. Up to three atabaques may be used for the accompanying rhythms, one of each type: Rum (large), Rum-pi (medium), and Lê (small). The rhythms usually associated with maculelê are the congo, afoxé, and barra vento.  Click here and scroll down for a list of maculele songs (with lyrics and English translations)!

Well, that’s it for Part 1, and I hope you discovered more about maculelê than you ever thought you would!  Unfortunately, I can’t list the sources I used right now as they’re bookmarked on my own computer and I’m posting this from a hostel in Morocco, but they will be added as soon as I return home!

Update:

Click here to read a transcribed/translated interview with Mestre Popo, the “Father of Maculelê”!

Click here to read other posts in Capoeira é Dança 

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Sources:
http://unterricht.vivastreet.de/unterricht-training+mannheim/capoeira-mannheim-auftrit-fotos
http://paulogualano.com/brazilian_show2.htm
http://www.carnaval.com/capoeira/
http://www.capoeirausa.net/home.html
http://www.capoeirasuldabahia.com.br/eng/default.asp?idp=23
http://carnavalderio-histoire.blogspot.com/2007/01/le-maculel.html
http://www.britannica.com/magazine/print?query=sensual&id=17&minGrade=&maxGrade=
http://www.capoeira.com.au/history.html
http://www.capoeirauniverse.com/how_to_play_maculele.html
http://capoeira.wikia.com/wiki/Maculele
http://gingartecapoeira.org/performances/afro-brazilian-dances/maculel%c3%aa
http://wikimartialarts.org/main/index.php/Maculele
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Maculel%C3%AA_%28dance%29
http://www.maculelelondon.com/
http://www.worldartswest.org/main/location.asp?i=46
http://research.calacademy.org/research/anthropology/tap/ARCHIVE/1998/1998-10–maculele.html
http://www.capoeirabrazil.com.au/music.htm
http://www.capoeira.hk/e107/page.php?28
http://www.yourbestsiding.com/index2.php?option=com_content&do_pdf=1&id=26

Picture sources:
http://www.achebrasil.com/photos/MaculeleEclilsonSmall.jpg 
http://www.capoeira.com.au/images/maculele.jpg
http://www.capoeirasuldabahia.com.br/eng/images/maculele1.jpg

http://www.capoeiracdp.com/img/fotos/maculele/04.jpg

http://cdodurinho.vilabol.uol.com.br/fotos/m_df_dg_pr/maculele_cdo.jpg

http://www.abadacapoeira.com/2006/aliyah.2.jpg





Can Capoeira Change the World?

29 12 2007

I stumbled across a beautiful line yesterday: 

[Capoeira] combines feminine aestheticism with masculine pugilism and escapes the rigid confines of both.

Perfect; absolutely perfect.  That line was courtesy of Singaporean writer and capoeirista Ng Yi-Sheng, from his blog the paradise of fruits and flowers.  Even if you aren’t into writing or literature, some of the things he writes about capoeira definitely make for an interesting read (case in point: click here).

Returning to the line above, I liked it so much that I’m going to have you read it again:  “It (capoeira) combines feminine aestheticism with masculine pugilism and escapes the rigid confines of both.”  I forgot about that while writing my “The Feminine in Capoeira” posts, where I focused on binaries and divisions (somewhat ironically in order to deem them things we should all ignore).  Now I want to look beyond that, to the role capoeira itself is supposedly playing in simultaneously breaking such structures down. 


[Note: When I talk about capoeira from now on, for the most part I mean its role and movement in society, not referring to the actual games and features that make up capoeira itself.]


Boundaries are fluid and perforated for capoeira, if not imaginary.    If each martial art were a literary persona of some sort, capoeira would be the Trickster figure from First Nations stories–a source of constant destabilization and renewal, impossible to pin down.  Even if one insists on assigning a “feminine” and a “masculine” aspect to capoeira, then within the context of the sport, none of it might even matter because capoeira is bigger than both.  It was one of the original greats of capoeira, after all, who said, “Capoeira is for men, women and children.” (-Mestre Pastinha) 

Likewise, and perhaps most obviously, capoeira crosses socioeconomic classes, nationalities, and cultures and politics of every stripe.  The documentary Mandinga em Manhattan mentions people playing capoeira along the border between the Gaza Strip and Israel, which, if true, would be astounding and speak volumes for capoeira and how it can unify diversity. 


[Warning: Relevant anecdote containing possibly politically incorrect remark ahead.]


The other day, I was telling a non-capoeirista friend about the time I visited Nice to train capoeira there.  She also went to France with me, and said she was surprised there were capoeira groups in France because capoeira seemed like such an intense sport, requiring so much dedication, commitment, and general keenness, none of which the French seem to have if you’ve ever had to deal with them on a daily and professional basis for an extended period of time.  (Okay, that was actually a very politically incorrect remark, and obviously not completely true; now moving on with the story…)  As a joke, I lowered my voice, leaned in, and dramatically declared, “That’s because capoeira touches all.”

Like I said, it was a joke (I’m not that brainwashed!), but then again, I read somewhere once that most if not all humour works precisely because it is always based on some grain of truth!  I don’t doubt that capoeira can touch people’s lives regardless (NOT “irregardless”, which is an inherently wrong and logically ridiculous word) of where they come from or what their background is.  It makes sense, if you think about it: What are the three fundamental components of capoeira?  Fight, dance, and music–each of which speaks to some unspoken part deep in every human being, and they are united and presented as art, which is a fourth that does the same thing.

Volta ao mundo

What I have questions about is the idea that capoeira not only has the potential to touch given people in the world, it can also change the world, through its mere existence and movement.  Nestor Capoeira writes:

Capoeira can be a tool in the First World, a tool against the forces that tend to turn people into robots that do not think, do not wish, do not have any fantasies, ideals, imagination, or creativity; a tool against a civilization that increasingly says one simply has to work and then go home and sit in front of a TV with a can of beer in hand, like a pig being fattened for the slaughter.  (Source here)

I can see capoeira doing such a thing for the people who practice it, through training, the roda, the philosophy, connecting with other capoeiristas from different cultures, etc., but unless everyone joins capoeira, how will society as a whole be affected by it?  Unless the whole point is that capoeira will change the world one person at a time (which, often enough, seems to be how it’s done)?  Or maybe it’s the idea of paying it forward (or back); there are tons of examples out there, for example, of a capoeirista starting a grupo in North America or Europe that eventually leads to changing the lives of many kids in Brazil.  Then there’s o efeito mariposa (:P)–the butterfly effect.  The armada of one capoeirista in Brazil can cause a tornado of change in Australia? 

I’d love to say that capoeira is changing or will change the world, beyond the capoeiristas and people in Brazil who are helped by capoeiristas, but I only want to know if there is something more concrete than theoretical or fanciful capoeira discourse that we can look to, to believe in some mass movement of this martial art that will help to revamp society as a whole.  Or am I just expecting too much?

On the other hand, I just reread my own sentence–“change the world, beyond the capoeiristas and people in Brazil who are helped by capoeiristas.”  Hm, so capoeira touches some people’s lives, and these people go on to touch other people’s lives.  Wait a second, isn’t that precisely what change is, and how mass change begins? 

I think the complication here is that I’m slightly confusing two concepts–changing the world, which connotes doing something, somewhere, to change something for someone or a lot of someones; and changing society/”civilization” (whatever that is), which connotes changing attitudes and values across entire populations, or sections of them.  So I can see capoeira doing the former, but am not quite sure about the latter, unless the spirit and attitude we all develop from doing capoeira is just that infectious!

Whether or not capoeira and its ideals/philosophy/attitudes will work its way through society in the future, there is no question that capoeira does something.  So, I’ll leave you with a quote about change that I’ve always liked, and may apply to any grupo, academy, or dedicated bunch of capoeiristas out there:

Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.’ (-Margaret Mead)

Picture source:
http://bp3.blogger.com/_aiM7QtdDFgk/RnnsqYOv1LI/AAAAAAAAAW4/VXaQp5BviTA/s400/legs.jpg

Update: Click here to read “Can Capoeira Change the World? Part 2”





Capoeirobics and the Female Chauvinist Pig: When Good Things Go Bad

21 12 2007

Cardio CapoeiraHave you ever seen something happen, take hold, and spread as you helplessly looked on, thinking, “Something has gone very wrong here”?


Capoeira and feminism both began as movements of resistance. Feminism remains one, of course, and arguably capoeira as well in many cases. In her paper Resistance through Movement: Women & Capoeira, Djahariah Katz makes an intriguing connection by pointing out how capoeira and some of the stereotypes that feminism fights against today both grew out of a state of disempowerment:

Seduction and manipulativeness are stereotypical qualities assigned to women. They are qualities that arise out of disempowerment, they become strategies of resistance. There is a discourse that these qualities are innate in women, that we inherently lie and manipulate. These qualities are celebrated in capoeira as malícia, using trickery to beat your opponent. This is a way that capoeira takes a social reality in the present and uses it to its advantage to turn the tables on their position. Most capoeiristas were and are disempowered in society. The philosophy of capoeira is about survival. It teaches you how to walk through the world with your own power.

I found this to be an interesting paradox. Today, women are disempowered because of the existence of such stereotypes, that they are inherently this or naturally that. Yet in the past, women who really used manipulation and whatnot did so because of the same sort of disempowerment, having no other options at hand. What was, in a way, the original feminist movement helped give rise to part of what hinders its modern day successor.

Similarly, capoeira is starting to encounter some backlash from its historical self-preservation. Mestre Bimba moved capoeira off the streets and into training rooms and academies, taking what may have been the single most influential action in the advancement of capoeira’s preservation and popularity. But now, we see such a model making the art vulnerable to things like inferior teachers who are only after money, to the risk of losing roots and traditions as academies and their teachings become more contemporized, and to the ever-hovering net of corporatization—not to mention spin-off “capoeirobics” classes reminiscent of Frankenstein’s monster. [Note: I’m not going to post a video here because that’d be roughly four minutes of your life that you’d never get back, but if you’re really curious you can look up “capo-robics” on youtube, “cardio capoeira”, or “capoeira class” by username darksamuraix.]

Katz says that what capoeiristas did was take the “social reality” and manipulate it for their own purposes. When Brazil’s government wanted to promote the national image of Brazil, for example, Mestre Bimba helped to incorporate capoeira into this image, thereby ensuring the protection and continuation of capoeira, as an [Afro-]Brazilian art form. As inspiring as it would be to say that feminism should look to capoeira as an example, however, one thing concerns me.

Capoeira preserved itself not by just taking advantage of “social reality”, but also by conforming to this reality. Fighting outdoors was not okay, fighting indoors was; enter the academies. That’s (partly) why it was allowed to survive, and in the case of capoeira, it worked out. The equivalent of women doing such a thing today, though, might be the phenomenon that writer Ariel Levy terms the “female chauvinist pig”:

Our popular culture, she argues, has embraced a model of female sexuality that comes straight from pornography and strip clubs, in which the woman’s job is to excite and titillate – to perform for men. According to Levy, women have bought into this by altering their bodies surgically and cosmetically, and—more insidiously—by confusing sexual power with power, so that embracing this caricaturish form of sexuality becomes, in their minds, a perverse kind of feminism. (Jennifer Egan, New York Times)

To me, this takes “if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em” to new and twisted heights. Excerpts from Levy’s book add how these women are also thought of as “post-feminist”, how wearing the Playboy bunny logo is no longer a symbol of degradation and patronization, but of liberation. How can you be post-feminist in a world that has yet to be feminist? Conforming to “social reality” in this case, even if with self-mockery or deliberate irony, is to regress, not progress. No advantage is even gained, beyond what was described as “sexual power confused with power”.

The point of movements of resistance is not to conform to but to break “sociality realities”—because they are social, i.e. man-made, not true, natural, objective “realities”. Just like “capoeirobics” are considered a perverse form of capoeira—if not immediately denounced as not capoeira at all—“female chauvinist pigs”, while they or others may think they are somehow helping the cause of feminism, are only hurting and demeaning it.