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.

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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.





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.