Myth Busters: Women and Upper-Body Strength

28 01 2008

This entry is a follow-up/sister post to the one I guest-wrote on The Capoeira Blog, “6 Keys to Building Upper-Body Strength“.

So, I have a confession to make.  Originally, the guest post I wrote for Faisca wasn’t supposed to be a general guide to building upper-body strength.  Originally, it was going to be something with a title like “Upper-Body Strength-Building for Women”.  It was my idea, but it wasn’t until I actually started working on the post that I realized something like that would actually go against everything I’ve/this blog has been standing for!  Mandingueira is not for women; it is about women, and for everyone. 

The reason I changed my mind is because to write an article about “strength-building for women” would imply that it is separate from the same for men; yet a strong woman would need the same level of advice as a strong man, regardless of her gender.  By the end of my first draft, however, I realized that my post read more like a beginner’s guide to strength-building—but all my information had come from purported “women’s guides” to strength-building!  Is anyone else seeing a pattern here

Abada capoeirista shows how it's done!There was one thing in particular that nearly every article I came across had in common:

“Women generally have far less upper-body strength than men.”
“Typically women do not have strong upper bodies.”
“These statistics merely illustrate what everyone knows, that women naturally develop less strength than men.”
“In terms of inherent upper body strength, we really are the weaker sex.”
“Most women have trouble performing a standard push-up.”  (And adding insult to injury: “To perform a modified push up, simply push up from your knees.  Most women can perform a push-up in this position.”  Really, now??  Some of us actually CAN do knee push-ups?!?  That’s AMAZING!!)

Wow, I feel weaker already.  Kind of ironic, considering all these articles purported to help you build your strength, not doubt it!

The age-old myth of women having less muscular strength than men do is just that—a myth.  This excerpt from Shameless Magazine puts it best:

Many people believe that all men, as some sort of single unit, are stronger than women. And reason says that simply isn’t true. Men’s strength is just as variable as women’s. Men, on average, are bigger than women, with a higher lean body mass-to-fat ratio. But women generate the same force per unit of muscle as men. That is, muscle pound to muscle pound, women and men are similar in strength. A strong woman is strong, full stop. (emphasis mine)

This observation was confirmed by a study from the US National Strength and Conditioning Foundation, which adds that although women and men have the same muscle strength, the reason many men appear stronger on the surface is because they have more muscle mass from being bigger (as opposed to muscle strength), have a higher lean body mass-to-fat ratio, and have different fat distribution in the body than women do.

Wait a minute (I can hear someone say), aren’t we just picking nits now?  What does it matter if technically women’s muscles produce the same amount of power, if due to the other factors mentioned above, a woman’s body altogether still produces less power, on average, than a man’s body altogether?  And if this is true, what’s wrong with saying so?

First, this distinction is important to make because it’s actually a pretty big one, with implications and consequences depending on whether one makes it or not.  Stating without qualification that women have less strength than men, period, is inaccurate and suggests that this is an inherent trait in women, something that can’t be changed.  As mentioned though, women’s muscles have the exact same strength as men do, and it is in fat distribution and lean body mass where they differ—factors which are variable and can be changed through training or exercise. 

Moreover, even though muscle mass is cited as a contributing factor of men’s strength, the same studies have shown that women build strength the same way men do yet without building as much muscle mass—which is interesting, because if both men and women build strength equally, but only men’s muscles build much mass to go with it, to me that suggests that in the end, women’s muscles would actually have more power per inch/pound than men’s, to do the calculations!  And as Shameless said, if a strong woman were matched with a man with less muscle (or lesser built muscles), more fat, and less lean body mass, she would in that case definitely not be “the weaker sex”.

Second, making this distinction is important because it affects how people approach this and related topics, and this ties in to the last question above.  There is nothing wrong with explaining why many women have less net strength output than many men.  After all, a fact is a fact, right?  The problem arises when people start making unqualified statements like the ones at the beginning of this post, and making them frequently and thoughtlessly.  Although clearly I was kidding when I said “I feel weaker already”, can you imagine what the effects of reading or hearing statements like that over and over again would be on someone’s mindset, whether consciously or subconsciously? 

If you imagined the logical, you’re right: other studies have shown that women significantly underestimate their own strength, compared to men.  Because we’re told we’re weaker, we think we have even less strength than we have to begin with.  This affects everything from whether or not a woman will reach her full potential while weight training, to whether or not she’ll choose to fight off a man who attacks her in the street, or just “let it happen” because to fight back would make it worse (according to another disastrous, popular myth). 

It’s all woven into one more narrative about what women are or aren’t or should be or shouldn’t be, whether it’s a young Mestra Edna’s relatives telling her “martial arts aren’t for girls”, or today’s average female capoeira student only able to find articles reiterating how weak she is compared to all the male capoeira students in her class—which may be true, but also just as well may not, and who’s the article’s author to say?  So mulhers é meninas, remember this the next time you aim for that macaco/s-dobrado/bananeira/cool upper-body strength-requiring move!

Picture source: http://www.worldartswest.org/Assets/Performers/AbadaAndyMogg.jpg

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Women, Men, and Brazilian Bikinis

30 12 2007

Brazilian beach 

So, I have a friend who is very cool, very nice, and generally awesome.  But then he said this (below) the other day, which made me think, and then made me think he was wrong.  So despite his coolness/niceness/general awesomeness, I’m going to talk about that today.

(paraphrased due to inexact memory)

If you go to Brazil, have you seen the bikinis they have there?  Tiny—tiny little things, barely covering anything.  If I see a woman wearing one of those, then I’ve basically seen all of her.  But if she’s changing and I accidentally see her, she freaks out and screams.  Well, so what?  I’ve already seen her in her bra and underwear, because I’ve seen her in her swimsuit–they’re exactly the same.

Women are…they wear clothes that show things, to be noticed.  But if a man shows that he notices, and says something, then she gets mad.  It’s hypocritical.

Where do I start?  On the surface, I don’t think that’s all completely wrong, and might be fair enough in many cases.  At the same time, something about it still doesn’t feel right to me.  Both statements involve assumptions that could do real harm if taken too far or too generally.

Assumption #1: If two articles of clothing look the same, they are the same for all intents and purposes, and are interchangeable, as are the situations in which they are used; thus, the woman shouldn’t care.

This assumption is flawed because it makes clothing the issue, when what must be differentiated is situations and contexts.  A woman who is fine wearing bikinis on the beach wouldn’t be fine wearing just underwear in class because it’s a completely different environment.  She wouldn’t be fine wearing a bikini in class, either.  The clothes are the same, but it is the situations that are different and so the significance of the clothes changes accordingly.  (To take an extreme example, imagine a Playboy model walking around naked in a mall.  It’s okay for her to be naked in the magazine, but not in the mall, right?  But since people have already seen her naked in the magazine, why not?  Because the situations/contexts are different.)

You could say that that’s bs and doesn’t make sense, that if you wore a bikini, the fact you’re inside a building doesn’t mean people will see an iota more of you than if you were on the beach, so it really doesn’t matter.  And you would be right.  However, society for hundreds and thousands of years has conditioned most of us to believe otherwise, to believe it does matter.  Society, in general, says to us: “It’s okay to be nearly naked on a beach in Brazil.  It’s not okay to be nearly naked inside your capoeira academy.”  This is dictated in the same way society once dictated: “Women can wear skirts, but a woman wearing pants is indecent” and “Women can wear long dresses, but anything above ankle-length is for harlots.” 

Today, obviously, women do wear pants and skirts shorter than ankle-length.  However, that was because they decided to take ownership of the situation and make it acceptable.  No men said to them, “Pants cover your legs as much as skirts cover your legs, therefore you will now feel comfortable wearing pants, and we will all be okay with that.”  So even if a guy were genuinely being forward-thinking and advocating for the further liberation of women/their bodies, it might not exactly be for him to say, since it’s not his body. 

And as much as I’m for the breaking of socially constructed mentalities like the “where is a bikini acceptable?” one, it’s not fair to ask/tell women to blatantly flout the dictatorship, since everyone else is still ruled by it and will react accordingly, to the detriment of the woman.  (For example, if a woman were to train in a bikini, she might be fine with it and my friend might be fine with it and not care, but all the other men and women would care and think certain things about that woman, since they are still ruled by the general mentality that bikinis are fine on the beach but not in class.) 

It’s almost a chicken-and-the-egg situation: people’s behaviour won’t change unless the mentality of society changes, but its mentality won’t change if people’s behaviour never changes.

Assumption #2: All women wear revealing clothes always with the intention of showing or flaunting it and getting attention.

First of all: not true.  It’s so probable that a woman just thinks a certain top looks nice or flattering on her overall, and that’s why she wears it; if it happens to be slightly revealing (within reason), that does not necessarily mean she wants guys staring at or making comments to her, etc.  It’s also possible that the top’s neckline moved or shifted without the woman noticing, although perhaps ignorance is a weak defense.  Still, the point is that you can’t assume

Now, what if a woman does wear revealing clothes deliberately to get attention?  What “rights” does that give men with respect to their behaviour or words towards this woman, if any

I think this again has to do with perceptions and social mentality.  In most places, it’s generally expected that men would “notice” this woman tactfully and unspokenly; thus if someone were to break this unspoken code and actually mention to the woman just how revealing her top is, she might feel affronted.  The point quoted at the beginning of this post attacks just this: the woman shouldn’t feel affronted, and would be hypocritical to feel so, because she got the attention she was seeking.  I think I agree with this, although obviously, whatever the “attention” entails must not exclude respect for the woman, and her dignity.  This is where it gets tricky though, because where do you draw the line?

I suppose part of it also rests on each individual woman and man involved in any interactions like that.  And that’s why it’s even more important to not make such generalizations or assumptions.  Because if you get one person wrong, what’s to say you won’t stop at the rest?

Update: I found a line that puts Assumption #2 in another, perhaps clearer, way.  From Just a girl in short shorts talking about whatever: “If a woman is not totally covered, or otherwise looks sorta sexy, she is asking for it, since men cannot be expected to control themselves.”  (That’s like saying doing a floreio in the middle of  a game is asking to be kicked or smashed to the ground, since obviously the other player can’t control themselves.  It’s insulting and unjust to both parties.)

Update 2: A friend of mine added that it doesn’t matter how revealing someone’s clothes are; she should be able to wear anything and not be judged or derogated for it, because what you wear has (should have) nothing to do with other people.  It’s a personal choice, it doesn’t change their personality or make them more or less anything they aready are or aren’t, and really it’s none of anyone else’s business.  If only people would/could realize that!

Picture source:
http://www.travelpod.com/travel-blog-entries/tomandbecky/2005_brazil/1123546560.html

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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.





The Feminine in Capoeira, Part 2 (Context)

14 12 2007

Within or without capoeira, it's all about context. 

What’s wrong with being “feminine”?  That was the question nagging me as I finished Part 1 (Malicia) of this topic.  As pre-empted by some of the comments that followed, I also started having doubts in terms of the need to place capoeira and capoeira discourse in the context of its cultural origins.  Additionally, one of the things I’m starting to fear doing on this blog is going too deeply into text and discourse while I write, too far into another plane, and forgetting that it’s all supposed to come back down to be grounded in good ol’ everyday capoeira.  (On the other hand, sometimes that’s the fun part…)


Sorry for the extra bit of waiting this time this round!  I did a lot of thinking for this, so I hope it’ll have been worth it…  Today, I’ll start by excerpting from an article on www.capoeira.com, in which Jessica Fredican responds to sexism in her capoeira class and Nestor Capoeira’s take on malicia:

He talks a lot about malicia and, at the time, I was really turned off by it. … But the nicest games still involve being able to outwit and trick your opponent….

These goals lend themselves perfectly to traditional views of feminism. Ancient cultures worldwide have invented stories and myths that portray women as internal, sinuous, ambiguous, dangerous creatures. They aren’t external like men, carrying their genitals outside their bodies, displaying great feats of strength. Yet, women have this dangerously inexplicable power to knock men on their asses. This primordial and universal femininity involves hiding your intentions and using unexpected and unseen manoeuvres to defeat the opposite sex.

So maybe we should just be feminine. It would almost seem that capoeira was designed especially for women – a circle (a traditionally feminine symbol) in which to carry out their dangerous rituals of masking and trickery.

This was the article that started my doubts.  I loved the ideas in it, and the way she framed universal stereotypes of “the feminine” made me think, “Well, what’s wrong with that?”  Personally, I think it’d be pretty cool to have a “dangerously inexplicable power to knock men on their asses”, so if that’s what it means to be “feminine”, then why not “just be feminine”?  Same with the other things she said–if being “feminine” means being able to “hide your intentions” and “use the unexpected”–in other words, if being “feminine” means being an expert in malicia–well, wouldn’t it then be a compliment to be given that label, rather than anything derogatory? 

And especially that last part–if capoeira itself not only consists of the feminine but is the feminine–then, how in the world could it be a bad thing?

I believe all of this relates to context.  In the philosophical, metaphysical, symbolic context of capoeira, “the feminine” is esteemed because it is the source of malicia, and malicia is esteemed by capoeiristas.  I think where we run into trouble is when such symbolism is taken out of context–out of the centuries of culture and history and mythology that Nestor Capoeira and Muniz Sodré were drawing on when they characterized malicia–and then applied to everyday life, whether unthinkingly or not. 

[Side note: While I’m exonerating Nestor Capoeira and Muniz Sodré from the accusation of sexist views, on grounds of cultural context, I also want to add that in hindsight, their use of the word “power” could have meant brute force rather than power in the more general sense of the word, especially since I’m sure many consider malicia to be a power in itself.]  

For instance (returning to what I was talking about before the side note), in the symbolic context of capoeira, “the feminine” is partially defined as “not rational”–by which it is meant that you can’t explain malicia, you can’t use reasoning and logic to teach it to a student, the same way you can teach them how to land a kick properly or where to place your hands while doing rolé.  Switch into the everyday context of running a business though, or governing the country, and this “symbolism” is exactly why we have things like the glass ceiling, and why while 52% of the Canadian population is female, they are represented by a government that is nearly 80% male.

Now, I am not saying I think that people begin learning capoeira, get introduced to malicia, and start subconsciously discriminating against women (give me more credit than that!).  However, it is something similar that occurs, in a larger pattern over time and throughout society; only, instead of capoeira and malicia, people learn it through myths, through religion, through normative fairy tales and children’s games.  The specific mediums and symbols differ, but they all send the same messages about women and what “feminine” and “female” mean, without any barrier of “culture and history” to contain them in their respective contexts, as we do with capoeira. 

So I suppose that’s really what I wanted to get across in Part 1.  My conclusion is that though I still don’t like what Muniz Sodré said, I can understand that it does add depth and interest to thinking about capoeira and the game, and that it’s okay as long as we keep it within the metaphysical/philosophical/symbolic context of capoeira, that it’s actually more than okay because this way we preserve part of the roots of capoeira, and the culture and traditions it was steeped in.  It only becomes not okay when we take that message out of context and apply it to the “real world”, which is what you see happening in the media, workplace, government, etc., today, and even to the everyday world of capoeira, which is why I had to write this post.  Thanks again to everyone who commented last time, and as always, muito axé. =)

Picture source:
http://capoeira.uchicago.edu/Gallery/Kristie/studio/back_handspring.jpg

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Playing Women in the Roda

9 12 2007

Never underestimate your opponent in the roda, no matter who she is. 

I came across something written by a capoeirista the other day that pretty much infuriated me.  However, I did promise in my very first post that there would be no ranting, so I will restrain myself! 

(Actually, what I would most like to do is copy and paste what I read here and then carefully, logically, thoroughly deconstruct it line by line for all of you.  However, doing things like that sometimes has repercussions, here in cyberspace.  As a result, we’ll all have to settle for a general post on the same topic, but with a slightly different [read: enlightened =P] point of view.)


When playing women in the roda, do not hold back.
  It irritates me even to be writing this post, as you’d think playing women in the roda (technique-wise, not dynamics-wise) is no different from playing men in the roda; basically, this should be a completely pointless post, with a pointless title, except for the fact that there are people out there who sadly believe otherwise!

Their argument goes like this: Women are naturally physically weaker than men (how true this statement is and its implications, etc., we’ll leave for now).  Thus, men–and let’s say stronger women–should play “down to their level” to level the field, or to protect the woman from accidentally getting hurt in the roda.  Let’s call this the Chauvinist Theory.

Now, there is nothing wrong with the basic intentions behind this way of thinking.  The exact same idea is legitimately applied to beginners: play more slowly and carefully against them because they don’t know quite what they’re doing yet or aren’t strong/quick/good enough yet and might get hurt.  That’s for beginners, people who presumably have little to no capoeira skills yet, and so that makes sense.  It’s relatively safe to assume that you need to go easy on beginners in the roda, because as beginners, they are less skilled by definition.  However, the Chauvinist Theory incorrectly links just strength directly to one’s joga ablity, then assumes that as women, we are less skilled by definition.  Which is interesting, because since there are countless female capoeiristas at levels higher than beginner, do these people think that their mestres have one corda graduation standard for women and another, harder graduation standard for men? 

I’m reminded of a line in the Antigone Magazine blog post to which I directed all of you in my “Why Write About Female Mestres?  The Feminist Catch-22” post.  According to the Antigone post, which was on misogyny in anti-Hillary Clinton facebook groups, “If you dislike a male politician, then there is something wrong with that particular politician. If you dislike a female politician then you often find something lacking in the entire female sex.”  People who buy into the Chauvinist Theory seem to suffer from the same mental lapse: if you accidentally hit a man in the roda, it’s because he wasn’t paying attention or wasn’t quick enough or just basically needs to improve his capoeira skills; if you accidentally hit a woman in the roda, however, it’s because she’s a woman and therefore you should go easy on every woman you play from now on. 

I can hear the bulls bellowing…I think they want their crap back.

What people should do–and this is supposed to be common sense–is assess each opponent individually.  (I’m honestly cringing at this paragraph already; it seems like such a given!)  Maybe she’s a woman who definitely is not athletically gifted, so in this case yes, give her a chance to do something while playing.  And maybe she’s a natural at capoeira, better than you are, and she’s really adjusting her game down to your level.  The point is, you don’t judge someone’s capoeira ability based purely on their gender.  There is absolutely no logic in that–none, whatsoever!  By playing down to all women, you are not only holding yourself back from a chance to improve and from what might’ve become a really good game, you are deliberately stunting the progress of the person you are playing.  This is even worse if you are supposed to be the person’s teacher; your role is to challenge and improve your student’s game, not pander to what you think is their beginner’s comfort zone (if they haven’t progressed beyond it already)!

I know/hope that this post was entirely unecessary for most of you, but I felt it still needed to be put out there.  (Plus, it was either that or physically hunt down the guy and drag him into a few games with some of the girls from my academy, and I don’t have the time for that right now.)

p.s. This entry’s picture was done by a friend of mine!  Isn’t it awesome? 😀

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Batizado – The Initiation of Mandingueira

30 11 2007

Mandingueira BlogWelcome to Mandingueira, a blog on women, capoeira, and women in capoeira.  As I’m new to blogging, relatively new to capoeira, and brand new to taking up with feminist issues, this should be an interesting process!  To begin with (as they are wont to be begun with), an introduction: Eu sou Joaninha, and I’ve been training capoeira for just over two years now.  After hanging up my abada at night, I become an undergraduate English major, bona fide bookworm and grammar stickler, and writer/editor/publisher/journalist-hopeful.

Why Mandingueira?  First, I absolutely love and am in love with capoeira, and you know what they say: “write what you know”–and I want to write.  Second, kind of by chance I began reading a lot of feminist-oriented blogs this year, and evidently they’ve had an effect on me.  If you’ve been in capoeira for any amount of time, you’ve probably realized that it’s a fairly male-dominated universe.  The average capoeira group will have more male students, more advanced male students, and–pop quiz!–how many female mestres can you name, compared to how many male mestres?  Then there are the horror stories, courtesy of any given capoeira forum: allegedly rapid promotion of girlfriends or wives in Brazil, teachers hitting on students everywhere, talk of undeserved as well as too-long-unreceived cordas, etc. 

I want Mandingueira to provide a central platform for thoughts, discussion, and ideas related to women in capoeira, or women and/or capoeira, and plan to include as wide a variety of material as possible (e.g. interviews, tips, debates, musings, reviews, current events, links and multimedia, anecdotes, creative work).  I will also try my best to keep this blog overall interesting and relevant to all capoeiristas, not just women, and I can tell you right now that there will be no rants, sermons, or pulling out of issues that aren’t necessarily there.  (Trust me; thanks to a certain post-modernist feminist prof in first year, any sort of down-the-throat-agenda-pushing is now anathema to me.)  But, since disclaimers are a way of life: Everyone makes mistakes (and I already have…possibly more on that later, if you’re good), so that’s what the Comments section is for!

Thank you so much for stopping by, and I hope you will continue to do so often (my aim is a minimum of one post per week).  Play hard, ginga low, and tell all your friends and capoeirista colleagues to drop by!  Muito axé. 🙂