Thursday, 26 April 2012

No such thing as too much capoeira (life!)

“Dona Maria from Camboatá
She arrives at the market and bosses people around
She arrives at the roda and does a backward summersault”

This is my final ‘introductory’ blog. It’s to explore the relationship between capoeira and life as this has many dimensions and is relevant when considering the ways in which security has been distributed through capoeira. For those who play, capoeira is engrossing and taxing; but more than that – it becomes conceptually linked to practically all other elements of life.

It’s about time

Playing capoeira

Training takes a lot of time and cuts out various other things (meals, alcohol…). Rodas (games) in Salvador tend to take place on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays – so capoeira takes over your social life too. Capoeira makes you stronger, more flexible and fitter. It consumes parts of your brain, so when you’re not training, conversations turn to how to do things faster, slower, more beautifully, more tricksily. Lots of corridos (capoeira songs) are about the game or the instruments – ever decreasing circles!

This much is not unique to capoeira; many sporting or leisure activities develop absorbing communities, although capoeira’s range of skills – from acrobatics to ritual to musicality – is particularly demanding. The conceptual links, though, are more profound. As I write this blog, I am swiping at a mosquito. The mosquito retreats, flies round, makes another approach. It feels like capoeira. Capoeira affects your relationship with your body, with time, and with others. It is part of every other game, every other struggle and every other dance.

When considering the distribution of security, the use of tactics and strategy, the force of creativity and expression and the generation of identity are not boarded up inside the game or extracted from life and transposed to a playful setting. It is much more integrated than that. Capoeira maintains a duality – as a game and as a way of life – as is regularly acknowledged by capoeira teachers and in songs.

I have just caught the mosquito.

In his book, Ring of Liberation, Lowell Lewis discusses capoeira as reflection on life and escape from it, simultaneously a space for forgetting and for acknowledging.

Reflection on life

Come on in - the water´s lovely!
“Quem não sabe nadar vai ao fundo” “whoever doesn’t know how to swim sinks to the bottom”

Capoeira’s moves and music reflect on life and, to a large extent, on brutal aspects of life. Reflections on slavery are pervasive in the ladainhas (the long songs that are sung at the beginning of a roda), as are reflections on the fickleness of life and power and the need for deceit and trickery.

The movements of capoeira have violent elements, embodying not a role-play of oppression and liberation, but a somatic reflection on it. In line with Bourdieu’s law of the conservation of violence, the kicks are real, even though the context is ritualised. The movement establishes a somatic discourse. Faber writes, “The centrality of the body to ritual means that “ritualization” is a particularly mute form of activity. It is designed to do what it does without bringing what it is doing across the threshold of discourse or systematic thinking” (Faber 2004, 110). Capoeira repeats and repeats its references to violence and freedom without articulating experiences or opinions.

Escape from life

Capoeira is also an escape from life. It provides community, conventions, and hierarchies that, even if they are not completely safe, at least set customary parameters. According to Miller, “Common understandings arrived at consensually provide the basis for a morally valued way of life and the construction of collective identities that transcend the individual” (Miller 1992, 29). The roda is a place of camaraderie: people greet each other, sing together, respect the art, and end games with a hug.

Capoeira allows adepts to play around: they express, create and imagine – the words ‘jogar’, ‘brincar’ and ‘vadiar’ capture different elements of play. It is pursued with a kind of religious tenacity: in the 19th century people risked being whipped or incarcerated for playing capoeira, but it did not stop them. Many songs talk of being ‘called’ to capoeira (and sometimes beaten or killed by it!). Sometimes it is the berimbau calling, sometimes Angola, sometimes Saint Bento – calling to play capoeira. There is also a freedom – of vagrancy and nomadism: songs state, ‘I’m off!’ – I’m going out to play capoeira, as if capoeira takes place a little apart from the usual cares of the world.

Escapism - only the blessed love cycling in Salvador

I’m already sick of living on the earth.
Oh, Mum, I’m going to the moon.
I told my wife and she replied,
“We’ll go if God is willing” 
(ladainha from CD Mestre Pastinha/ FICA songbook p6)

‘Jogar o jogo da vida’ – to play the game of life

And despite all the reflection and escapism that capoeira offers, the politics of its day-to-day administration is as divided and mundane as any other group activity. There are disputes within groups and between them. Groups tend to acknowledge the legitimacy of their mestre and lineage rather than submitting to an overarching authority.

What counts as capoeira, the names of the moves, interaction with different styles provided grounds for little agreement through the 20th century. The pressures of globalisation, the need to attract students, the struggle of making a living from art are worldly concerns that contribute to the dimensions of the relationship between capoeira and life.

Contradictory, as is life

Contradictions - what´s not to like?

Equilibrium in capoeira is not static with both feet planted on the floor but fluid and responsive. Capoeira maintains contradictions – of deceit and camaraderie, of hanging out and discipline, of fighting and playing, of equality and hierarchy, of authority and resistance, of united struggle and internal division. It is all very contradictory. Life can be like that.

When I die
I don’t want crying or mystery.
I want a berimbau playing
At the gate of the cemetery
With a yellow ribbon round it.
(ladainha from CD Mestre Traíre/ FICA songbook p5)


Faber, A. (2004). Saint Orlan. Ritual as violent spectacle and cultural criticism. The Performance Studies Reader. H. Bial. London and New York, Routledge: 108-116.

Fundação Internacional de Capoeira Angola/ International Capoeira Angola Foundation (FICA/ICAF), Livro de Músicas (Ladainhas/Corridos), in-house publication.

Lowell Lewis, J. (1992). Ring of Liberation: deceptive discourse in Brazilian capoeira. Chicago, The University of Chicago Press.

Miller, B. (1992). "Collective action and rational choice. Place, community and the limits to individual self-interest." Economic Geography 68(1): 22-42.


  1. Zoe,
    Wonderful post. I remember when we were on the bus and you were telling me about writing this post. Wasn't it as this point of the conversation that I told you capoeira was consuming my life to the point I couldn't get the dissertation written? Well, I came back home and the first week back in my university town, there is a capoeira workshop, a capoeira BBQ, and a series of classes throughout the week with a visiting teacher from Brazil. I can't believe the power of capoeira to absorb one fully. Well, I really enjoy your writing style and I am going to catch up on the other posts you've done now! Nice work!

    1. Yes, there~s escape IN capoeira but no escape FROM capoeira! Great to hear from you!