A martelo / By any other name would hit as fast: Nuance in the Capoeira Game

10 12 2007

What message are you sending with your kicks in the roda?One of the first things I remember learning vividly in capoeira is the concept of nuance (so this first bit will pretty much all be taken from my teachers’ mouths).  Every kick, every move you do has a certain meaning.  When you enter the roda, you enter a foreign world–and so you better know the language.  Questions are posed by your body, not your mouth; smalltalk is delivered with armada, esquiva, quexada; and silent screaming matches are played out in the form of chapa, tesouro, martelo, and the like.  Don’t give a certain kick or do a certain move if you’re not prepared for the consequences, because you never know how the other person will react to the provocation. 

This all makes sense, and it’s beautiful to think of every movement in the roda as meaningful as words, the game a dialogue with as much potential and as many implications as a scene from Hamlet.  However, recently I’ve been thinking about something new: what if there were no nuance? 

My initial reaction was: “Well, that would be weird.  Then people could do anything.”  Then: “Wait a minute…people could do anything.”  Think about it!  Let’s say you’ve just been working really hard on something–a new rasteira set-up, for example–and wanted to try it out in the roda (because we all know that executing a move in class is nothing like trying to execute it in a real game).  How are you going to do that?  You don’t want to go after someone who has a lower belt than you, and if you try it on anyone else they might become mad and get aggressive on you, which you’re not really looking for at the time.  Of course, this is not always necessarily the case, but “better safe than sorry” if you’re paranoid like I am about these things.  If moves had no nuance and everything was fair game, you could go in and test yourself without worrying about inadvertently offending the other person (unless you did a particularly poor rasteira and rammed your foot into their ankle, or something). 

But that’s only a tiny part of it; let’s look at how having no nuances would impact the game overall.  Well, for one thing, no one would have to hold back!  You could do anything without worrying about unduly offending the other person, within reason (i.e. you’d still have to use legitimate capoeira moves…and we’ll leave “But what is legitimate?” for another time).  Which, in a way, makes sense…because if you think about it, anything you do could be considered just part of the game, part of capoeira.  The very unexpectedness of a sudden chapa de costa could be considered just a part of what capoeira is, and the other person shouldn’t get mad because 1) being a capoeirista, you could say s/he should know to expect the unexpected and 2) to reiterate, it’d all just be part of the capoeira game. 

[Now watch me get killed by a sudden chapa de costa the next time I train at my academy XD]

And what games, if people didn’t hold back!  You could put the heat on and play aggressive but in a fun and challenging way for both players, without the game becoming negative.  Instead of smalltalk versus argument, you now just have constant banter, all the way through.  (From Hamlet to Much Ado About Nothing, you might say =P)

Of course, people do all of this on their own anyway, without necessarily having an academy-wide “anything goes” philosophy.  And teaching that every kick has a difference nuance is good for protecting beginners from getting accidentally harmed in the roda, and for making sure they really know something before trying it out on a more experienced player without thinking.

Also, by “anything goes” and lack of nuance, I don’t mean that you can do anything and get away with it, without any consequences–not at all!  The other person can still retaliate, at any time, and they have the right to.  The difference is that they won’t suddenly lose their temper on you, they won’t take offense and hold it against you, and you’ll both know that whatever happens, it’s nothing personal, just all part of capoeira and the game, and both players would probably be the better for it.

Personally, I’m actually fine with nuance, since I was trained in it, and like I mentioned, the drawing of parallels between capoeira and words and language really appeals to me.  However, it might be something worth thinking about, for the next time you enter the roda!



17 responses

10 12 2007


I never knew you were so skilled with words and so open-minded as to see these parallels and balances.

Very well done. I hope to see more of your insight =)


10 12 2007

Lol, Lee! Thanks for the compliment, especially considering you don’t even do capoeira =P

10 12 2007

Lol that’s interesting joaninha, next time please do a chapa for me to polvo? hehehhe

10 12 2007

Haha, umm, I think that would be a stupid thing for me to do, with OR without nuance!

11 12 2007

But maybe it would be harder to convey the ‘dialogue’ of capoeira if each movement didn’t have some emotive inferonce (?). I have a friend who I feel uses kicks unbiasedly, yet I still get angered when he uses a low kick, or muddies my top, or random rasteira. So I think between us we would differ on this point. Hmm..

Movements are also selected to show one’s familiarity with the game they’re playing. If you’re gonna armada playing angola, usually you’ll do the funky trippy one, staggering about a bit like a fool. This way you can show you are familiar with how it is traditionally used. Also, it can then be more structured, using anything less expected to build up, and stuff!

Thank you for inspiring me to ramble incoherently. 🙂

11 12 2007

Hey Rodrigo, thanks for commenting!

I agree, which is why I said it’d be hard to give up the idea of everything being nuanced, since I *love* thinking of capoeira as a language and games as dialogue, a part of which is that everything has a hidden meaning…it seems to give more depth to the game somehow; everything isn’t just laid out there, with meia lua de frente being on the same level as martelo rotado, for example. And yeah, I think your friend’s playing makes you angry because it seems like he hasn’t learned to distinguish the subtleties between each movement yet (or if he has he’s ignoring them), and what’s supposed to happen when, whereas you have.

Style and technique of movements, e.g. a regional armada compared to an angola armada, I think is a little different from nuance, since then we’re talking about two overt styles rather than an underlying message in giving of the armada itself, whether in regional or angola. But I still see your point; no matter what, movements can convey a lot!

11 12 2007

“The very unexpectedness of a sudden chapa de costa could be considered just a part of what capoeira is, and the other person shouldn’t get mad because 1) being a capoeirista, you could say s/he should know to expect the unexpected and 2) to reiterate, it’d all just be part of the capoeira game.”

Aren’t things supposed to be this way anyway? Unexpected, sneaky, tricky. That’s the very essence of malicia, no?

I don’t think that every move has only one place or use in the game. Capoeiristas should be like chameleons who adapt to their environment. If everything were as “nuanced” as you said, capoeira wouldn’t be very fun (it’d be like any other martial art).

Personally, I don’t think anyone should take what happens in the roda outside of the roda. If someone takes you down, you can respond in the roda (if you have the ability and/or guts) but leave it in the roda. Sure, there is a need for respect (respect higher cords and don’t beat on lower cords) but I think in general people should be able to branch out once in a while and not be looked down upon or punished.

If you pull a rasteria on a lower cord, you’re teaching him that he should pay better attention and it’ll help him improve. If you do the same to a higher cord you’re showing her that he shouldn’t “play down” to you and that you’re able to play at her level, which should impress her not piss her off.

11 12 2007

Thanks for such a thorough comment, Faisca!

That’s definitely true, but I think a lot of people expect malicia to be used “within reason”, if that makes sense, in an academic (err, academy-ic) setting, although whether or not that’s right or fair I don’t know. But I do know for example that if I were having a really nice, calm game with someone, and they suddenly kicked me in the chest, my very, very first instinct would probably be to call foul play…although actually if they took me down with rasteira or vingativa, I would appreciate the malicia they used in that…I wonder why that is?

And yeah…I didn’t mean to make it sound as if every movement had so much nuance there was only one place and time for it. I think then it wouldn’t be nuance anymore, but just plain definition! What I mostly wanted to get across was the possible differences that might come out of not giving particular kicks so much significance, like freeing players from getting hung up on what other players did to them.

Yup, agree again…what do you mean by branching out and being looked down on/punished? You mean branching out in the levels of people you play, or movement-wise?

As for the last part, it’s more of a personal thing (I really am paranoid), so thanks for the advice! I’ll keep that in mind for next time =)

11 12 2007

I mean branching out in the people you play, and how you play them. Like, not being afraid to really go at it with a higher cord (just be prepared to have a tough game) for example.

I’d probably be pissed if someone randomly kicked me in the chest if we were playing a nice slow game too, but sometimes that’s what happens. Personally I wouldn’t do that, I try to keep the pace of the game, and if I want to do something tricky I’ll throw some fakes or something and then just put my foot on the person’s chest, like, “Ha! I got you!” instead of actually kicking them.

I think after reading some comments and looking at the post again I understand more about what you meant about nuance and whatnot. I get what you’re saying about meia lua de frente not being on the same level as martelo rodado. They both have certain situations that call for them (in general) but sometimes you can switch it up maybe if you want to move the game in a new direction or just do something surprising.

I still say that capoeiristas should always expect the unexpected.

11 12 2007

Ahh, okay, thanks for clarifying. Haha, I will definitely be on my guard if I ever play you then!

2 01 2008
Sangue bom

The good old language thing.

As there are stupid people there are stupid dialogues/rodas.
The beginner is stupider in the sence of knowing less and the advanced is then who takes charge of the dialogue by going for preaching monologue/acrobatics, humiliates the beginner by “matando um” with eloquent arguments/kicks&takedowns or stays calm and educated by explaining patiently/playing together.

But the stupid too can take charge. So never underestimate the unpredictability of stupidity as I always say.

Man it’s beautiful.

But just talk.

3 01 2008

Hehe, there’s a famous quote that goes “Never underestimate the power of human stupidity.” That’s true though; if a beginner starts throwing crazy chapas and martelos with power but no control, I suppose the other player, even if advanced, would have to first worry about immediate self-defense before being able to turn the tables.

You’re one of two people today who has deemed something “just talk” on my blog, which is interesting because I’ve been thinking on and off about that idea (or along the same lines) since before starting this…I think you should come back to read a post I will write in the near future!

3 01 2008
Sangue bom

He who talks about eating at the table is poor and hungry.

He who eats at the table doesn’t have time to talk.

3 01 2008

So, are you saying that the person eating is right, or that it’s a paradox and one should find a compromise?

3 01 2008
Sangue bom

Forgot to say that he who eats and talks at the same time can choke.

Few don’t.

Talk not, educate.

3 01 2008

Ahh, okay. Well, I will try to do both the best I can without choking, and if I do I’ll learn from the experience. 😛

3 01 2008
Sangue bom

That pretty much sums it up.

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