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:

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



6 responses

30 12 2007

“Boundaries are fluid and perforated for capoeira, if not imaginary. ”

Reminds of the boundaries that postmodernism breaks. Funny how an art developed in the modern period is so very postmodern lol

I guess we just have to “Deconstruct” like Derrida.

“I’d love to say that capoeira is changing or will change the world, beyond the capoeristas and people in Brazil who are helped by capoeiristas…”

My undergraduate thesis talks about the effect Capoeira has on our lives beyond the roda. Downey (in Learning Capoeira) also speaks of the several aspects in life changed and their effects on society.

In my the thesis, I spoke of the dialogue we have in Capoeira and how we use the lessons in that dialogue in society. Unconsciously the roda molds who we are and how we act. In turn, Capoeira is affecting the world through us. 😀

Nice post. Very thought provoking.

Let’s change the world Joaninha! hehe:D

30 12 2007

Hey Pirulito,

Is your thesis anywhere online? I would really, really love to read it. (My friend once joked that I’m so obsessed with capoeira I’ll find a way to work it into my graduating thesis for English [“Post-colonial themes in capoeira song lyrics”, haha] and you’ve gone ahead and actually [more than] done so!) It sounds fascinating, and I think it’s so cool you could do that.

I came across Downey’s book for the first time only 2 days ago, but I really want to read it! Thinking about ordering a copy through Amazon…

Haha, maybe capoeira is just timeless and can fit into any age’s perspective. Deconstruct capoeira? What an intense project that would be; imagine how deep a knowledge you’d have of its history, philosophy, culture, etc., afterwards!

Finally: I’m game! 😀

30 12 2007

not online just yet.. Still have to make copies for my teacher, Professor Fantasma. hehehehe Haven’t gotten around to it. I’m a lazy bum lol

I’ll send it to you one of these days. It’s title is “Buber and Capoeira: Consoling Deception and Dialogue” 😀

Downey’s book is a must have. Quoted it several times in my thesis. Good reference. Good read in general. Covers lots of topics.

Yea deconstructing Capoeira would take forever lol we’d be better off training lol

30 12 2007

Really great read! I’m glad I ran into this blog and I look forward to reading more in the near future! Axe’!

30 12 2007

Pirulito! I looked up Buber on wikipedia and could NOT stop smiling all the way through reading about his philosophy, just imagining the field day you must have had applying it to capoeira.

Hey Pipoca! Welcome to my blog 😀 Thanks, and I hope you’ll join in more discussions, as well!

1 12 2011
Safira xaxa

Hey Joaninha
I really love your blog, I think you are dealing with absolutely essential issues, but please, could you Americans stop with all your French blablah ? I appreciate your “okay, I know it’s politically incorrect and not completly true” (for me I don’t get where you got this statement at all) adding, but, come on…I first learned capoeira in America and I will always be grateful to you guys for that (and many other things), but I really fail to understand your perception of French people. I think that’s sad. When discussing with a friend (anyone, to be honest) about my capoeira’s experiences in America or Japan, I’ve never been told something like your own friend said. They’ll just say “oh great”, not stuff like “Holy God, are American and Japanese really able to do that ?”. I mean, the more I think about your line, the more I find it unbelievable. To discover that for average American people (travellers and capoeristas too !), we French are seen as “not capable of dedication, commitment and lack of general keenness”, and, of course, cannot dedicate on any “intense sport” really upset me. All I want to say is “what the fuck is that” ? You’ll never dare to write such a line on other communities, so just stop doing that with us. Thanks to capoeira that “touches all”, even French people gained a little bit of the qualities you listed below. We’re saved !

Safira xaxa

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