What Oscar Wilde Can Teach You About Capoeira

12 03 2008

“A little sincerity is a dangerous thing,
and a great deal of it is absolutely fatal.”

I know, what does HE know about capoeira, right?  Well, read and see!Known for sayings such as the above and “The only way to get rid of temptation is to yield to it,” Oscar Wilde is one of my favourite authors.  It occurred to me the other day that despite his Oxford schooling, 19th century dandyism, and the fact that he was gay—he might actually have made a pretty good malandro [Edit: a pretty good typical/traditional malandro].  After mining through a huge list of famous quips and witticisms, I’ve shortlisted 8 gems that hold valuable lessons for us about capoeira.  Who’d have thought?  Now read on and yield to the temptation…


“Always forgive your enemies—nothing annoys them so much.”

Have you ever seen someone get taken down in the roda, and then immediately go into ultra-agression mode, doing everything with the sole intent of getting the other person back?  It didn’t get much results—or look very good—did it?  If you get taken down in the roda, or find yourself playing someone with whom you have a score to settle, relax.  There’s no hurry.  Laugh it off, keep having fun, and don’t show that you’re bothered (better yet, genuinely don’t be bothered at all!).  You’ll either perplex your opponent (an advantage), or keep the game fun and above-board; then, when they’re least expecting it, you can strike!

“It is a curious fact that people are never so trivial as when they take themselves seriously.”

This lesson is similar to the one above, but has wider context.  If you read Nestor Capoeira’s Roots of the Dance-Fight-Game, there’s a story in there about a capoeira instructor he met once, who used the word “work” in some form or another every other sentence while talking about capoeira.  That instructor proceeded to get his corda served to him on a plate in the roda, getting angrier and angrier all along for being made a fool of and for the imagined (or not-so-imagined!) insult to his pride and dignity.  Do you think people were taking him seriously then?  If you ever feel yourself getting too intense or upset about capoeira, just remember all its other names: vadiação, brincadeira, malandragem.  “Loitering”, “frolic”, and “roguery”—nothing very serious about those!

“There is no sin except stupidity.”

In his book Learning Capoeira, Greg Downey tells how the worst thing someone could be, to a capoeirista, is stupid, or naive (which is what I meant by the quote at the top of this post).  This one reminds us to always be on the alert, pay attention to what’s going on around you, don’t get cocky in the roda, know what’s going on in the roda even when you’re not in it or especially if you want to buy in, and to never let down your guard or make a rash decision.  Even if we no longer have to fear hidden razors to the throat, your pride won’t care if you end up on your butt thanks to an unexpected yet avoidable attack!

“Truth, in matters of religion, is simply the opinion that has survived.”

Whether or not you agree with this regarding religion, you can’t argue if you replace the word with “capoeira”!  How many different versions have you heard of how many different histories, origins, techniques, personalities, stories, rumors, or philosophies, just to name a few?  I carelessly got caught out the other day while chatting with Compromisso of Capoeira Espaco: “…I can’t imagine what true angola must be like.”  Well, as he pointed out, what’s “true angola”?  What’s true capoeira?  When it comes to capoeira, there is no one, universal Truth, so take everything you hear or read with a grain of salt, and never forget or be afraid to think for yourself.

“People who love only once in their lives are. . . shallow people. What they call their loyalty, and their fidelity, I call either the lethargy of custom or their lack of imagination.”

Though slightly controversial, I agree with this sentiment regarding capoeira “group loyalty”.  As I explained in my post “Think Global, Play Local: Broadening Your Capoeira Horizons“, this does not mean I advocate group jumping!  I believe in this only as far as not restricting yourself to your own group to the extent that you don’t even interact or check out other groups, for the exposure.  “Lethargy of custom”, of course, would refer to going along with what you’re told because “that’s the way it is”, at the expense of your own growth in capoeira, and “lack of imagination” could be a cause, but more importantly also a result of such “fidelity”, in the long run.  (An example is, as I’ve been told by multiple people, when capoeiristas in one group play together so often and without new blood that they begin to memorize each other’s favourite moves and combinations!)

“Consistency is the last refuge of the unimaginative.”

Kind of a nice transition from the last quote, this one is a given!  If you find yourself doing the same moves over and over again in the roda, or end up with conversational lulls of doing ginga back and forth with your opponent, that might be a sign it’s time to get your capoeira sequence drawing board (or thinking cap, or magic eight ball—hey, to each their own!) out.  Capoeira is all about being creative and imaginative, moving unpredictably, doing the unexpected; the only thing you should be doing consistently is training! 

“A man who pays his bills on time is soon forgotten.”

Now this one I wouldn’t have picked a year or two ago, but things change. 🙂  If you play nice (and boring), following all of what you think are the rules, then—for the most part—people are going to play nice (and boring) with you.  When you play someone like that, what happens?  You play them, someone buys them out, and you move on to the next person.  What if the other person suddenly gave you a martelo to the face (just marked, of course, not actually), or attempted to take you down?  You’d suddenly be a lot more into the game, wouldn’t you, and they would definitely have caught your attention, wouldn’t they?  “Nice” and “proper” (whatever that is) is okay, but it’s also forgettable, and unremarkable.  If you push the envelope a little bit (and within reason), you get onto the radar, people won’t be afraid to do the same to you, and together that’s how you help each other grow.

“I may have said the same thing before…but my explanation, I am sure, will always be different.”

Ah, how many times have we asked for an explanation from a teacher, only to good-naturedly accept a completely contradictory version the next week?  Similar to there not being any one Truth in capoeira, there is also never just one way to do things, or one way to describe or explain things.  You can have one instructor insist on you practicing au sem mão one way, then five minutes later have that exact method derogated by another (true story)!  The key to this one is to always be mentally flexible, open-minded, and receptive of new ideas.  Being perceptive wouldn’t hurt either, in case someone is repeatedly telling you something you clearly need to know, but just in a different way each time!

Well, I hope you enjoyed this introduction to or reacquaintance with Oscar Wilde!  And hopefully you learned a couple of things, too. 😉

p.s. This was inspired while commenting on a post by the newest capoeira blogger on the block, Angoleiro! It’s all angola, all the time, and all awesome! You guys should definitely head over and check it out.

p.p.s. For those of you who have commented over the past two days or so, thank you so much for your thoughtful and extensive responses, and I’m sorry I haven’t replied yet!  I’ve been completely time-strapped by non-capoeira, non-blog things this week (I actually had to bail a couple times on my in-person friends, as well), but I promise I will get to them eventually, no matter what!  Keep checking back!

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22 responses

13 03 2008

What does being gay have to do with the ability to be a melandro?


13 03 2008

Only because malandros are known to be womanizers!

But I did edit, for good measure. 🙂

13 03 2008

Joaninha, good article! Love the points you’ve listed there.
For the last one – I had a professor in the university who was teaching the same stuf for years and he seemingly had the same explanation every time he delivered his lectures. So there was a phenomen we were trying to understand. When one of the students asked him to explain again (meaning try explain in a different way), the professor repeated himself, word to word, with a louder voice this time… We were dying!…. 🙂

13 03 2008

Your first point I’ve recently seen in action in a workshop a couple of weeks ago between two professors from different groups. It wasn’t pretty but thank heavens only one was a hot-head otherwise we might’ve had a large brawl on our hands! It would’ve gotten messy aswell since the hot-head was a master practitioner of jiujitsu…

Your bill payment point strikes much closer to home. It was only yesterday I was telling my friend that to up our game, we have to utilise takedowns and leg sweeps more in our jogo. Sure, we can do them already, but what I mean is to be able to do them every and any time we actually wanted to regardless of what the other person is doing or not doing. Also, we need to learn timing and positioning (which will not only help with the application of techniques, but also improvisation too), but the only way to do that effectively is to practise against a live, resisting opponent.

Unfortunately, our group has a lot of beginners in it and so I always refrain from using takedowns and leg sweeps of any sort in case I injure them accidentally. Although it wouldn’t be my intention, it could be miscontrued as bullying or one of those ‘he should’ve known better’ things. However, my rasteira is starting to get a little rusty which makes me sad.

And Mariposa, I know that feeling! There are some lecturers at my uni that are engaging, able to relay complex ideas in simple ways and know their subject inside out; but those are few and far between. In similar vein, during my first year I took an English module, and the lecturer was reading from what appeared to be some sort of essay – I kid you not! The flowery language was far too eloquent to be day to day speech. If the language wasn’t a dead give-away, his droning read-outloud voice definitely was! And the way his eyes were constantly glued to the papers he held in his hands…

13 03 2008

Joaninha, when I saw the title of this post the first thing I had to do was smile. I am not really educated in Oscar Wilde’s writings and I think with reading this post I learned more about him then ever before in my life. And you are right, he seems to have a lot in common with a capoeirista. I have no idea of Oscar WIlde’s life, but his philosophy is similar to the philosophy of people who have seen rough days, who suffered from hunger, poverty and/or violence and who are smart enough to see that being ‘good’ (in the ‘official’ society’s point of view) all the time is not the smartest way to make a living.
about the explanation part. I had the same with my first trainer. He was always changing his explanations to a certain movement. Forget about that, he was even doing a slightly different movement when we wanted him to repeat it. This led to a lot of confusion for people who are used to think in a straight line. I enjoyed it, cause there is one thing I learned from that, and that is: there is no single perfect movement, just a variety of possible movement which lead to a certain effect (e.g. not being beaten up…).
Once in a while I do give a training to some modern Capoeira players. I think they get fed up with me saying over and over again “yeah, you can do this movement like this, but actually it doesn’t really matter” or “that’s just my opinion, ask 10 other teachers and you’ll get 12 different answers”

13 03 2008

I love it! Oscar wild meets capoeira. I especially liked the point about there being no universal Truth in capoeira. One of my biggest frustrations is people trying to convince me that there is a Truth (both in capoeira and in every aspect of life, philosophy and education). People seeking that Truth are putting blinders on about the complexities of reality and history. It leads to closed-minded reductive thinking. Seek out as many truths as you can find and reject or accept them as you wish. And stay creative and imaginative (for example linking an Afro-Brazilian martial art to a 19th century British writer). Great job Joaninha in keeping your head out of the box.

13 03 2008

This is a great post. A lot of the quotes can correspond directly to the things I mentioned in my latest post about C.A.P.O.E.I.R.A. (that is so annoying to spell out, by the way). Very well done, I love good quotes.

13 03 2008


Thank you! HAHA that’s really funny…and you know what, I’ve actually been accused of doing the same thing once by some of my friends! XD But yes, profs can definitely make or break a class I’ve found…

8 02 2012

Toni…fico pxrelepa como o entrevistador distorce as respostas dele..rsssssQuase parece verdade..parabéns..amei.Bjka

13 03 2008


Thanks for sharing! I’ve only seen a couple of slight examples of hot-headedness in the roda, and you’re right, it really doesn’t look good on anyone’s part. Also, I don’t know if it’s just me, but do you also sometimes feel kind of bad or embarassed for the people who got themselves into the situation?

The bill payment conversation you had with your friend is basically the same one I’ve been having with myself more and more lately. 🙂 I completely understand about the beginners thing though (even though I’m basically still a beginner myself, heh). And yes, I don’t like doing that too because it either looks like I’m picking on them or aiming below my level (so kind of like a cheap shot). Unless they deliberately do something to me first, then anyone’s fair game XD

13 03 2008

Angoleiro: Heh, I actually really like this post, too, and enjoyed writing it. ^^” If you google “Oscar Wilde quotes” you’ll find tons more! Or better yet, read The Picture of Dorian Gray, or any of his plays! They are brilliant.

His life…well, like I said, he was a dandy, and went to Oxford, and got rich off his writing and led a gorgeously decadent lifestyle….then he got tried for charges of “public indecency” (turned out he was having an affair with some government official’s nephew) and it all kind of went downhill from there…I definitely wouldn’t put him in the streets though, which is why it sparked me, precisely because of this contradiction!

Hahahah I had a trainer like that too! Changed the movement EVERY time he showed it to us while saying the exact same instructions and acting as if he were doing the exact same movement. 😛 Also had one time where he showed us one movement that we could only do one leg at a time, and he showed us two different movements each time, then before we could even finish one leg switched to a new sequence altogether. XD Gotta love it! Hahah that’s a great quote, “ask 10 teachers and get 12 answers”, sums it up perfectly!

13 03 2008


Thanks so much! 😀 Honestly, I thought writing for a newsletter was the best of both (my) worlds (lit and capoeira), but this blog has proven time and time again to be even better! I haven’t actually come across too many specific instances of people telling me “This is How It Is”, but I do get an overwhelming impression of it from the capoeira world in general, (not to mention the whole group vs. cult paranoia mentality), so I’m always wary of that kind of thing. Everything you say is true!

13 03 2008

Really, Faisca? I can definitely see the playfulness and imagination ones, but they’re kind of obvious; other than that I don’t think there’s actually much overlap at all! But thanks a lot, and I’m glad you enjoyed the quotes! 😀

13 03 2008

This was another great post, Joaninha! The quote about paying your bills on time especially resonated with me. This post also got me thinking about that traits that make a good capoeirista. I hope others will add to this list.

1) athleticism
2) tenacity
3) ingenuity
5) the ability to control your body and your emotions
6) an understanding of the game
7) the ability to withstand emotional and physical discomfort

14 03 2008

Hey Daria,

Thanks! I’m glad you got something out of it. =) If you’re thinking about traits that make a good capoeirista right now, funnily enough Faisca just wrote a fairly relevant post on that, as he mentioned! You can check it out here. 😀

14 03 2008

Generally speaking, I don’t witness hot-headedness often. Like I said in that mammoth essay-like comment for your mestre role article (sorry!), our group is laid-back and friendly. But yes, when I do witness it I do kinda feel bad for them. However, it’s more of a what-an-idiot kind of bad and embarassed feeling if you catch my drift.

I’m still a beginner myself! But since the half of my group I train regularly with is based at university, the term ‘beginner’ has been skewered since the oldest members at any point in time will only have had 2+ years of experience (excluding the players from the city). If a firm definition of ‘beginner’ for our group had to be set, it is anyone who has practised for under a year and hasn’t been taught all the basic movements (including rasteira and tesouras of all variations). In a less defined manner, though I’ve only played caps for 1.5 years, I have (at long last!!!) got a certain fluidity about my movements plus comfort while rolling about on the floor that the others who have only studied for half a year have not discovered yet.

Mind you, it took me a full year to achieve that, so it’s not a big bragging point. I remember watching the new people at the beginning of this (uni) year developing quickly after only a couple of months, and thinking to myself, “I’ve been doing this for a year and they’ve already caught up… Damn, what is wrong with me?”

Through necessity, since technically I’m supposedly one of the more senior members of our university band, I’ve had to shape up and fit into their expectations of my skill level. You know when people put you on a pesdestal than you don’t think you deserve, but you have to carry on the illusion because you don’t want to let anyone down, then it becomes reality? It really happened in my case (fortunately!). 😀

14 03 2008

Daria, off the top of my head, here’s my input:

8) Respect for oneself.
9) Respect for others.
10) Courage
11) Awareness (situationally, emotionally, introspectively)

14 03 2008

Hey Akira, you really took it serious and tried to “shape up to fit into their expectiation of your skill level” ? Wow, I know the urge behind it, but as far as I see it only people who are more experienced than you are can comprehend and see how far and good you are. Cause they have been there. A beginner would see other things and think that those belong to experienced players like “wow, HE can do a double-back flip, he must be an experienced capoeirista”. They would not really take care of you being able to play at least 5 variations on every toque on the berimbau, for example.

14 03 2008

Haha I can barely play the pandeiro properly, let alone the berimbau! 😛

We’re a traditional regional group, and therefore we focus on closeness, interaction, takedowns and we do not perform flips. One of Bimba’s many rules is to have one point of contact with the ground at all times. Plus, if you flip around, it leaves you open to rasteiras, vingativas, tesouras and even a good old push (which we don’t practise, but it can accidentally happen). Plus, if you’re close to each other, flipping around is dangerous for both the practitioner and his opponent.

I have a role in our university capoeira group, which is to organise social events, and as such, am recognised and people approach me expecting me to be friendly etc. Plus, I kinda stand out even more so due to my physical appearance (as I wrote on your blog). Since I’m easily recognisable and I’ve been practising capoeira much longer than the majority of the uni players, they have me as a sort of role model slash skill reference point. When they first joined, they kept asking me how long I’ve studied capoeira for because I guess they were setting targets within an approximate time frame for themselves.

Although they thought I was good at playing capoeira (relative to the rest of the group – I’m still a beginner, don’t forget), I personally didn’t think I deserved the credit they gave me. I felt like a fraud on the inside and that felt really bad. I don’t like cheats and liars, yet now I was made to feel like one because of their praise. I also hate letting people down. Outwardly, I didn’t say anything to that effect because I didn’t want to seem modest when I would just be being brutally honest.

In order to live up to their expectations in my eyes, I had to up my game quickly. I didn’t go crazy and practise capoeira every moment of every day. Rather, during classes I paid more attention and gave more effort. I was more focused with a clear target if you will. Eventually, it paid off when my professor congratulated my game with another capoeirista, and for the first time remarked on my fluidity inside the roda. I was elated because finally, my capoeira was no longer stuck at a plateau that I felt I had reached but was continuing to improve.

Also, during a visit to the other half of our group in the city, one of the most senior members (both skill-wise and amount of time spent with our professor), who I hadn’t seen in awhile, said to me, “Akira, your play style has… it’s like… it’s totally different!” I’m going to take that as a compliment. 😉

However, I don’t want to get complacent. I want to continue improving, but not for others now, but for myself. I really enjoy capoeira and I can’t imagine my life without it any more. Sounds sappy and cliched but it’s true. I’m going to be sad when I graduate from university, because back home there’s no capoeira of any kind. But that’s a topic for another time.

15 03 2008

Akira, that is very, very impressive. Even if it was stressful for you at first, I would say that in the end that kind of attention and admiration the other beginner students gave you only did you good, really pushing you to improve like that! Especially since you kept your feet on the ground through it all and didn’t let any of it go to your head. 🙂

Angoleiro: Can you play five variations on every type of berimbau toque? I wouldn’t mind learning a few more of those. 😉

17 03 2008

Hey Joaninha, there is not even certainty about how many toques there are. The most used ones for my old group where the “three classics” of Angola, Sao Bento Grande and Sao Bento Pequeno and Jogo de Dentro as the forth toque. Now that I am sitting on my keyboard rather than with a berimbau in my hands I’d say that I cannot play 5 variations for each toque, but…errrr…3? and then there is a lot of in-play variation, sounds which come up while you are playing. doesnt happen too often to me, but if, then I am always proud like a child who did go to the loo for himself for the first time! 😀

18 03 2008

Heheh…as someone who has yet to play the berimbau in an “official” roda, I think I can understand the thrill!

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