Lessons from Brazil: Whetting Attitude on the Stone of Capoeira

7 12 2009

[I went to Brazil for the first time this past August, with my capoeira group. This is something I wrote last night and seeing as the thoughts in it have been seminal to my personal development as a capoeirista, thought I’d share it with all of you…or whomever still visits! Thank you all as well for the “birthday” wishes on Facebook—that date is actually not my birthday but the birthday of this blog, so the timing of this post works out kind of nicely, as well. Apologies for disappearing off the face of the planet, and I hope you are all doing awesome, in capoeira and otherwise! -Joaninha]

[Note: I think it will become clear that this post is very much rooted in the specific context and values of my capoeira group, our academy culture, collective philosophy, etc. I only mention this in case some parts seem a bit cold or harsh, and realize that not all of what I wrote may click with everyone. Also please note that despite any of that, I’m still the same friendly and approachable (ex?)blogger as ever!]


Before I went to Brazil, so many capoeiristas talked it up as if it were some miracle procedure–it’ll change you, you’ll be a different person, you’ll never be the same, etc. Well, after returning back to normal classes at home, I can’t say they were completely wrong.

If I had to say I gained anything by going to Brazil, it would be: an edge. Not in the sense of a competitive edge (though in light of how perception and presence works in capoeira, possibly, but that’s a whole other post in itself), but personality-wise. In the sense of a hard, if not necessarily sharp, edge.

But the more time passes, the more I’ve felt “the Brazil effect” wearing off. So I’m writing this as a reminder to myself of what I learned and to capture some of that post-Brazil essence back, before I blithely slip into post-post-Brazil (which would equal pre-Brazil) mode.

Basically, I learned–and learned to live–four major lessons:

1. Fight, fight, fight.

I didn’t get into any actual fights while inside the roda, but on one level, it’s practically all I did while out of it. I learned to fight for my place in the roda, fight to see what was going on, fight to be seen, fight not be blocked by people just because I was below their eye-levels, fight not to be effortlessly shoved out of the way by arrogant higher-belts, fight to play, fight to even train, fight to prove that lower-belt/female/small/asian/whatever doesn’t equal sucky training partner or a lightweight capoeirista.

I think the best class of my life was during one of the batizado workshop days. Our mestre’s wife started a dance class with all the girls during lunch, and shortly after we’d started…the mestre started a capoeira class with the rest of the students–i.e. all the guys. This was the second time in as many days a class was “accidentally” all guys, and there I was in a freakin’ ad hoc colheita audition thinking I don’t even dance in the classes back home and was this what I came to Brazil for? So I mentally apologized to all the actual dancers for thinking “f this” and ran across to join the capoeira class.

And I swear I had never felt in more top form than in that class where I was the only girl in a class of at least 30-40 guys and from which I was initially excluded (however “inadvertently”). I got every sequence right away, my macacos were perfect, and I made sure every vingativa went in hard (as someone found out the hard way…sorry again dude, you were the absolute last person in the class I would’ve wished that on!). The mestre even walked by me once, made a correction to my vingativa, and…nothing else. Validation!

That’s when I realized that alongside all the unspoken rules in capoeira, each of us also has an unspoken amount of agency. Though it didn’t seem like it due to environmental factors, attitudes, assumptions, event structure, etc., theoretically any other (non-performance) girls could’ve also left dance for capoeira. Maybe a rule is unspoken because it’s actually non-existent, but the onus is on us to use our personal agency to discover that. They just make itreally hard to figure out, so you have to fight to realize and to take advantage of the fact.

2. It IS all about me.

In my implementation of lesson #1, it’s possible that there was maybe this one roda where in my eagerness to buy in and play I maybe possibly slightly accidentally not-proud-of-ly more-than-bumped into one of our profesors umm hypothetically 3 times in a row. Needless to say, he wasn’t pleased about it. So afterwards when I went to apologize properly he lectured me about how there’s a time to play but how I also have to be aware of other people in the roda and “it’s not all about you”.

But here’s the thing. I completely get what the profesor meant, and I agree with everything he said, in principle. The thing is, my natural setting is to be aware of all others first. I spent years going from letting anyone who showed inclination buy in before me when I wanted to, to just letting people I knew, to just friends/teachers, to only holding back when to still buy in would be blatant, shameless game-“stealing” (and maybe even then, since I suspect there’s no such thing as it’d imply the game “belonged” to the other person when clearly they were just too slow). And the only way I’ve been able to do that, to “de-Canadianize” as my teacher would say, IS to force myself into an “it’s all about me” mentality.

The rodas in Brazil were especially helpful in bringing this out, when I was so roda-starved to the point that I’d have broken games between advanced students without a second thought because I JUST DIDN’T CARE. And that’s the lesson I brought back: to play as much as I’m told I’m supposed to, I have to want it beyond caring, about consequences or anyone else or what they might think. And if that seems arrogant…that’s actually a bonus, because I’ve also come to believe that arrogant-seeming behaviour is rewarded more often than not, and WAY more often than the alternative, in capoeira (at least where my group is concerned).

3. Don’t be nice.

Also known as: if you have a choice, assume you’re going it alone, since you’ll likely end up doing so anyway and this way you’ll actually be prepared. Strangely enough it was North Americans who taught me this one, not Brazilians. This doesn’t actually have that much to do directly with capoeira in itself, and doesn’t apply so much now that we’re not traveling anymore, but as it was also a MAJOR Brazil lesson, thought I should mention it for the record. With a more community-oriented friend’s amendment, the final decree reads, “Be nice to others where you can, but don’t expect others to be nice to/for you.” Not unless you’re with close friends. ESPECIALLY where anything logistics-related is concerned.

If you really wanted, I suppose this applies to capoeira in terms of buying in. Letting other people go in front of you is being nice. Letting other people go in front also means not playing. So being nice = not playing. Don’t be nice = eu jogo capoeira!

4. Getting into trouble is REALLY, ACTUALLY, LITERALLY okay.

This one kind of combines all of the above: taking agency for your own access to capoeira & the roda, fighting to challenge unspoken rules, not caring about what others may think, and not projecting bonds of loyalty or courtesy where there is none. This one actually applies when all of the above goes wrong and instead of getting a huge boost of confidence that your audaciousness paid off, you end up getting reprimanded by a teacher or mestre–like yours truly.

So, there was the profesor thing. Then during a practice roda, also during the all-guys-plus-me class (Mestre & Sons Plus One?…sorry, couldn’t resist xD), I guess I bought in too “early” and the mestre stopped me and said to let the higher belts play first. Both times…that was all there was to me “getting in trouble”.

I didn’t lose my belt. I didn’t get kicked out of the group. I didn’t get hurt, or get detention or expelled from school or a failing grade. I didn’t get fired or arrested or fined.

Looking at that list, I wonder if that’s why Canadians (or whoever) are so scared of getting in trouble, in class? Since in the society we’ve been raised and conditioned in, “getting in trouble” has always meant material consequences: a note to take home, freedom restricted, money to pay, repeating a course–some sort of tangible loss. Not to mention the stigma attached to “getting in trouble” itself. (Cue third-grade class: “OOOHHHHHHH.”)

But in this case, there is no real “loss”. (In fact there’s gain, because as mentioned earlier, it pays in capoeira to show too much initiative rather than too little. Case in point: “You got in trouble already? Good!” -one of our teachers) But really, it’s all psychological. Getting yelled at may hurt your pride or be embarrassing for a bit, but in the larger scheme of things–nothing more. It’s like practicing floreios on cement your whole life and then entering a room with a mat. Why would you hold back as if the floor is still cement? Falling no longer means broken bones.

[DISCLAIMER: This refers to being scared of getting into trouble for stepping up or any keenness-related mistakes. Obviously if someone actually has lost a belt or been expelled from a group, what I wrote doesn’t apply and those cases are probably a completely different story.]

Anyway, this last lesson is what gives me confidence to follow through on all the others. It’s the knowledge that even if I do overstep some actual rule, for instance, it’s OKAY. Gratuitously quoting now, “…bought in to play. I got in trouble, I got yelled at, but so what? The point is, I got to play.

And when it comes to capoeira, isn’t that the whole point?



15 responses

8 12 2009

Welcome back online, Joaninha! I hope all is well, and that so is work. I also sincerely hope this won’t be the last we see of you! =)


9 12 2009
Roda Magazine

Welcome back!!! The first two points you make are definitely amongst the big things we picked when we went down to Brazil (and some of us promptly forgot about post-post Brazil). Great post!

Naturally, we’re writing a little something and posting a link to this tomorrow on http://www.rodamagazine.com.

11 12 2009

I’m glad you’re back online, Joaninha!
It was really interesting to read about your experience in Brazil!
Até mais!

Joelhada, from Montreal 😉

18 12 2009

Joaninha! Interesting to hear about your Brazil experience. One thing I like about capoeira is that it can teach both sides – it can help you learn to be more assertive, whereas perhaps for someone else (who is TOO assertive) it can help that person to learn to work more in community.

20 01 2010

I’m glad I remembered to check your site! (Thanks, FB, for making the suggestion I get into contact with you… 😛 ) I read it; I liked it; and the line about third grade had me rolling. Cause it’s true. (also applicable to younger ages; and I’m trying real hard to make it applicable in secondary school..)

21 01 2010

It`s got me thinking, your latest post. I have been living and training capoeira in brazil for two years and still have difficulty working out what is etiquette, what is arrogance or what is macho. The whole deference to your profesor or mestrando is an unusal concept for me coming from Australian culture where I grew up feeling we all stood on the same platform. Here I often get held back so a profesor or graduado can enter the roda, and it leaves me feeling jibed. I felt ii was an unwritten rule, but maybe I need to push my boundaries and theirs and see what happens!!

10 08 2010

Was drifted here via Coxinha’s drawing… Brilliant, Joaninha!
Very much enjoyed reading your experience in Brazil, and totally agree with you on feminism. 😉

23 11 2010

I read this while smoking my ciggie.
I have to say i always makes me laugh and smile on your posts.
Commenting on your lessons :
1. you were more than right to jump off to the capoeira class Joaninha. You are in it for the capoeira…who the fu#@ cares about dancing lessons? ahahahaha…ok ok dance classes are ok too nevertheless you are more than right to do whatever you want to do.
2.more than often soon enough you know that you have to get into rodas to play…it’s the objective of all that training…and unfortunately you have to shove you way to get into them so thumbs up for…as for the teacher, is commentary is always valuable although for me the problem is deeper … if you have to shove your way to get in the roda it’s because someone is probably not commanding it right!
3.you can be nice or not although in the end it’s not all about being nice it’s about being respected…if people respect themselves they know how important it is to respect others as well…
4.getting into trouble is all about growing up! can’t do an omolette without breaking some eggs!…while you’re not always aware that you’re going to get in to trouble you have to try things, make mistakes and also take responsability for your actions…if you feel anyway you’re not doing one act on feeling…it’s not always right or wrong…it’s a matter of perception!

this said i hope you come visit us soon in lyon…the doors are open always…plus i miss you!

13 12 2010

I started a capoeira blog recently for our new group in washington, DC because they don’t have a website yet. I like your take on a lot of the aspects of capoeira. Are you going to start blogging again soon?

27 02 2011

Hi, i don´t know if i get it right: if they have a higher grade they a “higher” right to buy in in a roda? Sorry but that is rediculous! – in my sight of view.
I´ve learn´d a thing (and luckiely i did) from my mestre: in the roda you are a capoeirista, not a belt, not a rank, not whatever … . there are two CAPOEIRISTAS with respect or no respect and that´s it. rank is something for the lesson and there it is necesarry some times.

20 03 2011

I’m looking forward to this! My capoeira journey has just begun, and I’m very excited to read about your experiences and look up the resources you’ve posted. I look forward to the day that I’m a “force to be reckoned with”! 😉

20 04 2011
Capoeira: Putting the (Martial) “Art” in “Street Smart” « Book Smart Girl in a Street Smart World

[…] education (you can’t get more “outside the classroom” than trying to kick butt on a tiny island in northeastern […]

7 07 2011
Mangangá Angola

Why are all the good Capoeira Blogs over with? This is sad.

I hope at the the people will visit the Capoeira in Seattle this summer. Check out the new Seattle Capoeira Center…. http://seattlecapoeiracenter.com

1 07 2012
Capoeira Moves

Oh man. Will be missed. Definitely. But I agree totally. Better have done, than being too scared of even trying.

6 08 2015
Tom Church

Thanks for writing this. I’m about to go to Brazil so it’s helpful to get a peek as to what to expect.

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