The Feminine in Capoeira, Part 1 (Malicia)

12 12 2007

Malicia - the feminine in capoeira?

In my very first post, I mentioned that capoeira seemed to be an art form mostly dominated by men; in fact, it’s one of the main reasons this blog exists in the first place.  What’s interesting is that while some of capoeira may be male-dominated, it is not traditionally masculine, the way people might consider football or rugby to be.  Several fundamental aspects of capoeira have been characterized as belonging to the feminine, in ways I find in equal parts inspiring, thought-provoking, and problematic.

I first encountered this in Nestor Capoeira’s book, Capoeira: Roots of the Dance-Fight-Game, in which he deems malicia a manisfestation of the feminine in capoeira.  Unfortunately, I’m living away from home right now and thoughtlessly left the book there, so I can’t quote his exact words to you…but his thoughts were reiterated later on in the book by scholar Muniz Sodré, and due to a brilliant stroke of luck, this particular passage was reproduced in Google’s Book Search Preview:

You also say that malicia belongs to the Feminine aspect of things. I like that. While Masculine is the gender of the defined, the understandable, rational—the gender of power—the Feminine is, on the other hand, the reverse of all this. It is the void. Its power is also of the sort that you don’t know exactly what it is. Its power is “not to be clear” about power itself. It’s the power of the void. Because malicia is exactly that: to go around what is clear and established. And in that sense it is Feminine.  (Sodré as quoted by Capoeira, p. 30)

You can see for yourself (I hope) why statements like that are problematic.  The “void”?  The reverse of “rational”, of “power”?  This is where things get tricky.  As a capoeirista and English lit major, I can appreciate the symbolism in that, the evoked nature of malicia and the dimension it adds to capoeira and the jogo.  And as a feminist, I feel (with all due respect to Nestor Capoeira and Muniz Sodré) that that can’t be right, there must be another way to put it, and that the whole thing should be torn up and sent back into the 19th century, where that kind of thinking belongs!  How exactly do I go about doing this while maintaining the integrity of both capoeira and modern-day/feminist thinking?

The main issue here, I think, is the seemingly necessary genderizing of things, when in fact it’s not necessary at all (let alone the use of capital letters, which just makes the terms look way more qualified than they should).  It’s cool to think of malicia as the “power of the void”, as that unexplainable, irrational thing that gets in through the cracks and hits you where you thought there was nowhere to hit.  When you say that malicia is all these things though–void, irrational, unclear, evanescent–and therefore feminine, that’s where you lose me.  “Void” is exactly what we are not supposed to be! And you can say that assigning feminine and masculine aspects to capoeira adds meaning and depth, similarly to nuance and capoeira movements in the roda, but I think there is a way around that.

The whole reason it’s appealing to associate malicia with the feminine is because of all the things that have been associated with the feminine throughout history.  When you say malicia is “feminine”, you are really saying malicia is mysterious, elusive, intangible, and all those other things that Nestor Capoeira and Muniz Sodré said, thanks to stereotypes that have been entrenched probably since humans first learned to discriminate.  I believe it’s possible to “de-genderize” concepts like malicia while retaining the things one actually means when labelling them “feminine” or “masculine”.  Referring again to the nuance in movements analogy, we do not say that a chapa is “masculine” because it’s aggressive, or that a bait-and-switch sequence is “feminine” because it’s deceptive (or “went around what was clear”)–they are just aggressive and deceptive, respectively.  So why can’t malicia just be what it is, without perpetuating outdated stereotypes at the expense of women and the feminist movement today?

To read Part 2 (Context), please click here.

Picture source:

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!