What is the Role of a Capoeira Mestre?

10 03 2008

When you think of your capoeira grupo’s mestre (sorry, Cenoura; there’s that defaulting again), what kind of role do they play in your life, or your capoeira one?  To you, are they a caring teacher?  A fun-loving drinking buddy?  An awe-inspiring hero?  Or an aloof and intimidating stranger?

WWBD---What Would Bimba Do?I never realized before this year how many different “types” of capoeira mestres there were, in terms of the roles they played within their respective groups and the relationships between them and each of their students.  For instance, this year saw the first time a mestre insisted on getting me a drink at a bar, instead of delivering to my group and me a lecture against drinking! 

I’d also never before this year seen any mestras, contra-mestres, or closely preceding levels socialize for real with all levels of students like normal, joking, discussing, etc.  Similarly, when someone told me they couldn’t face saying good-bye for good to their mestre without breaking down, I was shocked because I have no personal connection with mine (well, I think he knows my name); I’d be much more upset about leaving my teachers and friends and the other people I trained with day after day.

At first, I wondered if there were something wrong with my group.  It didn’t help when I then heard about a “no time to teach beginners” spiel that had been given.  Wasn’t a mestre supposed to be the rock of every capoeira student’s experience, not just the graduated ones?  Weren’t they supposed to guide one from the beginning of the so-called capoeira journey, not be waiting at the end, like a prize?  No?  My mistake; must’ve been reading too much Acordeon.

After listening to different friends though, I realized in our case it just all came down to practicalities, and then thinking about it further, I came to terms with it by realizing there are different ways of doing everything as long as it works, and this includes being a capoeira mestre and running a capoeira group.  And since the ideas above hadn’t occurred to me before, and I was still being taught capoeira well and enjoyably by other, advanced students, then regardless the system was working.  (The voice of my high school English teacher now floats through my head…”People will be content as long as they don’t have a basis of comparison“!)

So now this brings me to the question: what is the role of a capoeira mestre?  Is there a “proper” one they should take, according to capoeira tradition, or does the title just mean anybody who is the head of a capoeira grupo who gets the job done?  Based on the examples above, it seems like there are different “types” (for lack of a better term) of mestre roles.  Just to start with, there’s the dear father figure or close mentor; the cool, laid-back, “one-of-the-guys” boss; or the hard-to-reach CEO of a major corporation. 

With those last two comparisons, a separate but related issue emerges: how much hierarchy is there within your group?  Every grupo has hierarchy to some extent, of course, but I think in some if not a lot of cases, it can be considered to be…flattened.  There’s constant “social mobility”, if you will.  Whereas in a group with more hierarchy, distances are more obvious between each level of it, with the greatest distance being between beginners and the mestre, kind of like between a media mogul and one of her outlet’s unpaid interns.  I’d also say that hierarchy is more likely to be found in larger groups because it’s a natural way of organizing people, which would further explain why my own group operates the way it does, because it’s huge.

In my grupo’s case, I have no idea what it was like before I started, but now at least, it seems as if our mestre has taken on the “CEO of a large corporation” role, travelling and taking care of big picture things for the group, and its expansion, and a philanthropic project, while the job of everyday teaching is delegated further and further down the line.  (And occasionally, he’ll hold a managers-only professional skills development seminar.) 

Not that I’m complaining; I absolutely love my teachers, they do an amazing job and can probably relate to me more than a mestre could and vice versa, and it would be an awesome experience to get to teach one day myself (albeit it for now being the day I wake up in a parallel universe).  The only thing is that this system results in a huge “power distance” gap between many students and the mestre, and I used to think that was normal, until I started seeing and hearing about all these examples to the contrary.

So, I’m curious to know what kind of experiences or impressions or relationships the majority or variety of other capoeristas have with their grupos’ mestras, contra-mestres, etc., and whether or not you think mestres should fulfill a certain role, or have certain duties to their group’s students no matter what, or not. 

The floor’s wide open!

Picture source: http://www.saltlakecapoeira.com/Website/Portals/1/bimba.gif

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