“I'm Your Teacher, I’m Brazilian!”
and alternately attack and escape. In Brazil it can be a fierce combat sport, but in Europe and the USA learners are taught to halt their attacks just short of their opponents’ bodies.
Capoeira was an all-male activity, practised by the African-Brazilian slaves, and after slavery was abolished, by the black underclass in the cities of the north-east. Because capoeira was associated with a criminal underclass it was illegal until the 1930s. In the 1920s progressive young intellectuals, led by Gilberto Freyre, began to argue that a new Brazilian identity should be formed by melding the cultures of the Portuguese former colonists, the African-Brazilians, and the indigenous ‘Indians’. When Vargas was President many African-Brazilian phenomena, such as samba, street processions and capoeira were brought into the mainstream. Capoeira was legalised
and spread across Brazil socially and geographically. The capoeira diaspora began when Brazilians started classes in New York and San Francisco in the early 1970s. In the USA, women became enthusiastic capoeiristas, and it is now mixed all over the world, including Brazil (Assuncao 2005). European capoeira began in the 1970s; The London School of Capoeira in 1985. Capoeira started in Cloisterham in 2001. When Achilles came to Cloisterham in 2003 to replace Patrokles, who had started the club, he started teaching in Tolnbridge as well.
A typical UK lesson lasts 90 minutes and has the following elements: a warm up (in cold weather vigorous running and jumping), sit ups and press ups, stretching (with particular emphasis paid to the muscles that will be used in the class), individual drilling of capoeira moves; paired practice of moves (such as a kick, an escape, a counter attack) with frequent changes of partner, practice of the musical instruments or songs, a roda, singing and clapping, a pay break, samba, announcements, warming down. The high point is the roda when two people play capoeira in full view of everyone else in the class. Achilles orchestrates all these activities, demonstrating and leading many of them; he does the 50 sit ups, plays the instruments, leads the singing, and does a lot of capoeira himself. The class is his workplace, and he teaches at least eight lessons a week for 45 or more weeks of the year, in three cities, interspersed with travel between them. The activities he leads are the habitus of capoeira for his students, and indeed for his co-authors here. Some classes are only for advanced students, but most contain a wide range of experience and abilities, from novices to those who have six years of capoeira in their biography.
The attractions of capoeira and the Beribazu Group
Nothing Achilles says about teaching makes sense unless one understands two things. First there is the seductive, all-embracing allure of capoeira which captivated him as a child. Second, there is the pedagogic tradition and formal organisation to which Achilles belongs, Beribazu (Blue Berimbau). These frame Achilles’s teaching, and are for him the habitus of capoeria. He told Bruxa about his first serious encounter with capoeira in the following way:
A: I saw capoeira many times but the first time capoeira was really impressive for me. I was ten years old. I was on a beach with my family and I saw a capoeira street roda, and then I went to watch and it was really impressive, and I was curious about that.
Bruxa asked if Achilles’s family lived in the city with the beach, and learned they did not.
It was on our holidays. I was impressed and I was really curious. It was at that moment I thought it was interesting to learn.
Achilles’s ‘capture’ by capoeira is a recurrent theme in the autobiographies of instructors. Capoeira teachers, especially much-revered masters, are often asked to tell their life stories as public autobiographical narratives at festivals. The typical story emphasises how capoeira swept the teller off his or her feet (5) so they gave up everything else to be ‘totally capoeira’. Andre Luiz B Maciel Viera (E.T.) (2004: 21) writes of his first exposure:
I was delighted, my body was shivering, and I fell in love with capoeira. That’s when I started practising. Capoeira came into my life and I couldn’t get away from it!
Students tell parallel stories about how they were captivated by capoeira. Students we know usually describe their exposure to capoeira with phrases such as ‘It blew me away’. Trovao first ‘saw’ capoeira in a martial arts book, Rassaldar on the TV programme Stargate SGI, Mowgli and Lunghri were amazed by groups on the beach in seaside resorts, Janardana saw the Cloisterham club performing in the street. In all cases capoeira caught their imagination. Achilles’s story of falling in love with capoeira as a child in Brazil is typical, and nothing else in his life story or teaching in the UK makes sense without recognising the resulting enchantment. Achilles went on to recount how he had, back in his home city of Brasilia, chosen to train with the Beribazu Group, founded there in 1972.
A: So I start capoeira with the Beribazu Group. okay, and friend of mine he took me to the University of Brasilia and then he said to me ‘Achilles that’s the group I’ve been training with’ and I was really curious and started, I decided I was gonna start training there and I start training there and then I joined the group in 1991.