“I'm Your Teacher, I’m Brazilian!”
Hard Waists and Cool Dancing
Capoeira is seen by Achilles and his students as Brazilian and therefore contrastive with their many native cultures.(10) Learners are attracted by the opportunity to experience something exotic: using their bodies differently. The hard waist (cintura dura) is a central idea for Downey (2005: 128-129) who argues that Brazilians believe Europeans suffer from a cintura dura and are “unnerved” by Brazilian “jogo de cintura” (the game of the waist). ‘Adaptability and responsiveness appear to be located in the torso’. Good capoeira students have to loosen their waists physically, and adopt the game of the waist symbolically: i.e. become devious in the roda. Brazilian soccer players, ‘like malandros and capoeiristas, have “good jogo de cintura”.’ (p128). By learning capoeira (and also by dancing) Europeans can loosen up and develop, if not flexible waists, at least partially flexible ones and the accompanying mental and social skills. Bruxa asked Achilles to explain the cintura dura and the jogo de cintura. He said:
Achilles: Game of the waist? jogo de cintura. That means when someone knows how to get out of difficult situations. For example, I am in the game de capoeira, imagine I am in a position that is quite impossible because the guy is so low in his kick that I don’t know how to get out. I change my idea. I’m not going to do a dodge, I’m going to jump up him – and that’s a kind of jogo de cintura. To have a solution for a difficult question in the game, you know. So that’s a jogo de cintura. In life – we have this expression in Brazil when you have jogo de cintura that means you know how to get out of difficult situations.
Bruxa: So it’s used in capoeira and in life?
Achilles: Definitely, definitely
Here a physical skill is also a metaphorical ability to survive in tough social situations. Achilles hopes that, just as Brazilian capoeiristas can deploy their skills outside the roda (Lewis, 1992), so too his students in the UK will develop abilities they can rely upon in British society.
Bruxa and Achilles moved on to explore the stereotype that Brazilian footballers are outstanding because they have flexible waists, while European footballers have hard waists. Achilles joked that England’s hopes for the 2006 World Cup would be more realistic if the squad were coached by a Brazilian.
Achilles: They have to train capoeira, and samba as well [laughs] to be more adept at dancing because that’s why Brazil are the best team of football. We have ways to balance, and samba it helps us to make like dribblies and stuff like that - false movements as well – these help us to be a good football team. And that’s why I think we are the best footballers in the world.
Bruxa: So Beckham should have capoeira lessons?
Achilles: And samba as well. [Both laughing] Teaching him gonna be a pleasure for me, Bruxa.
Bruxa then asked if having a hard waist was a problem for capoeira learners.
Achilles: I’m thinking initially yes. But they start to learn how to make their waists flexible. We have a lot of students here arriving in capoeira. We have many examples in Tolnbridge. The students arrive without any way to play capoeira, and after they have two years training with me they have developed flexible bodies: unbelievable for me.
Achilles takes Trovao as an example of a man who no longer has a hard waist: he had watched Trovao become not only better at capoeira, but as a dancer, over five years: ‘I can see him in the nightclub, at the party, he does not have a hard waist any more’ [laughs warmly]. Capoeira is the only martial art where dancing in a night club is so warmly approved by the instructor: but for Achilles the habitus of capoeira is acquired outside the gym as well as in it.
Conclusions: Gaining Respect through the Four Goals
These then are Achilles’s four goals, which are interrelated, and which, if achieved, will enculturate a discipulo into the habitus of diasporic capoeira. Full enculturation into Brazilian capoeira necessitates a long stay in Brazil, a topic we do not explore here. In routine lessons, and Trovao and Bruxa have each seen over 300, the actual work of implementing these goals, by many repetitions and small increments can be seen in action. Crossley’s (2007) early report of starting to learn Muay Thai, Wacquant’s (2004) ethnography of amateur boxing, and Downey’s (2005) ethnography of Brazilian capoeira classes, all stress the repititions and small increments that are essential for enculturation into a new embodied habitus. Trovao who has spent much of his leisure time developing his flexible waist, learning about Brazilian culture, improving the style of his game, and developing his social ties with Achilles and other capoeiristas is a living example of Achilles’s success at achieving the four goals. Bruxa has watched successive cohorts of novice discipulos develop into a group, improve their physical skills, move their bodies in very different ways, and grasp core aspects of capoeira.
Achilles’s aims for his teaching are enacted in the classes. The Brazilian-ness can be seen in Achilles’s enthusiasm for the students’ participation in the celebratory roda for Luis Renato, in the samba roda, in the live music, in the singing of simple Portuguese refrains. Social cohesion is apparent in the communal effort to buy the bicycle, the arrival of injured people to play music for the roda, in the numbers who turn out for carnival parades. The bodily flexibility and the beautiful play are central to the capoeira training, and the samba roda. Achieving the four aims motivated Achilles as a teacher. When Bruxa asked him to summarise what capoeira had done for him, Achilles focused on gaining respect, and doing a public service.
Achilles, like many other capoeira teachers in Europe has chosen to be exiled from Brazil, to live in a climate he finds depressing without anyone to teach him or train with him so that he can improve his own skills. His nearest Beribazu teacher is in Poland, to play with other capoeiristas at his level or above he would have to go to London. Achilles faces these tribulations because he is proud of his work: amazed and delighted that so many Europeans are eager to embrace the four aspects of capoeira that he stresses. When they show him and each other loyalty, demonstrate social cohesion, enjoy and understand aspects of Brazilian culture, play beautifully, and their embodiment includes flexible waists, his work is visibly successful. As he says:
The most important thing about capoeira for me is to help people and actually at the moment I’ve been helping people here and people in Brazil as well – because we are supporting a social project, in Brazil that’s made me happy – helping people here and people there. And I think as well the respect from people. To be a capoeira teacher in Brazil is something really normal and common as well and here – it makes me: I’m different here, don’t have many people teaching capoeira here at the moment, in Cloisterham at the moment, and in Tolnbridge as well so it makes me different. So I think I’ve got people’s respect, and I understand I’m changing people’s life as well, and that makes me happy.
The paper began from the premise that Bourdieu’s theory of habitus is neither static nor over determining. Rather, like Brown (2005) we began from Bourdieu’s (1999: 340) argument that ‘Pedagogical action can….open the possibility of an emancipation founded on awareness and knowledge of the conditionings undergone’. In the paper we have shown Achilles opening the possibility of an emancipation to his discipulos grounded precisely in their awareness of the conditionings they have undergone. Simultaneously Achilles has an awareness that he can use his Brazilian cultural capital in the UK to gain an enhanced status – to be respected – in a way it would not be used in Brazil itself. The cultural economy of UK capoeira is explicitly not determining for either Achilles or his discipulos, but potentially emancipating.
We are grateful to Rodrigo Ribeiro and Clovis Zapata (Brazilian social scientists) for helpful comments. We wish to thank all the teachers and students observed in the UK, New Zealand, Vancouver and across Europe, and especially the British discipulos interviewed. Rosemary Bartle Jones word processed the paper, for which we are grateful.
Correspondence: Sara Delamont
Cardiff School of Social Sciences
King Edward VII Avenue
Cardiff CF10 3WT
1. To reiterate, all the places mentioned except London, all the teachers except Achilles and his Brazilian mestres, and all the students except Trovao are carefully protected by pseudonyms: teachers with classical names like Perseus, male students with names from The Jungle Book, female students with flowers.
2. Bruxa has written about her research and enthusiasm elsewhere (Delamont, 2005a, 2005b, 2006), and collaborated with Trovao on papers about embodied fieldwork and the capoeira body (Stephens and Delamont, 2006a, 2006b, Delamont and Stephens, 2008).
3. Bumba meu boi is a Brazilian folk phenomenon (see Mukuna, 1999). It is a burlesque; and a miracle play: a prized ox is slain and brought back to life. Beribazu groups perform the Bumba meu boi periodically, for enjoyment, to celebrate Brazilian culture, and, in the case of the Cloisterham parade in May 2005, to publicise the club.