Balancing the Berimbau

Embodied Ethnographic Understanding

Neil Stephens and Sara Delamont

Biographical Statements


Neil Stephens is a Research Associate at the Centre for Economic and Social Aspects of Genomics (CESAGen) at Cardiff University, Cardiff, UK, where he is conducting an ethnography of the UK Stem Cell bank. His doctoral thesis explored the social construction of macroeconomic knowledge, drawing upon elite interviews. He trained in Shotokan Karate for eleven years and was awarded a 2nd Dan Black belt. He has also trained in Capoeira for two years and holds a Blue and Brown belt.


Sara Delamont is Reader in Sociology in the School of Social Sciences, Cardiff University. Her most recent book is Feminist Sociology (Sage, 2003). She is the editor, with Atkinson, Coffey, Lofland and Lofland, of the Handbook of Ethnography (Sage, 2001), and joint editor, with Paul Atkinson, of the journal Qualitative Research. Her original degree was in Anthropology, and she teaches a course on the Anthropology of Brazil. A recurrent theme of her work on educational ethnography has been the advocacy of studying unfamiliar ‘classrooms’, a case argued, with Paul Atkinson in Fighting Familiarity (Hampton Press, 1995).


Balancing the Berimbau

Embodied Ethnographic Understanding



This paper is an unusual reflexive text. It has two authors, two voices, two embodied experiences, and two sociological biographies in dialogue. The empirical focus is capoeira, but the ethnographic experience is common to many cultural forms.


Capoeira is the Brazilian dance and martial art, done to the music of the berimbau. Classes are offered in many European countries, as well as in North America. Two sociologists, one a practitioner, the other a sedentary observer, collaborate to study what attracts students outside Brazil to capoeira, how it is taught to non-Brazilians, and how the classes and social events are enacted and understood. The dualities of the collaborative and contrastive engagements are explored in this paper which focuses upon how to do fieldwork on an embodied skill. Physical activity, musical apprenticeship, and a multilingual environment are all made problematic in their collaborative reflections.

Waiting for Achilles

Trovao (Thunder) and Bruxa (The Witch) are standing in a kickboxing gym in Tolnbridge, a British city. (1) They, and eighteen other people, are waiting for Achilles, their instructor to arrive. Music from a CD fills the small gym. The majority of those present, including Trovao, are barefoot, dressed in white trousers and have blue cords knotted round their waists and T-shirts with pictures or slogans or logos about capoeira emblazoned on them. Many, though not Trovao, wear T-shirts with Achilles’s name on them. They stretch, stand on their heads or their hands, do cartwheels, or in pairs practice high kicks. Trovao has warmed up, and is talking to Bruxa who is in jeans and a sweatshirt and is holding a notebook and pen.

Bruxa (B): Did you train on Saturday?

Trovao (T): No: Sandy – Ikki – was moving house: Did you go to watch Perseus?

B: Yes: usual crowd getting ready for the carnival display – interesting. We ought to write a paper or two on all this – embodiment, two handed ethnography…..

T: Not till I’ve been to the SSSS conference in San Diego.

B: Of course not. I’ll start and then you can – oh good – here’s Achilles.


A fit young Brazilian, tanned, beaming and dressed in jeans and a fleece wheels a bicycle into the gym. Bruxa turns and kisses him – he says ‘hey Bruxa! (2) hey Trovao!’, and slaps Trovao’s hand. Achilles then pulls off his shoes and runs to the changing room. As he races up the gym the women he passes kiss him, the men slap hands or do high fives. The atmosphere changes. The individuals and pairs turn into a class: they stop what they were doing, take drinks of water, and form up into two lines down the gym. One man puts down a strange looking wooden bow with a hollow gourd tied to it and joins the two lines. Achilles bursts out of the changing room, now in white trousers and T-shirt, with purple and yellow cords at his waist, shouts ‘Come on guys. Let’s train’ and begins an energetic warm up routine. Bruxa and Trovao have

separated. Trovao is in the front row, bent double with his hands on the floor. Bruxa is standing where she can see Achilles, with her notebook open, scribbling furiously.