Balancing the Berimbau

Thus far the benefits of the dual roles of Trovao and Bruxa have been foregounded, in a reflexive way. There are, of course, dangers in the project, and it is an analysis of these that brings the paper to an end.



There are dangers in two handed ethnography, which fall unequally, because of our respective histories. Bruxa chose capoeira as a fieldwork site for intellectual, academic reasons: a desire to find an engrossing thing to study in Tolnbridge, a love of Brazil, and a fascination inspired by Lewis’s book (1992). Trovao came to capoeira as a hobby, quite distinct from his academic life: he has more to lose from the joint research.


Trovao could lose his main hobby, and his pleasure in it, by being forced to be reflexive, to intellectualise, to write, to publish. Capoeira could be ‘colonised’ by the academic and the intellectual. The ‘play’, the ‘pleasure’ could be destroyed by the intellectual agenda. Trovao could lose his friends in the capoeira class if he were thought to be there as a researcher rather than as a player: especially if there were any threats to the privacy of the other players, rather than a study of their public performance in capoeira classes.


Bruxa could valorise Trovao’s experience and understanding of capoeira at the expense of the experiences and understandings of others: having a co-worker with skills and talents can make an ethnographer lazy. The experience of other novices in the UK, and perhaps especially of the women, and of men who are Brazilian or Portuguese (and quite a few learners are) could be submerged beneath Trovao’s career as a capoeirista. Because she is older, and many of the capoeiristas are, or are like, students in her home university Bruxa is always poised to fall out of analytic mode and into an interventionist one:


There has been a Batizado in Longhampston, and it is the meal break between the ceremony and a public demonstration. Bruxa and Trovao are in a queue for the evening meal with several Cloisterham and Tolnbridge people, and some of the new graduates. One young man asks “Can one of you guys show me how to tie this corda?” Before any of the Tolnbridge men could speak, Bruxa heard herself saying “Well, I’m sure they can – but you need to know you’ve got it on the wrong side – men tie their cordas on the right hip, yours is on the girls’ side’. The young man whipped off his corda – and two Tolnbridge men showed him how to thread and tie it on the correct hip.


Writing up the notes Bruxa is furious with herself: too interventionist, too precipitate, and data were missed. Would the Tolnbridge and Cloisterham men have helped him tie the corda, but left the knot on the wrong hip? Bruxa’s protective instincts – based on an earlier incident – had triumphed over a data collection opportunity. Some months earlier Bruxa had recorded:


It is a Friday night in Tolnbridge: the hour’s practice and instruction is over, they have paid for the lesson, and the roda is about to begin. Achilles plays an opening ladainha (introductory solo) but does not put any players into the circle. Instead he stops the music, and gives a little talk. ‘In this lineage’ he says ‘men wear their cordas with the knot and the dangling ends on the right, and women on the left’. Baloo, who was awarded his about three weeks ago, is wearing his on the wrong side. He blushes, everyone laughs, and he rapidly changes it to the other side. Achilles stresses that this is not meant to be discriminatory – women are equal in capoeira – but it is just the way the Founding Mestre decreed it. (It is rare for Achilles to teach the history or etiquette of the lineage explicitly).


In her reflexive diary, Bruxa had recorded feeling sorry for Baloo, and the embarrassment he must have felt being a cultural incompetent in front of his fellow students. In Longhampstead, Bruxa’s desires to teach, to be bossy, and to be maternal and protective, had completely swamped the proper concerns of the ethnographer.(8)


As good, critically reflexive ethnographers, it is by facing these dangers that the research will develop. When Travao realises that he only reflects on his karate career compared to his capoeira career when Bruxa asks him to, or when Bruxa realises that what she thought she saw was, or more importantly, was not, experienced in that way by the students, the research advances.




The interrelated movements in sociology towards (re)discovering the body, towards (re)discovering rhetorical concerns, and towards (re)discovering the sociological relevance of studying cultural forms are integrated in this paper. The ‘deceptive discourse’ (Lewis, 1992) of capoeira is, playfully, represented by the deceptive discourses of the paper itself.


Notes and Acknowledgements


We, Trovao and Bruxa are grateful to all the instructors we have trained under and observed, especially Claudio Campos (Achilles), Perseus, Andromeda, Tireseus, Ajax, Patrokles, Ulysses, and Cadmus. We have enjoyed the company of all the disciples in all the classes and displays that we have attended. All the names in the paper except ours, and Claudio’s are pseudonyms: the teachers are Greek heroes, the students have nicknames from Kipling’s Jungle Book, because no capoeira student we have ever met had a nickname from that source. If there is a real Mowgli or Baloo practising capoeira we apologise. Rosemary Bartle Jones word processed the paper, for which we are very grateful. We owe a debt to Rodrigo Ribeiro, who has occasionally plunged into capoeira classes and rodas in Britain so that he could give us his insights both as a Brazilian capoeirista and as a social scientist. We have received encouragement and intellectual support from Andre L.T. Reis, Gary Alan Fine, John Evans, Jonathan Skinner, Suzel Reily, Ben Fincham, Andrew Parker, Susie Scott and Ieuan Rees: they have provided the academic equivalent of great pandeiro playing for us. Paul Atkinson read the manuscript in draft several times as it grew and developed, for which we are very grateful.

(1) Classes take place in many British university cities including four we have called Cloisterham, Longhampston, Tolnbridge and Twelford. Achilles teaches in Cloisterham and Tolnbridge, Perseus in Longhampston and Twelford. Regular training sessions are offered in all four cities at least two evening per week, and there are also classes on Saturdays in Cloisterham and Longhampston. Classes last 90 minutes, of which an hour is supervised practice, and the rest lectures and a roda: the actual play of the game in the ring. In addition there are public performances in the street, or pubs, or at festivals. Periodically, there are 2-4 day long festivals of capoeira, when baptisms and belt ceremonies are held, visiting masters teach and award the belts, and there are parties. Achilles might fly to Budapest to be a visiting teacher, the serious Cloisterham capoeiristas might all travel to Longhampston for an extra class with Perseus and his students if he has a guest master visiting, Achilles might ask for volunteers from his Cloisterham and Tolnbridge classes to come with him to Antwerp, a Tolnbridge student might choose to train in Cloisterham on a Saturday if she had missed her regular class.

(2) Achilles has actually given Bruxa a ‘real’ capoeira nickname as an honorary class member which he uses.

(3) Bruxa’s access to, and roles in capoeira classes are discussed in Delamont (2005). In Beribazu the lineage to which Achilles belongs, the social sciences are respected, and many of the mestres and instructors have PhDs and publish books. Bruxa’s access is also facilitated by her enthusiasm for paying the same fee as trainees in all classes.

(4) Maculele is a dance, where the players beat sticks together, based on machete fighting in the days of Brazilian slavery done in grass skirts, to a set of distinctive songs and drumming. Beribazu teaches maculele and other Brazilian dances, which are incorporated into public displays.

(5) There are two traditions in capoeira, Angola and regional. Achilles belongs to Beribazu which melds the two, although regional (which has more emphasis on kicks and less on working very close to the ground) is more prominent. Students of Achilles and Perseus find the classes taught by visiting Angola specialists particularly exhausting.

(6) Students can only attend a batizado if they have bought the uniform of their teacher’s lineage, and a T-shirt celebrating that batizado. After a batizado all the students who were initiated have a corda and the correct trousers and T-shirts.

(7) Trovao and Lunghri both said, subsequently, when asked, that they had learned on which hip to tie their cordas at their batizado, by osmosis, and that they would have told the Longhampston man to tie his on the right hip if Bruxa had not done so.