Balancing the Berimbau

In the settings where capoeira is taught and performed – gyms, dojos, dance studios, youth clubs, pubs, clubs, the street – Trovao is a full participant, embodying the movements, the rhythms, the singing, the clapping and the axe (energy), while Bruxa watches, embodying nothing. She writes: a cerebral activity. These settings are noisy, full of movement, they are sweaty, crowded and actually or potentially public. Events happen at a fast pace, there are no sustained conversations, the speech channels are essentially uni-directional as the teacher instructs and the disciples obey. What talk occurs is fragmentary and focused on the immediate, the physical and the rhythmic. ‘Don’t look at the floor!’, ‘meia lua!’, ‘watch out for the guy!’, ‘negativa!’ ‘Ikki Concentrate!’, ‘Clap louder!’, ‘OK guys, relax’, and so on. Teachers and students hug and kiss each other at the start and finish of each class, as part of the ‘Brazilian’ ambience. The language is a melange of English, Brazilian Portuguese, Portuguese Portuguese, and anything else that will improve communication.


When Trovao and Bruxa reflect upon the reconciliations of their data collection, they do so in an academic, quiet, private setting. Both sit at a table, no music plays, neither moves, both talk in a sustained and considered way, with pauses for thought. No one plays a berimbau, no one sings, no one claps, there is no axe. Trovao articulates his tacit, embodied, experiential knowledge, transferring it into the verbal, analytic sphere.

Bruxa takes her written, outsider knowledge and offers it to Trovao to form a contrastive narrative. The talk is two-dimensional, with Trovao instructing Bruxa and vice versa, in a context where there is no ‘instructor’ and no audience. Neither sweats, there is plenty of space and if either were to ‘fall over’ academically, no one else will see their defeat. Bruxa does not demonstrate her intellectual skill by knocking Trovao over symbolically, or vice versa, the way Achilles demonstrates his capoeira superiority in class (see the section on falling over). The language is academic English with a few capoeira terms in Portuguese. There is no physical contact: it is definitely not a ‘Brazilian’ environment.


These contrasts of fieldwork setting and dialogic setting are reflected in the text of the paper, in a paradoxical way. The accumulated, dual understandings of capoeira classes and their culture, distilled from the noisy and chaotic setting, are presented in a traditional academic text where the two authorial voices have been crafted into one shared dispassionate, scholarly one. These passages are written to enable a reader who has never seen capoeira but is an experienced consumer of ‘traditional’ ethnographic texts about previously unknown worlds to appreciate what happens all over Europe and the USA whare capoeira is taught and learned. Parallels would be Fine’s evocations of fantasy gaming, Little League, restaurants and mushroom hunting (Fine 1983, 1987, 1996, 1998) or Vail’s (1999,2001) of tattoo collecting. For representational contrast, the private cerebral ‘work’ of the two ethnographers is presented in a more ‘messy’ textual format, as dialogue and interrogation, as thrust and parry. This is a much more ‘accurate’ representation of capoeira itself, where all the rehearsal, drill and practice are only a prelude to the ‘real’ thing, the ‘game, fight, play, dance’ in the roda. In the contest in the roda the two opponents ask each other questions, probe and resist, attack and defend, feint and deceive. The cut and thrust of a game is often described to novices with a ‘question-and-answer’ metaphor, and is it this that occurs in the academic setting. Paradoxically, therefore, the shared understanding of capoeira achieved across a table in a quiet office is rhetorically more ‘like’ capoeira than the way it is represented in the conventional academic text. If Trovao is more ‘tested’ in the intellectual ‘game’ than in the physical class, so too the reader is more stretched by the messier, dual-voiced, dialogic text. This paper contrasts the tacit knowledge of embodiment and the explicit knowledge of the talk, to reflect on the opportunities and possibilities for doing good fieldwork on a very physical activity, where words are relatively unimportant and movement is everything, or almost everything.



The general issues: about the relative importance of body and of mind in ethnography, about the levels of physical and mental competence needed to study an energetic physical activity, and about the successful teaching of dance and martial arts: are wider than the research on studying capoeira as it is taught, learnt and enjoyed outside Brazil. Stoller’s (2004) discussion of sensuous ethnography comes to mind. There are academic studies of capoeira in Brazil (Lewis, 1992; Browning, 1995; Downey, 2005) and of teaching it in Warsaw (Reis, 2003), but all written by single-handed practitioner ethnographers. Our contention is that a two-handed ethnography, combining participation and non-participation, with continuous reflexive dialogue, generates different insights, not only about capoeira but also relevant to any embodied activity. Good fieldwork depends upon tough minded, critical reflexivity (Hammersley and Atkinson, 1995, Davies et al., 2004). The last twenty five years has seen a rapid growth in reflexive writings, in which people explore problems that arose during their fieldwork and tell stories about how they overcome them, or failed to do so. (De Marrais, 1998, Jokinen, 2004). These retrospective tales about fieldwork vary widely in their tough-mindedness, their self criticism and their reflexivity. Some are frankly self-indulgent, others descriptive, many are very carefully crafted to enhance the status of their authors (Atkinson, 1996). Most of the published reflexive texts are single-authored, even when they address research conducted by teams. Perhaps the best known example is Geer’s (1964) recollections about Becker, Geer and Hughes, (1968). The dual dialogic perspective could usefully be extended to, for example dance ethnography (Buckland, 1999, Gore, 1999, Williams, 1999 and Picart and Gergen, 2004), or the ethnography of sport (McPhail, 2004) or, more specifically the martial arts (Jones, 2002). There are also links to the work of De Nora (2000) on music in a variety of everyday life contexts.