Balancing the Berimbau

Bruxa is learning three related things here. In training classes students are not supposed to knock each other over, so, unlike karate, Trovao only needs his learnt skill of how to fall when he is chosen as Achilles’s demonstration partner. Subsequently Trovao commented that he only engaged in the self conscious analytic comparison of his embodied karate experience with his life as a capoeirista when in dialogue with Bruxa. Secondly, both Bruxa and Trovao know that Achilles chooses Trovao for demonstrations of attacks leading to takedowns because Trovao knows how to fall without getting hurt. Achilles has praised him for falling well. ‘He flicked me over one day, and when I was lying there on the floor Achilles said “Ah Trovao you fall down so good” [laughs]’. Thirdly, Achilles uses these demonstrations not only to teach the class a takedown, but also to remind even the most advanced and serious students that he is far, far, better than they are, and can always outwit and out manoeuvre them. This is, in a mild way, an example of the deceit and trickery (malicia) that is at the heart of capoeira (Lewis, 1992), and of its multiple possibilities.


Loyalties and Lineages

Trovao trains with one teacher, Achilles, in one lineage of capoeira. Loyalty is required by capoeira teachers as Lewis (1992) and (Reis, 2003) explain. As Achilles says ‘Trust your teacher….or leave!’ Bruxa is able to observe other teachers because being a researcher, loyalty is not mandatory in the same way that it is required of discipulos (disciples, students). Trovao explains the reciprocal loyalty and discipleship between student and teacher as follows:


T: When you watch DVDs, or videos, or clips on websites, or demonstrations by masters, you look out for teachers you know. I’ve seen the DVD of the Batizado now and I’ve seen some of the video clips from “our” site and some of the clips, shots, of various masters playing and when Achilles is on I think to myself “Ah that’s my instructor”. And you do feel almost a sense of, “ownership” is perhaps the wrong word, but personal possession.


Loyalty to one teacher, and the sheer physical exhaustion that comes with serious training, are double edged issues in fieldwork. Bruxa, as a non-participant observer, can see things that Trovao does not and can more easily compare teachers. Yet Trovao has the embodied experience when he spins, kicks, sweats, falls and when he picks up the berimbau, and balances it on his finger. These are simply not available to a non-participant observer: unless you have tried to balance a berimbau yourself or been knocked over repeatedly, you cannot know these things with your body. However the styles of the teachers, their rhetoric, their strategies to create axe (the good energy that empowers capoeiristas) and their ability to build up a loyal clientele of discipulos, are visible from the sidelines. Focusing on the rhetorical strategies of a teacher when both you and he are upside down, and you are concentrating on balancing there, exhausted, and dripping with sweat, is probably impossible.


Talking together allows Bruxa and Trovao to reflect on different teachers they have known. In the following discussion, we reflect on Achilles, the instructor watched, and learnt from most; Perseus, a very different teacher, and Cadmus, a man who taught spasmodically in Tolnbridge some years ago. Good capoeira classes are characterised by both clear instruction in the moves and axe.

B: You know this thing that you said to me, and three or four other people have now said it as well: Perseus is a better teacher but Achilles has more axe. Have you got any thoughts about what it is about Achilles that generates axe or why Perseus doesn’t? Have you got any analytic or personal thoughts about it?

T: Perseus will have a session going when you will be moving around and everything like that and then he’ll come along and he will stop the music, Achilles doesn’t stop the music, Perseus will stop the music and he’ll stand there and talk. He won’t shout over the music and run around at the same time like Achilles does. He’ll talk in a soft and normal voice. Even from the very beginning of a class, the warm up, we all stand in a circle and it’s a lot slower, it’s not like “come on guys let’s do this” like Achilles.

B: I’ve seen Perseus teach several times now, and one thing I noticed was that he seemed to be spending longer actually breaking moves down into their component parts. Like the queda de rins [a move many novices find hard to do].

T: Yeah I know

B: He seemed to be demonstrating it almost joint by joint

T: Doing it exactly

B: Showing where your elbow should be. Now is that, what you mean by a good teacher?

T: Totally, totally and that can be quite valuable

B: Yes

T: But it takes the adrenalin out of his session

B: Right

T: Whereas Achilles would just do something and jump in the air and spin around and say “do that” [laughs] and then everyone stands there bewildered for a bit and by the time someone has a go he’s jumping in a different way