No Place for Women Among Them?

Reflections on the Axe of Fieldwork

Sara Delamont AcSS



Capoeira, the Brazilian dance and martial art, is now taught in many countries outside Brazil. Reflections on a year’s fieldwork on capoeira teaching in the UK are used to make educational ethnography anthropologically strange. Issues of locality, noise, uncertainty and bodily contact are explored in a reflexive way.


Key words

Capoeira, martial arts, fieldwork, reflexivity, performance.




Ruth Landes (1947) was doing fieldwork in Salvador de Bahia, Brazil, in 1939 when her best informant, her gatekeeper, her colleague and her younger lover, the African-Brazilian Edison Carneiro, suggested they should go and see a capoeira contest. He had heard that ‘Beloved of God fights today’ (p100) and that it was ‘ages since I smelled sweat and rum’ (p100). Landes was researching the African-Brazilian religion, Candomble, and had not heard of capoeira. Carneiro explained. ‘Its similar to jiu-jitsu and can be very dangerous’ (p91) and that ‘The capoeiristas are all men, and there’s no place for women among them’ (p91-2). Landes and Carneiro followed ‘a troop carrying berimbaus’ (p100) to the place where Beloved of God was indeed fighting The Black Leopard. Capoeira is the Brazilian dance and martial art, which is played, danced, fought to the music of the berimbau. Good, exciting, exhilarating capoeira is characterised by axe, a mystical term explained later in the paper. Browning (1995: 87) writes how its ‘elegance is excruciating’, Schreiner (1993: 43) enthuses that ‘the capoeira dancer is, at one and the same time, artist and athlete, performer and poet’.


When Ruth Landes was doing her research in Bahia capoeira had only recently been legalised after a two century ban (Holloway, 1989; Harding, 2000) and was still confined to African-Brazilian men in the cites of the north-east of the country. Its reputation was raffish, because of its recent illegality and its association with the malandro: a Brazilian term for a man who lived on the fringes of society by pimping, seduction, and other semi-criminal activities. At the time Landes was shown capoeira by Carneiro a significant change was underway, although he did not realise it. He told Landes that ‘some academy in Rio teaches it’ (p91) but saw that as an eccentric venture that was bound to fail. In fact, Master (Mestre) Bimba, who had indeed started teaching capoeira to white middle class men indoors in private spaces in Rio, was a pioneer. He got the government to legalize the sport and so began its trajectory from the slums to the mainstream of Brazil, and thence all over the world (Lewis, 1992; Browning, 1995, Almeida, 1986; Capoeira, 1995, 2002). It reached New York in 1975, and can now be found all over Europe from Lisbon to Copenhagen, and from Warsaw to Dublin.(1) Reis (2003) reports a study of a capoeira class of 150 students in Warsaw, which locates capoeira in the literature of physical education and social cohesiveness.

This paper reflects on the opportunities and possibilities for doing good fieldwork – fieldwork with axe – 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 a sports activity, and about the successful teaching of dance and martial arts: are wider than the material on facing up to capoeira from which it is drawn.


Bimba’s original ‘domestication’ of the African-Brazilian street fight was only aimed at making it a sport for men: today, however, there are many women practicing it too. Carneiro’s description of capoeira being dangerous, male only, and redolent of sweat and rum was accurate in the Bahia of 1939, but would not fit Copenhagen, Berlin, Barcelona or New York in 2005. The sweat is still apparent, there will be rum at parties, but the participants include many women, some at the more advanced grades. Barbara Browning (1995) learnt capoeira in New York, and writes lyrically of playing in Central Park and walking there with her fellow enthusiasts exalting in their sleek, fit, toned, leonine bodies (p87).



In this paper I have reflected on my fieldwork on capoeira teaching and what I have learnt from it so far. Because capoeira is intensely physical, musical and taught in a foreign language, attempting to study capoeira classes raises problems about the ethnographic self (Coffey 1999) and about how much socially acceptable incompetence one researcher can display, and about where legitimate peripheral participation becomes illegitimate peripheral participation. This is an ethnographic ‘confession’ (see Atkinson 1996 for a full discussion of the conventions of the genre) rather than a report on findings, or a fully developed autobiographical or autoethnographic narrative (Reed-Danahay, 1997, 2001). It draws on a year of fieldwork in three British cities. My title is ironic: there is a place for women among capoeiristas today. Gender is not my problem.