No Place for Women Among Them?

The Dream and the Reality

Throughout the 1990s I planned to teach a module on the anthropology of Brazil: I did the reading and ordered the library books. When I read Lewis (1992) an evocative ethnography of capoeira in Brazil and the USA by a young man, who learnt the ‘dance-fight-game’ in Brazil as his doctoral project, I envied him. I too wanted to see capoeira taught and learnt. There were classes in London, and I wondered if it was possible to organise the time and money to get to London regularly and if the teachers would object to an observer. In the event I never quite got round to doing anything about the dream. London is too far from my university to get up there easily on top of a normal teaching load. I opened a file, collected photocopied articles, even tried, (but failed) to persuade a young friend in London to take up capoeira so I could use him as an informant.


Time passed, I began to teach the module and explored samba, candomble, carnival, and Roberto Da Matta’s (1980, 1987) ideas of those phenomena as examples of inversion, with several cohorts of enthusiastic students. Meanwhile capoeira teaching spread west out of London to Oxford, to Bath, to Birmingham and other centres. I was able to start the research I had dreamed of. A traditional piece of ethnography like Fine’s (1987) on Little League baseball, or phantasy gaming (1983) or restaurant kitchens (1996) or fungi hunters (1998), was at last within my grasp.

In this paper I have reflected on what studying an energetic physical activity has taught me about fieldwork, rather than present any findings on capoeira. I ruminate on the axe of the fieldwork, rather than the axe of capoeira. Axe (pronounced ‘ashay’) is a concept from the African-Brazilian religion candomble and means the ‘force’ or the ‘spirit’ or the ‘energy’. In Candomble, or indeed the other Brazilian religion Umbanda, it is a religious idea, meaning that the force of the old African gods and goddesses is present on earth.(2) For readers who find that an alien image, it can be seen as parallel to ‘the force’ in Star Wars, or to the Welsh concept of Hwyl. For capoeira to be successful, there has to be axe: the vibes have to be ‘right’, to be good, to be positive. Not all European practitioners are aware of the Candomble associations of axe: it is used both casually in conversation by students ignorant of African Brazilian religion, and more meaningfully by others who have researched the links or listened to talks on them from their mestre. Whether a teacher, or the students, are conscious of the capoeira-candomble links or not, everyone agrees that capoeira classes have to be lively, to have ‘good energy’, to have axe. There is a parallel with the findings of De Nora (2000) about the role music plays in good aerobics classes. The axe has to be positive and strong to produce a good capoeira class, and a successful teacher creates positive energy, and so, of course, a good research site has to give the ethnographer axe too. There are parallels in other martial arts, especially those from China and Japan, as Donohue (2002), Ashkenazi (2002) and Holcombe (2002) discuss.


Bodies, Rhythms, Language

There are three domains of bodily and mental competence that are needed to be able to learn capoeira, and would, rationally, be needed to do ethnography in and on capoeira classes. Capoeira is very physically demanding, so a fit, flexible, strong body is essential. Capoeira is done to music, and students need some musical skill and ability if they are to become serious practitioners. Capoeira’s language is Brazilian Portuguese augmented or infused with concepts from the languages, such as Yoruba, that the slaves brought to Brazil three centuries ago. To do serious ethnography on capoeira as Lewis (1992) did, it would be desirable to have first a young fit body, physical coordination and be healthily flexible, secondly to be musical, and thirdly to speak Brazilian Portuguese at best, or Portuguese Portuguese at least.



It is not necessary to be male: when Ruth Landes worked in Bahia in 1939 it would have been hard for any woman to study capoeira. Today being female is not a problem in Europe, or North America or Australia: it might be in certain neighbourhoods in Brazil, but not in most parts of the country. In the classes I have observed there are usually more men than women, in the ration of 60:40 or 65:35. However, there is a stress on the equality of women, from the teachers and the students themselves. Some of the best students are female, and I have never felt that being a woman was any problem in class. The presence of women in the classes is an attraction for male students who like capoeira because it is a form of combat without physical contact that men and women can do together. Teachers often praise women for doing moves ‘beautifully’ or ‘gracefully’, or ‘sinuously’, or ‘sensually’. My presence does not enhance the grace or sensuality of the capoeira, but I do not ‘stand out’ because I am a woman. To study the teachers in Europe it would probably improve rapport either to be of African descent, or better still to be Brazilian, Portuguese or Angolan. The majority of the students in Europe are ‘white’ and few are Brazilian, so ethnicity and nationality are not particularly salient. Being a white European female is not a barrier preventing me from studying capoeira teaching in the UK.

However I lack the three most important attributes outlined above. I have the wrong body, I lack the physical abilities, and the mental ones, to be a participant observer. There are three reasons why studying capoeira is an absurd project for me. I am 58, fat, and dreadfully unfit: I could not possibly do capoeira as Lewis (1992) Downey (2005) and Browning (1995) did. My body is not remotely suitable. There are players older than me, but they are veteran experts using fifty years of their experience, and they practice hard to keep fit. I never could turn a somersault, do a cartwheel, or walk on my hands: and I am much too lazy and frightened to try and learn now. Capoeira practitioners spend a good deal of time upside down, or bending their bodies into amazing shapes. Regional practitioners spend time leaping and kicking. Angola practitioners fold their bodies into tiny spaces, very gracefully. I cannot imagine I could have done either at 18, and I certainly cannot envisage trying now. My physical incapacities differentiate me from such researchers as Monaghan (1999), whose access to bodybuilders was facilitated by his own ‘built’ body; Ashkenazi (2002) who did karate in Japan for two-and—a-half years; De Nora (2000) who with her research associate took lots of aerobics classes of varying degrees of intensity; and Sassatelli (1999) who took gym classes in Florence; it also differentiates my work from other studies of capoeira.