No Place for Women Among Them?

The organisation is often casual and the scheduling approximate especially for additional master classes or street rodas. Imagine a typical piece of fieldwork. I might get an email from someone saying ‘Mestre Z from Copenhagen is visiting Fordhampton this weekend: he is doing a master class in the leisure centre by the bus station at 2.00.’ I get a bus to Fordhampton, arrive at 1.45 and find the leisure centre. A tap dancing class is in progress. There is one person I recognise just about to give up: he was told 1.30, and has decided that it is not happening. We console each other that 2.00 is a likely start time, so we will hang about until then. Two other people arrive (strangers to us) at 1.50, saying ‘Is this where Mestre Z is teaching?’ We say we hope so. At 2.00 two more people, strangers to all four of us, arrive with a pandeiro and a berimbau: so now we all six believe there will be capoeira. The tap dancing class ends, and the little girls all leave, so the room seems ‘free’. We straggle in, and a car disgorges six people, who are known to the two 1.50 arrivals. There is much hugging, hand shaking and kissing. The six have driven up from Cornwall, and have three drums and another berbimbau. The eleven players change, women in a lavatory or changing room, men where they are, put a CD into the player, string the berimbaus, and start to warm up. At 2.10 a couple of Fordhampton stalwarts I recognise arrive on bicycles, saying that ‘Ginger’ has gone to the station to meet Mestre Z, whose train is late, but he is on his way. They too strip off into their capoeira kit.


People leave to buy water, chocolate, bananas, plasters, or to get cash or top up their phone cards, and reappear. Absent friends are phoned: ‘Hey mate: Mestre Z is teaching. Where are you? No the leisure centre by the bus station! OK, cool’. Their friend is at the university or the FE College by mistake, with three others. It is 2.20: everyone has warmed up. Some practice in pairs, others alone, some slump against the wall, or do more stretches. At 2.25 a few more people arrive, including the person who emailed me: they had been told 2.30, or had been at work, or their train was late. At 2.30 the people who had assembled at the University by mistake arrive, plus Mestre Z and Ginger. Mestre Z goes to change in a changing room, Ginger changes in the hall while texting someone else. By the time Mestre Z emerges in his kit with his red corda, the lethargy and disorganisation have vanished. The hall is suddenly occupied by keen, fit, lithe young people all in white trousers, white tee shirts with the emblem of their capoeira club or lineage or teacher or batizado, and, if they have been playing for a while, blue cordas, or even higher ones. As Mestre Z is introduced, by the organiser, or his host, or Fordhampton’s regular instructor, it is 2.40 – as Mestre Z begins to teach several more people arrive panting: they have been at work, or overslept, or went to the wrong place, or have only just opened the email, or missed the bus, or had a puncture. They rip off outer clothing, and run to join the class.

As the master class becomes focused and purposive I relax: it was worth my while to come, and whoever has hired the hall can also relax: there are enough people here to pay for the class to cover the costs of hiring, the hall and the Mestre’s expenses. My sense of relief is because I will get data: for many of the students even if Mestre Z had never arrived they would have met friends, made new friends, had a practice, and probably a roda, and gone off to the pub together later.


Of course the regular classes are not like that: Mestre A teaches in the dance studio at Fordhampton University on Tuesdays from 6.00 to 7.30 and from 8.00 – 9.30 (beginners, then advanced) and on Thursdays from 8.00 – 9.30 (open) and that is as regular as my own lectures in the Laurie Taylor Memorial Hall at 10.00 on a Friday. However my abiding memories of the fieldwork are of standing outside a room saying to someone I have never seen before ‘Is Beloved of God teaching here today?’ and seeing their face relax as they say ‘That’s what I heard – I hope so’ as we both scan the passers-by to see if we can spot anyone carrying a berimbau.



Both the unusual master class or the regular training session involves me in standing for 1.5 to 4 hours, interspersed with running around the hall to see and hear what is happening, while music booms, people shout and laugh and bodies thump to the floor, and the temperature rises and rises. Everyone pours with sweat, including me. Being able to see and hear, but not intruding on the instruction, involves a great deal of movement, and it is very unfair on students to get within range of their flying feet. Etiquette is that every effort is made not to kick anyone else during practice, and it is distracting for intense students to have anyone in kicking range, especially an observer.


Of course access is a perennial issue. With a regular class I can introduce myself, and ask the teacher if it is acceptable to stay and watch, and follow that up with an email. With a visiting mestre, or at a festival, it is harder. I try to get a bilingual student to tell the visitor in Portuguese who I am and what I do, and so far everyone has shaken my hand and said I am very welcome. I always pay, although I am almost always told it is not necessary as I have not taken part. The financial basis of most of the events and classes is sometimes precarious. My money helps keep the field sites in existence. I also buy CDs, books, DVDs and items of clothing from teachers as regular students do. In August 2004 I bought a berimbau from a visiting teacher for a key informant as a birthday present to replace one he had broken. I have no illusions that I might be less welcome if I did not pay my share. Usually, the teachers are happy that someone who teaches a course on Brazil should seek to understand capoeira. Because the instructor is in charge, and the hierarchy is clear, if the teacher is happy with my presence, the students cheerfully ignore me. If I am asked, I always explain my project. I say I teach a course on Brazil, and am fascinated by the teaching of capoeira. Occasionally students query why I pay, what I write down, if I speak Portuguese, and often, have I been to Bahia to see ‘real’ capoeira in its heartland. These are very similar to queries made to me by school pupils and students in higher education when I have been observing in schools and universities. I am often asked if I have read the books the students read about capoeira, such as Nestor Capoeira (1995), or Twigger (1999) on aikido. When students ask why I am not actually doing the exercises, my standard reply is: ‘I am thirty years too old and ten stone too heavy’.