No Place for Women Among Them?


(1) Today capoeira is taught all over the world, and there are many masters (mestres). Mestre Bimba is honoured for taking capoeira to Rio, teaching it systematically, and developing the style known as regional. Mestre Pastinha, also revered as a founding father, is credited with the canonisation of the other main type of capoeira, Angola, which is held by its devotees as to be more authentically black, more purely ‘Brazilian’ and is certainly more sinuous. There are various ‘schools’, associations or perhaps ‘lineages’ in contemporary capoeira, such as Senzala, Paname, Unaio, and Beribazu, to which learners can be very loyal. In the study of 150 Beribazu students in Warsaw Reis quotes:

When I hear something about Beribazu I’m proud because it is my group (Flavia)

‘I could not leave or change the group now, like I could not change my parents’ (Luiz)

‘I prefer to keep me in Beribazu’ (Marcia)

(Reis, 2003 p 119)


(2) There is a large literature on African-Brazilian religion available in English including Harding (2000), Wafer (1991) and Voeks (1997) on Candomble, plus Brown (1986) and Leacock and Leacock (1972) on Umbanda. Carneiro (1948, 1991) himself was an expert on Candomble, as well as helping Landes (1947) do her investigations. For many serious capoeiristas, especially those who are African-Brazilian, or African, the links between Candomble and capoeira, both illegal in Brazil for 200 years, both part of the culture of the African slaves, are symbolically, physically and intellectually important. The symbolism of slavery and of the Candomble pantheon are sometimes embodied in the coloured belts (cordas) that capoeiristas can gain as they progress up the grades from beginner to Mestre or even Metrissimo. Different lineages have different systems of cordas, some are explicitly linked to the Candomble pantheon, others are not. Where there are links to Candomble, different cordas symbolise different deities, and different phases of the history of African-Brazilians.

(3) Drums (atabaques), tambourines (pandeiros) iron bells (agogos), and the reco-reco, which is a friction percussion instrument, are all played, but the king of the instruments is the berimbau. This is a wooden bow, as tall as the player, tightly strung with wire from a car tyre. The noise comes from a gourd, cabacha, which resonates. The instrument is played with a bamboo stick, the player alters the notes by moving a polished stone, and also shakes a small wicker rattle (caxixi). The songs are belted out by the person on the central berimbau, who sings verses, while the audience, and all the participants, sing the chorus. The most famous chorus (‘zum, zum, zum; capoeira mata um’: capoeira kills me) comes from a pop song, and is rarely sung by teachers in Britain – perhaps because it has been globalised by the car advert.

(4) I have used “teacher” in this paper to include anyone in the upper grades who is qualified to teach capoeira, including those at the grades below mestre. This is to protect the confidentiality of the people who have allowed me to watch them, who may or may not have been mestres. I have used ‘he’ for all the teachers, because I have only seen one woman teach. There is a woman mestre in the UK, Silvia Bazzarelli, who co founded the London School of Capoeira in 1988. She began capoeira in 1981 at the age of 17 and graduated as a master in 1994. The London School had their tenth batizado in June 2004. I would not be surprised, and nor would any of the students I have met, if a female instructor, ‘foreman’ or master turned up to teach at a regular class, or a special workshop, or to participate and ‘judge’ at a festival or graduation ceremony. 

(5) The term “student” here means student of capoeira. Many of the learners I have watched are or have recently been in higher education, but many are not. There are men and women without degrees in a range of occupations or none. Status is dependent on capoeira skill. A dustbin man who can do a complex movement and help teach others will have more status than a biochemist who cannot do a good au. Playing the instruments gives status, being reliable about arriving with CDs and instruments is also a way to gain some peer approval. Alerting others to extra classes, changes of venue, events and parties by email, text or telephone is also a valued behaviour. Being aggressive, or careless, so that other players are hurt, causes peer disapproval.


(6) At the students’ first belt ceremony, or baptism, they are also given a capoeira nick name or war name. Many students only know each other’s nick names, and text, email or phone them using those names. They are vaguely reminiscent of the names given to Brazilian soccer players. In the UK a Greek might get the nick name ‘Zorba’ a Dane ‘Dinamarques’, or ‘Viking’, a British man might get Curingao (joker) or Aranha (spider) if he told jokes or liked the Spiderman movie, and these could be in Portuguese or English. That is a man who told jokes might get ‘Curingao’ or ‘Joker’. A graceful woman might get bailarina (ballerina) or fada (fairy), one with a large bust would probably get ’Jordan’, but women often get celestial names like star (estrela), flowers such as carnation (cravo), or marine images such as foam (espuma).

(7) There is an active social life attached to the capoeira classes and even more to the festivals. Teachers and students go to pubs, clubs and restaurants after class (it would be silly to eat beforehand, or drink alcohol: the cartwheels and corkscrew spins preclude it); festivals move from gyms or sports halls to clubs for late night events including displays of capoeira, ‘contests’ against break dancers or hip hop experts, limbo competitions, samba or salsa dancing, and general partying with lots of alcohol. This is seen as part of the ‘Brazilian’ nature of capoeira, and is obviously an attraction for many of the students. I have not participated in any of these post-class activities. I also studiously avoid paying any attention to all talk about sexual attractions, adventures, liaisons or advances among the students or between teachers and students. Capoeira (2002: 51-56) argues that the modern capoeira teacher in Europe can live a contemporary version of the malandro tradition by using his beautiful body, and ‘exotic’ otherness to enjoy an energetic sex life. The very skills that make great players in the roda are, he argues, magnetic for European women. This may or may not be a myth, but it is definitely a research topic that I am eschewing completely.


There are large numbers of websites about capoeira, with pictures, music, items for sale, notices of meetings and classes, and commentaries of varying ‘authenticity’ and accuracy. 




I am grateful to the four capoeira teachers who have let me watch them since September 2002, to the fifteen visiting mestres I have seen, and to the fifty plus students who have regularly been in the classes. When I know as much as they do I will start to acknowledge them individually, at least by their capoeira nicknames. In particular one dedicated and skilled capoeira student, (Trovao) who has a higher degree in social science, has helped me enormously, is not named here, but he knows who he is. Dr Suzel Reily, of Queens University Belfast, provided me with a guide to the ethnomusicological study of Brazil. Professor John Evans expressed enthusiasm for the project, which keeps me going to the gym. The two referees of the paper were both encouraging as well as suitably rigourous. Rosemary Bartle Jones wordprocessed the paper from my original draft.