Up On the Roof
Varieties of Habitus in Diasporic Capoeira
Neil Stephens and Sara Delamont
The majority of the popular martial arts in Britain are of South East Asian origin. One exception is the Brazilian dance and martial art capoeira, which has grown in popularity in the UK over the past twenty years at the same time as it has become a global phenomenon. The ethnographic research reported in the paper focuses on how Brazilian capoeira teachers in the UK create and sustain a habitus for their students using a contrastive rhetoric. Teachers in the UK routinely stress the similarities and differences between the habitus of capoeira in Brazil and its habitus in the UK. There are some variations in the habitus of capoeira in the UK, embodying at the individual and the institutional level. They are explored drawing upon the ethnographic data.
Habitus, Capoeira, Authenticity, Globalization, Glocalization, Martial Arts
‘Up On the Roof’, a hit for The Drifters in the nineteen sixties, was an ‘escape’ song. The narrator sang that when he had problems or felt overwhelmed by the stress of his city life, he went up to the roof top, where his cares floated away into the sky. In Britain between 2001 and 2006 the mainstream BBC TV channel interpolated between its programmes a series of station identifiers that featured a variety of dance and exercise routines, including skateboarding, Tai Chi and Tango. One of them showcased the Brazilian dance and martial art, capoeira, performed by two agile men on a rooftop high above London.(1) One player was a young Brazilian master (mestre) called Poncianinho, who is a successful teacher in London. Famous landmarks, such as the Dome of St Paul’s Cathedral could be seen in the background as the players performed a beautifully choreographed routine of capoeira angola.(2)
This paper presents data on capoeira as it is taught and learnt in the UK, one location for the, now globalised, martial art. When we write of capoeira without qualification we refer to general features of the martial art. When we qualify capoeira with the label Brazilian, we are drawing on features specific to its homeland. We use the term diasporic capoeira, which we explain and justify later in the paper, to refer to capoeira as it is taught and learnt outside Brazil, especially in the UK.
For the thousands of capoeira enthusiasts across the world, from Dunedin in the south to Oslo in the north, and from Tokyo in the east through Budapest across to Vancouver in the west, there are two iconic backgrounds for capoeira performances: either a beach somewhere unspecified in Brazil, or Pelourinho the historic district of the city of Salvador de Bahia, home of capoeira and also of the percussion ensemble Olodum.(3) Capoeira has become a global phenomenon in the past thirty years, a phenomenon associated primarily with Brazil, its ‘exotic’ homeland. However, in the UK there is that third iconic capoeira image: Mestre Poncianinho and his opponent on that roof, against that skyline. For enthusiasts capoeira is an escape from ordinary urban life, a vehicle to a metaphorical rooftop where the cares float away into space.
The capoeira enthusiast in the UK rarely experiences settings as pleasant as a Brazilian beach, Pelourinho or even a London rooftop: much more typical is the following, drawn and elaborated from Delamont’s original fieldnotes:
It is 9.15 on a cold, wet night in Tolnbridge (4), a British city: on the streets people hurry, wearing hats and scarves, anxious to get inside out of the sleet. Along a road of nineteenth-century buildings, now mostly takeaway food outlets on the ground floors, but with some shops selling saris, pets, or stationery, or offering services such as hairdressing, the traffic moves steadily. In one block, between a pub and a car showroom, a former shop now advertises itself as a kickboxing gym. Inside it is hot, brightly lit, and very noisy. There is a distinct smell of stale sweat, the mats on the floor are grubby, and the changing-room walls are covered in mould. The lavatory often floods, and its roof leaks.
Thirty young people, of both sexes and several nationalities, are singing loudly, in Brazilian Portuguese, ‘Paranue, Paranue, Parana’. They stand in a circle, eight playing instruments. A deeply tanned man sings the verses of a song, to which the words ‘Paranue, Paranue, Parana’ are the chorus. He is Achilles(5), the Brazilian capoeira teacher. The students, about two thirds male, are aged between 16 and 35. Most wear a uniform of white trousers and T-shirts emblazoned with scenes of capoeira players and the name of their teacher, Achilles. Ropes of different colours hold up their white trousers. The colour of the corda signals, to the initiates, what level of skill each player has.
Drums beat, tambourines are struck, and five people strum berimbaus: an instrument made up of a long wooden bow, pulled into a curved shape by a wire, with a gourd attached. The players strike the wire with a short stick and shake a small rattle. Standing in a ring, the singers clap the rhythm of the melody, which determines the speed and style of the players. Inside the circle (the roda), a man and a woman are fighting, or perhaps dancing, or perhaps both
The tanned man is unhappy with their interaction. He stops singing and signals to everyone to stop singing, playing and clapping. He calls the two players back to the foot of the berimbau he is playing, and says, “Lunghri, too fierce! Too fierce! Play softly with Aconite – she’s a beginner, no kicks really strong, help her to enjoy the game.” He begins to play the berimbau, the other instruments join in, the rest of the circle start to clap and when he starts to sing, again provide the choruses. On his nod, Lunghri and Aconite, who have been crouched at the foot of the berimbau, cross themselves, touch the floor, and then cartwheel (au) into the centre of the ring and begin to move in a triangular step facing each other in time to the music. Aconite lifts and swings her leg at Lunghri in a kick (a meia lua de frente – ‘half moon to the front’). Lunghri drops elegantly beneath it, and then cartwheels away from her. Everyone claps and sings.