Roda Boa, Roda Boa

 Legitimate Peripheral Participation in Diasporic Capoeira

Neil Stephens and Sara Delamont




Capoeira, the Brazilian dance and martial art, is taught across the world. Learners acquire vital knowledge and are socialised as capoeiristas through legitimate peripheral participation, in particular when watching games in the roda. The roda, the circle within which the capoeira game is played, is a classic place for learning by legitimate peripheral participation to occur. Watching, listening, and feeling the energy of the roda are central to the acquisition of capoeira abilities and capabilities, especially the tacit, indeterminate knowledge and skills.


Ethnography, Fieldwork, Capoeira, Legitimate Peripheral Participation, Situated Learning, Tacit Knowledge


The roda, the Portuguese word for ring, is the space where the Brazilian art form, capoeira which is simultaneously a dance, a fight and a game, is played (Almeida, 1986; Assuncao, 2005; Browning, 1995; Capoeira, 1995, 2002, 2006; Downey, 2005; Landes, 1947; Lewis, 1992; Travassos, 1999). People stand in a circle, making the ring, some playing the instruments, others singing and clapping. In the centre two people play each other. Capoeira is always done to instrumental and vocal music. The title of the paper is the chorus of a song which means ‘Good Roda, Good Roda’ characterising the high quality of the music, the singing and the contests in the ring. In this paper two ethnographers,(1) Trovao (Thunder) who is an experienced capoeirista and Bruxa (Witch) who watches it taught, learnt and enjoyed, explore the roda as a crucial site for learning by legitimate peripheral participation. We start with a vivid account of a roda, observed in May 2008, outline our research methods and then explore the concept of legitimate peripheral participation as applied to capoeira students.


The following roda took place during a small festival run by Andromeda (2) a Brazilian woman who teaches capoeira near her Mestre (Master) Perseus, in Longhampston, a British city. Similar Brazilians are living in exile, teaching capoeira throughout the world, from Tokyo to Vancouver, and Helsinki to Melbourne. (Assuncao, 2005, Authors, 2008). Two visiting masters and a teacher on his way to being a mestre, had come to Longhampston, and one of them, Mestre Diomedes, features in the episode. It takes at least twenty years to become a mestre, and the longest any Longhampston student has been in training is five years.


‘So you can face them’: a roda observed.

 It is 8.40 a balmy May evening in a seaside town in Britain. On the steep hillside above the beach, the university campus and the main road that leads one way to the coast and, in the opposite direction, the 100 miles to London, is a vocational college for adolescents. Tucked into the hillside underneath the grand nineteenth century stone building that once housed an elite girls’ school, is a small dance studio, built in the 1960s. From its open door sounds of drumming, singing, clapping, and some strange stringed instruments can be heard.

A man’s voice, deep and soulful sings a verse and then a chorus chimes in:

Venga ve ve

Venga ve ve

Sue ile de capoeira

Sue capoeira ile

Any curious passer-by, and there are a few because a band are playing a gig in the studio theatre next door, who came into the dance studio would see 20 adults and three children standing in a circle. Six play instruments, including the dark skinned man singing the verses, twelve stand in a ring facing inwards, clapping in rhythm and singing the chorus. There are also six spectators: three adults who are the parents of the children, and three young women. All but one of the people in the circle is dressed in a martial arts uniform: a Tshirt that says capoeira, and either white trousers with a coloured cord tied round the waist, or darker trousers in colours such as bottle green with capoeira written on them. One woman standing in the circle, clapping and singing, is wearing a club Tshirt (saying ile capoeira, Mestre Perseus and Longhampston) with casual navy cotton trousers, and is 30 years older than anyone else in the ring. She is Bruxa an ethnographer, whose research is on how capoeira players learn the dance/fight/game.

The man singing hands his instrument to a young woman, and crouches at the foot of the instrument held by another tall man. A young dark skinned man, playing the drum, begins to sing the chorus of another song, and the people in the ring switch to sing a different chorus: ‘Marinheiro so’. The African Brazilian man crouching at the foot of the instrument is joined there by a young ‘white’ man, Mao, who crouches facing him. At a signal from the man on the main stringed instrument, the two players cartwheel into the centre of the circle, and begin to move at a fast pace in a triangular step (the ginga) in time to the music, facing each other. The older man quickly begins to dominate the space, launching kicks at Mao, who escapes and dodges, but is clearly fully extended by the need to evade the attacks. After about 45 seconds, a second student Mowgli slides into the ring and ‘buys the game’. The first young man retreats into the circled spectators, taking his place next to the older woman, with a huge grin on his face. She pats his shoulder and says ‘Great Game’. Mao smiles broadly and says he is exhausted but adds firmly ‘that’s why you train – so you can face them.’