Samba no Mar

Bodies, Movement and Idiom in Capoeira

Neil Stephens and Sara Delamont


‘Samba no mar – dance in the sea’, is sung to accompany capoeira: the Brazilian dance and martial art practiced and performed to music. The widespread popularity of martial arts in Europe and America means that there are many men and women around who have achieved various degrees of skill in disciplines such as aikido, karate, tae kwan doh or capoeira derived from very different cultural milieux. Capoeira is the empirical focus of this paper, which contrasts the bodies of experts and novices, drawing on fieldwork in three British cities. In classes, at public performances, and when experts demonstrate advanced skills, disciplined bodies are displayed for emulation, admiration and education. We start with an extract from the fieldnotes taken by Delamont (‘Bruxa’) at an event in which Stephens (‘Trovao’) participated, to take the reader into the heart of British capoeira.


It is a Sunday morning in late November in Cloisterham, a British university city. (1) Chilly and overcast, though not actually raining or snowing, it is not really cold, but not good weather either. The streets are largely empty. In a redundant church, converted to a dance studio, about a hundred and twenty people are, for all practical purposes, not in Cloisterham at all, but in Brazil. Most of them are singing ‘Samba no mar, marinheiro’ (Dance in the sea, sailor) the chorus of the song being sung by Orestes, a tall African-Brazilian man. He, dressed all in white, with his skin gleaming and his hair in dreadlocks, plays an African-Brazilian instrument, a berimbau, at the far end of the hall. Around him are six other Brazilian men and one woman, also in white, playing other berimbaus, drums, agogos or pandeiros (tambourines). At the far end of the hall from the Brazilian bateria (group of musicians) is a raised seating area. Spread around among the seats are about fifteen spectators, one or two resting, a few nursing injuries or hangovers, a few the friends and relations of the students practising. In the body of the hall are about a hundred young people, mostly white, mostly in white t-shirts and trousers, like the Brazilians, including Trovao, practising attacks, defences and escapes under the instruction of Xenokrates, a tanned Brazilian, also with dreadlocks. The class is due to end in about thirty minutes time, and the man in overall charge, a tanned Brazilian called Achilles, tips used paper plates and cups into a black plastic rubbish sack held by a much older white woman. Achilles seizes half a mango, waves it at the woman and says ‘Hey Bruxa eat this mango!’. Around them, the chorus rises ‘Samba no mar, marinheiro, Samba no mar’ and a hundred people cartwheel, launch kicks at each other, and sway in time to the music. The woman obediently puts down the rubbish sack, and starts to eat the mango, offering some of it to a passing child and some to Luckannon and Lunghri, two British men she knows. ‘Samba no mar, marinheiro’ the class sing, ‘Samba no mar’.

In this scenario one of the authors, the woman, has abandoned writing observational fieldnotes, to help the organiser clear up the breakfast buffet provided for the teachers. She is Bruxa (witch) and the fact she has a capoeira nickname as the students all do, is one indication that she has been in the field for a longish period. One of the capoeira students practising is Trovao (Thunder) a white male social scientist, Bruxa’s co-author (Stephens and Delamont, 2006, Rosario, Stephens and Delamont , 2006).(2)


This master class in Cloisterham was the penultimate event in a festival. Achilles, the Brazilian capoeira teacher in Cloisterham and Tolnbridge had organised it for both cities. Training on Sunday morning were about three fifths of all the students involved. Normally the students learn only from Achilles, but when there is a festival, other teachers from all over the UK, Europe, and from Brazil are invited. At this festival there were twenty seven teachers. It was the third festival Bruxa had attended, and Trovao’s fourth, where he was awarded his second belt, the azul-marron (blue-brown). Festivals include master classes, parties, demonstrations, lectures, dance classes, music lessons, and folk-cultural forms such as maculele (3), the baptism of novices into capoeira when their nickname is given, and the testing of more experienced players who graduate to the next belt. A student who has trained conscientiously for a few months, is put forward to a baptism (batizado), where they play with a master, are ceremonially knocked to the ground, and given their first belt (corda). Subsequently, every year or so, if a person trains, plays instruments, learns songs, and contributes to the atmosphere, he or she can be proposed for higher cordas.

‘Samba no mar’ takes us to the heart of capoeira bodies. Unlike most martial arts, where the body is disciplined to be rigid and hard (Ashkenazi, 2002; Donohue, 2002, Holcome, 2002, Twigger, 1999) capoeira is meant to be sinuous, and rhythmic. Images of the sea, of sailing, of marine creatures, and of the sea goddess Iemanja, are part of capoeira: students are also taught a stylised fisherman’s dance. Images of the archetypal Brazilian dance, the samba, are even more prevalent: students are encouraged to take samba classes and to practice dancing to improve their capoeira agility and beauty. Our choice of title emphasises the exotic, the dance, the marine imagery, all of which convey important aspects of our symbolic interactionist analysis of bodies in British capoeira.