Samba no Mar

In capoeira, bodies are symbols of Brazil, of sensuality, of fitness, of beauty and of aggression. The capoeira expert has a body that is a sign-vehicle: presented to others as representative of expertise and authority in the art. This body is the way he earns his living and its presentation is carefully planned. For capoeira learners, the disciplined body (Frank, 1990, 1991) of the teacher is a symbol, and an object of emulation. They train to change their bodies towards a version of the teacher’s body. Capoeira students are performing action on their bodies (Strauss, 1993).


Capoeira is played, danced, fought to the music of the berimbau. Browning (1995: 87) writes of its ‘elegance’ as ‘excruciating’, Schreiner (1993: 43) enthuses that ‘the capoeira dancer is, at one and the same time, artist and athlete, performer and poet’. Capoeiristas have disciplined bodies, capable of twisting, leaping, kicking, and folding themselves into small spaces with great flexibility. Throughout the fieldwork bodies are central to the action, the discourse and the research. The study of capoeira is, inevitably, the study of bodies.


Bodies in Capoeira


Capoeira classes and performances are overwhelmingly about bodies: and two types of body are central to the analysis presented here: those of instructors and students. Instructors have bodies which are highly disciplined objects of emulation. Discipulos (students) have a wide range of bodies, but if they are in serious training, desire to emulate their master’s body. In the following reflection on expert bodies and skills, Trovao who had been to a festival with visiting teachers, told Bruxa what she had missed.


They were all good, but some of them were OUTSTANDING! I mean – Achilles, was way up within the top, maybe the best three, because there was a lot of people that were high graded, but, they were older so, a bit less sort of flexible. Probably the best one was a fella, Ajax, that’s what he was called. When he wanted to show off, he would start off by…by just jumping on his head and then he’d slide the length of the roda on his head. He had a shaved head. Then he would just stop – and just not move, still upside down, when the other person’s thinking ‘What on earth do I do?’ Then he’d kind of go up on one arm and he’d – aahh – he was – he was insane. And it was just a normal game.


Here Trovao a practitioner, reports his pride in the body of his teacher, Achilles, and his enthusiasm for the bodily skills of Ajax in a normal game. For a novice, Ajax’s abilities, not in a special display, but in an ordinary game, are displayed for emulation.



A superficial exposure to capoeira can be misleading. Because of the music, the mixed classes, and the gaiety, it can look spontaneous and even undisciplined. A casual observer could be misled into thinking that capoeira bodies are not disciplined compared to those of exponents of, for example karate (Ashkenazi, 2002) or other eastern martial arts (Holcombe, 2002; Donohue, 2002). A closer study, or participation, forces the realization that behind the fluent performance lie hours of drill and practice, and that good capoeiristas have very disciplined bodies. Precisely because the bodies of experienced capoeira players are disciplined, and because much of the teaching consists of drill, albeit drill to enjoyable music, the classic symbolic interactionist analysis of the disciplined body as an ideal type can legitimately be applied.


Frank (1990, 1991) argued for a conceptual distinction in the sociology of the body between talking bodies, medicalised bodies, sexual bodies and disciplined bodies. This latter is the most analytically useful for understanding capoeira. Frank’s disciplined body was an ideal type, which he illustrated with examples from military drill, medieval holy anorexia, and professional dance. The disciplined body, Frank argued, could be located on four dimensions: other-relatedness, self-relatedness, desire, and control. The disciplined body is regimented, and displays predictable skills, there is a high degree of control. On the desire dimension, the disciplined body either lacks desire, or produces it. As far as other-relatedness is concerned, the disciplined body can be constituted through its relations with others (dyadic) or focused inwards upon itself (monadic). If the disciplined body dissociates itself from its own corporeality it will be low in self-relatedness, if focused upon it, high.

In Frank’s original formulation it is not clear whether he is thinking of the public presentation of self, or of an interior, psychological state when he discusses such dimensions as self-relatedness to corporeality. We focus on display in capoeira classes, we do not speculate about the internal reflections of capoeiristas. We have used Frank’s seminal analysis to focus upon two distinct bodies in capoeira disciplined and becoming disciplined. We contrast the expert disciplined body of the mestre, or near master, and the many as yet undisciplined, or partially disciplined bodies of the students in the classes on Frank’s four dimensions. The capoeira teachers are all referred to as ‘he’. There are women teachers, but we discuss male teachers (especially Achilles, Perseus and Cadmus) who have taught Trovao and been observed by Bruxa. Students are referred to as ‘he’ or ‘she’ because classes are mixed.


Self-Relatedness: Masters’ Bodies


Frank (1990, 1991) argues that the self-relatedness of the disciplined body can either be comfortable with its own corporeality or dissociated from it. Our observations lead us to believe that capoeira mestres display public comfort with their own, disciplined, corporeality. Instructors have bodies of very different sizes and shapes, are of different races, and range in age from their twenties to their fifties, but all display themselves as ‘at home’ in their bodies. The range of bodily types is illustrated by Browning (1995: 87-88) who describes the bodies of three Brazilian capoeristas she knew in New York. Wilson dos Santos ‘had a small brown body like a clenched fist’, Jelon Vieira was ‘massive, solid as a rock’, while Loremil Machado ‘had a small agile body of incomparable finesse who could throw himself headlong into the pleasure of having a body’. Achilles, Perseus, Cadmus and other instructors we have seen also have bodies of different shapes and sizes, but all convey easy grace when resting, sensuality when dancing, and amazing agility and considerable strength when teaching and performing for the public. Instructors display satisfaction with their own corporeality when they play or perform, when they teach moves and when their bodies are at rest, though their mastery of rhythm; their hair, skin, tattoos, clothing; and their balance, pace, energy and exuberance are all brought together into one disciplined embodiment. When teaching they display satisfaction by the ease with which they demonstrate the movements the students are to practice, mimic and learn. At rest they display satisfaction through their muscles, skin, tattoos and clothing.