Samba no Mar

Play and Performance: manifestations of rhythm include singing, playing all the instruments and samba. Masters display satisfaction with multiple aspects of their corporeality as singers, because they lead the singing in the roda. They sing the verses solo and may extemporize about the events of the roda. Then they play the instruments, especially the berimbau, for capoeira sessions, both during practices and lessons, and always for rodas. The berimbau is played with the gourd pressed to the player’s stomach, or lifted off it, so the body of the musician is a vital part of the production of the sound. Their mastery of different styles and rhythms sets the pace of the capoeira, and therefore they have to display musical competence on a very bodily-based instrument. When samba is included, masters do the drumming and determine the way the dancing is to be done. Their bodies encapsulate the rhythm and the ‘Brazil-ness’ of samba: they display an apparently unselfconscious sensuality.


Leading the Class: Perhaps most important, however, is the master’s self confidence and energy in leading the class: he can do all the moves at high speed and land smiling. He demonstrates how the kicks, throws, and takedowns are to be done; either by actually attacking the students, or, much more usually, by stopping short of actually landing the kick, throwing the opponent or taking down the fall guy. The latter is a much admired skill because it demands enormous bodily control. All students know, however, that their mestre could throw them at any moment, without any difficulty and laugh as he did it. In Britain capoeira is normally a non-contact activity, so students do not routinely knock each other over, but the teacher has both the skills and the right of seniority to take down any students he chooses to. At the Batizado, as Trovao explains to Bruxa, ‘The mestre is meant to trip you to the floor, and then you’ve been put in your place but you’ve also come into the world’. In routine demonstrations at classes, Achilles is ‘the only one who can do takedowns’.


At rest: As well as these rhythmic bodily skills, the master’s own hair, skin, tattoos, clothing, his balance, and exuberance are not only part of his self presentation but also create and sustain the success of the classes. Masters frequently either wear dreadlocks, or have shaved heads. The former is part of an ‘African’ self-presentation, echoing the past of capoeira in the era of slavery. Their skin is glossy: if they are not African or African-Brazilian, then they aim to be tanned. For Brazilians, life in northern Europe has the disadvantage that the long winters and wet summers make it hard to keep suntanned. Visits to Brazil, or to sunnier holiday areas such as the Canary Islands, are made. Achilles spent a six week period in Brazil one winter and came back to Tolnbridge very brown: after about twelve weeks in the UK he announced one evening to Bruxa ‘I came back here strong and brown: now I am weak and pale’. A British student put his pale arm next to Achilles’s, to show that Achilles’s was still, by UK standards, tanned and everyone laughed. However it was true that Achilles was no longer the deep brown he had been, and that he felt himself less well for it. Similarly Perseus, who is a light skinned African-Brazilian, said to Bruxa before going to a festival in Southern Italy, ‘I’ll get some sun on my pale skin: I need to stop looking so pale’. This was partially a joke, but only partially: Perseus wanted to expose his body to a strong sun. Tattoos (Fisher, 2002) are commonly seen in capoeira classes, on pale skinned masters’ bodies. Masters display their status with their clothing: if they wear the white uniform their cordas are the highest in the room. Their t-shirts are advertisements for themselves, for their revered teachers, or for festivals at which they have been the stars. Achilles might wear a t-shirt that said ‘Bellagio Festival 2004: 3rd Batizado:’ and a list of the masters who had arranged that Batizado. Alternatively he might wear a t-shirt that said ‘Capoeira Club of Cloisterham’ and the name of his lineage across the top, and ‘Instructor Achilles’ across the bottom, with a picture of flying players between the two lines of writing. In either case, his prowess is displayed on his body. Week after week students can see all the places their teacher has been an honoured guest, and the history of their lineage and their teacher’s progress, displayed on his body.


Self-Relatedness: Students’ Bodies


Students vary a great deal in their expressions and displays of comfort or dissociation with their corporeality, in general and in relation to specific aspects of the ideal, disciplined body of the capoeirista. Some come to class to ‘get fit’ and are, therefore, dissatisfied with their current corporeality (Sassatelli, 1999; Crossley, 2004). Across the three analytic domains of music, of bodily self-presentation, and self-confidence in doing capoeira, students vary a good deal. However they are always, uniformly, inferior to their instructors. Musically, even the best students are less skilled on all the instruments, know only the words of the verses of a few songs, are more likely to lose control of the rhythms, and can even stop singing and clapping when concentrating on their training and capoeira play. Students, unless Portuguese speaking, are not confident about singing. Disciples who are not Brazilian frequently display self-consciousness when dancing. Downey’s (2005: 125-9) ethnography of learning capoeira in Brazil discusses the Brazilian stereotype that Europeans have a cintura dura, a ‘hard waist’ and therefore find dance and capoeira challenging in a way Brazilians do not.



Students vary in their adherence to the official clothing rules. Novices are visibly distinct because they are entirely dressed in ‘ordinary’ clothes. More experienced students may wear capoeira kit that is crumpled, grubby, ill-fitting and unflattering, except on special occasions, or be immaculate in freshly laundered ‘correct’ kit. A full range of hair styles can be seen in capoeira classes from dreadlocks to short back and sides among men; among women, hair is usually tied up or back for class in functional rather than attractive ways. Few students have the tans or glossy oiled skin common among instructors except when they have groomed themselves for doing public performances.