Samba no Mar

As far as capoeira capabilities are concerned, students display a wide range of capabilities and a correspondingly wide range of satisfaction or dissatisfaction with their abilities and fitness levels. Students never present themselves with the air of effortless self confidence, energy and smiling competence that instructors routinely do. Most look as if they are enjoying themselves, but also display signs of exhaustion, incompetence and even incomprehension. The instructions to do difficult moves (bridges, back flips, hand stands, head stands, and the queda de rins for example) are often greeted with rueful glances as students try to comply. Even the more advanced disciples are dissatisfied with their inability to master specific moves, such as the back flip, or to feel and see improvement in their game. Serious students bemoan their lack of gymnastic experience in early childhood: Raksha and Phao both complained that they had not begun capoeira at six when they would have been ‘fearless’, and could have learnt back flips before they had adult fear. Regular students are self-critical and will discriminate between capoeira skills they have some grip on, and those they have yet to achieve mastery of.


Other-Relatedness: Masters and their Students’ Bodies


Frank (1990, 1991) differentiated the disciplined body that is focused upon itself (monadic) from that constituted around relationships with others (dyadic). In this section we do not elaborate on the ways in which masters themselves have dyadic disciplined bodies, although our data are replete with examples, but on the ways in which they emphasise to students that competent discipulos are always dyadic. In capoeira classes masters stress regularly that the body cannot be monadic: the player should always be focused upon an actual or potential opponent. The player must be always ready to answer the question posed by their opponent: to defend against attacks, and attack in their turn. Instructors always work hard to get learners to recognise that the whole point of capoeira is to play an opponent in the roda, and all practice is a rehearsal for such play. The commonest exhortation in class is that students should always look at their opponent, or when practising a move, look in front where an opponent would be. This constant gaze on the other is achieved when not facing him or her by looking over the shoulder, between one’s legs, or up from a handstand. In capoeira you do not look at your hands or the floor when doing handstands or cartwheels – you look at the opponent if playing a game, and during paired practice, and you focus on the place where he would be when practicing alone.


Achilles uses the metaphor of question and answer, others talk of mirroring the opponent. Cadmus’s classes contain the recurrent instruction: ‘Don’t look at the floor’. Achilles regularly yells out exhortations such as ‘Look to the front’, ‘Look for the guy’ (that is the person you are fighting) and ‘You need to look’. One a kick starts from the player bending over and putting his hands on the floor, and when this is being practiced Achilles routinely yells ‘Look between your legs’. While preparing to deliver this kick, the player is vulnerable, and must watch his opponent. Perseus asks periodically during paired practice:‘How many of you can see your opponent all the time?.....either centrally or peripherally’. In this way capoeira is totally unlike body building (Monaghan 1999). Capoeira bodies are prepared to play, dance and fight with other people who have capoeira bodies. They may provide private satisfaction to their owners, but the hard work that goes into their production is dyadic.


There are some students who seem to wish for a monadic disciplined body. Such capoeiristas are more concerned with what their body can do than with responding to the ‘questions’ posed by their opponents. Such people may be technically good at isolated moves but are not good capoeiristas, because capoeira play is essentially a dyadic activity in the roda. Serious students recognise that. Shere Khan told us of a student in another city who was a poor player because he just displayed moves, not interacting with his opponent :

‘You’re not playing with him, you’re just playing alongside him’. Everyone listening agreed that was totally inadequate in capoeira.

Lunghri, one of Achilles’s most enthusiastic students, reports his best quality as follows.

I’m not technically good, I’m not good at doing the movements individually but I find that my strength is that I do think about what I’m doing and where I put myself in the game. The majority are not really thinking about what they’re doing. But Achilles is now – he’s trying to teach us ways of thinking along the lines of controlling the game, when you’re playing capoeira, you’re not just reacting, you’re actually starting to control the other person.

Instructors draw distinctions between different aspects of the other-relatedness of capoeira. These are made explicit in class, especially when students are being prepared to play in contexts other than regular lessons. There are two different types of “other” for whom students perform: the lay public, and aficionados such as visiting mestres. The distinctions drawn between capoeira inside ‘the academy’ (in private) and that done at performances or in the street (in public) is marked by clothing and playing style. White clothing is worn in the formal classes, coloured street trousers are worn in the street or parks when capoeira is done for personal pleasure. Demonstrations are often done in the white kit, but men and boys sometimes strip to the waist, and glory in their semi-naked appearance.