Samba no Mar

Control: Masters’ Bodies

Control is the most obvious dimension where the mestres and instructors are differentiated from the students. Experts have highly controlled bodies: they know exactly where their cartwheel (au) will take them, and where they will land after it. On the control dimension, the disciplined body is regimented and predictable. Capoeira appears to a casual observer to be spontaneous and free-flowing, but in fact the serious high grade players have spent many hours training and perform their gymnastic feats with a precision that is predictable (although dyadic).

Control: Students’ Bodies

Students are still learning to control their bodies whenever they perform any capoeira move, and have an agenda of moves they cannot do at all. Many of them also lack enough understanding of capoeira to appreciate the value of moves they are taught. When Achilles taught a move that included hopping backwards, which he could do apparently effortlessly and repeatedly, one serious student, Chikai, asked Bruxa quietly ‘what was the point?’ because he could not see ‘when you’d ever use it’. Chikai asked Achilles when such a move would be used, and was told he would find a use for it later when he was a more advanced player. We had both noticed that Achilles uses that move regularly himself in the roda and in public performances, because it is spectacular. Achilles moves around a more one-dimensional opponent to attack from a different angle or make the opponent look foolish because Achilles has “vanished”. Chikai had apparently never seen Achilles hop, or had not noticed how Achilles uses hopping as a tactic.


It is in the sphere of the teacher’s authority over the body of the student that the regimentation becomes most apparent. The mestre or instructor has social control over the bodies of the students. In the following extract from one of our discussions about embodiment in capoeira, Trovao reflects on how at batizados, the masters demonstrate their own bodily superiority and their physical, social, and moral control over the bodies of the discipulos. Trovao is explaining to Bruxa, who had not then seen a Batizado, how the masters tricked the beginners.


You and the mestre cartwheel in, and you start playing. This is the first time we beginners just saw a lot of the kind of the humour element of it all: through the weekend as a whole: and sometimes they’d do tricks, play jokes, like they’d touch the Berimbau, then they’d get us beginners to cartwheel and then the masters would just sort of stand up and touch their chin as the person flies into the roda looks round and….Like, - “what are you doing?” (laughing) You know, “Come on, we haven’t started”, and, and they’d do tricks like that.

Here Trovao is explaining how, when a beginner is being tested, the master would deliberately tease the novice, by only pretending to start the contest. The apprehensive beginner would cartwheel into the centre of the roda expecting to embark on a paired routine, only to find that the master was standing watching his or her fumbling movements, not playing at all.


In the next comment Trovao is explaining that the mestre who plays with a beginner at his batizado determines first, how long the game will last, second when the belt will be given, and, if the beginner has not been thrown or taken down in the ring, how they will be tricked into taking a fall at the end. Throughout the explanation the uses of trickery and humour by the master, as part of his demonstration of how he is in control, and has a predictable body, are apparent.


The mestres play and then I don’t know how they decide to stop but they just decide to shake your hand and take you over to the foot of the berimbau. And they actually tie the corda around you. And if the Mestre hadn’t managed to trip you up, they put the corda over your head, as if they’re gonna put it round your neck, and then they drop the corda to below your knees and pull your legs away from underneath. So they get you in the end.


Desire: Masters’ Bodies

The capoeira mestre has a body which is an object of desire in two ways: first, the serious students desire the body of the mestre in the sense of emulation: they want a body like that of the mestre. If the mestre can walk on his hands the length of the gym, can spin on his head, and can perform a sequence of complex moves without apparent hesitation or even conscious planning then the students desire to emulate that. This is the official desire of the capoeira organisations: that people should train hard to work towards a body that can walk the length of the gym on its hands, do sequences of moves that attack and defend, and can work very close to the ground in a confined space. Students also want the singing voice, the percussion skills, the dance rhythms and the instinctive instantaneous responses to the game of the masters they see. Male students actually want the upper body strength, tough feet, agility and balance of their male teachers. Female students, who are regularly told that women are equal in capoeira, that women are better at playing beautifully, and that they can proceed up the grades, want the skills, but do not lift weights or try to put on muscle mass. For both sexes the desired body is more like a ballet dancer, a breakdancer, a gymnast or a circus performer than a body builder. Where capoeira is taught in the same gyms that body builders use, the capoeira men show no visible interest in the equipment or the nutritional supplements that are prominently displayed. Indeed in one fitness centre, Perseus teaches capoeira in the ‘ladies’ gym, while the male body builders are on another floor. Two of his elite students, Raksha and Mowgli, did exercises to develop enough upper body strength to do the one handed handstand that figures a good deal in capoeira, but both stated that they did not want ‘deformed’ bodies like those of the body builders who used the same gym. Their ideal body was not at all like those desired by Monaghan’s (1999) informants.