Cartwheels and Capoeira

It’s a dance.  It’s a fight.  It’s a form of art.  Like everything else in Brazil, the unique cultural mixture that is capoeira is hard to pin down into any one category.   The cultural influence of capoeira in Brazil is seen even on the futebol field in the graceful movements of Brazilian jogadores and the litheness with which they execute bicycle kicks that sometimes result in goals.

Capoeira originated in the Kongo/Angola region of Africa where indigenous men practiced kicking games for sport.  When brought into captivity in Brazil, the Afro-Brazilian slaves continued to perform capoiera in rebellion against the white, Euro-Brazilian’s abolition, adding choreographic elements as well as music in order to disguise the fight as a dance.

“But the capoeiristas say that in life, as in capoeira, you have to keep doing the ginga, dancing between the blows” (Delgado & Muñoz, 1998, p. 90). 

An example of the ginga thanks to Wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Ginga_de_dos.gif).

An example of the ginga thanks to Wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Ginga_de_dos.gif).

The first thing that we learned in our capoeira class was the ginga–the characteristic walk of the capoeirista–a continually swaying side-to-side step, similar to the rhythm of swing in jazz.  The ginga is part of the “elements of choreography” that were introduced by the early Afro-Brazilian slaves to disguise the sport’s more violent nature.

In Bahia, the birthplace of capoiera in Brazil, the sport is widely accepted as cultural art form and embraced as part of the national identity, as it is practiced everywhere from the streets of Pelourinho, the classrooms of mestres, to the health clubs of the elite.

The capoiera school that we visited--located in Campo Grande, the center of the city--practiced Angolan-style capoeira.  This older, more traditional style differs from the Regional style of capoiera, which was created in Salvador by Mestre Bimba in the beginning of the 20th century and places greater emphasis on fighting technique and is faster-paced.  While Regional-style capoeiristas wear white-pants, the colors of capoeira Angola are yellow and black.

The capoiera school that we visited–located in Campo Grande, the center of the city–practiced Angolan-style capoeira. This older, more traditional style differs from the Regional style of capoiera, which was created in Salvador by Mestre Bimba in the beginning of the 20th century and places greater emphasis on fighting technique and is faster-paced. While Regional-style capoeiristas wear white-pants, the colors of capoeira Angola are yellow and black.

We then added a move where you bend down and almost tap the floor as you sway from side-to-side doing the ginga.

We then added a move where you bend down and almost tap the floor as you sway from side-to-side doing the ginga.

After doing some stretches, we began learning some of the basic moves.  Here we are practicing the swaying step of the ginga.

After doing some stretches, we began learning some of the basic moves. Here we are practicing the swaying step of the ginga.

We then added a move where you bend down and almost tap the floor as you sway from side-to-side doing the ginga.

We then added a move where you bend down and almost tap the floor as you sway from side-to-side doing the ginga.

After doing some stretches, we began learning some of the basic moves.  Here we are adding a kick in middle of the ginga (side-to-side swaying step).

Here we are adding a kick in middle of the ginga.

A defensive move.  I felt like a lot of capoeira, especially for beginners, is learning to move defensively. You are constantly guarding your body.

A defensive move. I felt like a lot of capoeira, especially for beginners, is learning to move defensively. You are constantly guarding your body.

We paired up and practiced a kind of crab-walk around each other across the room.

We paired up and practiced a kind of crab-walk around each other across the room.

Ha, here I am trying to hop across the room in the position of a push-up.  The mestre literally just bounced--straight as a plank on his hands and tip-toes--across the floor.  I am literally dying because it was pretty much impossible!

Ha, here I am trying to hop across the room in the position of a push-up. The mestre literally just bounced–straight as a plank on his hands and tip-toes–across the floor. I am literally dying because it was pretty much impossible!

After learning some of the basic moves, we formed a roda, which is the circle in which capoeira is played between two people, while the rest look on.

After learning some of the basic moves, we formed a roda, which is the circle in which capoeira is played between two people, while the rest look on.

The musicians, whose rhythms guide the movements of the players in the roda.  In Angolan-style capoeira, the bateria, or row of instruments, is composed of three berimbaus, single-stringed instruments with a wooden bow and hollow gourd, two pandeiros, or cymbals, one agogo, or bell, one atabaque, or hand drum, and one ganzá, or rattle.

The musicians, whose rhythms guide the movements of the players in the roda. In Angolan-style capoeira, the bateria, or row of instruments, is composed of three berimbaus, single-stringed instruments with a wooden bow and hollow gourd, two pandeiros, or cymbals, one agogo, or bell, one atabaque, or hand drum, and one ganzá, or rattle.

While the musicians play, the rest of the roda chants along to the music, answering the call of the lead musician/singer.

While the musicians play, the rest of the roda chants along to the music, answering the call of the lead musician/singer.

Finally, my turn came to play against one of the mestres.  Oh boy.  You begin by squatting opposite each other, clasping hands, and then simultaneously cartwheeling to begin the game.  My goal was just not to get kicked in the face.

Finally, my turn came to play against one of the mestres. Oh boy. You begin by squatting opposite each other, clasping hands, and then simultaneously cartwheeling to begin the game. My goal was just not to get kicked in the face.

I played pretty defensively--it was hard for me as a beginner to pick up on her cues of what she was going to do next.  Good capoeiristas move in sync with each other, completely cognizant of the other person's position even when their back is turned, instinctively ducking beneath a swinging leg at the last second.

I played pretty defensively–it was hard for me as a beginner to pick up on her cues of what she was going to do next. Good capoeiristas move in sync with each other, completely cognizant of the other person’s position even when their back is turned, instinctively ducking beneath a swinging leg at the last second.

When the mestre stood on her head, I wasn't quite sure what to do, so I attempted a kick at her face....apparently, I was supposed to go up and bow my head at that moment, signifying respect...whoops.

When the mestre stood on her head, I wasn’t quite sure what to do, so I attempted a kick at her face….apparently, I was supposed to go up and bow my head at that moment, signifying respect…whoops.

Here are some of the instruments: (from left) ganzá, agogo, 2 pandeiros, and different styles of berimbaus.

Here are some of the instruments: (from left) ganzá, agogo, 2 pandeiros, and different styles of berimbaus.

“As embodied play and an enduring social practice, capoeira is testimony to the many creative and potentially liberating ways, even within the severest constraints of social inequality, in which people re-shape their bodies, themselves, and their relationships to the world and those around them.” (Wesolowksi, 2007, p. 363)

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2 thoughts on “Cartwheels and Capoeira

  1. I hoped you’d have a birthday post! But in lieu of that, hopefully this will do. Happy Birthday Lydia! I love you and am so blessed to have you in my life and as a sister in Christ! Enjoy your first birthday abroad!

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