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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Vida na Ilha–Sem “Estresse”

After a busy first few weeks orienting ourselves with the summer intensive program part of our study abroad experience, we were given a weekend to explore on our own.  And so began my adventure with Rebecca and Ryan to the island of Itaparica, which lies in the Bahia de Todos os Santos, directly across from Salvador.  After one turnaround, two bus rides, and twenty questions later, we arrived at last at the “fehee boachee” that would take us across the bay to the Ilha.  The breeze, the bay, and the boats were glorious; and as I drank in the view, the other passengers lounged in their cars or on top of their motorcycles, eating snacks and drinking from the bright-yellow cans of beer that are ever-present to celebrate any and every occasion.

When we got to the island, however, and scanned the bleaching boats splayed on the deserted beach in front of the darkened windows of little painted houses, we realized that we had no idea where we were going or what exactly we were going to do there.  After the bustle of the disembarking crowd dispersed, our uncertainty was quickly seized upon by a multitude of van drivers, or motoristas, pitching the prices of their various destinations.  Then one taxi driver appeared and wouldn’t leave our sides as we raced through the gauntlet of hungry hawkers, until we finally stopped, allowing him to flash his certificate as an “official tour guide of the island” and to give us a price much lower than those that we had been hearing.  As we re-traced our steps on our way to his car, we had the pleasure of proclaiming our procured price to our previous prospects, who widened their eyes in disbelief, and then shrugged and laughed once they saw our driver, putting their arms around him and saying that he was truly of “gente boa”, or good people.

After traipsing over the speed bumps in the little dirt-road port town, we were soon whizzing by the luscious green foliage of the interior of the island.  Although the plan was to take us straight to the historic town of Itaparica on the top tip of the island, our guide pulled over to the side of the road in the middle of the forest, beside a crop of small of buildings.  Initially the most hesitant to go with this guy, at that point, I was sure we were being kidnapped.  After pointing out the first group of houses as the compound of a historic terreiro, or house of Candomblé, on the island, our guide told us to get out of the car because he wanted us to see the pousada, or hostel, of his friends.  Oh boy.  As Ryan awkwardly engaged in small-talk with the owners, a Dutch man, who recently inherited unexpected money and so opened this pousada, and his Brazilian wife, I wandered around taking pictures, while Rebecca carefully watched our guide as he grabbed two coconuts, hacking off the tops and handing them to us with straws, to see if he put anything else in the fresh, sweet água de coco.

Thankfully, the other van drivers were right about our guide being gente boa, and after we made on more stop to drop off a credit card at his sister’s house, we eventually made it to the little old town of Itaparica, whose painted buildings reminded me of Pelourinho, the famously historic bairro of Salvador.  The entire experience was perfect proof of the kind of island-living, “sem estresse”, or without the stress of the big city, that our guide constantly professed to be the greatest attraction of Itaparica.  Ironically, however, the stress-free living of our guide added more than a little stress to ours, unused as we were to the laid-back lifestyle of “vida na Ilha”.  

Embarking on our adventure to the Ilha da Itaparica, the largest maritime island in Brasil.

Embarking on our adventure to the Ilha da Itaparica, the largest maritime island in Brasil.

The best part of the ferry ride was seeing all the fishing barges in the bay.

The best part of the ferry ride was seeing all the fishing barges in the bay.

There are lots of little boats as well in the bay, fishing for sport.

There are lots of little boats as well in the bay, fishing for sport.

The barges reminded me of the ones that pass by on the Detroit river between the Great Lakes in Michigan.

The barges reminded me of the ones that pass by on the Detroit river between the Great Lakes in Michigan.

Views of the peninsula

Views of the peninsula

Beautiful blue bay

Beautiful blue bay

A Ilha! The entire ferry ride there took about an hour.

A Ilha! The entire ferry ride there took about an hour.

The island was much poorer than Salvador and much simpler.

The island was much poorer than Salvador and much simpler.

Salvador's skyline, viewed from Itaparica

Salvador’s skyline, viewed from Itaparica

Arriving in the dock!  Literally everyone crowded down from the upper levels of the ferry, ready to disembark.

Arriving in the dock! Literally everyone crowded down from the upper levels of the ferry, ready to disembark.

The vegetation in the interior of the island was luscious and green--a welcome break from the high-rise apartments of the city.

The vegetation in the interior of the island was luscious and green–a welcome break from the high-rise apartments of the city.

A terreiro (house of Candomblé) as viewed from a pousada that we stopped at because the taxi driver wanted to visit some friends of his....

A terreiro (house of Candomblé) as viewed from a pousada that we stopped at because the taxi driver wanted to visit some friends of his….

The historic town of Itaparica, with buildings dating back to the 17th and 18th centuries.

The historic town of Itaparica, with buildings dating back to the 17th and 18th centuries.

The streets were mostly deserted; apparently, 80% of the houses on the island are vacation homes, frequented in the summer months.

The streets were mostly deserted; apparently, 80% of the houses on the island are vacation homes, frequented in the summer months.

Igreja de São Lorenço, built in 1610.

Igreja de São Lorenço, built in 1610.

Another church that looked old and historic

Another church that looked old and historic

Forte de São Lorenço, dating back to 1711, was built on the remains on the original fort, constructed in 1631, which was occupied by the Dutch invasion and used to withstand Portuguese forces.

Forte de São Lorenço, dating back to 1711, was built on the remains on the original fort, constructed in 1631, which was occupied by the Dutch invasion and used to withstand Portuguese forces.

Praia Ponta da Areia

Praia Ponta da Areia

There were more raindrops than people sprinkling the beach.

There were more raindrops than people sprinkling the beach.

My wonderful amiga, Rebecca!

My wonderful amiga, Rebecca!

Camera fun

Camera fun

Rainy streets

Rainy streets

Of course there were vacas in the street....reminded me of my last summer spent in Nicaragua.

Of course there were vacas in the street….reminded me of my last summer spent in Nicaragua.

On the way back, we took a "lancha" instead of the big ferry, which was a smaller boat that clipped across the waves still rolling from the storm--a Salvador-style rollercoaster

On the way back, we took a “lancha” instead of the big ferry, which was a smaller boat that clipped across the waves still rolling from the storm–a Salvador-style rollercoaster

Leaving the island from Porto do Bom Despacho.

Leaving the island from Porto do Bom Despacho.

After the storm

After the storm

Rainbow arching over Salvador's skyline

Rainbow arching over Salvador’s skyline

The best way to display a promise

The best way to display a promise

On the way back home, when I clambered over several people to poke my camera out the other side of the boat, I almost cried as I saw the most beautiful rainbow arching across the city skyline, settling at last in the water.  It was a reminder that God is faithful, and just as He was with us that day, He would be with us on the many more adventures that are to come.

“Have I not commanded you?  Be strong and courageous.  Do not be terrified; do not be discouraged, for the LORD your God will be with you wherever you go.”  (Joshua 1:9)

Daring Greatly

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better.

The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again,

because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in worthy cause;

who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly…”

from Theodore Roosevelt’s speech “Citizenship in a Republic”