A CAPOEIRA SESSION by Mariza Georgalou
What I am going to describe is a capoeira session that took place on Friday 3 March, 2006. Capoeira is an Afro-Brazilian martial art developed initially by African slaves in Brazil, starting in the colonial period, as a way to resist their oppressors, secretly practise their art, transmit their culture and lift their spirits. What is interesting is that capoeira does not focus on the person you play against, rather on demonstrating more skill [note 1] and that is why it is often described as a fusion of martial arts with dancing. Nowadays, capoeira has become very popular and most major cities throughout the world have at least one club/group to join. Believe it or not, Lancaster has its own! Close to the bus station, there is the Trinity United Reformed Church which hires a huge hall for many types of activities. Capoeira classes take place in this hall every Friday from 18.30 to 20.00. The yard outside with its bare trees and slippery paths, especially at nights, gives you a spooky feeling as if you’re watching a Tim Burton’s film. But once you enter the red door, only safety and warmth surround you. The hall is replete with light which is reflected in the parquet. The smell is identical to that of a closed-for-years wardrobe. The walls are covered with posters of African people and ads for fair-trade products. The most prominent slogan is that of MAKE POVERTY HISTORY. The room has many windows with burgundy curtains. On the left as you enter, there is a dais where the cd-player is situated. Further down, there is a sand bar and a sink just behind it. Another red door on the left of the sand bar leads downstairs to the toilets. The wardrobe smell there is even worse. The guys that teach us, Mat and Greg, are not professional capoeiristas. They have reached an advanced level by taking part in various workshops and all they want is to share their experience. They found the Trinity hall and decided to teach capoeira charging each participant £2 per session, part of which goes to the rent, while the rest is kept by Mat, who recently used it to buy a capoeira cd. Mat and Greg’s common denominator is that they both get really passionate and enthusiastic when practicing capoeira, but by and large, they are totally different not only physically, but also in terms of personality. Mat is very tall, though plump, with black hair. He is extrovert, sociable and fairly talkative. Greg is slim, with extremely white skin –almost transparent- and red hair. He is so introvert that someone might think he is snobbish. But in no way is this the case. His taciturnity is overshadowed by the way he moves his body. It is as if this man was born to do capoeira. He has an indescribable flexibility that, sometimes, you gain the impression that his body defies the law of gravity. Whenever you watch him you can feel that capoeira is something rd
magic, something divine. However, whenever you try to imitate him you get completely discouraged. It is better to look at Mat; he is not perfect, but he keeps on trying and trying having very satisfactory results and of course, giving us the hope that the unattainable can somehow be attained. Both Mat and Greg are kind, helpful and patient. The main purpose there is not to show off, but to feel well in body and mind.
The structure of a capoeira class is as follows: 1) Warming-up. 2) Practicing ginga, the fundamental movement in capoeira. 3) Practicing a series of movements, either individually following our teachers or in pairs. 4) Playing jogo, the game. Here people make the roda, the circle within which partners are interchangeably engaged in a capoeira match based on improvisations of movements they already know. The roda is a microcosm which reflects the macrocosm of life and the world around us. Most often, in the roda your greatest opponent is yourself. 5) Warming-down. It is of paramount importance that during these stages the music incessantly plays. Music is integral to capoeira as it sets the tempo and style of the movements. Everybody is welcome to capoeira classes. Some people turn up for just once and then vanish into thin air; others appear once in a blue a moon, while very few are almost always standard. These are Charlie, Krys and I. Three different generations usually attend the classes: i) children at about 10 years old, ii) young people from 20 to 30 and iii) people above 40. All of them are British, mainly Lancastrians. On that Friday I arrived at Trinity at 18.20. Krys was outside waiting. As soon as I arrived, the woman who owns the hall appeared and unlocked the door. She asked Krys about the snow and he said that snow makes us feel like children again. The woman turned the lights on while Krys gave me a copy of Matâ€™s cd. I got downstairs to change clothes and when I finished I met Greg. It was strange he was early, because he rarely arrives on time. We exchanged greetings. I went upstairs and saw that other people had come as well despite the snow. Mat was unzipping the bag of berimbau. Berimbau (fig.1) [note 2] is a capoeira instrument that resembles a bow using a steel string and a ground for resonation.
fig. 1 Berimbau Mat was playing it talking at the same time to Krys. In the meantime, Charlie and his son Luke had arrived together with Jake and his mother and Fred and his father. A new boy had also come with his father for the first time. Jake’s mother asked me about the performance of the group in Uni. I told her I didn’t participate and she agreed that she didn’t feel comfortable to do so. The kids in bare feet started talking loudly and teasing each other while Mat had put some capoeira music playing on the background. ‘Let’s mess around!’ said Fred. ‘That’s what we do!’ replied Luke. It was about 18.40 when we heard Mat shouting ‘Let’s start!’. He started running and we all followed behind him. The music had stopped and we ran some rounds with no music at all. Krys volunteered to fix the problem. Along with the Portuguese lyrics we were listening to Mat’s loud and clear voice. He gave us commands: heels touching your bum, knees up. He counted to three and we had to sprint and then change direction again and again. To be honest, he was the only one who was sprinting; the rest of us were just jogging briskly. Next, we formed a circle and Greg undertook to show us a set of exercises. We started warming up our waists, knees, wrists and then we carried on with stretching. We sat on the floor and continued stretching. Greg was speaking very softly and we had to make a great effort to distinguish his words from the music. Like Mat, he was wearing the traditional white capoeira trousers with the inscription mestre gato (name of a capoeira teacher) while Mat’s Tshirt wrote CAPOEIRANDO which means keep on doing capoeira. Given that at that day we were relatively few, including the newcomers, our teachers decided to do as much practice as possible. After finishing our stretching, which was quite hard –you could tell that from the people’s facial expressions-, Greg proposed to practice the au cartwheel (fig.2) [note 3]. He went first with Mat. We started in pairs facing each other from the sand bar to the dais. Luke was very slow because he was trying to understand the movement. Jake then was heard ‘Luke is causing traffic’. We also practiced the cartwheel changing directions with our partner.
fig. 2 Au cartwheel
Next, we formed our previous circle in order to perform ginga (fig.3). Greg gave full explanations on how to do it as if it was the first time for all of us. He added that ginga can have different alternations and we tried some of them by opening our pace, bending our bodies and moving our arms.
fig. 3 Ginga It was about time we practiced some kicks. Greg showed us meia lua de frente (fig.4) providing some details and we followed him. Our starting point was ginga and from there we tried both legs.
fig. 4 Meia lua de frente The next kick was benção. Greg said that benção means blessing (fig.5) because when you kick the body becomes ‘like a cross’, ‘as if you want to offer something’.
fig. 5 Benção The third kick was martelo (fig.6) which ‘hits like a hammer’ according to Greg. At that point I realised that his language is notably vivid and creative when he wants to describe a movement. I liked his two similes because they conveyed the exact essence of the two kicks.
fig. 6 Martelo Then we split into pairs. The one partner would practice meia lua de frente from both sides while the other would bend to cocorinha (fig. 7).
fig. 7 Cocorinha
After that Greg thought of another combination including the au cartwheel. He tried it with Mat, but found that it would be too hard to practice it in pairs. So, we gave it a go individually. Then Greg opted for something slightly difficult: au malandro (fig.8).
fig. 8 Au malandro And since such a movement can only belong to the realm of our imagination, Greg suggested that a partner should help us by holding our one hand so as to fix our bodies on the ground with the other hand (fig.9).
fig. 9 Au malandro with support Mat volunteered to help me and indeed he encouraged me very much. That was the second crucial moment during that afternoon. Mat’s feedback proved to be beneficial to our practice. I noticed that in dealing especially with the kids, Mat uses phrases such as ‘excellent’, ‘that’s right’, ‘very good’. Strictly speaking, the little boys are always naughty and unable to concentrate on what they are doing. Yet, Mat’s eagerness to help as well as Greg’s humour can calm them down. It is significant that the two teachers never appear authoritarian or demanding. By employing userfriendly language and by being kind, they make us feel comfortable and self-confident. I also helped Mat with the au malandro and then, he went to Krys to see if he was ok. Greg was watching the other pairs. As Krys was the only one who could satisfactorily practice the au malandro, Greg asked him to keep on practicing alone. He then recommended we formed a ‘circular circle’ –another successful phrase- so as to practice ginga, negativa (fig.10) and rolê (fig.11) from both sides. When we got familiar with the combination, he added a cartwheel as a final movement.
fig. 10 Negativa
fig.11 Rolê The peculiar thing of that particular session was that for the first time we did not practice any jogo at all. I guess most of us –apart from the children- felt relieved as we have butterflies in our stomachs when we have to join the jogo. Krys joined the circular circle and we finished by warming down. Greg again showed the exercises and Mat announced that he will not come next week. It was already 20.00 so we called it a day and spread out. Greg was performing some complicated movements for Krys’s sake. The children were being dressed by their parents. Mat was putting berimbau in the bag. The blessing of capoeira is that when you practice it, you forget anything that worries you. Even if you are tired, you feel full of energy and optimism. We could hear Mat whistling and singing Avisa Men Mano, a capoeira song. He had put the moneybox in his bag because he was in a rush so he told us to pay him next time. He gave the cd to Greg who together with Krys undertook to turn all the lights off and close the doors. We all exchanged goodbyes and goodnights leaving behind us the snow-covered, spooky yard.
NOTES  Underlined parts of text are taken from http://encyclopedia.thefreedictionary.com/Capoeira (last access 06/09/2012).  Fig.1 is taken from http://encyclopedia.thefreedictionary.com/Capoeira+Angola (last access 06/09/2012).  All other figures can be found in http://www.wu-wien.ac.at/usr/h96b/h9650297/cap-basics.html (last access 25/02/2011).
capoeira session and history