If you wait, you don’t play

A DioCal Voices Wellness blog reflection on capoeira from the Rev Stephen Hassett, the Associate for Faith Formation and Fellowship at St John’s, Ross. You can reach Steve at steve@stjohnsross.org.

“Praise the Lord! Praise God in his sanctuary; praise him in his mighty heavens! Praise him for his mighty deeds; praise him according to his excellent greatness! Praise him with trumpet sound; praise him with lute and harp! Praise him with tambourine and dance; praise him with strings and pipe! Praise him with sounding cymbals; praise him with loud clashing cymbals!” Psalm 150:1-6

It’s always hard to explain to people what capoeira is, and the longer I practice it, the more difficult it becomes. Anthropologically speaking, capoeira is a form of mock combat and ritual dance that developed among African slaves in colonial Brazil. Although it has roots in Africa, capoeira does not exist in Africa — it is at least partly the product of the experience of slavery, and is traditionally associated with resistance to slavery. The game, as it is called, is accompanied by songs and music played on traditional folk instruments, especially the berimbau, a one-stringed instrument that uses a dried gourd as a resonator. It is sometimes said that the music was an attempt to disguise martial-arts training as dancing, so the slave owners would allow it. But that might just be an old tale; nobody who was part of the development of capoeira was writing this stuff down. Sometime in the early 20th century, capoeira became more formalized, and is now offered by a growing number of schools and fitness centers all over the world. The school where I train and play is called United Capoeira Association, located in Berkeley, and was founded by Mestre Acordeon, one of the first people to bring capoeira to the United States from his native Brazil.

In practical terms, capoeira is a highly demanding, very acrobatic kind of playful, competitive sport in which two players combine movements of attack and defense in an effort to outmaneuver each other in the game space (called a roda, which means “wheel,” a group of players who stand in a circle, the middle of which is where the action takes place). Novices begin with a rudimentary arsenal of kicks, blocks, feints, and dodges, and over time develop a deeper vocabulary of movements and a more robust grammar of technique. Advanced players are able to improvise on the basics and add color and personality to their game. Occasionally, one player is able to “take down” another, or land a well-placed kick, but in general, the game is not played for points or wins so much as it’s played for the sake of the game. Most capoeiristas would rather see a well-played game with lots of axé (spirit) and no actual contact than a game in which one player dominates the other. Though, it is true, one can get hurt playing capoeira.

In spiritual terms, capoeira is a kind of practice for life. As with many “games,” the lessons one learns can apply to other contexts. The following are some of the ways I think capoeira teaches its practitioners things that also apply to life.

1. capoeira demands physical fitness, but more importantly it demands physical authenticity — you have to know what your body can do, will do, won’t do, and shouldn’t do while playing the game. No one can tell you those things about yourself, so you have to discover them (but you can’t do that alone — it must be done in the context of the game.) Furthermore, you can’t know these things in advance, so you have to start playing before you can learn. In other words, you have to begin before you are prepared to learn, and you can’t learn before you begin.

2. capoeira demands that you think, but not too much. You have to be alert and remain calm in the middle of a lot of chaos and uncertainty, and your plans might have to change quickly depending on circumstances. These conditions will reveal your strengths or weaknesses in the area of attentiveness, responsiveness, and emotional intelligence. And again, none of these things will be revealed until you step into the roda and begin playing, ready or not. 

3. capoeira demands self-discipline, both physical and spiritual. It is a regular experience for me to approach class or some other capoeira event with a fair amount of anxiety: I’m afraid I will somehow fail, be revealed as a fraud, mess up in some irredeemable way, or otherwise prove to be some kind of talentless disaster. None of these things is based in reality, and none of them has ever been suggested to me by any of my teachers or fellow students. But I carry those things into the roda with me, and even while I am trying to avoid getting kicked by my opponent, I am fighting another, interior, spiritual battle with these demons. (I have come to conclude for myself that when Jesus met Satan in the wilderness, it was in a roda.)

4. capoeira demands that you make some constructive response to conflict. The game requires you to take action and attack your opponent — you can’t just defend! The better your game, the more you can attack with some spirit and passion, trusting that your opponent will be good enough to get out of the way. At the same time, your opponent will be attacking you, and you can’t expect them not to. The difference, of course, is that your opponent is not attacking you because they hate you; they are simply playing the same game you are. But as you play, and develop your game, you realize that there are a lot more options than you thought there were for responding to an attack. Avoidance is only one of them. In life, most of us merely avoid conflict, but capoeira can show you that there are other responses, some more appropriate or effective than avoidance.

5. capoeira demands that you be part of a community. Although it is possible to train by oneself, actual capoeira depends on there being a community of people gathered to sing, clap, play, and make the roda happen. When you’re singing at the edge of the roda, you lend your energy to the players who are responding to the rhythm of the berimbau as well as to one another. Everyone has a role to play, and even if you’re on injured reserve, you can be part of the game. And, of course, being part of a community means being in relationship with people whom you might otherwise try to avoid, and finding a way to think of them as a meaningful part of your life, whether you like it or not. This lesson is especially clear in capoeira, because sooner or later you will end up in the roda with someone you dislike; or someone you do like will kick you and make it hurt, and you have to find a way to remain in relationship with them.

I’ve been training and playing for about two-and-a-half years, and while it is true that I am in the best shape I have ever been, it is more important to say that not a day goes by that I don’t find myself thinking about something I learned in class, or in the roda. I’m on the older side for someone with so little experience under my belt, and I hope my body will continue to grow stronger and persevere, because I feel like I’m just beginning to get the hang of things, and I can’t wait to see what else the game, my teachers, and my friends in the roda have to teach me.

Links to video & resources for more information:

1. Capoeira roda at Occupy Oakland:
A nice video featuring lots of players from the Bay Area in a friendly game in a public setting, connected to issues of social justice, appropriate to the origins of the game.

2. Jogo de capoeira:
A high-energy game between two very experienced players at a capoeira school in Israel. Note the combination of aggression and friendliness in the game, as well as the energy of the musicians and co-participants in the roda.

3. UCA Berkeley home page:
The largest capoeira school in in the Bay Area, and the hub of an international community of UCA-affiliated schools. Find out more about classes (including intro series), pricing, schedules, etc.