Capoeira Angola The Art of the Approach
by Contra Mestre Pererê ©2002 CM Pererê
Danger is everywhere. It exists for us all on so many levels as to boggle the mind. Danger (or if you prefer: peril) can exist for our lives, our health, our reputation, our material possessions, our pocketbook, etc'. Perilous situations can often be incredibly difficult to perceive, and even harder to deal with, and can elicit extreme emotional responses from us, such as fear, sorrow, anxiety. Danger can also be very compelling. Activities, or actions that contain elements of peril (or at least perceived peril) are indeed risky things, but they are also a lot of fun. You could lose, ahhh, but you could also win! Danger, risk, the potential for loss, and of course gain, are a part of the nature of gambling.
Any activity where we put ourselves in a position to gain, or to lose through risky (dangerous/perilous) circumstances is gambling. It is one of the major factors of material existence. In fact, it is difficult to find anything that does not apply to this. Falling in love, taking examinations, applying for a loan, or a job, running to catch a bus, getting out of bed in the morning. They may not all be potentially lethal or injurious, but they can all be considered activities that have a certain amount of risk, and payoff, as far as they apply to our goals, in short: gambling. Learning how to deal with dangerous circumstances in a way that can give you an advantage, or at least leave you no worse for wear is a difficult endeavor.
Danger makes for grace
One of my favorite topics of discussion in Capoeira is danger. By this I do not mean violence, but rather the existence of possible loss on some level. One day during a long conversation while walking along the beach near his home in the neighborhood of Boca do Rio, Salvador my teacher Mestre No shared with me an opinion about modern Capoeira:
"Nowadays you find that many rodas lack real danger, which is very important in Capoeira. Many Capoeiristas are not dangerous in the roda, but merely violent, they do not know the one from the other. There is a big difference between these two things. In the past, Capoeiristas were not nearly so violent as today, but much more dangerous."
This change has effected Capoeira greatly. The topic of danger became the primary subject of our next few conversations. Mestre No elaborated on the subject thoroughly and expressed very particular views about the unfortunate direction that Capoeira has been taken. Put briefly, the view he shared with me is that violence tends to harm the spirit, whereas danger can make it stronger. That an implied threat of violence merely makes one a predictable thug, but one who is courteous, gracious, and humble yet has unknown resources, and unpredictable responses, is a dangerous character.
Two of my professional lines of work have a great deal to do with the topic of danger. They are the related activities of stunt performance, and stunt performance instruction. As a stunt man and stunt instructor everything I do deals directly with the symbols of loss and gain. Anyone who goes to the movies knows exactly what I'm talking about. Nearly all action in the cinema or TV requires the element of risk be clearly perceivable. If we the audience fail to perceive the risk, the plausibility and energy of the scene can utterly flop. Risk sells tickets, and next to the promise of sex, is one of the major hooks that advertisement companies use to pull us into their products.
To be effective in either of these stunt professions I have had to deeply study the nature of danger, both to allow myself the ability to interact with danger (and the symbols of danger) directly, and to be a guide to others who want to learn how to do the same. It requires a tremendous amount of concentration, determination, and emotional equilibrium. If I am any good at these activities at all it is because of my continued study and exploration of the art of Capoeira Angola. For me the arts of Capoeira and stunt performance are synergistically interwoven. Why do I believe this? Because I have been taught to see Capoeira as a lyrical response to a world filled with possibilities. Potentials for loss, as well as gain.
Neither of these qualities can be even remotely understood without a proper appreciation of danger. And it is that quality of danger that makes both activities enjoyable to do, and watch. Danger is, and must remain a major element in the art of Capoeira Angola because, if it is approached in a controlled and respectful manor, danger can lead the Angoleiro to a deeper level of personal and social growth, giving the player of Capoeira Angola the means to explore perilous circumstances in a more or less controlled environment. To quote the author Michael Ventura: Danger makes for grace.
With a constant, regular exposure to moderated levels of danger the Angoleiro learns about himself (Please excuse the masculine designation of this text, it is not meant to be read as gender specific.), about his society, and the world in which he lives, and how to successfully navigate the perils inherent in all of these things. If anyone is interested in reading an excellent essay on this subject I recommend the essay titled 'White boys dancing'. This can be found in a book called 'Shadow dancing in the U.S.A.' by Michael Ventura. I also highly recommend reading the essay titled 'Hear that long snake moan' found in the same book. Hell, just read the whole book, it's great!
A circus in the circle
Why are flips and aerial acrobatics not found in Capoeira Angola? Primarily because to do them in the roda requires a collusion between both players, because if one of them does a flip, the other can intercept them before they reconnect with the ground, which is dangerous to the point of being lethal. In a flipping roda the two partners both agree beforehand to do circus tricks. Performing for spectators becomes the primary focus. The offering of spectacle. The only danger one is in comes from the possibility of falling on ones own head or some such through bumbling a flip.
Though I have also witnessed capoeiristas landing atop of each other, and onto people sitting on the edge of a circle (so I guess danger exists there too, just not the way that is intended). In the roda de Capoeira Angola there can be no collusion of this sort because it completely removes ones ability to be dangerous, and to be in danger. Flipping in the roda is a 'perceived' danger and spectacle done for the pleasure of an audience, and does little to demonstrate ones skills as a player.
Acrobatics are often held up as a lofty ideal in many Capoeira groups, an ideal that all should aspire to, but in reality, few are meant for, this however has little do with whether or not one will be a good player of Capoeira. I have had so many people over the years that have complained to me: "I just wish I could figure out how to do that darned... (add flip here), I keep trying to get it, it's really frustrating!". These folks have put a lot of psychic and emotional energy into trying to figure out a skill that will not make them a better player in the least. They are taught that they can only feel good about their game if they can toss themselves up and around like cats in a tumble dryer.
Most groups that espouse lots of flipping also teach their members that it is correct to throw attacks at a bewildering distance of four to eight feet away from their partner in the ring, and strangely enough, that they should also respond to these far away kicks with proper escapes and counterattacks. One guy kicks up in the sky and his opponent, ten feet away, hastily dives to the floor to avoid the attack. Please! This is not done (as is often explained) because the attacks are 'too dangerous' to be done in close range of ones partner, not at all. In my school we can throw attacks plenty fast and hard, but we do it within range of our partners, and at very specific targets on their bodies, however, we take time to warm up to this level, moving at slower speeds to warm up our senses, yet still on target. It is a remarkable sensation to be that awake.
The 'big gap' technique that is commonly used in many rodas was developed for performance arts, so that the people watching from afar can appreciate the action, I have years of participation in theatrical and cinematic mock combatives, and this technique of wide spacing is textbook for performing on a stage. Don't get me wrong, I'm sure it's a lot of fun as well, however, it does little to develop your nervous system and finer reflexes for playing against someone who will not agree with you beforehand to keep their distance just to make you look good and feel safe.
Often you will find that when these players do close with each other they throw aggressive punches, and try to kick the snot out of each other, possibly because everything else they do in the roda feels slightly off keel. Violence is not same as danger.
Relationships are risky
There are several relationships that Angoleiros endeavor to develop and explore. One of them is with gravity (of which I will make the topic of a future article, but will only touch on here), another is with their environment. Many of the legends, tails, myths, and songs of Capoeira speak directly and indirectly about the perils of one or the other (or both) of these relationships. To be sure, there are other important relations as well, but we'll explore them another time.
Many of the stories told by old mestres who have since passed on include aspects of falling (gravity), and the dangers that can lurk just around the corner (environment). One of the primary ways I have been taught to view the Roda de Capoeira Angola is as a model for successfully navigating potentially dangerous, and potentially beneficial social interactions with others. How to approach, engage, interact, and then disengage in a manor that respects perils and advantages that are inherent in all relationships. To view them as puzzles, or riddles to be solved.
Relating with other people in various social settings is risky business. If one fails to pay attention to ones own behavior and/or the behavior of others in ones environment, all sorts of potentially calamitous situations can ensue. If one looks closely at how the ritual space and game composition of the roda of Capoeira Angola is put together it becomes obvious that the roda is not so much made up of 'mysterious and obscure rituals, symbols, and traditions' that are only half-understood by most, but is in fact a highly functional and practical organization of social elements designed to develop specific skills and abilities in the players of Capoeira Angola.
The art of the Approach
I want to start my exploration of the Roda de Capoeira Angola here by offering a premise, and that premise is this: That approaches are dangerous. Do you follow me? Whether it is an airplane approaching a runway, or a person approaching a teller at a bank, there is danger inherent in this action. The runway could be icy and treacherous for the plane, or the person could be there to rob the bank, either way it is very difficult to tell the outcome of the interaction from appearances alone. That is why both airports and banks have such elaborate approach rituals for those that interact with them. It is the same for Capoeira Angola.
I like to jokingly refer to Capoeira Angola as something akin to the mating dance of the praying mantis, or at least from the viewpoint of the male praying mantis. The females are much bigger, and stronger, and faster, and if the male praying mantis makes a mess of things he is likely to have his head shorn-off and be eaten by the female. But see, the males are sly, they approach with caution and courage. They will most likely get eaten in the end anyway, and yet if they are crafty enough they will have accomplished their objectives beforehand through the more subtle powers of persuasion and guile rather than by brute force, where they don't stand a chance. The important thing to remember is that the male mantid's objective is not to ovoid being eaten by their mates, their objective is to accomplish mating before being eaten! A big distinction. Anyway...where was I...
In Capoeira Angola a single individual always leads or 'owns' the roda. This person is either the mestre of the group, someone designated as the ringleader by the mestre, or in the absence of a mestre, someone designated the owner by the group of players present. This owner controls the goings on within the roda and holds the authority for how the rituals of the roda will be developed. The owner sets up the 'house rules', commences and concludes the roda, and administrates what will happen within the confines of that ritual game space.
The owner has a lot of responsibility. Having to provide a safe environment for all the roda participants. The owner is also responsible for arbitrating everything that goes on inside the ring, and for everyone that approaches and then enters that ring. Why is it imperative that someone own the circle? Because a roda de Capoeira Angola contains many potentially volatile social and energetic elements that require a responsible and respected arbitrator. If no one has authority in the circle, the ritual can fall apart from lack of certainty of purpose. It is the same as in many forms of social ritual.
In the not so distant past of Brazil, as is commonly understood by modern players, Capoeira was illegal to practice in any form, and the members of Capoeira communities had to be very watchful so that they where not caught unawares during the Capoeira roda, to be caught could bring about extreme circumstances for the players, potentially leading to imprisonment, injury, or death. Other Capoeiristas also presented a potential danger when they approach a circle where they were unrecognized. They could be there merely to have a good time, or they could be headhunting.
And even though today Capoeira is no longer persecuted on sight by the authorities, and has largely moved indoors and is presented by many (erroneously) as an activity where everyone should come together in peace and love, strangers to a roda de Capoeira still represent a potential danger, and to ignore that potential danger is both foolish, careless, and potentially disastrous for all involved. This aspect of taking in strangers at face value is one of the biggest flaws I find in contemporary Capoeira Angola practice and instruction. It leads to all sorts of weird misinterpretations, assumptions, and confrontations by contemporary practitioners.
The Roda: The Angoleiros model for the social world...and more.
The roda serves as a social model for courteous, respectful, and even reverential behavior for the Angoleiro as well as providing them with a means to navigate social entrapments, potholes, and dead-ends that may lead to misunderstanding and confrontation between participants. How well they are able to do this is completely self determined and depends entirely on the abilities of the individual.
At most Capoeira events you will doubtless experience some master losing his head over some perceived blunder or disrespectful action perpetrated by some poor hapless student. It is unfortunate that this is the way that many mestres choose to educate people in public with regards to Capoeira, but aside from that, if you look at the topic of their rant with a cool head you will often find that it is based on how folks comport themselves socially within the framework of Capoeira society in general, and the roda in specific.
With all of these factors, there also comes into play the concept of 'loss and gain of advantage', a concept that is sadly lacking in the comprehension of many who play and study this game today. This is a subject of tremendous importance for the player of Capoeira Angola. If your teacher is not guiding you in the art of the advantage while you are studying Capoeira Angola with them, then you are merely passing your time practicing movements of Capoeira, and getting some sort of workout while your Instructor collects your money. If you as a student are not delving into the art of the advantage you have no business thinking that you are really learning this art.
The art of the advantage dictates that you are not resting on your heels in class, but are hungrily, if not ruthlessly going after every scrap of knowledge and skill that you can get out of your teacher without seeming to be too obvious about it. It means that your are their best student, developing patience, vigilance, and persistence, all the while learning how to be independent (independence = liberation). And always demonstrating graciousness to your teach for giving you the chance to study this art of Capoeira. An Angoleiro does not merely play capoeira while in the middle of the ring, always seeking the advantage, they play capoeira also with the entire ritual of the roda, (and by extension - the whole of Capoeira society) learning its subtleties, complexities, and the whims of the mestre in charge.
A warrior's skills are not only meant for the battlefield. It is a little like the intrigues of a royal court. Fumbling socially in the roda can lead one to humiliating circumstances, or to someone taking offense at your lack of comportment, all of which can be seen as a loss of the advantage as much as is being swept to the floor, whereas demonstrating your comportment and centeredness can give you access to greater levels of understanding, and reinforce positive impressions of you by others. This is common sense in a way. Diplomacy. And it is full to the gills with tactics.
Capoeira's social politics: Is it an obstacle, or asset?
Yes, Capoeira has about it an aspect of politics, but when players complain and gripe about this they have completely missed the point. Though I am not condoning any abuses that persons of influence perpetrate on their communities, any social activity includes politics. There is no escaping it if you wish to play the field. I was taught that the social obstacles in Capoeira are there by design, and though they may be often less than enjoyable or palatable, and seem insurmountable for the student of the art (especially for non-Brazilians), they serve an important function for the player: How to successfully negotiate the human world, with all its dangers and payoffs.
In short, to find the advantage. Same game, different playing field. In an environment where someone else has all the resources, authority, and power; and uses them as leverage against us, this being one of the primary motifs used to explain the development of Capoeira, then malicia (tactical intelligence) becomes a path to the advantage, and possibly to self-enlightenment. If we consider the social context with which the people who developed Capoeira lived in over the past centuries, we can see how an organized body of knowledge like those found in Capoeira Angola might be in high demand, and short supply.
The art of Capoeira was not in past ages merely prized by its adherents for its movements, music, and lyrical beauty, but also for its tactical and strategic concepts and application, pedagogy, and holistic curriculum. Politics not withstanding. I quote a passage from 'Order and Progress' a book in a famous series on Brazilian culture and history by the noted author Gilberto Freyre:
"Thus Horacio Pires Galvao states that he and other members of the elite learned aspects of capoeira from Negro soldiers during the war (1865-70). This Afro-Brazilian art became highly prized by some upper-class whites, not only for self-defense but also as an expression of physical elegance. With the republican movement, however, capoeira came to be considered shameful and degrading. Coehlo Neto recalls associating with colored laborers - shortly after the Paraguayan war - in order to learn the secrets of capoeiragem, so useful for those in politics, in teaching, or in the Army and Navy. Later, while a member of the federal legislature as a delegate from Maranhao, he had considered sponsoring a project to make the teaching of capoeira obligatory in the armed forces as being a truly national sport."
It is interesting to note that this must have taken place years before Mestre Bimba - the developer of Capoeira Regional - was even born.
When trying to gain some perspective on this art, it may prove useful to keep the above Freyre text in mind, specifically with regards to the obvious developmental depth that was acknowledged to already exist in this art by the mid-1800's - the art that would later to be termed 'capoeira angola' some sixty years later.
Now I wish to venture into the topic of how to approach a roda de Capoeira Angola (perhaps any roda), and how these skills are utilized by Angoleiros in the world at large. It is the use of these skills and perspectives that I have been taught to view as the major differences between Capoeira Angola and other interpretations of Capoeira, rather than whether or not one wears shoes or uses queixadas in the roda. It is how I both participate in Capoeira as a society, play the game, and teach my students.
"Capoeira Angola is like having one eye on the parish, the other on the priest." - Mestre No.
In days of yore when Capoeira was considered by the elites to be the root of a variety of ills in Brazilian society (rather than a response to those ills), and was, as we all know, an illegal activity with heavy penalties placed on its practitioners (if they were caught), Capoeira was played on the street in locations where one eye could be keep on the game, and the other on the surrounding environment. Rodas were held in places that afforded the participants a measure of time before an enemy could intercept them, with easy escape routes that could confound pursuers. That this strategy succeeded in some way is proven out by the fact that Capoeira is still around to be played at all.
My teachers have made it plain to me that this type of vigilance is still a valid aspect to the art and can be seen often when Capoeira is played on the streets today in the city of Salvador. And to their credit, I found it to be true in every roda I have ever happened upon during all of my visits there. They have made it plain to me that to loose this aspect in Capoeira would effectively put an end to the art as they know it and have played it all their lives. Even indoors you will find that a roda is most often positioned in such a way that the bateria can keep an eye on the primary entryway to the room, so that anyone who comes in the room can immediately be seen and assessed, while also maintaining a firm control over the goings on within the ring.
This strategy is used often by individual players as well. Capoeira Angola players know that unperceived approaches by others can lead to bad situations, so they make a habit of putting themselves in places that afford the best vantage and possible escape. For instance: In a restaurant an Angoleiro might put there back to the wall that allows them to keep an eye on the exits, both in front, and in back. It has been shared with me several times over the years by various Angola masters that this type of vigilance is meant to be extended to ones own life in the world, it is one of the lessons that the old masters of the art stressed often.
How to approach a roda de Capoeira Angola.
Note: This part of the essay is focused on Capoeira Angola in specific, but it will serve well as guidelines for entering any roda de Capoeira.
When approaching a roda, even one that is held by a group you are familiar with, always do so in clear sight of the bateria. You do this both out of respect, and to allow the owner of the roda to assess you, and your intent. If you try to sneak up on a roda, (which is not impossible) because you want to demonstrate how clever you are, you might be assessed as a threat, or at least a wise-ass, neither of which really work in your favor. Trust me, you will not impress anyone by sneaking around during roda. If you wish to join the circle, first take a moment and take in the energy of the roda, is it inspirational to you? Do you get a positive vibe from it? If not you may not wish to join in, its your call.
No one can make you enter a circle except you, but there are many out there who can con you into going in against your better judgment. It is often respectful to have consideration for the conventions of the group, are they all wearing shoes, do they have players with both shoes and bare feet? Each group, each roda, is unique to some degree and deserves a moment of assessment. Once you've taken in the vibe, get the attention of the owner of the roda and express to them your desire to participate. If you are unsure who this is, catch someone's eye who is nearby and ask them specifically who the mestre is.
Often they will escort you directly to the owner of the circle, or explain to you how to best participate. If you come up to the edge of the circle and no one addresses you, you should always take the initiative to ASK someone if you can participate rather than barge right on in. It is considered rude, and very disrespectful to enter a roda without consent of the mestre of the circle. Remember, as a ritualist, or 'master of ceremonies' the leader of the circle is responsible for providing a safe environment for their roda, and you may not be immediately considered a safe element. Some might not mind it, but by and large do not assume. Be courteous, it costs you nothing.
Once (and if) you have been given consent and have joined the circle, and have met any conventions of attire that may be in place (which particularly apply to rodas de Capoeira Angola more so than many contemporary styles of Capoeira), show your positive intent by joining in to sing (and clap hands if that is going on) with the rest of the chorus. Always first ask to play a musical instrument before asking to play in the circle, this demonstrates your willingness to give energy to the ritual and will give the mestre time to watch how you comport yourself. Tactically, it also affords you the opportunity to watch everyone else in the circle, to learn who can play well, who may be dangerous, who is inexperienced, who may be a hothead, or who plays really well, etc'.
I repeat, take the time to play in the bateria! While playing the music you also get to ground yourself in the energy of the roda, listening to the messages in the playing of the berimbaus. This is not pseudo-mysticism, but practical, tactical information. You will learn a lot about the mestre and their roda by the playing of the berimbau. Look for any correlations between berimbau toques and what type of action is going on in the circle between the players.
There may be particular games going on that are correctly played to certain toques (or rhythms), this was very common in the past, and is quite rare nowadays, however several groups out there still have more than one type of game they play. I am not just referring to playing the correct rhythm for 'Regional', or 'Angola'. This Angola/Regional split is a vast oversimplification of what is in actuality a wonderfully elaborate curriculum in traditional Capoeira, an elaboration that used to define the art in past eras.
The mestre may not wish you to play a berimbau at first, or at all, as these instruments are the primary tools for communicating to the players in the circle, a job that has with it a lot of responsibility. If you ask to play a bow and are turned down don't take it personally, gesture to another instrument. If you are passed an instrument, take up that musicians place in the bateria and play conservatively, refrain from drawing attention to yourself by showing off with fancy rhythmic variations unless invited to do so. Humility can go a long way in the roda de Capoeira, you will most likely impress the mestre more with your ability to fit in than showing off your prowess.
If all goes well you will most often be asked to play in the circle after a short while. The roda de Capoeira Angola has two entrances for player to enter the ring and play, one on either side of the bateria. These are the only two 'exits' for players. It may happen sometimes that a mestre exits the roda at another location for some reason, that is their prerogative as a master practitioner. It may come across as confusing at times, but they may be trying to teach something to someone, it is best to follow the basic convention of exiting (into the roda) and entering (back into the world) from either side of the bateria.
With regards to playing. It is important to realize one crucial fact: That upon entering the circle to play a game with your partner/opponent, you have already begun to play! Your 'real' jogo began the moment you approached the roda, and your game in the circle begins the very instant you set foot in the ring. It does not start at the pe de berimbau. That is the place were Angoleiros pay homage to their artistic ancestors, to their mestre, to the berimbau, and acknowledge their adversary. It is where the players come together in ritual, but it is not where their game begins! Once you have taken up a position at the pe de berimbau, have patience and wait for the mestre to acknowledge your ensuing bout by nodding to you, or dipping the top of the berimbau into the circle between you and your partner, but beware! You are playing already.
How you play, and what you do in the circle are best learned directly from a qualified instructor, but if I can offer a few pointers: 1. Keep your eyes open, and head down. 2. Try to have fun. 3. Relax.! 4. If you want to hug your partner after your bout, do it after you have left the circle (because you are still 'at play' while inside it), and try not to put your dirty hands all over their clothes!
In conclusion: The offer of an open hand is more powerful than a closed fist.
After the roda has been completed, or if you need to leave beforehand, always come up to the owner of the roda and thank them for having you. The same as you would if you were a guest at their home. It is a mark of graciousness on your part, and a means of setting a good example to all. It demonstrates your comprehension and appreciation of what I have termed: Approach, Engagement, Interaction (participation), and Disengagement. All of which represent skills held in high regard by anyone who knows anything about Capoeira Angola.
It also reflects very well on your teacher, who's reputation you are responsible for, whether you believe it or not. Often you will find that mestres treat their classes with the same vigilant care that they do their rodas, perceiving the same potentials in both circumstances. Therefore you may find that these same skills are useful when coming to a Capoeira Angola academy, school, or group practice.
Malicia, a skill or perspective often proposed as some sort of trickery, treachery, and slyness in the ring is frequently considered the most important skill for the angoleiro to develop, but I beg to differ. In the world of Capoeira many things can be like sticking your hand in a dark hole where a snake may be coiled up napping, yet ever-ready to strike. If you are to clever you may outwit yourself in the end. Malicia, in order to be a tool for personal cultivation (transformation!) in the world of Capoeira must be soundly rooted in a foundation of respectful courtesy and honor towards our fellows, or we may all very well forget what it means when we shake hands at the beginning and end of our games in the circle. And that these things too require skills worthy of mastering.