Oct 26 2011

Ethics in Capoeira

Written by Patricia Morais
Translation by Shayna McHugh

Source: Capoeira da Bahia 

“If the roots are cut, how will the species perpetuate itself?”
– Mestre Nô

Starting from the concept of ethics as “the study of actions or habits, or the actual enactment of a type of behavior,” we can study capoeira’s ethical content through a historical and modern analysis.

The capoeirista, as we know, was always the target of marginalization, since capoeira was a crime prohibited by the Penal Code of the Republic; simply doing capoeira in the street resulted in up to six months in prison. To evade this concept, the Bahian Manoel dos Reis Machado, known as Mestre Bimba, innovated capoeira and also created a rigid code of ethics that required even acts of personal hygiene.

Besides Bimba, other capoeiristas in general who worked for the growth of the art always sought efficient methods to develop it well. One of the main fundamentals, common to capoeira Angola and Regional, starts with who plays. The player has to greet the partner “at the foot of the berimbau,” that is to say, crouched near the instrument that will give rhythm to the movements. Both should be clean, “properly clothed,” and never shirtless. They must seek harmony, in which a movement of defense is already the start of another of attack, without injuring their partner. The opponents do not grapple, but fight “by approximation,” respecting the time to enter and leave the roda.

And no one should learn capoeira to go around beating up others. Mestre Pastinha said that “Capoeira Angola is, before all else, a fight and a violent fight.” With that said, the strategy of the good capoeirista was always to make himself look weak before the opponent, unleashing the violent fight in just the right moment, always dangerous.

With the passage of time, the Brazilian martial art became a little more “respected”: it was recognized by the authorities and spread throughout the world, innovative in its expression. Many groups discharacterized capoeira, separating its game or fight from the roots, and in little time classified it as a folkloric manifestation. But this left capoeira in an unparalleled situation of conflict. If kept and taught as only a cultural manifestation without anything new to add, capoeira would probably stagnate and not spread so widely; however, if capoeira evolved in a wild manner, it could be totally discharacterized.

There still exist some mestres who teach their students the fight while maintaining discipline. But many students seek capoeira just to get in shape, or because it is in fashion. They forget – and we believe that some mestres do as well – that “Capoeira is a dialogue of bodies; I win when my partner does not have any more answers for my questions” (Mestre Moraes).

The result of this new capoeira identity, detached from its roots, is the championships of “free-fighting.” These championships attract many students who leave their academies, since the academies end up discouraging the student who seeks to train only fight and endurance in the Brazilian martial art. Capoeira is unique, but in these competitions it lost the style of the fight itself. The main reasons for this, as pointed out by professors and mestres of the Palmares group, are lack of teaching methodology and disinterest in perfecting knowledge about the art. According to the president of the Associação Brasileira de Capoeira Palmares, mestre Nô, “The ethical question in capoeira is a self-service buffet” in which each one does what he wants, leaving behind all the culture that capoeira carries.

Another weighty factor in the capoeira’s development is its diffusion in the media. With this capoeira received new followers, was introduced to those who did not know it, and won a little more respect and trust. On the other hand, this growth disorganized a whole structure. That which was previously geared towards the awareness and preservation of customs, today is geared towards performance and/or free-fighting. Even with all this transformation, society’s prejudice about those who practice capoeira still has not been extinguished.

We agree with professor Henrique (Kiluangi de Palmares): “We can have access to the media; this is not negative. But in order to erase this unfavorable image, it is necessary to show that capoeira really changed, that it is an art in which the social layers come together, that it is an art of the world and not of one region, city, or neighborhood. And for this to happen, the professors, the instructors, and the mestres must all pass on information through a teaching methodology that seeks to discipline and shape the students, without losing space in society or burying this over-300-year-old culture.”

Capoeira’s inclusion in the Olympic Games is another great victory, but also very worrisome. In the research done with mestres of both angola and regional at the 5th batizado of the Grupo Cultural de Capoeira Badauê de Palmares in March 1997, weverified that all those interviewed are in favor of the new step but, at the same time, concerned with the rules that will prevail and, mainly, with the training of the capoeiristas. Many professors are against it, alleging that “as soon as capoeira enters into competition, its followers stop bothering with the historical and cultural part of capoeira” in order to develop the aggressive side, which can bring about “one companion wanting to destroy the other because of a medal,” as mestre Naldinho said.

After conquering its space and becoming recognized by the greater part of Brazilian society, capoeira reached one of the basic areas of human and social necessity – education. Capoeira is part of the curriculum in various schools and universities of the country and the world. This point is fundamental and generates many debates in groups, in which to teach capoeira is much more than just doing an aú or giving a chapa.

The experienced professors and mestres believe that schools and universities, when selecting their instructors, must seek quality, training, methodology, responsibility, and fundamentals, because these are the basic elements necessary to give a true capoeira class. Nevertheless, we hope that this new historical-social context is analyzed and geared towards the legitimate fulfillment of capoeira activities. We hope that capoeira’s followers know to distinguish ethic from aesthetic, as well as the responsibility of another social fad. Ethics will become a reality as soon as capoeiristas become aware of and begin striving for the valorization and preservation of this art that has enchanted the whole world.