by Heather Ehrlich
Capoeira: Martial Art, Dance, and Trance
I looked around at my comrades in arms to find them equally drenched in sweat and craving air conditioning. It was gratifying to know that I wasn’t the only one exhausted, as we all glanced longingly at the ceiling fans, wishing they were more effective. Our instructor, saluting with his hand from his heart, said “Salve”, to which we responded in kind. The capoeira lesson was over, but it left me in a calm headspace with a lot to think about.
I chose a capoeira class to experience trance in the every day for several reasons. One of the primary reasons was curiosity: I always wanted to learn a martial art and this one seemed particularly exotic and interesting. Additionally, the idea of the mix of fighting and dancing appealed to me in that I have some experience with and love for the latter. However, beyond personal interest, I remembered a friend in high school who had done capoeira and talked about getting into the rhythm of the dance, and how it was like “going into a trance”. Clearly, this warranted further exploration.
Capoeira originally came into being during the 19th century on Brazilian farms, practiced in secret by African slaves as a form of resistance to the oppressive system of their masters (Talmon-Chvaicer 2004). The practice of martial arts was forbidden them, so it was camouflaged as a dance and hidden in shacks at the edges of the properties. According to Desch-Obi (2006), the martial art can be traced back to traditions in the Angolan highlands of Central Africa in the tenth century as part of an effort for farmers to protect their herds from raiders. They used moves stylized after the fighting methods of their cattle, with heavy emphasis on dodging ability and attacking moves like headbutts. These skills were practiced in rituals with the aid of drumming and song, while two adepts would exchange attacks inside a circle of peers. However, it became more than just a defense mechanism; these practices would take place during events such as rites of passage and healing rituals. With heavy emphasis on movement and agility, it evolved to be more of a dance and exercise in learning to read one’s partner. This had a practical application as well, for traditional sword and shield fighting had little place in the Angolan highlands.
When enslaved Africans were brought to the Americas, they brought this martial art with them. In addition to its use in festivals and as entertainment, it also found a place in religious rituals and initiation societies. In the nineteenth century, as African slavery was slowly faded out, capoeira became a practice of urban initiation societies called maltas, who progressed through the ranks with ceremonial demonstrations of skill at the martial art (Desch-Obi 2006). Today, the art is still going strong and contains many of the traditional elements, which I experienced in class.
I learned capoeira with a group of people at a range of skill levels, which gave me a very good feel for the different places it had in their lives. My friend, Illi, learned the art about 6 years ago (with the same instructor that we had), and had a lot to say on the subject. She said she loved the way capoeira made her feel about herself, as an exercise in both mind and body. It starts with music: in the background the percussion beat and vocals chanted low, foreign tones. The first thing we learned was the ginga, a crouched sway from side to side that is the basic unit of capoeira style fighting. Our instructor said that you could be able to do the best and most complicated kicks in the world, but if you didn’t have a good ginga, you could not be good at capoeira. Traditionally, two capoeira partners face each other and ginga together at the start of every bout. As we made strong, deliberate, yet smooth movements, I could feel my body slipping into the automatic rhythm of the dance. The instructor came by and corrected my form, forcing me to stay conscious of the activity, but I glanced over at my new friend. Her body was tense, but her face relaxed and calm. When we discussed it later, she said she “zones out” and finds a place of calm when doing the ginga; it is very relaxing to her. Muscles aching, I found this difficult to believe, but the serene look that had been on her face told a different story. This whole experience reminded me of Arnold van Gennep’s first two rites of passage, the rite of separation and the rite of transition. As soon as we said “Salve”, we were in the process of separating from our daily patterns and into this other world of capoeira. As the ginga began, the rite of transition was occurring, as we allowed ourselves to fall into the altered state of consciousness embodied by the dance.
This altered state of consciousness, the calm center, is very important to capoeiristas in the throws of the dance. As our teacher explained on the last day of class, most of the performance of capoeira is improved, with the dancers reading each other’s movements to discover their next move. However, it is not about simply blocking or beating your opponent, but instead finding a rhythm with them in which neither is leading or following, but both are in tune with the dance. Angela Miller (2009) says “For me, to do capoeira has meant unlearning a lifetime of rumination, reflection, and interiorized experience of the world.” She hypothesizes that the experience of capoeira is about being truly in touch with living in the moment of the world, and being totally aware of how your surroundings are affecting you. She said it is dangerous to think too much when in the fight-dance, for it is only the body’s memory that will respond well to the cues given by your partner. It is part of the journey to learn how your partner’s movements produce your own, and how conscious learning becomes instinctual. Her writings also reminded me of van Gennep’s rite of incorporation, as she returned to her daily life after bouts of capoeira feeling more in tune with the world.
While I perhaps did not progress enough to experience this, in many little ways I could understand her points. When we finally attempted an un-choreographed dance on our own, I found myself unable to respond at all if I was thinking too hard about what I thought my partner was doing. When I relaxed, and let her movements only register closer to the edges of my consciousness, I was able to dodge far more effectively. This experience was uncanny, as it was very hard to force myself to not focus on avoiding being kicked. In a world that encourages hyper awareness through constantly flashing images and targeted advertisements, letting go and trusting my body was disconcerting (especially given my fledgling experience with the craft).
All of these experiences and the limited research that has been presented on capoeira in modern society have given me many ideas of how it fits into modern society as a form of trance. It clearly has a meditative purpose, as described by Illa, who loved how relaxed she felt after capoeira workouts. It was not just the physical catharsis that we usually experience after a good bout of exercise, but her mind also found a calm space when she just listened to the music and let her body move with it accordingly. She did not have to think for a while; her physical memory was doing the work for her. Most of the time, I was over-thinking my movements, consciously attempting to correct my stance and be aware of the others in the class. It was, however, nearer to the end of class, when I was mostly exhausted, that I was sometimes able to let go a bit and revel in the feel of letting my body experience the dance for itself. Today’s society of psychology and science places so much emphasis on consciousness and self-consciousness that encourages constant awareness and leaves little room for the calm, quiet, and yet thoroughly aware place in the center of a capoeira circle.
Desch-Obi, T. "Capoeira." Encyclopedia of African-American Culture and History, 0002 (2006)
Miller, Angela. "Reciprocity." American Art, 23.1 (2009): 11-12.
Talmon-Chvaicer, Maya (2004) 'Verbal and Non-Verbal Memory in Capoeira', Sport in Society, 7: 1, 49 — 68