Looking Out To Sea

Thoughts on Aliveness in Capoeira

There doesn’t seem to be much written on this topic online — at least not in English. I recommend you read Matt Thornton’s extended essay on the topic for the full analysis of “aliveness” in training — he’s one of those writers who would rather write ten thousand words than stop after 1000 but ultimately it’s a worthwhile read. I enjoyed it anyway, and it plays to my prejudices about scepticism and empiricism.

The summary is obvious and boring when written like this: you must train under the circumstances you want to perform because in high pressure situations it will all fall apart.

The idea was formalised for martial arts training. If you don’t train against opponents who are resisting you every step of the way then you’ll never really know how you’ll react “in real life”, whether that’s in the ring or not. Martial arts which don’t emphasise working against other people don’t produce competent fighters.

The three elements identified by Matt Thornton’s definition are movement, timing and energy. Each of these elements can be trained without spontaneity (even with a partner) and this is a less “real” training scenario. At one end of the scale the movement is prescribed, the timing is stop/start and the energy enough to move but no more. At the other end of the scale the movement is unpredictable, the timing fast and the energy continuous.

I think it’s clear how at one end of the scale is a slow-motion demonstration and the other end is an unscripted fight. The idea of “aliveness” is that training should be performed as near to the second end of the scale as possible at all times while still remaining safe for the practitioners. Matt Thornton also suggests quickly scaling up to the point where that initial static demonstration becomes a spontaneous clash.

What does this have to do with capoeira? How “alive” is capoeira training? It seems that “aliveness” is often mistaken for “effectiveness” or other less-measurable statement — probably because, in the field it was conceived to explain, “aliveness” inferred “effectiveness”. Martial arts which train with resistive opponents (judo, BJJ, boxing, Muay Thai and so on) are also the ones with the best reputations for sporting success in mixed martial art competitions.

But in the training for judo, they train for judo matches. In training for boxing, they train for boxing matches. Certain situations are ignored. (If you want proof, have a look for some MMA matches between pure boxers and kickboxers. The shock when the boxer really realises there’s another game going on beneath waist height makes it all the more emotional to watch.) The adaptability to other circumstances is a lucky combination of good training and effective moves. That’s not why people train with “aliveness”.

I am not going to talk much about the “street effectiveness” of capoeira. I think it’s a silly topic with too many unstated assumptions that need pinned down first. But I do think that the idea of “training with aliveness” has direct applications to capoeira as it is played. I mean training capoeira to play in a roda. This is a much easier topic to discuss and doesn’t put capoeira on a different footing from judo or boxing. The only difference is the “ruleset”, which in capoeira is often obscure, unwritten and idiosyncratic.

The ideas of spontaneous movement, erratic timing and unpredictable energy are almost defining features of capoeira. Training for a roda should require lots of this and I think in most cases it does. But the roda can be a strange place where predictability is courted anyway — set pieces and chamadas exist and are used with some degree of frequency. Sometimes they’re used as they are learnt and often they are used as traps — shared jokes in which the setter of the trap and the person entering both know what can happen and want to test themselves against the conventions. The difference between a straight run and a trap is of course impossible to tell under afterwards.

There is also a lot to learn about capoeira outside of the martial movements of the roda. Singing, music and ritual are as important to it all and they require a great deal of co-ordination and co-operation. Not everything you learn in class can be against resisting partners!

The only downside I can really see (apart from maybe a de-emphasis of the playfulness?) is that it’s really hard work. But that’s not surprising — the very act of their resistance requires work to overcome what your partner wants to do. It demands greater fitness and greater mental effort. But both of these aspects force the body into getting better in themselves.