Looking Out To Sea

Capoeira introductory sessions

A few weeks ago during Edinburgh University’s study week there was an institution-wide focus on “innovative learning” and through a roundabout reasoning the foreign-language department asked Mão No Chão to put on a capoeira demonstration. We rarely get total new-comers through the door in our class in Glasgow so it’s been a very long since I looked round the room and saw so many people getting to grips with the basic movements of capoeira. And what an interesting experience that was!

I’ve been training with Mão No Chão for about 4 years but I feel like I’ve not got much to show for that. I can’t really do anything impressive. Yet looking round the room at the newcomers that day I really saw how far I’d come and how difficult (to them) even the simplest movements seemed to be. These were all intelligent and capable adults who struggled immensely with moving on all fours and keeping a solid base while in a lunge posture. I think if anyone doubts how far they have come when learning something like capoeira they should watch some real beginners — not to laugh but to really see all the subtle details that they’ve internalised and have now become second nature.

The second aspect that really came out was how much Eastern martial arts still dominates the public understanding of martial arts. Karate is still the last word when it comes to what a martial art means. From that idea two notions follow. One is that what is taught in a dojo while wearing a gi is the definition of martial arts. The traditional European styles of boxing, fencing or wrestling are something else — probably sports — but whatever they are they don’t count. Anything which doesn’t match the karate mould isn’t martial arts at all. From this comes a second idea that any thing which doesn’t relate in some way to Eastern martial arts is odd or unusual. If we regard the Eastern martial arts as the archetype rather than a variant then anything which varies in a different direction will be seen as very strange indeed.

Taking all that into account really complicates any explanation of what capoeira really is. The idea that something could be a game and a ritual and a martial art with a music component all at once — and that all of these antagonistic influences could be produce something coherent — was very confusing. I don’t believe we really managed to explain anything clearly.