Capoeira Na Roda, Capoera Na Vida Part I: No Início Com Os Guerreiros

In about a week and a half it will have been 2 years since I first began to practice capoeira. It’s amazing that this activity has become such a large part of my life, especially considering how before that moment I hadn’t thought about capoeira outside of video games and movies. Even then, while I thought it looked cool, I only really thought of it as sort of a quaint novelty. Knowing absolutely nothing about the style, I had thought it impractical for real-world fighting scenarios, and entirely too filled with unnecessary movements to be useful before the practitioner exhausted himself. Then came February of 2010.

Between the fall of 2009 and summer of 2010 I had been employed at Columbia University as a post-baccalaureate student in the department of Astronomy. Late into the fall of 2009, I had broken up with my girlfriend at the time (who I’m with now) and had since found someone else that had captured my interest. I would make any excuse that I could to spend time with her, if only to keep myself on her mind and maybe find a way to capture her interest. Heh, I’ve never really been good at the whole “courting” thing, so that was the only strategy that I had. Anyway, one of the ways, that I would try to spend time with her was to go to the gym with her twice per week. The Columbia gym (the Dodge Fitness Center) is an indoor gym extending underground, with several facilities, individual workout rooms, and an indoor track which tours the upper level of the complex and passes some of the aforementioned workout rooms.

Once inside the gym, we’d go our separate ways but we’d meet up after our respective workouts to jog around for a bit on the track. About two years ago on a Tuesday at the beginning of February (2/2/2010 in fact), we had been jogging around the track when my ears picked up on the sound of drums. Being the black man that I am, the drums stirred something within me, compelling me to follow their sound back to their source. So, I said to my lovely companion, “hey, drums! Wanna see where they’re coming from?” She complied, and we proceeded toward one of the workout rooms in the back. As we approached, I peered through the glass window and saw people dressed in all white with their shoes off, some with colorful ropes around their waists, performing those same movements that I had seen in video games and movies so long ago; the movements of capoeira.

As we stood outside the door to the room and watched, one of the capoeiristas came over and beckoned us to join them inside. Apparently this was their first class of the semester, and was serving as an introductory class for those that were interested. As such, the class was split up: on the left side of the room were the newbies (dressed in whatever workout clothes they were wearing) and on the right side were the people who had been there before (most of which were wearing all-white with various colored cords around their waists). So, we drifted over to the left side of the class and ran through a few of the basic movements. We learned how to perform and pronunce the names of ginga (everyone looks stupid when they begin. I still look pretty stupid), martelo, meia lua de frente, esquiva de frente, esquiva lateral, negativa, rolê, and aú. None of this was easy to do, and I really hated looking like a doofus in front of the girl I was interested in, as well as in general, but it was definitely fun.

Toward the end of class, everyone in the room joined up into a large circle. The instructor, Contramestre George Palmares, briefly spoke to us (I forget about what) and then began to start what I would later come to know as the roda. Some instruments were brought out in addition to the drum that was out before, and some of the students left the circle to man those instruments. These were the berimbau, pandeiro, and the atabaque, comprising the basic components of the bateria, or the percussion band that commands the roda (other instruments include, but are not limited to: the agogo and the reco-reco). Then the bateria began to play. The music began with the odd, rhythmic twang of the single-stringed berimbau. This was joined by the pandeiro, whose mini-cymbals filled the room with a light-hearted shake, punctuated every so often with an abrupt SLAP upon its center. Bringing up the rear was the atabaque, whose bass and hypnotic sound filled the room and moved my soul.

Once the instruments had started up, capoeiristas around the roda began to clap 1-2-3, 1-2-3, led by the rhythm strung out on the berimbau. As quickly as the music had begun, a microcosm was created in which all the capoeiristas were focused on the roda and the music, seeming to share a common essence (axé?) with the external world fading away. Two capoeiristas entered the roda at the foot of the bateria, crouched, and waited for the berimbau player to let them know when it was time to play a game. Then, a call-and-response song started up, led by the berimbau player. I forget which song it was exactly, but if I were to guess, it probably would have been…

Luanda é meu boi / Luanda é para / Tereza canta sentado / Oi Marina samba de pè / La no cais da Bahia / Na roda de capoeira / Não tem lêlê não tem nada / Oi, não tem lêlê nem lala /
Oi laê laê la / Oi lêlê
Oi laê laê la / Oi lêlê
Oi la laê la laê la laê o laê la
Oi la laê la laê la laê o laê la
Oi laê
la laê la
Oi lêlê
la laê la
Oi laê
la laê la
Oi lêlê
la laê la

The regular text would be what the main guy said, and the bold italicized text would be how we all responded. While clapping. It was difficult to sing a new song and clap at the same time without sounding like a complete idiot (and I’m sure I sounded like that) or screwing up the rhythm (it still is quite difficult) but I gave it a shot anyway. It was my first introduction to the base teaching method of capoeira: I do x, you attempt to follow x until you can actually follow x.

As we sang and clapped, and tried not to embarrass ourselves, the two players at the foot of the bateria cartwheeled in and began to play (in capoeira we don’t fight, we play). Kicks flew left and right, bodies rose, fell, and rotated, the players swayed from here to there, and all of this was done to the rhythm of the berimbau. After each game had gone on for a little while, maybe 45 seconds to a minute, one of the capoeiristas standing on the rim of the roda next to the bateria would crouch down at the foot of the bateria and then take their turn playing the person who had been in the roda the shortest. I later learned that this was called “buying” the game. So, games were bought and people played, songs were sung, and fun was had by all. I think that I even played, though I can’t exactly remember if I had. If I did play though, I was most definitely an uncoordinated mess.

After some time, the class approached its end. The roda games ended, the instruments were put to rest, and we once again all gathered on the rim of the roda. George said a few more words, let us know that this was a trial class for those who might be interested in capoeira, then ended the class by having us come together and give a big “Capoeira Guerreiros! Salvé!” before dispersing. Thus was my first introduction to capoeira through the Columbia University branch of the Newark, NJ-based Capoeira Guerreiros, led by a very tall Brazilian man that I came to know as contramestre George Palmares.

After that first class, everything on my body was pain incarnate. My legs, my arms, my ass, my back, my chest, my abs, my shoulders, my neck, my palms, my wrists, my feet; they were all either in pain or too fatigued to be of any real use. The bottoms of my feet were torn up and stinging from friction against the hard wood floors. My legs were jelly from the ginga and the constant movement. My body was little more than a stinging meat bag with limbs. Even though by the end of that first class I had been thoroughly exhausted from the workout and embarrassed from having looked like a complete and utter fool, with the next few days finding my body to be akin to a rag doll, after that first day I was hooked.

I spent the next couple of months training every Tuesday and Thursday night with Guerreiros, learning and refining techniques, songs, mind-body coordination, and the etiquette of the martial art through a combination of direct instruction and my own inquiry. I kept trying to get the girl I had originally brought with me to join me, and she did indeed come by a few times. However, it wasn’t for her and I could see that after a few times, and so after awhile I simply stopped putting on that pressure. It was an activity that was for me; something that was my own to have and to enjoy. I quickly developed the feeling that to treat capoeira like some obligation or some chore that you had to get through during the week was to do a disservice to yourself and to the martial art. The people that were in the group that practiced consistently felt similarly, and I soon began to become friendly with some. There were a few that had started with me that managed to stay on. If memory serves me, their apelidos (capoeira nicknames) were Panda, Coqueiro, and Açucena. There were also a few that had been there a little while longer that I would train with often; two of whose apelidos were Jesus and Doutor. I actually never received an apelido from Guerreiros, as they could never figure out what to call me (though I think by default a few of my instructors settled on what sounded like negho, spelled “negão”, portuguese-ish for “big black guy” <= the nice way of putting it). I eventually got one from another group, but I’ll get to that later.

Omi is in the center. George on his left.During class we’d all practice together, two-by-two, and play together in the roda. I showed some natural ability with a few techniques (really anything that called for agility or power, like aú or front hand springs), and through boldness (or stupidity; the jury’s still out on that one) was able to learn a few advanced sequences and movements from watching and copying some of the older students. I’d be my naturally shy self, preferring to listen and watch far more than speaking and acting, though my classmates and the instructors would slowly get me to open up. I remember some classes where we’d practice headstands on gym mats, and while I could do them pretty well (mom had us doing yoga at a young age) I’d often feel embarrassed at the oil from my dreads being left behind on the mats. Some classes we’d line up at one end of the room and move forward in rows of 2 doing various movements or little sequences, looking like an army in training. During other classes, we’d set up chairs in the middle of the room and practice kicking over them while facing a partner and aú-ing (cartwheeling) over to the next chair. Our instructors would switch from class to class, I suppose depending on who George could get to teach that day. Sometimes it was George, sometimes George and the dude he called his “brother”, Omi (it was about a year before I realized that Omi was not his biological brother. Yes, I am working toward my doctorate in science. Why do you ask?). Sometimes it’d be Papito (who was a task master!) either alone or with others. From time to time we’d even have Sonic (from Senzala) come by with his crazy ass. We’d train and practice and train and practice and sing and play and it was all good and fun.

While I don’t remember the exact day that I got my abadas (all-white capoeira clothes), I do remember the happiness and pride that I felt when I received them. They gave me a sense of identity with the group; a feeling that I was more than just some dude who practiced with them—I was one of them. I especially liked the distinctive yellow band around the hips.

The first outing that I had gone to with members of Capoeira Guerreiros took place at this bar/restaurant near Columbia called Campo. I forget exactly where this occurred in my capoeira timeline, but it was definitely within those first few months before May 2010, as it was sort of a fundraiser for an upcoming event (it might even have taken place the night before the batizado…hmm….). So, after class, several of us went to Campo where there was an area in the back that was cleared out for the Capoeira Guerreiros cohort. The few of us that were coming from Columbia arrived early, so we kinda just lounged around until the main crew arrived from Jersey. It was during this waiting time that I had my first caipirinha (heaven in a glass. That’s not a translation. It’s actually heaven in a glass.). It was a little awkward because I was still in my shy phase and was more or less afraid to talk to people, so I continued to wait with the people that I did recognize until the Newark crew began to trickle in. As they did, we set up the instruments, changed into our capoeira clothes, and the party got started.

It was so awesome! We took over the whole bar, played some games in the bar, and even had some people show off some acrobatics amongst the dimmed light and loud music. I played in my work clothes, and even managed to dance a bit. I had invited the girl from earlier to come with me, and she had a pretty good time too. All the guys wanted to dance with her, and she got to shake her ass every which way. I have to admit I was definitely keeping an eye out because I still wanted to lay some claim, but not too much because I had my own dancing to do. I was amazed to see people playing capoeira after drinking several drinks, but they did (and didn’t even throw up! That in itself is amazing!). It was a great and fun night for all involved.

The above was a very successful fundraiser for what is known as the capoeira batizado (pronounced “ba-chi-ZAH-dooh”; Portuguese for “baptism”), which for us would occur in late April. The batizado (in my very limited experience) is an event where capoeiristas from all around the world come together for various celebrations, with the main celebration being that of the induction of new members into the world of capoeira via the baptism of the foot. When I had first heard about this event, I really didn’t know what to think. There was never really a formal session to introduce me to batizados, so it was a complete mystery to me. I just knew that it would be big and that it was important for me to attend if I had hoped to continue practicing capoeira. So, I invited a few of my friends, my parents, and my new-old girlfriend (the one I had broken up with before), and went to my first batizado.

The Spring 2010 Columbia University Capoeira Guerrieros Batizado was held (primarily) inside of the Columbia University Dodge Fitness Center, the big underground gym where we had all of our practices. However, instead of being confined to a small room in the back of the gym, we occupied the center floor at the very bottom. Looking up, one would see rings on top of rings of levels of the gym, with various people doing various workouts. Because the students in attendance at the batizado were comprised not only of the Columbia branch of Guerreiros, but also from other capoeira schools in and around the NY area, as well as other Guerreiros branches along the east coast, there were capoeiristas in every direction. As we entered, we changed into our white shirts and our white pants with the yellow band, and were told to get on the floor and warm up. Thus it had begun.

A shot of some of the Guerreiros students on the gym floor. We all wore white until they actually gave us blue shirts.

OK, that last bit might be a bit of an embellishment on my part, as I actually arrived a little bit late and missed one of the morning workshops (I’m not and have never been a morning person). You see, the batizado was an all-day event, running from about 8am until (and beyond) 5pm. Each hour was packed with a different workshop or other activity. Some capoeiristas were brought in to teach advanced movements and sequences, while others gave instruction on dancing and music. The workshops ran the gamut of what I knew at the time to represent capoeira, and they ran all day until the main event.

The main event had us form a huge roda, filled with far more people than are seen in the above photograph (many trickled in late; what is it about minorities and punctuality? Smh…). Represented (as far as I know) were Guerreiros from Columbia U.,; Newark, NJ; Montclair, NJ; and some senzalites (senzaleiros? senzaliens?) from Mestre Zumbi’s school in NY; amongst many others who I’ve never known or met again. We all changed into our blue shirts (special for the batizado!), and formed up into the roda. The bateria players got their chairs, their instruments, and their different berimbaus (gunga, medio, viola), and waited for it all to begin. The first bit was an open roda, meaning that whoever wanted to buy in could buy in and play. I got to watch some pretty amazing games (I was blown away at the time) between some very experienced people, including but not limited to Mestre Zumbi and George.

Once those preliminary festivities were over, the actual induction part of the batizado began. This is where each student would be “tested” against someone that’s far more experienced, and after being tested they’d obtain a new colored rope, called a corda, to wear around their waist. The type of cord they were being tested for would determine how many people they’d be tested against, as well as how they’d be tested. Beginners would have to face only one person, while some of the more advanced capoeiristas would have to go against 3 or 4 (or more) people consecutively. The cord system for Guerreiros follows the colors of the Brazilian flag, with light green signifying a fresh-off-the-press beginner. It then continues to deep green > deep green + yellow > yellow > yellow + blue > blue > green + yellow + blue > green + yellow + blue + white > green + white > yellow + white > blue + white > white (for mestre).

The interesting thing about my test was that I wasn’t aware that I was allowed to attack back. I thought it was a “survive if you can, FOOL!” situation! Therefore, when it was my turn to go up I spent the entire time dodging. Esquiva > negativa > rolê, esquiva > negativa > rolê, aú, aú, duck, dodge, move to the side. If you were to hear my thoughts, they probably would have sounded something like: “Shit! Shit! Shit! Shit! What do I do?! Don’t get hit! What do I do?! Don’t get hit! Get out the way! Shit! Shit! Shit!” At some point, for whatever reason, I decided to go in for a head-butt (cabeçada), only to meet my opponent’s elbow. He then prepared to drop me, but showed mercy and ended the game.

Once I had finished embarrassing myself, flailing about, and getting my ass kicked all over the roda, I was awarded a light-green cord and officially recognized as a student of Capoeira Guerreiros. Following my test, other students from my cohort went for their cords. Then some of the advanced students had their multiple-opponent tests. All of that had been completed, the roda began to get far more lively. Instead of the traditional system of a single game per roda, the super-roda housed 3 simultaneous games! It was quite the spectacle.

It was interesting trying to play in the roda with two other games going on. Not only did I have to focus on my own game, but it was necessary to be mindful of the other two games around me as well. While I’m trying to go for a compasso, someone else might just be landing from a parafuso, and a third person might be tumbling backwards from eating a bençao. It was crazy!

All of the excitement could only last but for so long, as we did have to eventually disperse. Before leaving, all of the students and the instructors, including the guests, gathered together for a group shot. There sure was a hell of a lot of us.

This ended the officially official indoor batizado event, not that it put a halt to the festivities in any way, shape, or form. This is, after all, a martial art that’s founded in Brazilian culture, and Brazilians apparently like to party. After cleaning up the area and hauling furniture and food back to their rightful places, the capoeiristas migrated outdoors. It was still a sunny day, and there was still much capoeira to be had. Once outside, they found a decently-sized spot to play, threw off their shirts, picked up their instruments, and started flying high and fast on the Columbia grass, attracting the attention of any and everyone that had happened to be passing by. I watched, and even played a game or two. I didn’t try to jump in too much though, because they were into doing acrobatic stunts, and the best that I could do is a one-handed front handspring. Still, it was amazing to watch people twist and fly through the air in sync, and throw kicks left and right at lightning speed.

After some time, I left. It had been a long day, and I was physically and emotionally wiped. But, in all of my fatigue and my embarrassment, I had succeeded in becoming something that had quickly come to mean a lot to my life. With my brand, spankin’ new light green cord around my waist and the day behind me, I had added to my character.

I had become a capoeirista.