Is capoeira too rich to become mainstream?

Below is an excerpt from a fellow capoeirista who expressed some valid concerns:

 […] In most other martial arts, or dances from other places, you are not expected to sing in a foreign language (learn the language for higher cords), especially with instruments for which one has no cultural context. Many groups won’t let their students progress without music/language competence, which for many working people, is a gigantic ask. Most of the justifications for this run something like–“it’s tradition”, or “If we switch the language or the music, it’s not capoeira anymore.” As someone who is an outsider to familial, religious, or strong tribal affiliations with anything, I’m not sure about these justifications. I know many (myself included) who wished there was more room for diversity of music, in different languages. […]  I think many feel capoeira is already a really high bar given the difficulty of the movements themselves, let alone learning a foreign language in one’s spare time. What do you all think of the necessity of tradition in capoeira? Is there room for evolution? […]

“Challenging Questions” by GatoBranco

It’s an interesting discussion that has come up frequently in the past. There are strong arguments to both sides and I have been thinking about this matter a lot as well. For me, this question is about more than just the main language and musicality, but also about knowing the history and culture. I always firmly believed capoeira’s traditions have to be preserved and passed on to future generations. And for that to succeed, a constant effort by teachers and students is required. An effort to learn Portuguese, to sing in front of people, to learn about the histoyr of capoeira and Brazil in general, to learn the names and lifes of old capoeira mestres, …

But what if we look at the subject from the other side? Let’s explore…

Disclaimer: I’m not trying to kick anyone against the chins or create controversy, but I try to keep an open mind and try to think outside of the traditionalist mindset that’s quite default to capoeira.

What we expect from our students

I’ve always been interested in the history, philosophy and music of capoeira. As a teacher and somewhat senior member of my local group, I’ll always emphasize the importance of capoeiristas knowing the broad spectrum of capoeira. Surely, to understand something you must know how it originated, right?

Whenever I talk to a young teacher (+- 8-10 years of experience) and it becomes clear (s)he doesn’t know who Mestre Waldemar is or why Mestre Gato Preto was such an amazing berimbau player, I cringe a bit. But is it fair to keep expecting from young capoeira’s to study the history? And the same goes for speaking Portuguese.

Let’s say most students train two times a week on average. It is impossible to teach all aspects of capoeira during the few hours a teacher spends with his students. Therefore, he has to count on the willingness of his students to study and train at home on their own initiative, if they want to progress to a certain level (e.g. beyond graduado).

I used to be a bit naive in assuming everyone would gladly make time to read books, practice the berimbau and listen to CDs outside of the weekly classes. Nowadays, now that I have a demanding day job and a family, I have learned that most people don’t prioritize capoeira that high. So I try to chop everything in little pieces for my students: I briefly touch on a subject during class, and provide learning material for those who are interested. Instead of a whole book, I provide short summaries on 2-3 pages which give just enough background and context. We focus more on music in class and provide free pratice sessions after class. But it seems even then is a big ask to invest a bit of time in capoeira. And when my students take my place and become teachers themselves, how will they ever pass on that precious knowledge to their students? With every generation, it seems that capoeira is losing fundamental knowledge.

Even though I’ve become more relaxed, I still find it important that my students not only participate in the physical classes, but I expect them (from a certain level) to invest time at home to read up on some stuff and to practice the music. I just don’t know how long I can keep it up anymore.

Capoeira consists of a rich spectrum where physical training is only one part. The philosophical, musical and cultural aspects play a large role as well. It is what makes capoeira unique. But it’s also a burden which limits capoeira’s popularity and growth in today’s society.

Comparing Asian martial arts

Let’s take a look at Eastern martial arts which have existed centuries longer than capoeira. Two of my colleagues at work have been practicing Tae Kwon Do for about 10-12 years. When preparing for their exam for the second dan, they had to learn to count to ten in Korean. Really?! In capoeira, by the time you reach the same level, you are expected to (fluently) speak Portuguese and have traveled to Brazil!

Today’s most common Eastern martial arts which you find in every town’s gymnasium focus almost solely on the physical aspect of the art. People aren’t required to learn the language, read tons of books, know how their art came to be, what the culture of the originating country is, … These elements got stripped throughout history so that the martial art could grow. By simply focusing on physical training, more people are attracted who are just looking to improve their fitness level. It’s easy: you go to class, train and sweat, go home and go about your week until the next class.

When you get introduced to capoeira it quickly becomes clear you’ll someday have to learn some Portuguese, you’ll need to learn to play several strange instruments, heck, you will even have to sing in front of dozens of people. All that while you simply want to learn those cool moves you saw on YouTube. All that extra stuff is a big turn-off for most people. This is -in my opinion- an important reason why capoeira keeps struggling to become a mainstream martial art.

Simplifying capoeira

Let’s dip our toes in dangerous waters… Let’s ask ourselves some questions and see where we end up.

What if we do start “stripping” capoeira to make it more simple? Let’s say for the sake of making capoeira more accessible, we no longer require students to learn Portuguese, know who the old masters were, know how Regional and Angola were created, or how capoeira originated. Should we remove music from the equation? If no one speaks Portuguese and knows the tales of capoeira, how are they supposed to sing the songs? Everyone in his own language? Would you still be required to play the instruments, but without singing? Capoeira without music is quite unthinkable today, and everything is interconnected. You can’t remove one part of capoeira without losing another. If music would be eliminated in the future, what would a roda look like? Would we just play games on recordings of old CDs or Brazilian pop music (baile funk anyone?), just like breakdancers do? Or would we awkwardly stand there in silence watching two players?

As you notice, we quickly arrive at the point where capoeira no longer has a musical side (I’m cutting a lot of corners here, I know). From there it might be more practical to introduce 2 by 2 sparring sessions just as in other sports instead of a roda. Having stripped all other elements, we’ve lowered the bar significantly for new students. Capoeira could become more mainstream, getting sponsorships would be easier and that opens the door for widespread competitions. Imagine having local capoeira competitions in every town, just like football.

In this hypothetical future, capoeira would be a lot bigger. More students mean more money, which means more resources, visibility and possibilities. As a teacher, I admit it would be nice to have it a bit easier. On the other hand, this new martial art would seize to be capoeira and become something entierly different. Our capoeira would die. Luckily, I haven’t found anyone who is convinced this is the way capoeira will evolve.

I think it’s an interesting thought experiment, but I 100% hope it stays just that. To answer the original question, yes I think there is some room for evolution and capoeira evolves every day. We simply can’t predict where we’ll be in 50 years. But personally I’d like for everything to stay the same, even if it means capoeira will never be as big as other martial arts.

— Vinho

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