It’s the age of us commoners

Or put in a pessimist phrase: the decline of capoeira is on its peak.

I’ve been wanting to write this piece for quite some time, but never found a good way to put my (personal!) opinion into words. It can be a delicate subject and I don’t want to offend anyone, and absolutely not capoeira itself. But now, after a series of unfortunate events, I thought by myself ‘fuck it’. I have no idea where this is going, this might turn out to be a rant. Or not. Anyways, thanks for sticking with me.

A lot of this is how I perceive(d) capoeira personally, in my environment, with the people that I know and train(ed) with.

Capoeira in Europe 20 years ago

This part is probably romanticized by my nostalgic memory, but nevertheless, a lot of my friends share the same memories…

When I started capoeira in the early 2000’s, seeing a graduado was quite a rare thing. The people that started training in the late 90’s, often the first generation, where just getting on that level. Batizados equalled gymnasiums packed with 300-400 people and when someone got the fabled blue or green belt, it was the event of the year and everyone looked up to those people.

Classes were always packed, with 50 people in a single room not being an exception. Friends carpooled to other cities to be able to get that fifth training of the week in. Often they arrived 2 hours early just to be able to practice on their own. People trained often and hard, they had full dedication to capoeira. And it paid off. Seeing even an orange belt play in the roda was cool to see. They did flips and aerials, sweeps and entradas, knew how to play the berimbau, rocked on the atabaque … They did it all, and did it well.

I grew up in capoeira seeing all that as a young boy, looking up to those rockstars. That’s how I formed my image of what a graduado should be. An allrounder, skilled in all aspects of capoeira (common to his group’s style). Years later, when I was finally closing in on that milestone blue belt, and all belts afterwards, I never felt like I deserved it. Because I couldn’t match my skills to that image of the perfect graduado I carved in my brain so many years ago.

Capoeira in Europe today

Fast forward to… when actually? 2015? 2010? Capoeira peaked in Europe between 2000 and 2010 let’s say. Since then, it has been on the decline, the first years slower, since 2015-ish even faster. A lot of people left capoeira and few new people found their way to our art. Groups became smaller and I see two effects of this:

  1. An inflation of the higher belts
  2. Teachers became less demanding

Inflation of belts and a new generation of teachers

The ratio between people with low and high belts has been shifting, fewer people enter capoeira and others who have been training haven’t left (luckily). So each batizado you see less people getting their first belt and more people becoming graduado or instrutor.

A consequence of this belt inflation (or “beltflation”) is that we now see a new generation of high belts claiming their place. They are the capoeiras who have been training steadily for 15, 20 years without becoming professional athletes, perhaps not even being the best of their group. They just kept going and never quit. I am one of those stubborn people, as my philosophy always has been “moderation is the key to longevity“. This generation consists of average capoeiras, we are generalists and good at what we do, but almost never exceptionally talented. We finally get to claim a spot between all higher ranking players because those ambitious athletes have become quite rare in capoeira and we are more or less what’s left.

Is that a good thing? Maybe, because capoeira has become more accessible and we teach in a different way, a way that is more adapted to the Western audience and the average man and woman.

Or is it a bad thing? Maybe, because in my eyes you absolutely cannot compare a graduado or instrutor from 2000 to one of 2024. The overall quality has certainly declined.

The overall quality of a graduado or teacher has declined, because unfortunately, a big part of this generation also consists of “capoturistas” or “tourists” who pose on every group pic, but always have an excuse to not train. They surf through the years, getting belt after belt without making a lot of effort. Learning about the culture, history or philosophy of capoeira is out of the question and playing instruments poses a challenge. Are you sensing my frustration yet?

Teachers are less demanding

Another negative trend I’ve been seeing for years in a variety of groups is that teachers became less demanding of their students as they didn’t wan’t to scare them away with high expectations (Yes, capoeira can perfectly be just a hobby but then don’t expect to become a Professor and to build out your own school). Also, teachers focus more on the amount of students to measure a school’s success and not on the quality of their capoeira. This enforces the “beltflation” trend. I believe there are two main reasons for this. If you (partially) live of capoeira, the more students you have, the bigger your income is. The quality doesn’t really matter then (as most of those people think short term). The second reason is simple, you look more successful if you have 100 students compared to having only 20 students.

Aside from that, teachers want to bind their students to the school and are constantly dealing with some fear of losing students. Therefore, they try to convince people to stay in capoeira by awarding higher and higher belts without good justification. Becase “if I don’t give this guy a new belt, he will be angry with me and leave the group“. How many graduados I’ve seen getting belts without even being able to play a berimbau, let alone sing the lead or manage a roda… It is incredibly frustrating for the people that do take capoeira seriously. Again adding to the beltflation. And we can thus say that quantity > quality in a lot of cases.

With teachers being less demanding and young graduados often being less competent, the quality issue is getting bigger on a long term basis as well. Those graduados probably will also start to teach at some point. And how will they motivate or teach their students to play a berimbau, learn Portuguese or explore a different style of capoeira if they don’t do it themselves?

With my pessimist glasses on, I only see a downward spiral. Of course, I also realise that there still are very skilled young graduados amongst us. I don’t want to overgeneralize either.

What should we do?

Capoeira will always be a niche sport and we have to face the facts that our numbers will remain small. But that doesn’t mean we have to give up on doing our best. I am 100% convinced it is better to have fewer people in my classes with more dedication, even though I enjoy a packed classroom. Give me 2 good blue belts over 10 incompetent ones any day.

Let’s stop giving belts away as gifts in the hope people will stay longer in capoeira. Award higher belts to the people who deserve them and live up to the expectations. This is all the more important for (new) teachers. Let us make sure the new generation of graduados becomes better than the current generation, not worse. We as teachers can do that by teaching qualitative classes, motivating and energizing people, and also being strict when it’s batizado time.

You could also wonder if we need to lower expectations. Maybe capoeira should become less complex? For example, is it still logical today to require people to learn Portuguese for their hobby? That leads to my thought experiment. Or do we have to come to terms with the fact that the quality of capoeira is lower than 15 years ago?

I don’t have any answers unfortunately. I’m glad I could vent this out and my mission remains to produce capoeiras of a good level that one day will make fine teachers. I just hate seeing the opposite happen in so many different places.

We as “the commoners” who have finally made it to graduado / instrutor / professor should understand that quality matters all the more. It is in our hands now to protect and preserve capoeira.

— Vinho

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