Grappling with Gravity: Capoeira

Capoeira is art in motion. It’s dance, it’s gymnastics, it’s martial arts.
When performed well, it’s two bodies moving as one in harmony. It starts
with the premise of constant motion. A simple back and forth step called
ginga is the foundation of everything else; stop moving, and you get got.
From this base it builds, adding kicks, cartwheels, and other moves. With
practice and strength, the moves become increasingly more complex and
impressive, but these moves are only tools. One can have the best tools
available, which in Capoeira terms equates to handstands, aerials, and a
thousand unnamed calisthenic feats, but the real skill comes in how these
tools are deployed. Independently, any of these moves may look like a cool
trick, but when two partners are in tune with one another, a game of
Capoeira is an exercise in connection, the composition of a masterpiece.

My first Capoeira class was nothing but discomfort. After being given the
wrong class times, I unknowingly arrived 20 minutes late to class. I
entered mid-class to a room of men, all Brazilian, all experienced, and
none with a word of English. It seemed to be a learn-by-doing approach,
except I had absolutely no idea what I was doing. The only thing I could
gather was the format of the class: walk around the room for a minute, then
make eye contact with someone and partner up, play for a few minutes,
disconnect, and repeat. I started walking, and as everyone
mildly-approachable paired off, I was left in the center with a large man,
clearly of exceptional skill. He grasped my hand, we crouched, and the
match began. He turned out into a slow-motion cartwheel. I stood in awe. My
feet remained firmly planted on the ground, so uncertain of the right thing
to do that I opted for nothing at all. He began the rhythmic back and forth
of the ginga. I stood planted. He motioned for me to follow his lead. I
sort of…swayed? I blink, and my partner’s hands and feet have switched
places. While still upside down he plants his foot in my abdomen.
Cartwheels, headstands, and 1-handed handstands overtake me. I quickly
realize that for this man, gravity is more of a suggestion than a rule. The
match seemed to last ages. Eventually, the master calls out Caminha! (walk)
saving me from myself, and we disconnect. This process repeated several
times, and eventually, sweet relief, the end of class.

There was no corporeal discomfort; I’d essentially stood in place for an
hour. But what I’d lacked in physical discomfort, I more than made up for
psychologically. I was lost and frustrated. I’d been asked to play a game
without being given the rules. I didn’t even feel challenged, just really,
really, confused. But I went back. And again after that. It’s been several
weeks and I’m beginning to understand. By limitation of strength,
coordination, and unwavering loyalty to gravity, my toolbox is still
incredibly limited, but somehow this doesn’t matter. I show up to class,
clad in the traditional all-white garb. The more I play, the more
confidence I gain, and I begin to connect, becoming more in tune with my
partner’s movements. Capoeira is a game with no losers. It challenges the
body, but more importantly, it challenges the mind.

I could offer a lengthy extended-metaphor about how Capoeira contains
symbolism for life: just as the ginga never stops, neither does life, or
how the best kicks come from using the momentum of the opponent, so go with
the flow; the medium lends itself quite handily to such compositions. But
all of this would cheapen the fact that I really have learned lessons from
Capoeira. My first class, I was so consumed with trying to learn the rules
that I didn’t bother playing. But the discomfort didn’t stop me from going
back, and for this I am grateful. Only after I gave myself permission to
try something did I have any hope of success. I’m learning to connect
without speaking a word, extending the capabilities of my own body, and
beginning to understand that if I wait for someone to tell me the ‘right’
way of doing things, I’ll spend a lifetime waiting.

I’m still really bad. I can’t cartwheel to save my life, and my handstand
is more of a hand-jump -hoping-my-legs stay-up-more-than-a-second. I don’t
have many tools, but I’m learning to deploy what I’ve got. I’ve mastered
the ginga. I understand how to dodge a kick, and I’ve begun to give myself
permission to initiate responses, formulate combinations, even deploying my
signature hand-jump every now and again. But I will not do stand idly. I
need no permission to explore.