“É uma dança mas, é uma luta…” is how Mestre Sardinha succinctly describes the practice of Capoeira. “It is a dance but, it is a fight” also. We met Mestre Sardinha, or just Sardinha for short, at the UFSC campus and he walked us the 30 minutes or so to where we would train. Sardinha does not speak very much English, just a few words here or there, but he very much wanted to communicate. Between our patchy Portuguese and some hand signals we were able to determine that he hoped we would not judge the place we were going to, too harshly. He kept telling us that it was a humble place, just a garage behind a student flop house, referred to here as república or casa república. He assured us over and over that the people there were bem boas and muito legais, both different ways of saying “good people”. When we arrived sure enough the walls were covered in graffiti murals, there were dogs and cats hanging around, doors and windows were open, students were in various states of dress and some sleeping on a couch here or on a mattress there. There were clothes hung up to dry everywhere, beer bottles in the corners, and otherwise it was not unlike your basic frat house scenario. The back garage though, had nicely painted walls and a clear space to practice.
On the walls students, I assume, had painted various sayings, poems, and verses along with other art. The one pictured above struck me in particular. My rough translation goes like this:
It is necessary to be strong,
But not all of the time.
For, if the stone and the mountain are molded by wind,
Why does being, not surrender to movement?
Mestre Sardinha himself, is an unassuming fellow. When he met us he was in some ripped jeans and a t-shirt walking with a borrowed bicycle he had used to get there. He was just any guy off the street. In a city full of surfers and young people, and we found out later he surfs as well, he didn’t stand out as someone who could acrobatically kick your head clean off. This was a good lesson in not judging people too quickly because we found out that he could, and easily, as evidenced here.
That is not really the point of Capoeira though. As with many martial arts, it has a rich history and its practitioners are serious about the discipline of their art. Capoeira as a practice originated from African slaves, mostly situated in the northeast region of Brazil far from where I am. Sardinha himself is from the state of Bahia which is considered the heart of the Capoeira tradition in Brazil.
Nicknames are common practice in Brazil and that carries over into the Capoeira tradition. Mestre Sardinha literally means “master sardine” which doesn’t sound incredibly flattering to the American ear. However, a Capoeirista’s nickname is part of an very real identity and carries over into all of their life. Mestre Sardinha, for instance, has a given name which is Luis. I only know this because it was in an informational email I received before we met. He never introduced himself as Luis, and no one he knew that we met ever referred to him as such. Sardinha is his name and saying Mestre Sardinha relays both a respect for his skills as a master of his art and for his good reputation in the community.
I could go into detail about the actual movements we learned, how hard it is to do the basic ginga movement correctly, or other technical elements of Capoeira, but I am certain any reader can find more and better information on those elements elsewhere. What I am most interested in relaying is that the masters in the Capoeira discipline, in my experience, are humble students of movement, history, and culture. Mestre Sardinha went out of his way to invite us to cultural events in the community and to invite his students to our class so that we could get a better sense of the Brazilian practice of the art form. The depth of the practice is what stood out to me most. I am paraphrasing here but Mestre Sardinha told us that when you practice Capoeira you have to give your whole self to it. When you move you move with focus and when you sing you sing to heavens to channel the right sort of spirit into the room. When Sardinha closed his first session with us he said something that has stayed with me. He said that for him Capoeira is his work, his life, and his religion. That we could all find something to dedicate ourselves to in this way.
Uma musica! (A song!)