This is the third essay in our short series examining the ways that the current health crisis has impacted those of us who sit at the intersection of martial arts practice, communities of martial artists, and Martial Arts Studies. As with most of our discussions at Kung Fu Tea, this one straddles the line between practitioners whose lives have been upended by these events, and scholar who seek to make sense of this moment in history. To some degree we all fall into both camps. That fact should remind us of the value of community when facing challenges such as this, and it is my hope that some of these essays might reinforce those communal bonds.
The following reflections by Prof. Lauren Miller Griffith explore the current state of things in the Capoeira community and ask us to consider both on-line learning and what comes after. If you would like to share some of your experiences or thoughts about the theoretical implications of all of this, please feel free to send me an email.
Capoeira in the Age of COVID: An Art of Resilience
Lauren Miller Griffith, Ph.D.
Capoeira is often said to be an art of resistance, but it is also an art of resilience. The popular narrative told about capoeira is that it originated with the Africans who were subjected to the physical, social, and psychological violence of Brazilian slavery. These enslaved Africans are said to have disguised their fight as a dance so they could continue martial training under the slave-masters’ noses. Resistance during this era meant one of two things: (a) physically resisting the institution of slavery; (b) psychologically resisting the whites’ attempts at dehumanizing them. Practicing capoeira helped with both and contributed to the development of a unique and resilient Afro-Brazilian culture. My recent work has been focused on how capoeira groups in the U.S. use this history as inspiration for their own local resistance efforts, whether that means showing up at a Black Lives Matter protest to resist racial discrimination or organizing a clothing drive to counteract the persistent economic marginalization of communities of color in the U.S. But in the face of this global pandemic, capoeiristas are finding new ways to exhibit their resilience as a community.
Some of the things I’ve observed in the capoeira community over the past few weeks are not unique to capoeira per se. Martial artists and athletes of all sorts are utilizing technology to encourage one another to maintain their training regimens. I have watched the running community, for example, transition from outrage over cancelled races to encouraging one another to do virtual races and post pictures of their stats as a way to maintain accountability and engage in collective celebration of their accomplishments. For capoeiristas, this may manifest itself in virtual classes. Using Zoom or other technologies, teachers are offering virtual classes that enable students to maintain their training. For students that have already been training with a group, this also gives them the opportunity to maintain much-needed social connections with the teacher and with other members of the school. It also presents new opportunities for students who do not train regularly to take classes.
One of my research contacts on the West Coast has recently started offering kids’ capoeira classes and, since I’m not above using my children for research purposes, I thought it might be fun to sign up for one. My five-year-old son has minimal knowledge of martial arts, even if he thinks his knowledge is vast. He imitates what he sees on television, namely the “spinjitsu” on Ninjago (which basically consists of cartoon Lego ninjas ripping off classic martial arts films). When I asked if he wanted to take a real class with a real teacher, he was a bit shy but eventually acquiesced. The class was small – only a few kids that had already been training with my friend plus my son. Those of you out there that are now homeschooling your kids on top of trying to do your own work know just how long some days can be…so I wasn’t sure how things were going to go. Did he master the moves? No, not at all. But I very quickly realized that correcting his technique wasn’t going to benefit either of us. What he needed was the chance to feel accomplished, and an opportunity to do something with Mommy. He forgot to move his feet during ginga, his au was more like a somersault than a cartwheel, and his kicks were nowhere close to what he was supposed to be doing. But none of this mattered. What mattered was our relationship.
On Facebook, I’ve seen capoeiristas maintaining their relationships not just through virtual training sessions, but by setting up events like viewing parties. One large, international capoeira organization asked leaders to contribute a favorite video and then posted the compilation for anyone to watch. This was accompanied by an explanation of why each individual chose that video as a favorite. Another group has posted clips from Bob’s Burgers, embracing the absurdity of how capoeira is portrayed in the show as something to rally around. I will never play capoeira with the vast majority of people that are attending these watch parties, but it is clear that these virtual connections are important. Ironically, the social distancing required to survive the pandemic has created the impetus to become closer as an imagined global community.
The connections being forged within this milieu extend beyond the capoeira world. At the very beginning of the COVID crisis, there was a GoFundMe campaign launched to support capoeira teachers and other artists in the Bay Area whose livelihoods were endangered by the cessation of face-to-face classes. I have no way of knowing how many groups have undertaken similar projects, but I doubt this fundraising effort is an isolated occurrence. In early April, I took an Afro-Brazilian dance class via Zoom that was being offered through a capoeira school located about five hours away from me. Although I was doing the class from the comfort of my living room, I was honestly a bit nervous. Would I be the only one who didn’t know the other participants? As it turned out, there were about seven or eight of us doing the class and only a few were in Texas. There were people ‘zooming in’ from Oregon, California, Colorado, North Carolina and New York. We each introduced ourselves before beginning. I was moved by the gratitude several participants seemed to have for the opportunity to take the class. Again, it wasn’t just, or even primarily, about learning new moves. It was about connecting with others.
In my bad moments, I feel a bit claustrophobic and complain about the mess my house has become and the stress of having my older son at home while also trying to make progress as a pre-tenure scholar. My husband and I are also dealing with the interrupted sleep and other stressors that come with having a newborn in the house, as our second son was born in January. But I am so fortunate that if I have to be quarantined, I’m quarantined with the most important people in my life. Not everyone is so lucky. Over the 15 plus years I’ve been researching capoeira, most of the people I’ve worked with have been relatively young and childless. Whether they have partners or not, their capoeira families play a huge role in their day-to-day lives. Within this context, the connections afforded by virtual classes can be literal lifesavers.
I have found capoeiristas’ responses to this crisis to be overwhelmingly positive. And yet, since my training as a social scientist has led me to always be critical, there are a few questions worth asking. The first—which was brought to my attention by a valuable interlocutor whose group is known for taking a politicized stance on capoeira—is about the legitimacy of teachers offering virtual classes. A charlatan is not easy to unmask when you are new to a community of practice, but novices may be even more vulnerable to exploitation right now when they cannot see a teacher’s skills (or lack thereof) in person nor gauge a teacher’s credibility based on the reception of other students in the room. This is not at all intended to cast doubt upon the very credible teachers I have referenced above, just a caution that unscrupulous individuals could take advantage of this situation if they so wished.
A second question is how virtual training will translate back to the face-to-face environment when life returns to normal. Capoeira, like other martial arts, is something meant to be done with others. We learn how to execute our art from playing with everybody (and every body) in the room. Flawed technique is corrected swiftly when our partners take advantage of the openings we have created. There may be some bad habits that will need to be corrected when face-to-face training resumes.
The third question, which is most relevant to my research interests, is how virtual access to one another’s homes will affect the community. I believe that capoeira can become a catalyst for social activism because it attracts such a diverse set of participants. Struggling artists and well-off professionals come together in the roda (capoeira game) and commemorate the struggles of enslaved Africans in Brazil. They subjectively identify with these historical figures by virtue of call-and-response singing done in the first person. And sometimes, that identification translates into taking action on behalf of oppressed peoples in the present. But this process typically occurs in the neutral space of the academy. How do we enter into that egalitarian state when one person is training in a cramped multi-purpose room shared with several other people and another is logging in from a well-appointed home gym? Short of all choosing Brazilian beaches as our Zoom backdrop, how do we prevent these very obvious markers of social status from affecting our relationships?
Granted, it’s not as if people are unaware of social differences in the roda. Yet they recede into the background when we are engaged in the collective task of training. Whether or not that holds true online remains to be seen. I don’t think any of these challenges are insurmountable, and capoeira has survived in the most desperate of circumstances, but I offer them as food for thought, something to consider as everyone eagerly awaits the opportunity to reunite in person.
About the Author
Lauren Miller Griffith is an Assistant Professor of Anthropology at Texas Tech University. Dr Griffith received her PhD in anthropology from Indiana University. She studies performance and tourism in Latin America and the U.S. Specifically, she focuses on the Afro- Brazilian martial art of capoeira and how non-Brazilian practitioners use travel to Brazil to increase their legitimacy within this genre. Her work on capoeira has been published in Annals of Tourism Research, the Journal of Sport and Tourism, and Theatre Annual, and Martial Arts Studies. She is the author of In Search of Legitimacy: How Outsiders Become Part of the Afro-Brazilian Capoeira Tradition  and Apprenticeship Pilgrimage .
If you enjoyed this essay you might also want to read, also by prof. Lauren Miller Griffith: Capoeira as Graceful Resistance