Just like the game of chess or poker, there are certain rules that exist in the world of Capoeira. For example, there is very little grappling in a Capoeira roda. Another rule is that the instruments dictate the character of the Capoeira game played in the roda. At the same time, there is no official rule book and it is said that everything is allowed in the Capoeira roda. This might seem confusing, but this mix of custom and freedom is one of the things that makes Capoeira so unique. It can also make Capoeira a confusing thing to figure out!
When you’re brand new, you most likely start learning fundamental Capoeira movements. If you don’t know them, here is a list of the most fundamental Capeoira movements that everyone should know.
The most important thing in your Capoeira game is the ginga. Ginga translates to swing from Portuguese and is the foundation for all Capoeira techniques. The subtlety of this point is often lost on beginners because sweeps and acrobatics are more obvious to see. But the masters appreciate a ginga that is self assured and expressive. If you feel comfort and confidence, it will show in the way you ginga. Likewise, if you’re timid and shy, it will show in your ginga. A Capoeiristas can ginga in the roda, not do anything else, and still have a beautiful game.
There are many ways to practice the ginga. A great exercise is to imitate the people who’s game you like. If you like the way they play, then try to copy the way they ginga. Look at what they do with their hands, their head, their hips, and their feet. Notice the subtle movements that express or hide their intentions. Every Capoeirista has a unique ginga, like a thumbprint. Discovering how they move their body’s a method for you to learn how to move yours. This isn’t to say that you want to be a carbon copy of this other person. It also doesn’t mean this is the way you will ginga for the rest of your life, however it’s a great place to start.
Another method that was very fascinating to me was to imitate animals while you ginga. Kids in particular take very well to this. Adults who are more afraid to express themselves can sometimes struggle. But thinking about how a snake or a monkey would ginga is a great way to get creative. It doesn’t even have to be an animal that moves smoothly. Think about any animal. A frog or a cow works as well. The trick here is to try everything and see what sticks. The spontaneity of ideas is what creates a beautiful ginga, and when it flows naturally in the game of Capoeira, everyone takes notice.
It’s very common for beginners to be completely concerned with the movements they themselves are doing. And there is nothing inherently wrong with this. Capoeira movements can be difficult to do. At the same time, a roda is an organism with many moving parts. This includes the person whom you are playing with, the bateria (the band playing music), the crowd, the music. Etc. There are tons of things going on in the roda at the same time and it’s difficult to pay attention to everything all at once.
Your goal as a beginner is to think as little as possible on the movements you are doing. This way, you can give more attention to other things going on in the roda. For example, someone coming in to buy the game. This might seem like a herculean task at first, but there is a trick to this. Repetition. Repetition is your friend here. You want to repeat the movements you know as many times as you can until the movement becomes automatic. If you can do macaco blindfolded, then when the time comes that you need to do macaco, you won’t have to stand there analyzing if it’s a good time or not – you will just feel it. This is much easier said than done, so make sure to set aside time in your training to repeat the basics over and over again.
A common problem beginners have is that they are afraid of getting into the roda. To be more accurate, most people are afraid of getting kicked in the head. You might be afraid to get in because the games are very fast or because the people playing seem like they want to take your head off. To a degree, your fear is actually a good thing. Your fear is what drives you to act fast. It’s a natural defensive response that helps keep you safe. At the same time, we don’t want our fear to dominate us, so here are some very easy ways to deal with this.
When you are at the edge of the roda you have a decision in front of you. “Can I buy the game?” This is a prime example in Capoeira of the rules are not explicit. As easy as that would make our lives, Capoeira is simply not that rigid. To help, I created a quick graphic to help you understand if you should buy the game or not.
There are many exceptions to this flow chart. For example, in some rodas, capoeiristas will go in two by two instead of one at a time. Another example of exceptions is a roda where only teachers are permitted to play. If there is a roda only for mestres, then anyone under the rank of mestre should not play. Another example is if a game is heating up, many teachers will stop anyone from buying the game so the game can continue. Although there are many cases where these rules might not apply, it’s a good rule of thumb that you can use at the next roda you visit.
If you play Capoeira, you will fall. It’s not a question of if, but a question of when. That’s why it’s important that you practice falling. If you don’t know how to fall, ask your teacher about training this. There is a saying, “Capoeira doesn’t fall, but when he falls, he falls well”.
There are three main ways that a Capoeirista will fall, queda de quatro, queda de tres, and negativa de bimba. Queda de quatro is sitting back on your feet and hands while keeping your butt off the floor. Queda de tres is the same thing, but with one of your legs up in the air. Negativa de bimba looks like a pushup where one knee is by your chest, and the other is slipped between your opposite hand and foot. These three positions are used to absorb the impact of a fall and allow you to gently fall to the floor and quickly move. Although I won’t go over everything about how to fall in this post, there is a great exercise that you can use to practice falling.
To practice falling, you ideally want to have a partner. You’ll be asking your partner to sweep one of your legs while you stand. Start by spreading your legs apart so that it’s not easy to keep your balance. Staying very wide means we will be closer to the floor and the impact will be significantly less. Your partner will pick a foot and pull you forward by hooking that foot with their ankle. Ideally we want to land in either queda de quatro, queda de tres, or negativa de bimba. Whichever feels more natural is correct to use. Our partner will alternate sweeping our feet forwards, making sure we get practice on either side. After a few falls, we switch. After you safely find your way to the floor you will switch to negativa and role away.
An advanced way to do this is to keep your eyes closed. Falling with your eyes closed a great test of your proprioception and your ability to coordinate a graceful fall without looking. Another way to increase the difficulty of this exercise is to have your partner sweep your leg harder. The harder your partner sweeps you, the more difficult it will be for you to control your fall.
There is an undefinable element to Capoeira, Malicia and Mandinga. Both are terms that are difficult to describe without going deep into the culture and history of Brazil. Malicia is a term that can loosely be translated into malice. The idea is that you, as a Capoeiraista, will struggle to survive. But how? You have to be street smart. Academic knowledge is great, but when you’re hungry, you have to be cunning to make your way through the world. Having a sharp mind is part of that Malicia. Another way to look at it from the receiving end is being aware that whoever you deal with could have an agenda that is to their benefit and your loss. As downright negative as this sounds, this is what many Capoeiristas confronted in the early days of Capoeira’s development.
Mandinga on the other hand Translates to “spell” or something like “magic”. The person with mandinga has the ability to lure in their opponent, trick them and exploit an opening in a way that looks easy. Think about the force in star wars. Obi-wan Kenobi said that the force flows through you and guides your action. Mandinga works in the same way and that mandinga is expressed in the game of Capoeira.
Malicia and Mandinga are the magic of Capoeira. A Capoeira game that has no definitive ending or goal. There is no “winner” or “loser”. You might think that because of this, Capoeira would not be so interesting, however it’s very compelling? Lets see how close to a fight we can get to without turning this into a brawl. How many times can I throw a move at your and have you escape in the most impressive way possible. What’s the coolest trap I can set up for you? Who can hold a handstand in the most difficult set up for the longest amount of time? These are all questions that spontaneously become the Capoeira game. Malicia and mindinga are what make up the elements of mystery, spontaneity, and creativity you see in Capoeira.
This is where Capoeira differs greatly from other martial arts. In Muay Thai there is a tradition of play fighting to practice. Sparring sessions are soft(a relative term) with light kicks, a slower pace, and no intention to hurt the other person. The idea is that, “we’re friends and you’re helping me train, so why would I want to hurt you?”. Capoeira takes this idea and runs with it. Capoeiristas are each other’s training mates and we all help each other improve at the game of Capoeira.
This doesn’t mean that there isn’t contact or that you won’t walk away with some bruises. The variety of games you can have is great. A game played between a student and a very old master is not the same as a game between two beginners. And neither of these two examples would be the same as two kids playing. The state of mind you bring to a Capoeira game shapes how the game turns out. If you want an easy game, then come in for that intention. At the same time, if you want a tougher game, then try to go in with someone who you think wants that as well.
The Capoeira roda has a life cycle. Although not everyone conducts their roda in this way, a lot of the old school mestres will have a natural progression to the roda. At Mestre Joao Grande’s academy, the roda starts slow, with low volume. The games reflect this pace. Both players play low to the ground, close to one another, and at a slower speed. The game is a battle of minds. Each person trying to trick the other into falling into a trap. You can compare this to a classical chess format where you can take your time, choose your moves carefully and with cunning.
After some time the game increases in tempo, intensity and power. As the instruments play louder and with more energy, the games will likewise become more physical and fluid. Even at a medium tempo, the games will retain a lot of the cunning of the slower pace. Here is where Capoeira can really flow. Both players have enough time to try interesting techniques and challenge each other without needing to throw a kick full blast.
Near the end, the roda will pick up pace until the games become dynamic and powerful. As the berimbaus start to play at full speed and full volume, the Capoeira games will reflect this. From here the games require a strong instinct for quick actions, foresight, and physical strength. Your speed and agility will be on full display!
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