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Learning Capoeira

Lessons in Cunning from an Afro-Brazilian Art

Greg Downey

Publication Date - 03 March 2005

ISBN: 9780195176971

288 pages
5-1/2 x 8-1/4 inches

A provocative look at capoeira, a demanding acrobatic art that combines dance, ritual, music, and fighting style


Learning Capoeira: Lessons in Cunning from an Afro-Brazilian Art is a provocative look at capoeira, a demanding acrobatic art that combines dance, ritual, music, and fighting style. First created by slaves, freedmen, and gang members, capoeira is a study in contrasts that integrates African-descended rhythms and flowing dance steps with hard lessons from the street. According to veteran teachers, capoeira will transform novices, instilling in them a sense of malicia, or "cunning," and changing how they walk, hear, and interact.
Learning Capoeira is an ethnographic study based on author Greg Downey's extensive research about capoeira and more than ten years of apprenticeship. It looks at lessons from traditional capoeira teachers in Salvador, Brazil, capturing the spoken and unspoken ways in which they pass on the art to future generations. Downey explores how bodily training can affect players' perceptions and social interactions, both within the circular roda, the "ring" where the game takes place, as well as outside it, in their daily lives. He brings together an experience-centered, phenomenological analysis of the art with recent discoveries in psychology and the neurosciences about the effects of physical education on perception. The text is enhanced by more than twenty photos of capoeira sessions, many taken by veteran teacher, Mestre Cobra Mansa.
Learning Capoeira breaks from many contemporary trends in cultural studies of all sorts, looking at practice, education, music, nonverbal communication, perception, and interaction. It will be of interest to students of African Diaspora culture, performance, sport, and anthropology. For anyone who has wondered how physical training affects our perceptions, this close study of capoeira will open new avenues for understanding how culture shapes the ways we carry ourselves and see the world.


"This book is about the changes students undergo as they learn the art. The results are striking. Using phenomoenolgical analysis, exploring physiological memory, and the tried and true personal anecdotes, Downey offers testimony that academia's shift to the personal has benefits."--Joshua M. Rosenthal. Latin American Research Review

Table of Contents

    Prelude: Playing Capoeira
    1. Inside and Outside the Roda
    The Development of Capoeira
    Black Culture in Brazil
    Mobilizing the Black Community
    Resisting Sociology, Structures, and Symbols
    A Phenomenological Turn in Ethnography
    Plan of the Book
    2. The Significance of Skills
    A Capoeira Class
    Skill and Sensitivity
    Learning to Walk
    The Body's Role in Experience
    Learning to Fall
    3. Following in a Mestre's Footsteps
    The Advent of the Academy
    Moving like a Mestre
    Imitative Learning
    Coaching the Bananeira
    Coaching and Developing Skills
    Apprenticeship as a Research Method
    4. History in Epic Registers
    A Notorious History of Outlaws
    The Bambas of Bahia
    The Closing of the "Heroic Cycle"
    The Long Struggle for Liberation
    African Origins and Slave Resistance
    The Tragic Life and Death of Mestre Pastinha
    Alternative Histories
    How Histories are Heard
    5. Singing the Past into Play
    The Song Cycle
    Singing Commentary on the Game
    Mortal Seriousness and Prayer
    Shifting "I" Across Time
    Ambiguous Times in Song
    Playing in a Poetic Projection
    6. Hearing the Berimbau
    The Capoeira Orchestra
    Musical Interactions
    The Grain of the Berimbau
    Listening with a Musician's Hands
    Hearing with a Player's Body
    The Social Ability of Hearing
    Hearing as a Skill
    7. Play with a Sinister Past
    Reminders of the Past
    The Importance of the Chamada
    The Chamada's Dramatic Dynamic
    Play and Implied Violence
    The Sinister Gravity of Play
    A Sense of Tradition
    8. The Rogue's Swagger
    The Ginga
    Fundamentals of Cunning
    The Despised Waist
    A Swaying Stride
    Posture and Self-Transformation
    Crying at an Adversary's Feet
    9. Closing the Body
    Becoming Aware of One's Openness
    The Impossibility of Closing
    Opening an Adversary
    Closing the Body in Candomblé
    Signing the Cross
    Gesture, Posture, and Vulnerability
    10. Walking in Evil
    Hard Jokes and Cautionary Tales
    Dissembling in a Treacherous World
    The Sideways Glance
    Seeing Through Shifty Eyes
    A Cunning Comportment
    11. The Limits of Whitening
    The Emergence of Capoeira Regional
    Critics of Capoeira Regional
    Bimba's Students and "Whitening"
    Whitening in Brazil
    Changes in Movement Style
    Capoeira from Middle-Class Bodies
    12. Tearing Out the Shame
    Hands, Head, and Legs
    Working with Bodies
    Reviving Capoeira Angola
    Broken Movements, Softened Bodies
    Shame and Its Removal
    Moved to Change
    Conclusion: Lessons from the Roda
    Physical Education as Ethnographic Object
    The Pragmatism of Practice
    Embodiment and Experience

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