Calves already sore from our two-hour Brazilian dance class the previous day, I spent the last few minutes before our Capoeira workshop stretching with my classmates. I knew very little about Capoeira going into the workshop and had no idea what to expect from the next three hours, but I grew more and more excited as our Capoeira instructor—called a Mestre (Master) in Portuguese—arrived and began preparing the instruments to play the music that accompanies Capoeira.
Capoeira is a Brazilian martial art that is influenced by Afro-Brazilian roots, meaning that the practice and tradition of Capoeira were brought to Brazil by African slaves during the slave trade. For a short period of time Capoeira was outlawed, but it is now an important part of Brazilian culture and is a practice that combines a physical exercise with spiritual reflection and social awareness. Capoeira is different from other martial arts due in part to the fact that Capoeira isn’t about physically overpowering your opponent in order to win. Instead, Capoeira is about creating a connection with your partner in order to perform a graceful and skillful exchange of attacks and defensive postures that teaches each participant to anticipate what the other is going to do and appropriately counter so that neither is ever actually injured.
Through a translator, our Capoeira instructor told us that Capoeira is about bringing people together and that creating a bond built on respect with your sparring partner is important. You want to learn to feel what they feel, to think what they think, to be able to speak with your bodies without saying anything. Our instructor’s students—who didn’t speak any English—assisted with the instruction of the workshop, and they taught us how to do various dynamics (a sequence of movements that make up a choreographed Capoeira attack and defense) without ever saying a word. We spoke more with our toes than with our tongues as we moved in time with our partners and learned to anticipate each other’s movements.
At one point, our instructor told us that Capoeira is a way of communicating without words. I had never heard someone speak about a physical activity, especially a martial art, as an act of communication, and this idea struck me. In a country where I have been struggling to speak the language, I have often felt like I am doing an elaborate dance with every Brazilian person I meet where I try to anticipate how they will respond based on what I have said and the context of our conversation. “Two steps forward, one step back,” as they say, except it has felt a lot more like “one step forward, four steps back.”
Capoeira is more than a physical workout; Capoeira is a lesson in the Brazilian way of life. It teaches one to be flexible, friendly, and spontaneous, to go with the flow and form connections with people whenever possible, even if you don’t speak their verbal language. During our Capoeira workshop, I learned more than footwork. I learned that communicating doesn’t require words. As a communication major, I spend a lot of my time talking about talking, and during this trip I have often felt guilty about the fact that I am unable to articulate what I mean with words. However, Capoeira has reminded me of one of the most important concepts of communication: sometimes, it’s not about what you say, it’s what you don’t.