Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Have I mentioned capoeira? Have I?

So, yeah, capoeira. One of my recent Facebook status updates was, "Trying to learn capoeira makes me feel like Harry in The Blue Sword, except without the supernatural talent but with the racial angle. Also, fewer horses. Portuguese is kind of like Damarian, right?"

For those of you unfamiliar with capoeira, it's a Brazilian martial art/dance/game. The classes I take are in the Capoeira Angola Palmares lineage, lessons twice a week and a roda once a week(ish). Already, you may be thinking that, for a definition, that has a lot of words that need defining in their turn. I'll let you use the magic of Google for that.

The thing about it is, studying capoeira isn't like learning most martial arts - not that I've studied one myself, but I have done ballet and yoga; the immediate parallel between these and capoeira is that the movements are named in a foreign language, French and Sanskrit, respectively. But you don't need to know French or Sanskrit, or anything about French or Indian culture. Capoeira retains tight cultural connections, though, and you can't play capoeira well without understanding those. You have to learn several different skills all at once:
  • The moves, of course
  • The history and cultural context of capoeira
  • Portuguese
  • How to play the berimbau and pandeiro.
So I set out to try capoeira, and now I'm talking back to Pimsleur in the car: "Com licensa, o senhor fala Ingles? Eu entendo un pouco de Portogues. Eu nao falo Portogues. Sim, eu sou Americana."* I have an iPhone berimbau, although I'm under no illusions that it approximates reality even as well as the Wii approximates real sports, which is to say, not at all. And, yeah, I'm gingaing in the living room. This immersive aspect of capoeira is half of why I referenced The Blue Sword. The heroine, for those unfamiliar with the book, is kidnapped and thrust into a new culture, where she must learn swordplay along with a new culture and language - no musical instruments, though.

But the other reason it came to mind is that I'm pretty obviously made of northern European genes, and the closest any of my ancestors came to Brazil, Africa, or even Portugal was ... Germany. Capoeira is not "my" culture. The Blue Sword was a book I loved growing up, even after I became aware of the issues with the white-girl-saves-brown-people plot that plagues both the Damar books. It wasn't until I after was up in arms about Avatar that I sat down to reread it, though, and found I just couldn't. The only difference between James Cameron's movie and Robin McKinley's book is in the quality of the execution, and there's no use only getting offended at things that are aesthetic tripe.

But as my post said, not only are there fewer horses in capoeira - but I also don't have a magic gift waiting to be awakening so I can master in a few weeks what takes most folks a lifetime. And having no supernatural powers that boot me to the front of the capoeira class goes along with not being the savior of anything. My contribution is just a few bucks a week to help rent the room, same as any other student. I'm not going to end up saving Brazil from a demon invasion or marry the handsome king. So, any second thoughts I have can be read as, "Hey look! I want to make sure you know I'm cool enough to do capoeira, and I'm aware enough to worry about cultural appropriation! I'm sure swell!"

Which takes you down a rabbit hole where the only logical conclusion is to stop wasting time announcing on social media what you're doing and just do it. I'm going into withdrawal just thinking of that.

*Yes, the accents are missing. I can't consistently get accents to show up properly on here.

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