Three Words of Capoeira

One of the biggest Karate lessons I’ve learned is how to function while I’m being pushed out of my comfort zone.  More often than not that push comes from a sensei (instructor), but sometimes I deliberately seek out martial arts experiences that will get me way beyond my comfort zone.  Such was the case when I signed up for the Capoeira workshop offered as part of my employer’s Professional Development Day.

Capoeira is a martial art that was developed in Brazil by African slaves.  Singing, clapping, drumming, and playing the berimbau is integral to the art.  To an unenlightened European slave master, Capoeira looks and sounds like dancing.  But Capoeiristas know that this is a fighting art.  Participants in the workshop I attended were taught the chorus of a song about a man who went away to war.  A man who told his family not to worry, he had the art of Capoeira to protect him.  Not just physical protection – just as with most martial arts there are mental and spiritual sides to the art as well.

Our workshop instructor describes playing Capoeira as a conversation.  This was familiar territory for me.  If I do this, how do you respond?  What if I seek to deceive you?  Can I maneuver you into doing this so that I can do that?  I recognized that this is an area of my base art (Karate) which I need to develop more.

My fellow workshop participants and I were taught three very basic “words,” as our instructor described them.  The ginga, as near as I can tell, can be used as a baseline or default mode.  In dance class it would be a basic step – analogous to the box step in Foxtrot.  Next we learned an evasion from a kick, and just like the word “tomato” has two different pronunciations, there are two similar ways of doing this evasion.  The third “word” we learned was a kick.  Throughout the lesson I drew analogies to Karate. I wasn’t the only one drawing comparisons to their base art.

For partner drills I paired up with a Hapkido practitioner who is roughly the equivalent rank I now hold.  In our first exercise we were to synchronize our movements, each mirroring the other in the ginga.  I quickly realized that this was all about “flow.”  My new friend and I recognized that our skills of reading our sparring partners were coming into play.  After we had learned to evade and kick, we paired up again in order to apply what we’d learned.  Now we had to read intent and respond in a “language” neither of us were familiar with!  We had a blast.

Near the end of class, all the workshop participants and our instructor formed a circle. This space, called a roda, is considered sacred and is symbolic of the world.  There is etiquette for players entering the roda.  These concepts were familiar to me even if the format and emphasis were different.  Our instructor called for volunteers to play with him in the roda.

To describe my feelings in that moment, let’s drag out a couple of characters I’ve used in past blogs:  “Id” and “Superego:”

Id:  Hide.  Don’t risk looking like a fool in front of everyone. I’m not up to the task.  Let someone else be the sacrificial lamb.


Superego: LIKE HELL!!! GET IN THERE!!!  It’ll be fun!  You’ll learn stuff!





I was the first to volunteer.  The clapping and the music began.  The instructor walked me through the preliminaries and we began play.  I went back to my white belt (no rank) days and remembered what I learned while sparring with sensei(s): all that matters is that I try.  I knew I was out of my element, I knew my tools were limited, but by then I had the measure of the man who was in the roda with me.  Like any good sensei, he was there to teach, to let me experiment, to show me what is possible, and yes, to push me a little bit in order to show me that my capabilities are more than what I think they are.  All that happened in our play.  The instructor ended my time in the roda with a lunge that I evaded neatly even though he hadn’t shown us how – I simply modified something I’d just learned less than an hour before.  I was very, very sorry that time didn’t allow for more.  I returned to the outside of the roda grinning from ear to ear and urged my new Hapkido friend to give it a try.

Capoeira is about as different from Karate as you can get – or is it?  I admit I drew analogies – “Zenkutsu dachi but with the back heel up, shiko dachi is the transition, then step back into zenkutsu dachi with the opposite leg forward…”  “Modify the crescent kick thusly then step back zenkutsu dachi…”  The concept of flow and the art of reading and manipulating people were there too.  But let’s look beyond mere physicality.  Respect, personal development, camaraderie, community…  All these things happen in both Karate and Capoeira.    Are these not the most important aspects of any martial art?  I certainly experienced these things during that workshop.

I came home with a lot of takeaways.  Every once in awhile it’s good to be a white belt again, to be reminded of what learning a new skill is like.  That reminder will make me a better teacher.  I’m aware that I need to flow more (when applicable) in my art.  I really ought to build my “conversational” skills for kumite (sparring) – my sensei(s) have been telling me that for quite some time now.  I have a greater appreciation both for the things martial arts have in common and for the diversity in the world of martial arts.   I’m honored to have been given the opportunity to expand my understanding of Capoeira in particular and martial arts in general.

Author: Joelle White

I began training in Karate in June of 2014 after a 27 year hiatus.

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