Jan Term Class Explores Capoeira, a Brazilian Dance and Form of Resistance

Capoeira classIn January, Associate Professor of Global Communication Samantha Joyce gathered the 22 students of her Jan Term class—Media, Representation, and Capoeira: The Brazilian Art of Resistance—into a circle to teach them about Capoeira (“kaa·puh·weh·ruh”), the Brazilian martial art/dance. Introduced by enslaved Africans brought to Brazil during the 16th century, Capoeira may seem like an exciting form of dance, but it hides a deeper meaning: Slaves used Capoeira as a form of expression and resistance. As we enter Black History Month, the class’s teachings couldn’t be more relevant.

“In this class, students learn about the history of Brazil, but more specifically, they learn about slavery,” said Joyce, a Brazilian journalist with a passion for Capoeira and its history. “Slavery in Brazil lasted a long time—it was the longest in the Americas.”

Capoeira, Joyce explained, is a Brazilian tradition and art that combines music, dance, martial arts, and acrobatics. In the colonial period, about 3.5 million people were taken from Africa to Brazil for the slave trade, which lasted for 350 years. Capoeira is said to be truly Brazilian because the slaves relied on it in their quarters and used it to resist henchmen.

“Slaves did not have control over their bodies and lived under harsh conditions with corporal punishment. The only tool they had to fight their oppression was their body. They used it as a tactical and lethal weapon.

“They didn’t have access to knifes or metal, anything they could fight with. So they fought with their bodies,” Joyce said. Constantly under watch, the slaves made the fight form look like a dance and claimed to outsiders that they were mixing dance, culture, and religion—all the while hiding their form of resistance.

Capoeira is practiced around the world today in a circle called a Roda (“Ho-dah”), where the players sing, clap, and perform the kicks and movements, often to accompanying instruments. Participants focus on keeping a constant flow of movement going as they improvise kicks over a partner’s head—with the goal of creating a dialogue, not causing harm.

And how does this transform into a class at Saint Mary’s Jan Term?

“This class is about participating,” continued Joyce, who worked hard to prepare for Jan Term, searching through appropriate readings, films, and songs to help students understand slavery’s history.  While students carefully replicate and re-create dance/fight moves, Joyce asks them to consider specific questions. “Are you being respectful of the rituals? Are you keeping in mind that this represents not just another culture but another race?” she asked them.

Joyce has students read about the history of slavery both in Brazil and North America, and watch documentaries, and in the last week create a special Capoeira musical instrument called a berimbau.

“The class is really about all this diversity, and something that is different and out of your comfort zone,” Joyce said. “And I think students have learned to appreciate it. They can really talk about Capoeira with others to spark difficult conversations about racism and race with questions that are historical but also lingering.”

Students keep a journal as they progress through class. “They go from thinking the simple, like, Who knew that it was so hard to clap and sing at the same time? to things like, Who knew that another form of resisting oppression in Brazil was that when they asked slaves to build the churches, the slaves resisted by crafting angels who were pregnant.”

Students get a work out but plenty to think about as well. “The class has changed my viewpoint of the art of Capoeira itself,” said Piper Westrom ’20. “I didn’t think it was quite so much of a dance, but also it’s so much more than that, with the history. I had no idea where it came from or what it was about.” Westrom said she’ll be attending Capoeira classes in the future. “That’s another thing they teach about,” she said, “how inclusive it is. Anybody, any level, any gender is welcome.”

Students seemed enthralled throughout the dance/fight in the Roda. Junior Leah Dobson spoke afterword enthusiastically about her final project group presentation. “We’re putting together journals and them some of the movements into a game. It’s a way to talk about our experiences.”

“I think the students formed a bond,” said Joyce. “They tell me it’s so rewarding and that they’ve talked to their moms and showed a video of them doing Capoeira. Others went to a party where people were dancing, and they started doing Capoeira.”

Several students have joined a Capoeira class Joyce attends in Walnut Creek. “They may not become lifelong Capoeiristas—or maybe they will—but at least they know what it is and can talk about it,” Joyce said.

For more information about Capoeira and to find a gym, visit: https://www.wcomulucapoeira.com/.