A Reflection on Playfulness As Resistance In Brazil
“Solta o corpo, moça!”, said Mestre Rogério about 47 times during capoeira angola practice. This was a couple weeks ago at the FICA Rio capoeira studio in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, during the UCLA Travel Study program I was co-leading in partnership with my husband, Bobby Gordon, and the Rio-based Center for Theater of the Oppressed.
The “moça” (young woman) Mestre Rogério was referring to was me, and the “solta a corpo” (let your body go) instruction was exactly what I was having a hard time doing in my ginga, the basic side-to-side movement of capoeira. Every time I did, my partner who I was playing against would take advantage of my openness and successfully jab, poke, or trick me.
But how was I supposed to let my body go while still being able to effectively protect myself? Is it possible to find a sense of ease and playfulness in a state of resistance? Not just in capoeira, but in life?
The answer, according to most Afro-Brazilian cultural manifestations, is yes. This is what the history of Afro-Brazilian people has taught us time and time again- not only that it is possible to use playfulness as resistance, but it actually makes resistance that much more powerful and effective.
Capoeira Angola is a beautiful and complex microcosm from which to analyze this idea. It is an Afro-Brazilian martial art/dance/music/spiritual practice that simultaneously fits and defies all these categories, a uniquely Brazilian form of expression deriving from an Angolan self-defense practice that survived in slave quarters because enslaved people smartly disguised it with dance and music.
There’s a beautiful word in Capoeira Angola that really captures the idea of playfulness as resistance – mandinga. A complex word without a direct English translation, it is constantly referred to in capoeira as the mischievous and playful quality that a capoerista, or capoeira player, exercises in order to fool and trick their opponent. It is also closely associated with the idea of “fechar o corpo”, to close the body with fast and loose movements – literally protecting the body while keeping it playful and expressive.
I just came back from co-leading the annual UCLA Travel Study program at the Center for Theater of the Oppressed, and for five weeks in Rio it seemed everywhere I looked I saw this idea of mandinga, of playfulness as resistance, at work.
As most people are aware, Brazil is going through a particularly troubling moment, one of the worst in its political history. Democracy was essentially swept from under our feet in May, when the majority right-wing congress voted to impeach President Dilma (for unproven corruption charges), a center-left politician and our first female president, and induct her conservative Vice-President, Michel Temer, as interim president. Within 12 hours of his appointment, Temer abolished some of the most fundamental building blocks of Brazilian democracy, including dissolving the Ministry of Culture and the Ministries of Racial Equity, Women’s Rights, and LGBT Rights. He appointed an all white, all male cabinet and has not stopped cutting or challenging most of our cornerstone social programs – like free public universities, funding for the arts in schools, etc etc.
Brazilians’ response to Temer’s unprecedented actions? Music. Dance. Theater. Poetry. Song. Street art. Public concerts. Protests. Occupations of government buildings.
Towards the end of my time in Rio, I had the incredible opportunity of entering the State Ministry of Culture building in Rio de Janeiro, which had been occupied by artists, educators and citizens for 64 days (it is now entering its 78th day of occupation) to share a creative movement workshop. The space had an indescribable yet palpable energy of joy, dialogue, community and resistance. Stories-high posters that read “Reage, Artista!” (React, Artist!) and “Fora Temer” (Out Temer), graffiti on the walls reading “Este é um espaço livre de machismo” (This is a sexism-free space) and papers posted on columns that said “Lute como menina!” (Fight like a girl!). Inspiring would be an understatement. It was mandinga from head to toe.
And that is our history as a Brazilian people. Afro-Brazilians who intelligently found ways of adapting and keeping their cultures and religions alive (i.e. Candomblé, Umbanda), artists who used poetry and metaphor in their songs during the military dictatorship to pass the censorship bureau and let the whole country know that change was coming (Chico Buarque), a Brazilian director who used children’s games to create a revolutionary theater methodology that gave voice to the people (Augusto Boal & Theater of the Oppressed), citizens who understand that there is no democracy without art or culture, and for that very reason we resist through music, dance, and poetry.
At the end of capoeira practice when Mestre Rogério was taking questions, I asked what had been nagging on my mind the whole class.
“How do you protect and loosen your body at the same time?”
I was expecting a revelatory and unique answer that would shed light on all these musings, in and outside of capoeira. Perhaps a new pathway for political engagement and cultural resistance – yes, the answer!
Mestre Rogério very simply and nonchalantly said, “with practice.”
And after my initial deflated disappointment at the unoriginal nature of his answer, this idea began making more sense to me. Because, like capoeira angola, there is no magic to social and political change. There is only hard, often tedious, work. Constant organizing, constant practice. Moments of break throughs and victory, big kicks and virtuosic flips - then back to hard, tedious work.
So I guess I’ll start making more time for practice, and work on letting my body go. Solta o corpo, moça!