By Matthew Clark Davison, Chief Artistic Strategist
A few months ago, veteran Workshop Teaching Artist and Capoeira Mestre (master) Salê Ramos found out he needed knee surgery. It could not have been good news for him, considering he uses his body to teach Capoeira to hundreds of students each week, including fifty at E.R. Taylor Grade School in San Francisco’s Portola neighborhood. Salê immediately scheduled a meeting with us to think together: How could we keep his classes going during the month he’d need to recover?
Capoeira is a Brazilian art form developed by slaves brought to Brazil from Africa at the beginning of the 16th century. It combines elements of dance, martial arts, and music, all steeped in the values system of community. Students learn to channel and focus their energy through elaborate, improvisational sequences of head and handstands, dodges, kicks, spins, cartwheels, and aerials. This all takes place in center of the roda, or, as Salê calls it, the Community Circle, where the musicians and players sing, play, and clap to keep the beat for the pairs playing in the center.
With a dozen or so classes with Salê under their belts, students at E.R. Taylor had already learned about Capoeira’s history—a vital part of learning the art form. They made connections between Capoeira and their daily lives, learned to play each of the traditional Capoeira instruments, and choreographed their own sequences to be performed in duets in the center of the roda.
Salê and the program team decided to expand on the metaphor offered by the roda. A bunch of us said we were willing to show up for Salê’s classes, but none of us are Capoeiristas. Salê didn’t seem to think that was a problem. He asked:
“Why don’t you let them teach you?”
What a fascinating question! So five writers and a contemporary dancer set off to learn the ins and outs of the Capoeira roda while bringing in some additional lessons from our fields of practice. Chinchin Hsu, a dancer and another of our seasoned teaching artists and mentors, had an intriguing suggestion for getting students to empathize with Salê’s plight: What if we ask each student to limit the range of their movement and expression within Capoeira by having them perform with only one leg or arm? We asked students to devise ways in which they could help and support each other as members of the roda when faced with limitation. Students jumped up and experimented with holding and physically supporting each other so that those attempting to play in the circle could do so without full range of mobility with both arms and legs. After, kids sat in the circle and discussed the timely question:
“How can we lend our strength to someone who’s vulnerable?”
We asked each student to fold a piece of paper in half lengthwise and write Hurt on one side and Heal on the other. What kinds of hurts have they seen or survived? And what actions could they take, or what help could they ask for, to get the hurt to heal?
Students also had a chance talk about their strongest Capoeira move, and the one they struggle with the most. Those who struggled with the “coffee grinder” (including myself) had Antonio—a more experienced Capoerista than the rest—break the move down step-by-step. “Which leg do you use to kick the ball?” he asked us, then told us to put that one out in front of us.
While kind and welcoming to the crew from the Workshop’s home base, Taylor students missed Mr. Salê. They discussed a few questions like: “How do we keep the circle strong when someone is injured?”; “What is the role of the community to injury/repair?”; and “How can we best take care of ourselves and each other when vulnerable or compromised?” Afterwards, they decided to make a video message for Mr. Salê. In it, they demonstrated their favorite move: sharing their strength and sending Mr. Salê “healing energy” from the roda.