Capoeira: An Expat’s Best friend

cdo chicoteInstructor Zumbi, the leader of the Capoeira group CDO Seoul recently wrote a really great blog post for the group’s website. As an expatriate in Seoul who has survived living in this often harsh and isolating rat race, I agree completely with everything he wrote. I have been an expatriate for a number of years and it is embarrassing to realize so late in the game that being involved in some kind of group activity and belonging to an organization, group, team or community is key to thriving in an environment where you don’t have any family, don’t speak the language, and are not part of the society in the way you were in your home country.

Being part of a group in a foreign country is also a kind of spiritual practice. Due to the transient nature of the expatriate scene, as well as the Capoeira scene (people are often inconsistent with training and because it’s not easy, quite a few give up), there is a constant ebb and flow of giving, receiving and letting go. Over the past few months, I made a lot of new friends in our group. We had students of all ages from different parts of the world training. I went away for two months and come back to find that there’s a new batch of students while some of the more experienced have left back to their home countries, are taking a break, have become pregnant, are moving on to new countries etc. As the saying goes, change is the only constant in life. At least there is a Capoeira family, both close and extended, old and new, to help buffer against the turbulence of life, especially in a foreign country.

This is the post in its entirety in Instructor Zumbi’s eloquent words:

Expats often arrive in Korea and feel isolated within weeks. They feel cut out of mainstream society and opportunities to grow and progress. It doesn’t matter whether the expats are English teachers or business consultants for Samsung with Wharton MBAs. All expats are immediately thrown into a battle against a shrinking social circle and opportunities for genuine bonding.

Having survived six years in Korea, I am acutely aware that I would never have been able to do it without the help of my Capoeira group. Here are five reasons why Capoeira helps expats integrate into Korea.


Capoeira is a community-oriented art. Each Capoeira group has a certain identity that its members embrace. Some Capoeira groups want to build a community of great fighters that regularly challenge each other and fight ferociously to sharpen reaction times or improve their ability to do combat with other martial artists. Other Capoeira groups focus on efficiency of movement. Yet others focus on preserving a cultural heritage that survived centuries of oppression. Irrespective of the focus of an individual Capoeira group, group members rally round each other to ensure that the organisation’s goals are met. That is why Capoeiristas identify with a group and think less about the differences within the group.


Capoeira was practiced by people that were denied the rights of regular citizens. Consequently, Capoeiristas go out of their way to be inclusive as they know how terrible it is to be excluded from society. Consequently, members are actively working on breaking down cultural and language barriers. For example, in our Capoeira group, expats are encouraged to learn Korean to help bond with the Korean members of the group and vice-versa. Taking the time to study another language and open your mind to another culture that is very foreign to yours is challenging. Yet, since all members of the group are burdened with over coming language and cultural issues, it immediately becomes something everyone forms strong bonds over.


Capoeira values diversity of thought and behaviour. Capoeira is a form of bodily expression where the individual becomes an artist, and the roda where he or she plays Capoeira becomes the canvas. Capoeiristas are addicted to expressions of beauty, skill, and especially creativity. They love nothing more than seeing something new unfold in the theatre of the roda. Consequently, Capoeira values the individual and what they bring to the community, irrespective of background.


Capoeiristas take time out of their busy schedules to bond with each other. They actively seek out any occasion to be with each other. This often gives Capoeira a cultish feel. However, once you try Capoeira you’ll begin to notice that members of the community simply like spending time with each other and joyfully organise events, tours, birthday parties, and other social occasions to be able to connect more deeply.


Capoeira gives feedback right away. The minute you step up to add value to the group, the minute you get recognition. Capoeira groups rapidly embrace people from all walks of life that want to improve the group in some aspect. There are many ways to contribute. You can help by planning events or opening your home for a potluck. Even training every class or putting all your energy / passion into making your movement perfect for rodas will never go unnoticed. Almost any action with the purpose of making the group a better Capoeira community is celebrated.

‘C’ is for Capoeira. And Community.

10341861_10202846420378921_3415788385516538913_nRecently our capoeira group here in Seoul help our annual spring challenge event where teachers and students come from other parts of the world come to train and play. We had guests from the United States, France, Israel, China and Japan. Here we were, this motley crew from diverse backgrounds – a melting pot of ages, races, occupations, languages.

Because my body likes to crap out on me when there is some big, exciting event that I’ve been looking forward to (re: exorcist-style vomiting in Rio on NYE), I was mostly resigned to being slumped against the wall like a puppet watching as I fended off a very unpleasant virus/sinus infection/curse from the gods above. This gave me plenty of time to think (wow, there’s something I don’t do enough of!). And observe. And philosophize.

So while I couldn’t hone my attacks or escapes, I did come to the realization that the essence of capoeira is about community. This epiphany may or may not have been spurred by the guest teachers who during a panel discussion talked about how the sense of community was what kept them involved in the martial art, what nourished and sustained their years of dedication, and propelled their development. It sounds cliched but being involved in such an activity can really help create a sense and experience of oneness, of unity, of togetherness, of solidarity.

1522741_10152015055616853_8771844498874773136_oIndeed, as the star teacher of our event, Mestre Urubu Malandro emphasized, camaraderie is a central pillar of capoeira philosophy. He modeled this by being incredibly warm, friendly, patient and social with all students, regardless of their level. Instrutora Ligeirinha, who has worn the hats of lawyer, diplomat and journalist began to cry gently as she shared her journey in capoeira and how the people she had met, and continues to meet, inspire her to keep training.

And it is a very beautiful thing to experience this unconditional love and support, no matter how much you suck, someone is willing to help you, to encourage you, to motivate you, to inspire you, and of course, as you claw your way up the ladder, you don’t kick those beneath you, but reach down to help lift them up.

Given how isolating living in South Korea can be, especially as a foreign woman, I don’t think I could function without seeing the faces of those in my capoeira group every week. My advice to any expatriate anywhere is to get a passion/hobby/sport and become part of a community that can foster social connection. It sounds kind of obvious, but I guess I was too bookish, lazy and narrow-minded to figure this out earlier. And so, being a part of this community is how, during this event, I came to have a birthday party in which Happy Birthday was sung to me in English, Korean, Portuguese and HEBREW! In which I got to connect with people much younger and much older than me, from all over the world. In which I got cream thrown on my face. In which I got my ass kicked playing with rock star capoeiristas. In which I felt a sense of love and gratitude for those I was with. A buzz of wonderment at the shared humanity of those from such different walks of life.

Capoeira: In the Presence of Greatness

Photo by PJB

Photo by PJB

After months of intense training and anticipation, our capoeira group was finally graced with the presence of Mestre Cobra Mansa, one of the most respected capoeira masters in the world. We were able to spend an entire day with him as he led us through a workshop, lecture and finally, an ecstatic roda (the circle in which the students play against him and each other).

Now in his mid-’50s, Mestre Cobra Mansa (whose name translates as ‘tame snake’) is a small yet striking figure. With askew grey dreadlocks, thick, unruly facial hair, and toffee-coloured skin, he resembles a wise shaman or scorcerer who has just emerged from the darkest corners of the Brazilian rainforest.

It soon became apparent, however, that he carries within him decades of hard-won intelligence, life experience and unrivaled capoeira skills and knowledge. While his physical prowess was phenomenal for someone of his age, I was most struck by his words of wisdom at the talk he gave at the beginning of the first session. That is when I knew I could trust him, that he was the real deal.

Cobra Mansa vs. Idalina

Cobra Mansa vs. Idalina

He told us that the only way to improve is to keep making mistakes. To keep failing. Fail. And fail again. And again. He referred to himself as a ‘capoeira baby,’ stating that he too, had so much more to learn and that one’s capoeira journey is never complete because the path never ends. He said that although the world is now so competitive and we always have to pit ourselves against others, we should only measure our own progress and compete with ourselves. The goal is not to be better than anyone else, but to try your best and be better than before. Also, he emphasized that when we train, we need to reflect afterwards on our performance and think about the things we did well, congratulate ourselves for our progress and successes while thinking about one of two things we could improve upon the next day. In short, he created a safe learning environment. This was so refreshing considering that many capoeira teachers take a militant approach to teaching that borders on aggression, emotional and physical abuse, humiliation and shaming of the students – perhaps in the name of some kind of misguided tough love.

The students present at the event represented the entire beginner-advanced spectrum, so for those of us who are closer to the beginner end, it could’ve been intimidating and highly anxiety-provoking. However, he encouraged each of us to have a turn at playing all the instruments and singing in the bateria (the row of musicians at the head of the circle), in addition to working sequences in pairs. It was a kind of exposure therapy – just getting in there and doing it before fear could talk us out of it. The physical work was grueling, but the sense of accomplishment at trying and learning something new, in the presence of such a revered and expert teacher, was amazing.

What struck me most about Cobra Mansa was his energy. He was jet-lagged, fending off a cold and had been teaching at the school of capoeira he had founded many years before prior to our event. Anyone who has ever taught anything knows how exhausting it can be on all levels. Yet, he gave 110%. He didn’t tire and sustained his attention and focus throughout the day, remaining professional, energetic and even-tempered.

After lunch, he gave a lecture about a long-term project he has been working on to make a documentary about the search for the roots of capoeira in Africa, particularly in Angola. In collaboration with a professor from the University of Essex in the U.K., he has visited the continent four times over six years but he said that he cannot say conclusively whether the art originated in Angola or in Brazil. He showed video footage of Angolans playing the “zebra dance”, which bears some resemblance to basic capoeira moves in which you can only use your feet. It seems likely that this could be the closest ancestor to capoeira.

Cobra Mansa vs. Tigresa

Cobra Mansa vs. Tigresa

Other interesting things he came across was a village in which you can only participate in dance rituals if you are very rich – and because the economy of this place was based on cows, if you own a lot of cows, then you are rich. And then you can participate. Usually, men are allowed to dance while women are only allowed to play the instruments (although this is something of an honour in this matriarchal society). He also said that in some places, it was taboo for women to dance in public or in front of men. However, the women did so in private together which had also been the case with capoeira in Brazil.

Regardless of the origins of capoeira, the take-away message for me from the footage we saw is that traditional performing arts are slowly but surely disappearing. Mestre spoke briefly about the cultural erosion and amnesia he encountered in Angola as local knowledge and the education system had favored the language, culture and ideology of the Portuguese colonialists. Whatever the reasons for the loss (colonisation, war, globalization, homogeneity, popular culture, media), it is undeniably tragic that these links to the past which give meaning and identity to villages and nations will likely be gone forever, being drenched in blood and buried under the cultural hegemony of Starbucks and McDonald’s like the bones of our ancestors.

The final part of the event was the roda, in which the students played with each other and Mestre in the circle. It was a chance to show and use what we had learnt that day in a playful atmosphere, to show respect to our teachers by giving our energy and a chance to intensify the connections that had developed throughout the day. While incredibly fun and adrenalin-inducing, playing in a roda can be exhausting. Even after a few minutes, most people find themselves sweating and puffing. I played with him for a few minutes, using the Angola moves he had taught us (a style that is played very close to the ground, using a lot of arm strength, that he is an expert in) and I was dying. Yet, he played for an hour non-stop, his energy never flagging and always able to outmaneuver his opponents with his cunning trickery and theater, a real crowd-pleaser.

In a state of elated exhaustion, we then went to eat together. I was able to sit near him and talk to him about his life in Brazil, the farm he lives on where he promotes permaculture and his plans for the future. In true mestre style, he said he would never stop teaching or traveling to teach. Also, because it was my birthday, and his the following day, we had a small celebration before it became apparent that finally, he would need to leave us as gracefully has he had arrived, showering the students with hugs and kisses on his way out.

Last man standing

Last man standing

All in all, the day was enriching on many levels – physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually. It reinforced some personal goals I have and reflected back to me some of my strengths and weaknesses, ultimately leading to more self-awareness as well as the realization that I am a few more steps forward on this journey of a thousand miles. Perhaps most importantly, it gave me that very rare and precious feeling that I could accomplish anything – a sense of freedom from mental conditioning, barriers and limitations. The feeling of being alive, present and content.

To learn more about Mestre Cobra Mansa’s documentary project, check out this link. Also, to see how he is promoting sustainable living by merging permaculture and capoeira, take a moment to read about the community he founded in Brazil here.

Capoeira: A Journey to Find Your Whole Self

Me vs. Contra Mestre Omi

I cannot say what led me to this incredibly complex and intricate Brazilian martial art. It is so physically and mentally challenging that it is like constantly swimming upstream, or trying to find calm in a vengeful storm, requiring strength, grace and equanimity. The first classes I took in New Zealand were demanding, but I was buoyed by the warmth and camaraderie of the other students. There was something exotic and mysterious about the movements, with their African roots. The strikingly handsome Brazilian instructor embodied every universally desired masculine physical trait and moved with a strength and elegance I had never seen before. I was a fish out of water.

To witness a game of capoeira is to be mesmerized and enchanted by its beauty and playfulness. Accompanied by singing and music, it is incredibly seductive and draws both players and spectators alike into its grip. To play it, especially in the beginning, is to sometimes feel anxious, vulnerable, intimidated and as clumsy as a drunk monkey. Maybe trying to be that person who can contribute something so beautiful, powerful and graceful to the world is a reason to persist, to feel the energy surging through your body and being part of a group where everyone feels the same intensity and ecstasy.

Instructor Zumbi in Action (left)

At my first festival (Batizado) in Seoul, I was spellbound by the mental and physical acrobatics I saw and questioned by own perceived limits. There is a depth and agility to capoeira that can never be defined. It is infinite and unfathomable. Instructor Zumbi, imbued with manna and projecting the spirit of the Brazilian warrior he is named after stood firm in front of the participants and told us to look around at those in the room. We are gathered here in friendship and fellowship, he said, and the people we sit beside now will come to play an increasingly important role in our lives as we continue this journey.

Mestre Acordeon (2nd from right) and Mestra Suelly flanked by other capoeira royalty (Tico, Kenta, Versatil, Chicote).

Mestre Acordeon, a brilliant and revered man who bears a striking resemblance to Santa Claus, has achieved incredible accomplishments, both within the capoeria universe and out. He has taken capoiera out of the roda (circle) and into the world through activism and philanthropy. His lectures were profound. I took away one simple truth: “Capoeira is about awareness and perception.” By his side was Mestra Suelly, the first female capoeira master born in the United States.

In a traditionally male dominated art, and one that places value on masculine traits (physical prowess), how inspirational to see a woman with such high status. Always firm and strong, she was in complete command, her singing dramatic and spine-tingling. She scrawled her wisdom on one of our girl’s instruments: “Stay long on the path of capoeira.” These words provide a reminder that sometimes the most challenging path can be the most rewarding. Slowly, ginga by ginga, there is a deepening of understanding and awareness, a new way of being in the world.

Mestre Acordeon getting his players ready for action

Of course, Mestre Acordeon in his infinite wisdom must have the last word. In writing about the day he ‘baptized’ Mestra Suelly to the rank of master, he reflects, “In essence, capoeira is a ritualized combat that functions as a vehicle of individual expression through which the capoeirista –­ a fighter, a philosopher on an introspective journey, and ultimately an artist that practices her art with her own body, emotion and spirit — finds her whole self.”