La Plata, Argentina — A light on in the sky, the moon, glows defiantly on the steps of the Humanidades branch of the
He is my American friend, from Chicago, a fellow English instructor and teacher of capoeira. Like me, he is learning to adapt to life in another country by doing the things that he always loved, but didn’t have the time or money to do in the States. This is one of the consolations, we tell ourselves, for keeping so far from our homes.
The Roda or circle, actually shaped more like a horseshoe closed at the end by a bench of seated musicians, surrounding the players of capoeira makes room for us with peripheral acknowledgements. They remain focused on the play within the circle, singing along to the call and response of the musicians. There are no fixed positions within the Roda; people constantly shuffle to enter inside and join the teacher in play or to grab an instrument; to change an instrument from say a rasp to a Pandeiro, or from a Pandeiro to an Atabaque (a conga-like drum), or from responding to the call ringing out in the hollow sounding room to leading it. All the while, the movement of the players shifts as their bodies spin and dive, jabbing a neck forward or falling back onto their hands, standing on their heads, twirling or colliding. Capoeira is more than a dance, he explains, a fluidity of movement, following the rhythm of the music. It is a way of looking at the world, of accepting what it throws at you and responding with grace and style. This is an essential frame of mind for a foreigner living abroad.
There is a desire among the players to smile as they feign battle. Occasionally, the players become overexcited, a kick or an errant arm flies too far, and their bodies, abandoned to the forces of inertia, spill into the seated Roda as the people gasp and block or duck. They seem to enjoy this part and smile after order is restored and the players continue. Everyone is supposed to participate, to get a chance to play, but we are just observers, a little reticent, yet focused, determined to absorb, to accept what we can without getting in the way. But in an important way, this is not possible in capoeira.
It is my friend’s birthday and his partner has invited us to surprise him. Eventually, she retires to the far end of the room and disappears for some moments behind a wall. She returns with a cake in hand as she directs the Roda to begin the birthday song with a sort of desperate nod. The candles are lit and the lambent flames look like folded hands over the surface of the chocolate cake, quickly joining by their dense proximity together into one bursting exhalation as she tries to give it over to him. And he can not stop. Others have not yet gotten their chance to play and he can’t just stop there in the middle of everything to blow out the candles. His partner stands for a short eternity in the middle of the Roda holding this flaming cake as he continues introducing and engaging new players. He is not exactly ignoring her presence; rather he is ambivalent in relation to it.
There is perhaps a brief moment where he pauses, searching himself, comparing the relative importance of rituals. Ever intent on keeping everyone involved, he makes questioning faces at those who implore him; is this not a celebration, he asks? She places the cake on the floor in the middle of the Roda and he looks down briefly, taking note so he can ignore it later, pass his body over it as if it were yet another obstacle with which to avoid confrontation. An awful urgency forces us to laugh as we cannot help but focus on the cake, the players playing over it, taunting it, whose surface is now ablaze, being fueled by a liquid layer of wax and sugar bubbling up and falling over the edge. The emboldened players whirl an arm, a leg through the flame, stamp down a foot next to the cake, even try and blow it out as they handstand over it. The cake is another warrior of the Roda and blowing on it only serves to feed it with more smoke and larger flame. The cake is now officially on fire, dripping frosting and wax-melt as the sweat drips from the straining bodies in the Roda. The session ends with a great round of applause and relief as my friend’s partner hurries the cake back into the room where she had hid it earlier, in hopes of surprising him, to douse the flames with lemon juice.