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Capoeira para todEs

Capoeira para todEs

In the movements, histories, and communities of capoeira and vogue, the multidisciplinary artist Puma Camilê found not only space to freely move in but also potent tools for collective emancipation. Reaching back to the beginning of the 16th century, capoeira’s development is deeply entwined with the history of Brazil’s Black community and its continuous oppression. Much more recently, vogueing originated from Harlem’s Black and Brown LGBT circles in the second half of the last century. In conversation with Ariel Ajeno, Camilê addresses the whitewashing and commercialization that both practices are confronted with. Grounded in their embodied knowledge of the practices and their broader cultural contexts, the two also discuss gender performance and its relation to insurgent social reproduction.

Ariel Ajeno: I want to start by asking you about the intersection of capoeira and vogue, both in terms of how they broadly relate to each other and how they specifically meet in your own existential territory.

Puma Camilê: I see capoeira and vogue as two forms of circular flow that we accept into our bodies. They involve incorporating personas or archetypes in order to give quality to movement and change how we are able to move in the world. The personas that capoeira brings in move alongside our inner child and close to the ground, laughing at the same time. We access a little of our malandragem, our trickery: a transgression of what one wouldn’t otherwise say or do. There is a cure that arises from that place. I am a daughter of Exu, an orixá that carries the title, among others, of Obá Oritá Metá – lord of the crossroads. He is associated with movement, plurality, exchange, flux, and communication. [1] At the core of the concept of the crossroads lie the possibilities of how things might proceed. That is central to capoeira and vogue: in these practices we do not control the information and outcome but instead suggest possibilities. That is also true of my existence, not only in my experience of my body but also in my existence as a part of “Capoeira para todEs,” [2] a multidisciplinary queer and trans artistic collective. Vogue and capoeira are recognizable forms that have gained names. But, names can only serve to delimit the magnitude of these vital technologies and how they engage with various symbols and associated ways of being. Capoeira calls back to the preto velho, the caboclo, their mannerisms, the accent of the singing of the sea. [3] This marks capoeira’s sophistication. Vogue does the same kind of thing but moves from the body outward. So, at the crossroads of capoeira and vogue you find flow without limitation: capoeira presents paths of strategy and vogue provides authenticity and audacity.

AA: Described in that way, embodiment almost sounds dialectical: the body as a site of encounter between the uniquely personal and the resources as well as constraints of history. Ancestrality and communal strategic knowledge together enable the expression of our haecceity, that which makes us unique, our “isness.” [4] At the same time, our own bodies bring new potential, quality, and life to that which came before. To follow this line of thought, let’s turn toward the personal. First off, how did these practices enter your life?

PC: When I was seven or eight, capoeira entered my life at school, a place with a lot of focus on blue and pink. Capoeira felt like the first real thing that challenged gender and it attracted me because, for once, I didn’t have to force myself to play soccer with the boys. It offered me an alternative space in which I could experience my body first and foremost as a moving body. Capoeira invited me to explore my embodiment. At the same time, it offered something else to me as a Black person. In Brazil, Black people often run away from being the center of attention. But when capoeira put me in the spotlight, I got applause. Capoeira changed things inside me that not even I had noticed before, and it made me break limiting beliefs I had held. Far beyond the physical, musical, interactive practices, capoeira changed my gender and my relationship to community. I saw how a community can act circularly and continuously as well as provide a space for contemplating my embodiment, something that I had never experienced before with pleasure. My first engagement with capoeira only lasted for two months. The contract the school had with the teacher ended, and I would have needed family support to continue participating. Unfortunately, I had family members that were suspicious and less than supportive due to capoeira’s connection to Afro-Brazilian culture and religion. Later, from age 13 to 18, a “more respectable,” whitewashed version of capoeira came back into my life, though it lacked certain songs, it lacked the drum, and had various other limitations. After starting my degree, I began skipping university to go practice capoeira and realized that capoeira is in my heart. So I joined a group that led me all over the world and to more than 30 countries. During that time, I began to see how capoeira is valued because of the extraordinary physicality it can entail. It is perceived like a circus act. In the end, that version of capoeira didn’t sustain me or speak to who I was, because I was intrigued by different bodily aspects of the practice.

AA: How did your encounter with vogue affect that experience?

PC: In 2019, I came across ballroom for the first time. Initially, I confused vogue with capoeira: I saw a roda – a circle. There was mastery, musicality, instruments, hands, legs, moving up and down, everyone applauding. When I got closer, I saw several bodies in skirts, in heels, kicking, moving around, spinning, and that was extraordinary for me. I found a piece of me that I didn’t know how to express externally and re-encountered myself in a way that wasn’t possible before.

AA: Vogue spoke to a part of you that was not addressed by capoeira.

PC: Capoeira has been shaped by the dominant perspective of men in ways that mean it has come to center sport and performance. As part of their practice, capoeiristas talk a lot about ancestry, but they rarely criticize the system in an anti-colonial way, and this includes doing things like critiquing gender. So, ballroom gave me a new lease on life, another way of looking at the world and critiquing it from my embodied existence. Alongside my speech, my body became a weapon as well. I found myself cultivating and weaponizing more aspects of my corporeality and discovered that life is a performance. Before, I performed masculinity – today, I choose to perform femininity because it fits much more with who Puma Camilê is and requires a lot less effort and force to perform.

Puma Camilê

Puma Camilê

AA: It sounds like capoeira and vogue are Afro-diasporic practices that bring different and distinct things to the table. Can you expand on how capoeira and vogue complement each other?

PC: Earlier, I showed you a video of Nêgo Bispo and Avelin Kambiwá receiving me. I think of that image: the oldest, the pajé, the shaman, the master of the quilombo [5] , encountering the travesti [6] and her own transgressiveness. In other words, capoeira encountering vogue: the youth who doesn’t have a grandparent still encountering a wise and politicized ancestor, the capoeirista learning from ballroom how to step out of the roda to use their capacity for expression and commanding attention in a different context. Capoeira provides an opportunity for travestis to encounter our ancestry, to direct attention to the generation of our grandparents, which is what capoeira talks about, the mestres and mestras [masters]. Travestis, especially when they are Black, often do not have access to their grandparents because they are usually kicked out of the house by their mothers and fathers. They do, however, have access to an important understanding of the body as technological. Travestis have understood that matter is not so real and is often limiting. We’re not afraid of death, of materiality, and are therefore able to edit our corporeal existences through doing things like taking hormones or other less medicalized processes. I change my external being in order to be able to live an Afro-futuristic future that has a more horizontal, continuous perspective: a spiral, a circle that never returns to the same place, a roda which is similar to the concept of capoeira’s roda. But whereas the latter goes back to the ancestors, the ballroom roda continues to the ancestors of the future, to people living in the present.

AC: In your account, both capoeira and vogue are political inheritances that have a lot to offer in struggles for collective emancipation. Yet, at the same time, they both have significant limitations.

PC: Yes. Having a travesti body is already a big challenge to the system. It’s very critical. But we still don’t understand how to mobilize that experience collectively or with the right political force. Capoeira, on the other hand, only works collectively. It often falls short in creating room for difference and individual expression. So I see a connection between the old man and travesti, between the one with the wisdom of knowing the paths of colonial destruction and the one who has the power to change. Unlike capoeira, ballroom already knows how to productively use capitalism without tainting itself, as it was formed in the midst of the Cold War, the HIV/AIDS pandemic, and capitalism beating socialism and communism as the dominant global ideology. The ball is a strategy to be able to move with who and what you have around you. Everything capitalism loves, ballroom uses – although only as a means of access. But, at the same time, ballroom lacks access to the ancestral forms of resistance: knowledge of how to collectively move up and down – of how to topple systems.

AA: Capoeira, if you hear many teachers advertise it, is intrinsically the very image of freedom. But that doesn’t necessarily align with what they teach and how. Or their politics, for that matter: my first teacher talked a big game about capoeira and freedom but is now a major Bolsonaro supporter. Both his politics and narrow view of what was appropriate to train and express are what caused me to stop practicing for so long. There was a long time when training felt incompatible with living honestly as a queer and trans person.

PC: It is very sad to hear this, but it’s real. My transition happened when I got to know ballroom, and it happened because that roda is more diverse. Vogue gives expression to our uniqueness. While capoeira can and should do same, it is limited by how it has been co-opted. The image of capoeira might be a practice of bodily freedom, but in action that is not what happens, because it consists of very ready-made forms. Capoeira looks at the archive of Black ancestors and takes set things from it as if they were law. But really all that the ancestors passed on were suggestions. The rabo de arraia (the most emblematic kick of capoeira) is a good idea from my ancestor. That’s why I speak of Mestre Pastinha, I speak of Mestre João Grande, I speak of Mestre João Pequeno, because they are ancestors who suggested excellent ideas. What they brought to capoeira is not an immobile logic. So, when I talk about capoeira, it’s not about reproducing a specific thing or winning by some set of rules but more about what your body can do, how your body can attack, how your body can dodge – and all that for you to manage moving in context. Yet, capoeira is taught all over the world by and for large groups of white people with a fundamentally Eurocentric reference to “right” and “wrong” forms, so capoeira has already been co-opted and codified by the oppressor. That’s where ballroom comes in. It challenges that. It’s true that ballroom is now being co-opted, but that’s happening in different ways. The world has started to talk about vogue, so there will soon be “right” and “wrong,” “can” and “can’t.” Still, ballroom can speak volumes about a unique place, a place into which I am bringing capoeira again, with my existence, where we can be whoever we want. I can manifest my uniqueness in the capoeira roda the way I do in ballroom and, no matter what anyone says, that’s not a problem, that’s something to be applauded.

AA: What you’re talking about is much more important than just a formal or aesthetic concern about imitation being done to the detriment of expression. The sportification of capoeira represents a kind of epistemicide – a wholesale selective appropriation, elimimination, and whitening, effectively an elimination, of the art.

PC: Exactly. The process I do with capoeira is to rescue it by bringing it to a place much closer to African spiritual practices and ways of knowing and to the freedom they direct us toward. My work involves understanding the subliminal codes of elegance that exist within capoeira and the subliminal codes of elegance that exist in ballroom and translating them so that people can experience freedom in their body and in their life, musically and bodily in community – and, why not, as a gateway to African spirituality. In that light, I do not understand the body as something to perform or judge as right or wrong, good or bad. Practices like capoeira and vogue are an arrow, a beacon to point out inflexibility, capacity. They are a way for you to realize how you connect with the world, how you struggle or are inflexible in some places and what that is tied to. They are a way for you to break out of stasis, to find out what you need, to act on that, to move more easily, and to live better. Capoeira is a technology. Capoeira is psychotherapy for the oppressed who don’t have access to the European system of psychology and therefore search in their own spiritual body. I can’t just do capoeira movements, I need to talk to someone who understands my political body. But with vogue’s understanding alongside that spiritual access, I have really been able to release things in the body so that the feeling is freed.

Puma Camilê

Puma Camilê

AA: The process of capoeira’s embranquecimento, or whitening, has an institutional and organizational life. Much of the international spread of capoeira at the end of the ’80s and the beginning of the ’90s can be traced to a self-described “Italian impresario” named Franco Fontana who produced the international touring review show Oba Oba. [7] The show’s website brags about recruiting and internationally showcasing over 650 Brazilian artists and that “the average Oba Oba girls [sic] is 5'9", [weighs] 115 lbs., and has measurements of 36" – 26" – 37".” [8] So what exactly was Oba Oba showcasing? What does that say about who could take part and why? I know the show is how many of the most influential capoeira teachers and groups got a foothold in the United States and other places internationally. What impact did that kind of successful international “folkloric” production have on capoeira’s spread? How has capoeira’s development as a cultural manifestation for export shaped what it looks like today?

PC: When capoeira stopped being a crime, it became institutionalized with uniform and military rank: Colonel, Major, Captain, Mestre, Contremestre, Professor – it’s patently the same thing as the Navy. All the people lined up, training in lines. It was then that capoeira gained significant popularity, and people who had access to this form of institutionalization were the people in university or who occupied a similar place. Many of these were tied to the government, and the government financed many mestres to travel all over Brazil. It did so to bring forth a new capoeira that did not criticize the system. So, the strategy was to remove an important part – the subversive character of criticism – and bring it to the sportive place, because the sport, the performance, the “folklore” of capoeira is much more “enchanting” than its politics. And at that moment, capoeira started to go to Europe, to other places, taking this “folkloric” place. “Folkloric” is a dangerous thing to be because folklore doesn’t change. It’s just like it always was. Distorted and fixed by white gaze, the capoeirista is Black, has a certain kind of pants and shirt, a fit body, dreadlocks, dark skin, and he jumps. That’s how capoeira “has” to be. It was turned into a stereotype, described as an essentialized way of being. We lost the music, the speech, the ancestral meanings of the roda. In other words, we lost the magic part, the mandinga, the berimbau, [9] the subversive part where I sing and criticize the system and tell the story of someone who is not included in the history books. This is what whiteness did to capoeira: It entered. It learned the bare minimum. It took away all the meanings that it did not understand, that were not for it to teach, that needed to be lived within Africanity. It took money from foreigners without teaching what capoeira is and sold an illusion of capoeira instead. It became depoliticized and extractive, tied to an immense amount of extortion. The logics of Exu, of plurality, of exchange were missing.

AA: This brings me to the legacy of the film Paris Is Burning from 1990. It is fraught for several reasons, the most significant of which is that the director was a white lesbian from outside the community she documented. She managed to build an entire career out of that film. She gained a lot of money and opportunities that never made their way into the community that was so central to her work.

PC: It was not a real exchange.

AA: If you are not giving anything in return, you are not exchanging, you are stealing.

PC: Exactly

AA: Speaking of the instrumentalization of capoeira alongside Paris Is Burning brings to mind critiques of queer theory by trans scholars and activists. Ballroom was such an important reference point for queer theorists like Judith Butler. It became emblematic of the possibility of queer transgression. Yet that treatment was instrumentalizing. It was not created in direct conversation with the communities that inspired it and it failed to include or consider community members’ accounts of their own experience. An image of Black and trans bodies, an image outside a real, enlivened relation, was mined for potential. And what’s the afterlife of all this theory that was done on the back of Paris Is Burning? Who has it helped? And who has paid the cost? The answers to those questions are anything but heartening.

PC: This is an inevitable process that we can critique, but we do not have the strength to prevent it from happening. So, then, what is our strategy? That we enter the system? It’s from within that we can work to bring criticism. Ballroom has the key to enter the system, and capoeira is capable of levying strong critiques, and it has a history of doing so, but it needs to regain an understanding of the necessary exchange that must be made with African people, both on the continent itself and in the Brazilian and wider diasporas. Practicing capoeira requires being in conversation with Black people and practices and also presents an opportunity to deeply engage with African diasporic practices and logics. I’m talking about engaging things like samba, maracatu, congado, frevo, cavalo marinho, coco, jongo, even religious practices such as Candomblé and Quimbanda. There are mathematical codes within this wisdom, this community which carries a lot of symbols, a lot of knowledge, a lot of aesthetic specificity I don’t want this to be lost. We need to find informational mechanisms to make this in fact the reality of people who experience capoeira. Capoeira is only capoeira when it manages to bring the community with it.

AA: That was the reason I wanted to talk to you, not write a review or essay or something like that, because I think it’s very important to have someone from Brazil, someone Black, a travesti communicating directly about her work. It’s important that you help frame the conversation about what you’re doing. It may be small, but it’s something, right?

PC: I’m not the solution, but I come to provoke people. Capoeira and vogue impel people to look for a different world. They ignite something inside them. They light a critical flame with less overt violence and more strategy. Capoeira doesn’t strike directly. Capoeira is not combat fighting. Capoeira goes along the edges, it fits in the gaps, and its criticism enters the system. With performance, with critique, capoeira and vogue can gesture towards questions and possibilities. How do I understand my image? How can I reconfigure it? The questions that need to be asked are different for people with different backgrounds. It doesn’t make sense to act like everyone is the same. But they lead in the same direction. How do I look back at history and decide what I want to reproduce going forward? How can I change myself from the image made by the oppressor? Who am I inside a practice? What weapons and strategies do I have at my disposal? Capoeira and vogue help us know how to proceed.

Ariel Ajeno is a writer, dancer, and independent scholar whose work focuses on pedagogy, insurgent social reproduction, and the complex relationships between gender, ability, ritual, and community.

Puma Camilê is a multidisciplinary artist who aims to empower people to investigate themselves, find their potential, and develop tools to challenge systemic oppression. She draws on the ancestral traditions and trickery of capoeira developed as a means of survival, and on the audacity to love and exist outside of cisnormative judgments that is so essential to ballroom.

Image credit: Caio Oviedo


[1]Exu is an important figure in Yoruba culture and traditional religion who has had a significant influence on a number of manifestations of Afro-Brazilian religion, such as Candomblé Ketu, Quimbanda, and Umbanda. Recent anti-colonial theory in Brazil by authors such as Luiz Rufino and Bàbá Sidnei Nogueira uses Exu as the basis for an Afrocentric pedagogy and epistemology of the crossroads. See Rufino’s Pedagogia das Encruzilhadas (2019) and Nogueira’s Giro Epistemológico para uma Educação Antirracista (2022).
[2]The name “Capoeira para todEs” means “capoeira for all” in English. The spelling is stylized to emphasize the use of the gender neutral and inclusive form “todes.” It signals both the explicit inclusion of trans and nonbinary people as well as a feminist refusal to form a plural for a diverse group by using the masculine inflection of a word.
[3]The figures of the preto velho, caboclo, and marinheiro are important within a number Afro-Brazilian religion traditions, most relevantly Umbanda and Candomblé de Caboclo. Through trance, mounting, and religious ritual, these figures act as guides. Embodying them serves important communal functions.
[4]“Isness” is a term is taken from Sun Ra. The connection between haecceity and “isness” is taken from the work of interdisciplinary artist and theorist Txgen Meyer.
[5]Historically, the term quilombo described predominately Afro-diasporic communities consisting largely of escaped slaves. In this usage, it refers to something similar to maroon communities within the United States and palenques within predominantly Spanish-speaking parts of the Americas. Over time, however, the word has gained a wider meaning. The etymology of the quilombo refers back to the Kimbundu word kilombo, literally meaning “war camp,” and it’s with this meaning in mind that one can approach the broader significance of the term beyond a description of specific communities with a particular shared history. The quilombo is not just a place to resist and prepare for battle but a community that engages in all the practices necessary for resistance and communal survival. It is a site of gathering, care, learning, and mutual aid as much as it is a site for more overt forms of political action and resistance.
[6]It would be incorrect to directly translate travesti to “transvestite.” Rather, travesti is a term used within Brazil and Latin America with its own meaning and parameters. There is a growing movement in Brazil and Latin American countries valorizing local cultural formations and opposing importing queer theory and identity categories part and parcel from the United States and Europe.
[9]A musical bow of African origin used by capoeiristas.