Don’t get kicked in the face and other tips for beginners

by Trevor Gregg (Trovão)

Trovão, a veteran capoeirista, good friend and excellent writer, has come up with an excellent assortment of tips and advice for beginners. This is a must read for all capoeira beginners (especially with batizado on the horizon).

Batizado season is upon us.  Panicked and eager, beginners are crowding our rodas and academies.  Slightly off-beat clapping and mispronounced, mumbled lyrics ring in the air.  Gearing up for our own batizado, our instructors have been teaching a series of fundamentals workshops just to get the white-belts ready for their big day.  Aww, look at them doing their little cartwheels.  They grow up so fast!

Seeing beginners struggle, train, and play brings back vivid memories of my own long and difficult initiation in capoeira.  Making mistakes, and hopefully learning from them, is every initiate’s burden to bear.  I consider myself somewhat of an authority on beginner mistakes, not because I have any sort of talent or ability but rather because I’ve made nearly every mistake possible.  Many of them several times over.

A few things I’ve been taught, then, to help the next generation survive the coming months.

1)  When in doubt, do what the higher belts do.

Capoeira has few ‘rules’ per se, but makes up for it with a staggering amount of traditions, manners, customs, and obscure points of etiquette.  There are far too many subtle but important tenets to learn early on in one’s capoeira career, and there is certainly no definitive list of them.  What few customs are explicitly told to you as a beginner are but the smallest pile of snowflakes atop the massive iceberg.  The poor man’s solution, then, is to watch how the veteran capoeiristas behave, especially towards their ‘betters’.  Watch the way your instructor enters a roda when playing a mestre.  How do they buy in?  Do they show straight kicks, rasteiras? (Hint: no.)  Do they stop the game?  Throw palmas and elbows?  (Hint: No also.)  Pick a couple of high cords, pay close attention to them, and if they aren’t getting yelled at or kicked by the mestres chances are whatever they’re doing is ‘right’ and can be safely emulated.

2)  Escape, don’t flinch.

There will come a day when your instincts, sharpened by years of intense training and abuse, will serve you so well that a solid escape will be a completely natural response to any assault.  Whether it’s kicks in the roda, fly balls at the baseball game, water balloons, wild pumas, whatever, you’ll be such an excellent capoeirista that you’ll esquiva any and all attacks with grace and dexterity.  That day is probably not today.  Thus, you must make a direct and conscious effort not to just flail away from kicks and takedowns.  When another player comes at you, even if you’re surprised, do not flinch or flop around on the ground.  Swatting the air like you’re battling bees is not proper technique.  Instead, evade carefully and discriminantly, like you’ve been taught.  Choose an esquiva from your repertoire and execute it.  Did you do it perfectly? Maybe.  Probably not.  But any esquiva you can walk away from is a good one.

3)  Make your kicks count.

Every kick you throw opens you up to a variety of counterattacks, sweeps, and takedowns.  To minimize this inherent vulnerability, make your kicks matter.  Many capoeiristas, particularly beginners, have a tendency to kick too often and with too little intent.  Setting aside technique, the two essential considerations in an effective kick are distance and aim.  You can throw a textbook perfect armada, the kind of beautiful movement that brings a tear to your mestre’s eye, but if you do it when you’re fifteen feet away from your opponent it’s completely wasted.  At best it’s a pointless and energy-wasting decoration.  At worst it’s an opportunity for your opponent to pull out your support leg and ruin your evening.  A kick that’s properly distanced, however, forces the recipient to escape before doing anything, including kicking you back.  Whether you’re playing a beginner or a veteran, it’s guaranteed that your opponent’s priorities will be as follows:

1) Get to safety
2) RETALIATE

If they can skip number 1, it leaves them all the more time to work on number 2.

The second factor in an effective kick is intent.  Beginners are often overly sympathetic, which results in various sloppy habits: pulled kicks, ludicrously slow or stalled movements, and awkward roda apologies.  Forget all that.  Aim your kicks.  Strike to hit.  If you throw a clean, effective kick and your opponent doesn’t avoid it, that’s their fault, not yours.  Don’t mistake my meaning: intent is not the same thing as anger.  A kick can have intent and be still be controlled, courteous, even friendly.  I’m not suggesting you dive into the roda with murder in your heart, ready to lay waste to all comers and make a trophy necklace with their ears.  That’s low-class.  Simply make sure your opponent understands that there is a penalty, however slight, associated with not avoiding your attacks.

In the long run, effective kicks are just as important to your safety as good esquivas.  When you’re training, or playing with your friends, often times people will escape from your kicks even when it’s not necessary.  Don’t rely on this; you will come across people who only dodge when necessary, people who will take every advantage of your crappy kicks.  Getting the courtesy dodge from your opponent should be just as embarrassing as getting the courtesy laugh after telling a bland joke.

Don’t be that person that expects the courtesy laugh, or the courtesy esquiva.  He/she has no friends and is shunned at parties.

4)  Whatever happens in the roda, don’t stop.

Every beginner goes deer-in-the-headlights at some point.  Capoeira has a steep learning curve, and beginners lack both the vocabulary of moves and the understanding of the game to deal with every situation.  That being said, it’s always better to do something than nothing.  If you’re not sure how to react to what the other player is doing, just do what you know.  Ginga, au, kick, whatever.  However awkward and silly the thing you’re doing seems, it’s quite a bit better than just standing there.  Holding still gives your opponent an open invitation to force you to move, either by making you escape an attack or by pushing you out of the roda so they can interact with someone less catatonic.  Everyone, regardless of level, will encounter situations in the roda for which they’re not prepared.  It happens to me often: my opponent will be doing some crazy no-handed physics-defying backflippy thing that is entirely impossible to respond to and I’m left completely at a loss.  Still, I force myself to do something, ginga, floreo, handstands, whatever.  Waiting like a bump on a log, however, is not a viable option.

This point is especially applicable after a takedown.  Remember that a successful rasteira or vengativa is not always the end of the game.  If you’re a low cord, it’s best to let your opponent decide when or if to reset the game.  If you’re swept, do not lie prone and expect the other player to give you time to recover.  Sometimes they will, sometimes they won’t.  There are players who are as likely to jump on you as give you a hand up.  So get back up, post haste.  Laying flat with a smile on one’s face or giving your opponent a thumb’s up is not a valid defensive posture.  Role away, keep your hands up, and do whatever you have to to regain your composure and continue the game.

5)  Stop looking at the ground.  Seriously.

The ground will not kick you, but the same cannot be said of the person you’re playing.  Watch them instead.  Recognize that your desire to look at the floor is like a toddler’s security blanket; it might make you feel better, but is of no practical use when you’re in danger.  The sooner you learn to live without it the better.  Don’t be that weird kid in fifth grade who still can’t leave the house without his binkie.

6)  Enjoy yourself.

You’ll reach an important milestone, a day when the enjoyment you get out of capoeira finally eclipses the sheer terror you feel when entering the roda.  This more than any other achievement will help you on your way to greatness.  You’ll quickly find yourself more relaxed, more creative, and more inspired to play.  It is a game, after all, and you’ll play better when you’re having a good time.  The more you play, the more comfortable you’ll get in the roda.

So go play.

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