Batizado: the Capoeira Initiation Rite

At my Capoeira academy we do not test for promotion. The mestre, Mestre Vaguinho, feels that he knows his students well and that he knows whether each of us is ready to move on to the next cord or whether we should remain where we are for another year. In Capoeira, promotions take place at an event called a Batizado, which occurs more or less annually.

The word batizado is Portuguese for baptism. The event takes its name from the word because students receiving their first cord are said to be baptized into the art.

I found the event aptly named, because for me it was a secular initiatory experience. "Secular" because while Capoeira is many things, it is not a religion or magical tradition.

"Initiatory," because I experienced the three stages of initiation delineated by Arnold van Gennep in his classic treatise The Rites of Passage: separation, transition and re-incorporation.

But before I begin the scholarly analysis, let me describe the experience and how I approached it.

First, I freely admit that actions I took leading up to my Batizado contributed to its impact. I had been training for almost eighteen months before my academy held a Batizado, and in that time I refused opportunities to attend those held by other academies: I wanted my first Batizado to be my own.

I even avoided asking questions about format and activities so that as much of it would be a surprise as possible.

This much I knew. At some point during the event I would play Capoeira with a mestre, a master capoeirista, and that the game would end when he put me on the ground. It was kind of an intimidating prospect, but one should feel a certain level of trepidation approaching an initiation.

During the week before the Batizado I found myself thinking a good deal about my time training at Capoeira of San JosÚ - the people I had met as well as what I had learned about the art, its traditions and folklore, Brazilian culture and about myself.

Capoeira had become an important part of my life, and the Batizado was an acknowledgement of that as well as what progress I had made in training.

Also during that week I realized that this ceremony would serve as my introduction to the world of Capoeira beyond the walls of my academy. There would be mestres and students from many different academies in attendance.

This thought steeled my determination to play well, even though my game would be hampered by two slipped discs in my lower back. I would try to play with as much style, grace and flow as possible, but not out of personal vanity. I would be representing my school. The visiting capoeiristas would not know who Stefon is. They would look at me and see a student of Mestre Vaguinho. I wanted them to see something worth watching.

It probably sounds as though I was putting a lot of pressure on myself, but I was not. I was very busy that week. There was my thirty-second birthday, a party to prepare for, unpacking to do at home and more. I simply had very little time for worrying.

As such I did not even feel nervous when I arrived at the academy on that fateful day. It was all too surreal. The academy furniture had all been re-arranged to provide easier access and seating for the guests and spectators. There was an overhead video screen set up, with its image being fed from a large, professional camera pointed at the main roda, the circle in which Capoeira is played.

I was in the back room stretching and loosening up when the butterflies began flitting about in my stomach. Some of the other students who were receiving their first cords were talking about their incipient baptism.

Some were discussing moves they wanted to work into the game. Others feared that they would be hurt, or simply overwhelmed, by the mestre.

When asked my opinion on these matters, I said simply, "I just want to go in there, play my game, and make it out in one piece." My tone was light, but my nerves were on edge.

Then came the waiting. I was limbered up and as ready as I would get. The spectators were settled in their places, the students were ready, but we were waiting for something.

And waiting we were. How long we waited I could not say. Between nerves and excitement I had lost my sense of time. It might as easily have been five minutes as an hour.

The event itself began with a few words from Mestre Vaguinho, providing a brief explanation of the ceremony as well as introducing the mestres and professors and welcoming guests from other academies.

Next he called forward the visiting mestres and a few of the graduate students. Together they began the music, an integral part of Capoeira. They started with a ladainha, a song traditionally used to open the roda and let the games commence.

Those receiving their first promotion, my group, were called to form the circle. We would go first.

I was second in line behind a young boy named Javier. His game was over before I knew it, and suddenly it was my time.

I crouched at the foot of the berimbau, the main instrument of Capoeira. Facing me was Mestre Papiba. Together we awaited the signal to begin our game.

When the sign was given, I made a gesture of respect to the roda, then to the berimbau. I looked up at Mestre Papiba but did not see him. In his place I saw an avatar. I had the sudden feeling that my game would not be with a man, but with Capoeira itself.

In that moment my mind grew still. Gone were any worries, plans or movements. Gone was my awareness of anything but the game. I took a deep breath and began to play.

The game itself was a lot of fun. This was no trial by fire. Instead, it was full of give and take with a playful and welcoming tone, as both set and reflected by the casual tempo of the berimbau.

Still, though we call it a game, Capoeira can be very dangerous. Mestre Papiba ended our game with a gentle reminder of this; instead of the customary takedown, he gave me a cabešada, a head-butt, to the rib cage. It was just a tap delivered with a smile, but the message was clear. If he had wanted to, he could have hurt me with that strike and knocked me well out of the roda.

But I had only a moment to realize that, because this was a time for celebration, not contemplation. With that cabešada I had been baptized.

I became aware of the world once more and heard the crowd applauding. Mestre Papiba embraced me and tied my new green cord around my waist. As I left the roda to take my place with the students I heard him say, "I like this one."

Now to look once more at the criteria established by van Gennep: separation, transition and re-incorporation.

Separation, for me, began with the waiting period before the Batizado actually started. This is when my sense of time grew distorted. At this point the students, those awaiting initiation, were separated from the audience.

This may seem like a small thing, since there were no barriers: just a designated area where we stood. The difference was mental. They were here to watch and we were here to act.

My awareness of the separation increased when my group was called to the roda. Instead of being one among fifty, I was now one among twenty. We who formed that circle were doing this for the first time. Even though we would be going into the roda individually, there was a sense that we were all in this together.

The separation was complete when I crouched under the berimbau before my game began. In that moment I was alone. What would follow would depend on how well I had learned in my time at the academy.

Strictly speaking, the transition phase was the game itself. It is during the game that we show what we have learned and are rewarded by the transformative act of baptism.

When the mestre gives the student a takedown, or in my case a cabešada, it is in that moment that the student is baptized. He or she is now a capoeirista.

The transition, in this case, is followed immediately by re-incorporation. The moment the student is baptized the music stops, the applause begins and the student is welcomed back into the community with hugs and congratulations.

With that the initiation is complete. Since Capoeira is a secular art, the ceremony is primarily a formality. It serves as an acknowledgment of what the student has already accomplished.

Still, the Batizado follows the basic format of an initiation rite. A student who approaches it in the right frame of mind may come away with more than just a length of cord. I know I did.

(originally published in The Witches' Trine, Volume 13, Number 1)

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