Capoeira is far more cultural than most sports. Before the legions of football and baseball hooligans charge me with their pitchforks and lynch me, allow me to explain. It may not reach many people outside of Brazil, but it comes a long list of etiquette you need to adhere to, as well having very strong ties to music, carnival and general festivities. Forgetting the etiquette can be seen very harshly. No different to civility and politeness in general society, if you forget your manners you’ll end on people’s bad sides. Or at the end of one of their feet.
So some basic etiquette to remember: Don’t pick on people weaker than you. Don’t be quiet. Don’t start until the hodda allows you too. Have respect for your partner. Don’t interrupt higher players. Occasionally relieve those playing instruments so that they may have a go too. The list goes on, and it’s that list that helps make capoeira a richer and kinder experience.
There was one particular rule I struggled with.
You can wear whatever you like to an extent but there is a white uniform. This should be worn on Sundays and for big events like batizados. Originally in Brazil, the idea was that whites could easily become dirty so wearing white should only be for best. Capoeira adopted the same concept, of showing respect to a club and to the hodda using a white uniform to be worn on special occasions. So the whole point of it, is to keep it clean. Unfortunately it’s very difficult to not get dirty. For a start, you spend a lot of the sport rolling your body on the ground like an ecstatically happy dog. If you’re not on the ground, you’re often moving at high panic-induced speed, donating half your body weight in sweat to your pristine clothes. On top of it all, you can’t buy the uniform just anywhere and it’s expensive too.
The uniforms we’d ordered from Brazil came in, and knowing how difficult they were to get, I didn’t want to make any mistakes. So I went up to Pele, one of the teachers, and interrogated him. When you got your own uniform in Brazil, how did you clean it? Can it shrink in the wash? Should I worry about using different cleaning products? Does it stain easily? His reply: hmmmmmmm, it can do. We always washed ours in the river. Just water, and maybe a little soap. But we always used to hand wash it.
Ok. Hand wash. Limited cleaning products. Got it.
I did the laundry once a week, and I added this one hand wash item to my weekly routine. Luke warm water, a little bit of soap and lots of scrubbing. At first it was fine. I trained every week and there was no sign of wear. But after two months or so, I noticed the white starting to grey. Gradually but still most definitely greying. Everyone’s else’s were still quite white. So obviously I wasn’t scrubbing hard enough or often enough. I stepped up the hand wash from once a week to twice a week. After lectures at university, I’d make my way to the bathroom, roll up my sleeves and work away at it, scrubbing for as long as 30min each time. The uniform continued to age.
After one particular lesson, Ninja announced that the Batizado in Nottingham was coming up and urged us all to go. It was to be my first Batizado, first grading, first time to meet so many other great people in Capoeira. Your whites are essential for this event, he explained to us. Masters from around the world would be attending and we couldn’t disappoint them by forgetting the etiquette. After the announcement Ninja approached me to speak about my whites. They were grey. He asked me politely to wash them before the Batizado, so as to not offend anybody.
“But I have been washing them! Every week! I can’t get out the grey!”
“Really? That’s odd. Maybe try using a different soap”
So that’s what I did. But again no effect. The weeks trailed on, closer and closer to the Batizado and all the while my whites decayed. I stepped up the hand wash routine to four times a week, every night, between 30 and 45min to scrubbing in the sink. The pressure was building. Batizado wasn’t far off. Nothing was showing signs of change so I sought out help from a friend.
“Hey, how often do you hand wash your clothes?”
She frowned at me, as though she didn’t understand the question.
“…what? Umm, I don’t know. After every day I wear one that need hand washing I guess”
Every day? Then it must be done. The shirt had already started to show yellow sweat stains under the arms and I was desperate. Batizado was less than 3 weeks away. So every single night, I was in my tiny cramped student bathroom, arms in the sink scrubbing mercilessly at the clothing for at least an hour. Gritted teeth and determination with every scrape of my hands against the fabric. I was failing and there didn’t seem to be anything more I could do.
After one lesson in Nottingham, we got on the train back to Sheffield and Ninja spoke about the Batizado. He cut himself off and only half playfully prodded me.
“And Poncho, you seriously need to was your whites ok. They’re not easy to get hold of again”
“I know! I’m trying! I’m hand washing them every single night now, but I can’t get it out!”
Again I receive that confused look.
“You’re hand washing them? Why haven’t you put them in the washing machine?”
“Oh, Pele told me to. He explained that they can shrink or stain easily so it’s better to hand wash them”
Ninja exchanged glances with everyone else.
“I’ve been to Pele’s house Poncho, and he uses a freakin’ washing machine like everyone else. Why would he tell you to hand wash? It’s so strange”
“Really? I asked him how he washed his own uniform when he first got it. Because I didn’t want it to shrink or anything. And he told me that in Brazil when he first got his new whites, they took them to the river and hand washed them. With no more than a little soap”
Ninja looked at me wide mouthed.
“Poncho, he didn’t use a washing machine in Brazil because he didn’t ‘have’ a washing machine in Brazil!”
“Oh my God, how long have you been hand washing your uniform!?”
“Since I got it! You know, 4 or 5 months ago. When you told me to clean it, I went home and I just scrubbed harder and longer. I’ve been hand washing it every single day!”
Ninja didn’t stop laughing about this until we got to Sheffield. It was an hour long journey. Delightfully it didn’t stop there. It seems as though all the respect capoeira demands, the etiquette, and the purity of its white, doesn’t seem to stop everyone from reminding every week to turn on my bloody washing machine.