Is your Corpo Fechado?

verger-capoeira-26454

Capoeira is not only a martial art, a dance and a game. It comes along with its cultural background, which developed in the Afrobrazilian circles of Brazil and spread all over the world. It’s like HipHop, or like Yoga. It left it’s national and cultural boundaries and spread to places where some parts of it’s culture might be less well understood than others. Some interesting thoughts about cultural differences in the practice of Capoeira are given in a post by Mandingueira on her highly recommendable blog www.mandingueira.com. Even in Brazil many connotations and aspects of this art get lost due to old mestres dying and their knowledge usually dying with them. Here in Europe or in the U.S. or in Asia only few pieces of this culture are learned. This is why once in a while I come along and try to explain some of the words which you will hear in connection to capoeira. I’m not Brazilian and my connection to Brazil is solely because I love to play Capoeira Angola. So all I can give you is my limited view on some parts of Capoeira culture. If you know better, feel free to correct.

After this short intro I will now come to the question given in the title. Is your Corpo Fechado? For all those who dont know Portuguese, Corpo Fechado means “closed body”. in Capoeira, and in related Afrobrazilian cults like Candomblé, Corpo Fechado does have an important meaning. I will try to explain both the secular and the spiritual meaning of this word.

Corpo Fechado – in the Roda

The closed body in the Roda is a basic principle of Capoeira. Everybody learns it from the very beginning without having to know that they are actually working on a ‘closed body’. The Corpo Fechado in the Roda is your defense, most basically your hands and arms protecting vulnerable parts of your body. These parts are especially your face, neck, chest and lower torso.

Already doing the Ginga does demand the player to keep up his defense every time his body is moving forward. One arm always protects the face. If not so the danger of getting a kick or slap into the face is imminent (I wont judge now how nice or fair it is to kick into the face of somebody whose face was unprotected… that’s another topic). The same does account for every single movement in Capoeira. And also both in traditional and modern variants of the Game. Some Mestres do complain that in modern variants due to a higher distance between players the necessity of a “closed body” decreases. In Capoeira Angola on the other side, a closed body is a necessity – and in every second of the Game a hole in your defense can be used by your partner.

I dont want to scare you people away. And I also dont want to show you just the one side of the coin. Modern Capoeira and Capoeira Angola do allow you to show apparent “entrances” into your body. In the ideal case sometimes you might seem absolutely helpless with you body wide open. And still be able to close the body when it’s needed. That is to lure your partner into a situation where he thinks he has you, and showing him that that is not so. One of my favoritue Capoeira Angola pictures is the one posted below where the player in white seems absolutely helpless. Still, his partner does not fall into that trap keeping up his defense, knowing that a good player can defend himself in whatever position he is.

corpo fechado

But dont forget one essential thing about capoeira. That it is not about concentrating on one thing. Corpo Fechado is a set term in Capoeira culture, but it is not the only thing. Theoretically you could have a perfect defense, but still be absolutely horrible in playing Capoeira. Thus, Corpo Fechado is one part of Capoeira, a part everybody should know of, but not the above-all most important part of it.

Corpo Fechado – in Life

Corpo Fechado does also have a very religious connotation. In Afrobrazilian practises achieving Corpo Fechado is possible through specific rituals and by wearing amulets. Having a Corpo Fechado means being invulnerable against all kinds of physical attacks. If it’s knives or bullets. The most favourite person to have had a Corpo Fechado was the Capoeira legend Besouro Manganga. Manoel Henrique Pereira (1897-1924) was a legendary Capoeirista and criminal in Santo Amaro, Bahia. He was known and loved by the folks for his fights with the police. In times of danger he would transform into a beetle and vanish from the place. He was also known to be invulnerable – or only vulnerable by an enchanted wooden dagger (made of the Tucum-tree), which was the reason for his death in 1927.

But the Corpo Fechado does exist outside of Capoeira aswell. As I said, it is part of Afrobrazilian culture. The rituals and ideals behind this go back into Kongolese religious practices, where there was the belief in Kanga Nitu. Kanga Nitu was “binding your body” thorugh rituals protecting it from evil spirits. Other rituals did include the use fetishes and amuletts – socalled Nkisis – against arrows from enemies in times of war, or for a successful hunt (among many other uses). The ideas of Kanga Nitu and corresponding rituals came along with the slaves and still have an influence on Afrobrazilian culture.

One part which is to be mentioned together with it are the patuás, the amuletts which protect the faithful from all kinds of physical harm. These amuletts did contain a diversity of herbs alongside with prayers written into them. But it obviously doesnt seem to be enough to just wear a Patuá around your neck, you also have to know your prayers and rituals, and what is forbidden and what not. Basically, you have to believe and know the religion before you start “protecting” yourself with a Patuá. As the proverb says: “Quem nao pode com mandinga, nao carrega patúa.” Roughly translated: Who doesn’t know Mandinga, should not use a Patúa. Today a lot of people do carry a Patúa without actually believing in it’s use. It has become a part of Capoeira fashion. I personally do not believe in the effect of a Patúa, but I still would strongly recommend any person who carries a Patúa to learn about its implications. Even if he/she does only see it as a fashionable accessoire, it is still of use to know what you are walking around with.

There are also certain ways to “open” the body of a person, even when that person does have a “Corpo Fechado”, this does include the use of enchanted weapons (as it was in the case of Besouro Mangangá). But also the person himself can cause his “protection” to fail. One known way is to have sex. Some traditional Mestres dont recommend practising Capoeira after having had sex the night before.

So, the next time a mestre screams at you to “fechar o corpo” he means that you should keep up your defense. He usually does not mean you to be abstinent before you come to his class or to wear a Patúa, because as Capoeira does spread around the world, there will be more and more practitioners who do not believe in Candomblé or into any Afrobrazilian manifestation of those ancient Bantu traditions. Still, even if you dont believe in them, it’s useful to know about it – and even if it is only to comprehend more what we are doing, playing Capoeira.

Picture sources:

http://www.ele-mental.org/capoeira/TABCAT/aboutcapoeira.html

http://albenisio.spaces.live.com/blog/

18 Comments

Filed under Philosophy, The Game

18 responses to “Is your Corpo Fechado?

  1. xixarro

    I love how you manage to write in a comprehensive way about difficult stuff.😀

  2. Hey thanks🙂 I try my best!

  3. Thanks for the link, Angoleiro😀

    I really enjoyed reading this post, too; corpo fechado is a term I’ve seen here and there but this is my first time really learning more about it!

    About the having sex can ruin your corpo fechado part…do you know if they meant it for everyone, or referring mostly to men? Because I remember reading in one version that Besouro was only killed because in addition to the knife he had slept with a woman the night before, and I wasn’t too crazy about that part because it seems obviously rooted in a long history/tradition of terror myths to do with women and sexuality in regards to men. Like being “seduced” by a woman will “unman” someone, or take your pick of castration metaphors. Just last week in my medieval lit class we looked at a story where husbands made other men sleep with their new wives on honeymoon night, because their village believed women had monsters inside them that would attack a man who slept with them, so the husbands made other guys “test the grounds” first. o.O”

  4. Oh yeah, so it ends on a less random note lol, it’s basically the whole idea that female sexuality is something to be feared, and therefore suppressed if not altogether eradicated. (Thus you have things like female circumcision, etc.)

    -Fun feminist fact of the day😄

  5. Hi Joaninha, as a matter of fact, when I heared about the opening of the body through sex it was usually referred to a man, like in Besouro’s case. You are actually right, I also read that Besouro was vulnerable because he slept with a woman the night before. I did not want to make a specific distinction like “if men sleep with women then there spirits will be broken”, cause this “opening” of the body doesnt need to be a sexist tradition itself. In the times of Besouro Preto most Capoeiristas were actually men (I have no numbers, but I expect that a woman in a Roda was sth rare back then). That can be the reason why it’s mostly about men when youhear about a corpo fechado, or the opening of it. But as these ideas are also known to other Afrobrazilian cultures where women do actually play major roles (like in Candomblé) it would be interesting to see what they think about opening the body of women. But that’s sth I havent read anywhere. But if you want to find out, I would specifically look around in Candomblé-related literature (or directly ask a mae de santo, problem is, there is not many outside of Brazil).

    Anyway, interesting question you have there and I am curious if I or somebody else can find sth out about that!

    cheers🙂

  6. xixarro

    Hey Joaninha, I think it would be a very good idea to look deeper into the background and history of stories/legends/…

    I’m always left with a strange feeling when you interpretate old stories in a modern way. But it is very normal that you do so, don’t get me wrong. We can only interpretate things by what we know.

    Take for example that funny medieval story you quote. At first sight it does seem very blunt. But do we know the origin of this story?
    For all I know women could have invented this story to keep their men faithfull to one woman only.

    Same for the believe that sex destroys your corpo fechado. Maybe it’s not about women at all. How long have we in the western world not believed that sex before sports is a bad thing as well?

    I’m not saying you’re not right though. What I’m saying might be pure fantasy as well, but as long as I’m not sure I keep all options open. That’s what I call being open minded: ask a zillion questions, but don’t judge what you don’t know (well enough).

    Xix

  7. It reminds me of Pedro Archanjo from Mestre Amado’s book Tent of Miracles, were he being one of the oldest capoeira students of Mestre Budiao fought with Black Doroteia who was possessed by a she-demon who would steal mens’ manhood. After many days of non-stop sex, Pedro wore out the she-devil. Amado’s style is superb, read him sometimes😉

  8. Hey people… I see sex in context of a corpo fechado does definitely trigger some interesting comments! I should go for more sex-related topics!😉

    Xixarro, you are right, our positions and perceptions of traditions are always stained by our present. and nowadays it seems ridiculous to think of sex being a source of weakness. also the picture of the bad woman weakening a guy who was (almost) invincible is known to a lot of people. The problem with this tpic is, that all of us are actually not grown up in Afrobrazilian tradition. So, if somebody is out there, I’d love to hear his/her point of view in terms of open body and the effect of sex on it!

    Sven, I guess you have triggered my curiousity! I heard a lot about Amado, but not much about his stories. thnx

  9. Hey Xixarro,

    I think you got things mixed up re: the story…that *was* interpreting the story through their lens, not ours. Our lens would’ve tried to explain it scientifically or something, or at the very least the only thing “modern” about that explanation is the value judgement that it’s a bad/ridiculous thing. As for the origins, “for all we know”, yes, but I think in this case that “all” is very little compared to someone with a PhD and published books in medieval lit & culture, like my prof.😄

    And with corpo fechado, that’s why I asked.😄

    Anyway, I don’t know if it’s just how you worded it or something, but your phrase “interpret old stories in a modern way” really set off “curiosity/engaged” sparks in my brain. Regardless of this post/discussion I think that’d be a fascinating concept to look into more, how it works, what can be done with it (or what not to do with it), etc. Also, it didn’t occur so much to me before that that’s “what I do”, but I guess since feminism itself is a relatively modern concept, that kind of makes sense. Hmmm…

  10. And just jumping off of that, Angoleiro, I don’t know if I’d say, necessarily, that our perceptions are “stained” by our present. They are influenced by it, definitely, but I don’t think you can say it’s a strictly negative or strictly positive thing. I mean, it’s because of these “stains” of perceiving certain traditions a certain way that we have President Obama, for instance, right?

  11. Hey joaninha,

    Yep, you are right. Of course the “staining” of our perceptions per se is nothing bad or good. But it is sth we should be aware of, especially if we analyze and judge about the realities of a historical era or another cultural background.
    And when it comes to Afrobrazilian cultural practices in the past, this counts double, right?

  12. *reads and nods*🙂 (though I’m sure non-Afro-Brazilian cultures would appreciate us giving them the same consideration, as well ^^”)

  13. oh yes, there you can be sure of!

  14. ac9033

    Oi, Angoliero
    Another cool topic! Corpo fechado is very interesting and I enjoy the way you sum it up. I once had a Mestre tell me not to play Capoeira if I had sex before, then he smiled and said sex is the best time to practice real capoeira! Gotta love those Mestres.
    Keep up the good work!!!

    AXE,
    Trovoada

  15. Hey professor!

    thanks for that little anecdote. Yeah, I guess people should reconsider their nightly activities now… hehehe!

    cheers

  16. Larganos

    Hey,
    an interesting Topic.

    i’m a Thai-Boxer as well as Capoeirista and in Muay Thai it is very common to be told not to have sex before a competition.

    i always assumed it’s because a) it can be quite exhausting and b) it may take you out of the competitive, aggressive mindset you need to successfully fight.
    The ‘feeling’ of (for example) just having had sex with your loved one and fantasizing about your future house at the beach and trying to knock-out the bleeding opponent you’ve pinned down in the corner in front of a cheering crowd is vastly different, isn’t it?

    i’m a bit surprised to find it again in Capoeira because Capoeira includes so diverse concepts compared to the relative “single-mindedness” of Muay Thai.

    The whole women taking the men’s power interpretation never even occurred to me.

    love the blog, btw.

    cheers
    larganos

  17. Hey Larganos, thanks for your comment. The combination Muay Thai and Capoeira does come up more often, no? I wonder why. A friend of mine does also train both (Capoeira Angola and Muay Thai), for me those two sports are so different. But well… I dont think having had sex hours or the night before a Roda does leave you in a weakly concentrated state of mind. If the sex was immediately before, well, then i can see the point. It can also be that there is no logical reason for this rule, when it is purely religious. Anyway, I dont know about anybody following this rule yet. On the other side, how do you talk about it? “yeah, yesterday my friend did want sex.”- “wow cool, how was it?” – “I didnt want to, cause today is Roda day” – “Oh yeah right, I forgot”….

  18. ogotai

    Very interesting article, Angoleiro. Believe it or not guys, sexual abstinence has a lot to do with your capoeira or any other things you do. Im not saying you should stop your sexual activity to become a good capoeirista but some things need to be understood first.
    Sex affects your vital energy and axe in general. When you dont do it on purpose for some time, you’ll quickly feel what I’m talking about. Artists will notice that their constructive thinking gets better, capoeirista will be able to raise his concentration and fighting abilities much quicker.
    It really does have something to do with your spirits energy, if you believe in these kind of things. But if we are on ‘de corpo fechado’ and patua, try it and you’ll see.

    Rickson Gracie in ‘Choke’ documentary speaks about it too. He has actually stopped his sexual activity for about a month before vale tudo tournament. When asked how he feels, he said ‘like a beast’ (or something like that, I dont remember). His wife wasnt so enthusiastic about that, though;)

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