Episode Four: Yara Cordeiro
Master of Brazilian capoeira, Yara Cordeiro, is apprenticing Ruthie Lezama of Reston, VA, in the 2021-2022 Virginia Folklife Apprenticeship Class. They both come from Abada-Capoeira DC whose effort is to promote, spread, and support Brazilian arts and culture through the practice of capoeira, and to use the practice of capoeira to build a healthy and more closely connected community. Pat Jarret from Folklife recently went to a batizado, where they were honoring their students’ achievements and ranking in capoeira.
Pat Jarrett: I wanted to share with you some audio and some interview from one of our apprenticeship teams. Now, at the Virginia folk Life program for about the past 20 years, we have been giving out grants to individual artists to take on an apprentice and do a nine month intensive course to teach a traditional art form. This is everything from Virginia country ham curing and banjo playing to Mongolian mask-making. Virginia’s quite an amazingly diverse State. And this past year, we had the pleasure of having capoeira master Yara Corderiro and her apprentice Ruthie Lezama in our program. They’re from Northern Virginia – Reston. And they practice capoeira.
Chris Boros: Explain what capoeira is for anyone including myself that doesn't know a lot about it.
PJ: Well, that was kind of the tricky thing. I got the application from them and I was very excited to receive it. And then I went down the journey myself because what I knew of capoeira was that it was a martial art and in actuality every time you think you've got it, there's another element that you don't know. So I asked, what's capoeira to Yara. And she said it's a little bit everything. So it's a martial art. It's a practice, but it's also music. It's also song. It's rhythms. Between 1500 and 1815, Brazil purchased enslaved, Africans to work in the plantations. This evolved out of the enslaved, people that fought for their freedom and they were able to escape into the interior of Brazil and this kept them safe, but maybe we should have yard describe it.
Yara Cordeiro: So you had slaves brought to Brazil from different tribes, different cultures, and they were placed intentionally - sometimes from enemy tribes. And they start learning from each other. I have a dance, she has a fight, and you have a singing. And that is how they started bonding and creating a sense of community identity. So to survive the loneliness of being brought from Africa and made as slaves. They had a lot of free time, so they would gather and start practicing whatever is a blend of what they did. And then you have the need of the fence. You have the need of people actually asking them for their service because they were good fighters. Then they start practicing some sort of fight or they have the persecution police going after them and then they need to fight. So the social need of the moment has resulted in an art form that had a need of defense. But at the same time, a need of disguise. So it was not known that they could defend themselves.
CB: Is it safe to say that they use this dance as a way to hide the fact that they were learning how to fight?
PJ: That's exactly it. And the way capoeira is practiced, they get together in a circle and there's music playing. Say you were to come across it in a field or in a village or something like that. It would appear like it was a dance and a party and you would not really know that it was training and to this day it’s a strong community looking out for one another and practicing, but not hurting each other. You know, this is why in capoeira you’ll see they often miss, they won't hit each other but it's learning the movement, learning the flow of it all. So that if you're in a situation like that, one can move out of the way, kind of like Jiu-Jitsu almost, use the momentum, but also it's about supporting your friends, supporting your loved ones, supporting your community with defense.
YC: It was persecuted. If they knew that you were a capoeirista, you could go to jail because it became illegal. They didn't want that population to be able to fight against them. So it became illegal, but if you're just dancing then we're not doing anything bad. So it wasn't like a one-day decision, a committee decision, but it happened through time in Brazilian history. This art form was shaped into what it is today. And then at some point it wasn't that contest anymore. So you just trying to have me on more didactic structure. You started having a more educational structure. So it evolved. It’s an art. Art evolves. And it’s still evolving into what it is today, but it has this great history that needs to be a fight without looking like a fight and has to be disguise and that's part of the essence.
Ruthie Lezama: There are these life lessons also that come out of capoeira. We do try to reach out and make ourselves known - it's generational. So, that teaching and that instruction is passing that down to other people. And then also just like making sure that we continue to build what we have started, right? And even with those people that have left because life takes over, sometimes it's hard to continue but it pulls you in, right? Because you know that this is a safe environment. There are people there that do care about you and we all have this one thing in common, that essence of that's my community. These are my people.
CB: Do people that practice capoeira, do they see themselves more as dancers or as fighters?
PJ: They see themselves as capoeiristas - practitioners of this art form. Yes, it's martial arts. But they also just as much consider themselves musicians, singers, and members of a community.
YC: What defines you in capoeira is what you do in capoeira. So eventually you can have frictions or disputes and whatever, but those are based on what you do or don't do for capoeira because we all trying to protect the art form and the community that protects that art form. So if you're going to disrespect capoeira somehow, then we're gonna have a problem. But if you're not going to disrespect capoeira, then we're cool. Capoeira works as a connector and then we go back to the complexity – it’s a dance, it’s a fight, it’s a show, it’s music, it’s instruments, it’s fitness, it’s children, it’s old people, the athletic, the non-athletic, and we adopt by the way you teach, by the way you play. If you have an injury, go to the instruments, or play a tambourine. So you can always belong regardless of any limitation you have, you can always belong. So you have that complexity of elements. It gets complicated to compare capoeira. People tend to compare capoeira to other martial arts or other dance. But once we start comparing, we are comparing one aspect of capoeira and not their whole diversity of capoeira. And that diversity is what makes everybody somehow connect.
CB: That was Yara Corderiro and she is a master capoeirista.
PJ: Yes at Abada-Capoeira DC which covers Northern Virginia, Maryland and the Washington DC area.
CB: Where is she originally from?
PJ: She is from Brazil and she started as a child, just nipping at the heels. She is and was just a force of nature and is very ambitious and driven. And you can feel that when you're in her presence.
YC: I’m very mama type. We may be close in age or even older than me, but I don’t care, they are babies. And I’m a mama type that yells at them if there’s something wrong and praises them if there is something good. I’m not a spoiling kid momma type at all.
CB: Is it easy for someone to get involved in this community? Can you be in a 30-year-old adult and say, yeah, I want to try this or do you have to be raised in it?
PJ: No, no, not at all. Some of the people there started later than thirty. They started in their 40s. There were some older members of this community. They said you can start at any level and everybody is welcome. Yara told me that the community is self-selecting. Students select her as a teacher and they keep coming back and I think the community is a big part of that.
YC: We don’t choose our students. People come and sign up for class. If they like it, they stay. If they don’t, they don’t. But I don’t choose the students. But of course if they don't have a connection or energy, they probably won't last. But the fact is that they choose to come train with me and I'm really, really lucky with the students that I have. If I have any part of this or not, I don’t know. But I'm really lucky. We always had a really good relationship, but now with the apprenticeship, we have the extra training that we do one on one. And then we're not even training what we trained in class because she already trained that in class. So makes no sense. So we are working on details, on musicality, on new rhythms. And we talk about the teaching and how to teach. And sometimes when I travel, she teachers in my place and she's a phys-ed teacher already so it's an easy conversation as far as how teaching goes. But she's extremely dedicated. Capoeira has a life of its own. Capoeira is an art and every time that in capoeira history that people try to control or limit it in any way, capoeira finds a way to survive.
PJ: In capoeira, capoeirista have pet names for each other. For example, Ruthie is charada which means charade because that is her fighting style. It represented how she moved. You're not necessarily referred to as your first given name. And Yara is just Yara. That is her name, which is actually in Brazilian folklore, it roughly translates to mother of the rivers, and it's a mermaid who protects the rivers of Brazil.
RL: When I started, Yara is pretty good at figuring out, ok who is this person and the identity that this person is now going to carry in the world of capoeira.
YC: Because I'm a psychologist and I study self-esteem and identity and development. Brazilians have a sense of humor that if I put a nickname and you don't like it, that's the one that’s going to stick because it's me making fun of you and teasing you. But I study self-esteem and self-identity. I can't give you a nickname that is not going to help you, it goes against everything that I study. So I always try to get a new name that somehow is going to bring something good out of the person.
RL: It was taking Yara a long time to figure out (my name).
YC: Some people in the first class you look at them and you know. And for her it was forever and I’m like, man I can’t get a nickname for her!
RL: I remember you had said you had a student back in Brazil that had a similar name like charada. And you were like, charada! – that’s your nickname.
YC: Because it was it was a charade to find her nickname and someone made a comment because she has a very contagious big laugh. And there was someone in the class that likes comics and the charade in the comic had a big laugh. So when they said that, I was like, that's it! So she's the charade.
PJ: So your instructor gives you the nickname.
PJ: Do you have one (to Yara)?
YC: I don't because my name is a nickname name. Yara is a native folkloric figure in Brazil. So, the natives believe that there's a mermaid that lives in the rivers of Brazil and protects the rivers of Brazil. She comes up at sunset - long black hair. But it is known as a mystic mermaid. The meaning of the word is mother of the waters or queen of the waters. And she's a mermaid that lives in the rivers of Brazil and protects the rivers of Brazil.
CB: So, what we were listening to right there they call a game, right?
PJ: Well, yeah, and this one is a little bit different because this was actually a batizado where the capoeiristas gains new rank much like other martial arts practices that we're all familiar with karate and Kung Fu. There are belts, there's a rank. And typically, one of these games is a full circle of people, all the capoeiristas are in the circle. Some of them are fighting. Some of them are playing the berimbau, which is a single string instrument. It looks like a bow, like a longbow, but there's a drum at the end of it. It's an interesting instrument and that's that kind of string sound you hear. And then there are all sorts of drums. And everybody is clapping and singing and these are the songs. This is capoeira as well.
CB: It sounds like a party.
PJ: It kind of is, and it’s funny you say that? So at this batizado specifically after everybody attained their new rank, and after speeches were made, and thanks for giving, it literally did devolve into a dance party, which was really fantastic. And, of course, I was just delighted. And so I made some photos. It was out of this park and it was on the Tai Chi court, and I don't think this Tai Chi court has ever seen that kind of action. Tt was great.
CB: And I think what everyone is curious about, pat, is did you participate in the dance?
PJ: Chris, I'm not that much of a dancer, but I did make a lot of pictures. So I'll share those with you.
CB: You can hear the music and the singing and the instruments and you can kind of tell people are dancing. But there's also some martial arts happening here too. Explain what that looks like. What's the fighting technique like?
PJ: It's a very fluid motion. But what I think is really interesting is you've got the music going on, you've got the rhythm going. Two capoeirista meet in front of the master, highest-ranking, the Elder almost. They kneel, they bow, they show respect, and they grasp hands at the top of the circle. If the circle is a clock, there at 12. They grab hands, they release slowly, and move into the center of the circle and start practicing, they start playing with each other. They start maybe throwing kicks or throwing punches, but it's very rhythmic. It's moving back and forth. There's constant motion as they are playing with each other. Other capoeiristas will tag in almost. They'll see their friend getting tired and they’ll move in seamlessly and that's part of it. Part of this practice is coming to your friend’s aid and backing up your friends when they need an out. And if they're rocking and rolling, they'll let him rock and roll as well. I think there's some really interesting acrobatic moves that depends on the style being practiced in the fight. So they're are really acrobatic styles. There are low styles with a lot of groundwork and moving low, there are a lot of kicks and extended punches. It's fascinating. I got some of that on video in slow motion, and it's very cool to watch.
YC: Because capoeira is so many things at the same time that is hard for us to try to funnel it to a proper end. No, no, capoeira will survive. I know that. Capoeirstas can help or not. Capoeira will survive because capoeira has something that I think honestly the world needs today, which is this world coming to the differences is the respect to all in the same way is whatever you give to me I give back to you and without preconceptions. And that's something that doesn't matter how much people try to destroy that in the world, that's what keeps us bonded and growing and evolving and caring for each other. But it has this great history that needs to be a fight without looking like a fight, that it has to be disguised. And that's part of the essence. And it is a bland of the diversity of culture from different people. So the diversity needs to be welcomed because that's part of the history. So when you look, the fight in capoeira is just one aspect of it. But again, the game could be a friendly game. A challenging game, an aggressive game. So the game kind of covers all the different nuances that you can have on that. So we play capoeira.
CB: We're also hearing music as well. So are the people involved in the fight are they also playing the music or are those different people?
PJ: Same people. One of the first people I talked to was this big scary looking guy, I'll be honest. And he was stretching, and he was getting ready. And I said, are you fighting today? Because I was still learning the lingo. And he says, well, yeah, but I've got a practice capoeira first. And so he walks over to the drum and starts getting the rhythm and he was one of the main percussionist all day and he said, you know, you can't be one without the other.
RL: It’s a controlled way of playing the game, right? Because if we just want to fight that takes away the whole ideal of the interaction that needs to happen between me and you. So I don't want to go in playing and just automatically think attack and fight and then you go down, I go down. Okay, that's it. Thank you very much. That's why there's the music and the instruments because you really do have to embody. And there are those different types of games that you can play. But it’s can’t be all the time because then it does take away the beauty of what capoeira is.
CB: So these people aren't necessarily just fighters. They're musicians. They're singers. They’re dancers. There’s a lot going on here.
PJ: This is a very tight-knit community, and I feel like every person who was at this batizado, and as far as I could tell everybody at Abada DC, is a member of this community.
CB: Were you one of the only people there that wasn’t a member?
PJ: Well, that's cool. So, no, in this park there were a lot of family members there to watch their loved ones fight. So traditionally it's a full circle of capoeiristas practicing, but at the park that day, it was a half circle and the other half circle were a bunch of lawn chairs. And you got a bunch of people watching their kids who are getting their beginner belts, and there were partners and mothers and fathers and aunts and uncles, and close friends. I'll tell you what, it was one of the highest-ranking practitioners who Yara played with in the circle - he achieved a very high level. He was a highest achieving of that day and to surprise him a bunch of his other friends who used to practice capoeira with showed up. They were not uniform. They were not there to play, but they were there to support him and they were invited up to play with him and he was crying when he was playing with his old friends. It was a really moving moment. It showed me how deep these connections are in the capoeira community. They speak about capoeira as it is an entity of its own. I believe that there's some power to that to say that this community combined is bigger than any single one of us.
YC: You’re fighting with her, you’re playing with her, and I’m going to take over. She’s tired or she’s my friend. I’m protecting her, so I take over to challenge you. This is not like basketball where they stop the game to replace, it’s more like hockey. The game goes on and the guy jumps up and the game keeps going. I’m not taking her place, I’m saving her. So I’m jumping into the conversation and taking over the game. So it’s part of the culture. We're friends and we go out. And then you get in a fight with her, I come to defend my friend.
PJ: It was a crime to practice capoeira because it was so feared and the powers that trafficked humans to Brazil wanted to keep those people from being able to defend themselves. And the way to combat that was to have a strong community.
YC: Capoeira is a collective thing. You have as in any feud - political and different organizations - and it's part of life. But capoeira itself is a common positive connector of people. When you meet people who do capoeira, you automatically have empathy or synchronicity with them, and that brings them together. So the capoeira is the result of a blend of the diversity. So we keep that up to today. Anything that defines you outside of capoeira, it doesn't count. What defines you in capoeira is what you do in capoeira.
CB: When you spend time with the capoeiristas, what is your overall reflection on being with them? How did you feel?
PJ: I felt like I was dropping in for just a short time. But in that short time, I felt such a strong community bond. They loved each other like family. And you can feel that when you walk into a place. That being said, Yara and Ruthie specifically are just tough ladies. And I absolutely love them. I think they're fantastic and I'm so happy that they're here in Virginia and I'm happy that we can support their journey practicing capoeira. It was really an honor to be let in and to see that
YC: Capoeira has something that I think, honestly, the world needs today, which is this world coming to the differences is the respect to all in the same way is whatever you give to me I give back to you and without preconceptions. And that's something that doesn't matter how much people try to destroy that in the world, that's what keeps us bonded and growing and evolving and caring for each other. So capoeira in my view should be a lesson for all those people who keep fighting about everything in life. You know what, just play some capoeira together and see that your differences are not so different like that. We may have a lot of differences but in the end we have out essence that is common to everybody and capoeira teachers that.