The Oberlin Stories Project

On the connections between Capoeira and social rights activism

Dan Barella ’15

“The conversation starts with you. You can’t sit around waiting for someone else to start it for you.”

Group of 16 people, most in matching tee shirts

Capoeira at Oberlin is a spice you don’t find anywhere else. It’s one of those things that defies language: neither dance nor martial art, but some strange and beautiful amalgamation of the two tempered with theater, music, and spirituality. Within every moment there’s a universe of variation; in every movement a million and one possibilities.

Since I was little I’ve wanted to be an engineer, to work on planes and rockets, and to solve real-world problems. I’ve spent my life tinkering and experimenting with everything around me, watching and rewatching tapes of the Apollo and Space Shuttle missions, trying to understand how things work. Never did I think I would come to Oberlin — I figured I’d go to some engineering school to study science. And yet, I couldn’t bear the thought of not being able to study and play jazz after high school. So when I did choose Oberlin, my main focus for the first two years was staunchly rooted in science and music. Never did I think I would take a movement class.When a good friend convinced me to come to the first class of Capoeira Angola, I expected it to be an outlet for exercise. I didn’t think it would change the way I look at the world.

On the first day of spring semester in my sophomore year, Theo walked into Mudd, looked me in the eyes, and asked “Capoeira today?” I had already put it off last semester on account of having entirely too much work, and I had already agreed at the end of last semester that I would go to the class this time, really this time. So I acquiesced. Ten minutes later I found myself in the first class of Capoeira Angola I under the instruction of Professor Justin Emeka. Capoeira is (crudely) a form of martial art brought by West African slaves to Brasil, disguised as a game and a dance so as to avoid the suspicion of the slave owners. The game is played between two people in a Roda, a communal gathering where players sit in a circle with traditional West African and Brasilian instruments. The first class opened my eyes to a point that I knew I couldn’t leave. Since I’m half Brasilian, I’d seen it before, been to Rodas before, but never had I felt drawn to it before. I had mainly grown into running, swimming, biking--the sorts of things you can do to get away from everything else, to meditate. But Capoeira is not a singular pursuit like reading or running — it’s a conversation between yourself and a partner. A year at Oberlin had shown me friends with incredible talents and keen insights, friends with whom I’d had many eye-opening talks, and it had taught me blues dancing, an experimental and intimate conversation by way of dance — but this was like no conversation I’d had before.

As the days passed I began to open up — first in class, then outside of training. I became aware of my New York shuffle and how my body language could affect others. I realized that there really isn’t a need to be serious all the time, that by striving to be a ‘proper grown-up’ I was suppressing the urge to have fun. My eyes were wide open.

The lessons we were learning began to reach out of the Roda and into my life. I took to heart Mestre Rene’s advice to smile and make eye contact with your partner. I’m still amazed how something so simple can make such an unbelievable difference. Simple wisdom took on a tangible meaning: we can only really be the best we can be, we have to learn to accept our mistakes, and no one is better than anyone else. When you hear these phrases floating in space, on some poster of inspirational quotes, they don’t process. When you’re moving and reacting to another person’s actions as they happen, they start to mean something — especially the one about accepting your mistakes and moving on. You can’t just up and leave the game when you do something silly, in the same way you can’t walk away from a conversation after reconsidering something you just said. Instead, we learn to make mistakes in ways that set up new moves, continuing the conversation — which makes me wonder if a productive mistake is a mistake at all?

As I opened up, I realized that I had the power to change things I didn’t like in the world. I come from a family of teachers, and have been teaching and tutoring for the past five years — teaching forms a huge part of my thought process and my identity. And yet, even after five years of tutoring and teaching, working with the energy of teachers and students and feeling the deep need for change, it was the teachings of Capoeira that finally showed me that I could redirect my fire into action. Sir Ken Robinson gave an excellent TED talk in which he described modern schooling as mostly low-grade clerical work and criticized the public education system for ignoring such fundamental concepts as individuality and humanism. I had seen Ken’s videos many times and agreed vehemently with his points, but I had never taken the next step to do much about it. Then it dawned on me: The conversation starts with you. You can’t sit around waiting for someone else to start it for you. I saw the picture, and this time I paid attention. I began to involve myself in education reform and reached out to others who share this fire. We talked about bringing Capoeira to the children in Oberlin, and I drew up plans to cofound a school of technology with a recently graduated friend. After 19 years of being a German-born Brasilian-American Jew, I began to embrace my heritage and to explore social rights activism. I began to speak my mind more openly, to talk with the people around me, to enjoy their company. I began to find myself.

This is the essence of what I’ve heard called ‘an Oberlin education’: expecting to do exactly one thing (or two/three/none/etc.), getting derailed in a wonderfully unexpected way, and finding a whole universe you’d never thought about before. For many people this happens through some other medium — hip hop, physics, film, literature, philosophy. For myself, Capoeira became the thread with which I could begin to piece together my own patchwork quilt. I don’t believe that this series of fortunate events would have been possible anywhere else — and in no way would I ever have expected that coming to northern Ohio could connect me so strongly with my Brasilian heritage. Oberlin really was the right place, for all of the reasons we did and didn’t think of. So here I go, still taking things apart and putting them back together, still trying to be the best I can be alongside a body of incredible peers, and still believing that one person really can change the world.