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Thoughts of a Ronin Capoeirista

In feudal Japan, "ronin" was the name given to masterless samurai, those who had no leader to serve.
During my first 3+ years of capoeira, I have not been affiliated with a "real" capoeira group and mestre. This is not to say that I teach myself; instead, I learn from various mestres and teachers, here and there, in bits and pieces. The majority of my training has been with the Hamilton College Capoeira Club, which is not associated with any particular group. The teacher, Roberto Andrade, has 6 years of capoeira experience, also with several instructors.
Nice To Meet You! So, Who Do You Train With?
It's not easy to answer this question... and it's always interesting to watch others' responses when I explain my situation. Some simply accept it, others warn, reprimand, or lecture me for learning with an "unqualified" instructor. One mestre told me flat-out, "the reason your game is not developing is because you train here and there with various people." To these criticisms I have three things to say: 1) Saying my capoeira is not developing is simply untrue. Every year I have made progress in my movements, my game, my abilities to sing and play instruments, and my understanding of the art; 2) I have no other option. Roberto is the most experienced capoeirista within a two hour drive... and I have no car; and 3) Roberto may not be a mestre, but he's far from "unqualified." He's a solid capoeirista and an excellent and patient instructor. He has never charged us for classes, but instead gives generously of his time and energy to share his knowledge of capoeira with us.
It can also be a little tough to fit in when I visit other groups. Yes, I have shown up in blue pants to a group that wears all white, shown up in all white to a group that wears yellow and black. Sometimes I have trouble "placing" myself if the class is divided up into beginner/intermediate/advanced levels of instruction: I don't want to be presumptuous and assume that I can jump right in with the more advanced group; but I also don't want to look like a show-off by going with the more beginner group and then being by far the most experienced one in it. It can be an awkward situation.
The Good Stuff!
Despite the occasional difficulties, being a lone wolf among packs of capoeiristas has had far more pros than cons.
First of all, it has made me a very versatile capoeirista. Being exposed to diverse styles of teaching and playing has opened my eyes and made me attuned to the subtle differences among them, and I can adapt my style to fit the environment. I'm comfortable in virtually any roda: traditional Angola rodas led by students of Pastinha... aggressive, fight-like rodas in which games end in intense wrestling matches... fluid and beautiful performance rodas in front of a large audience... the spontaneous games that arise on the streets and beaches of Brazil... I'm not a full angoleira nor a full regionalista nor a full contemporânea capoeirista, but a little bit of everything; my style is unique and can't be "pinned" to a certain group. I've seen many capoeiristas that are very good within their own group, but cannot play in a roda that differs from their group's style... I prefer to be versatile; "a capoeirista must be a chameleon," says Mestre Suassuna.
Secondly, I believe I've learned much more about capoeira than I would have if all my training was with just one mestre. "Ninguém é dono da verdadeira absoluta," writes Mestre Bola Sete: no one possesses the absolute truth. Everyone has different perspectives... on everything from the history of capoeira, to the significance behind the very movements and songs, to the best method of teaching it. Hearing so many diverse and often contradictory viewpoints from students and teachers of the art has allowed me to keep an open mind and to form my own opinions.
Another benefit of being outside the group system is that I remain un-batizado'd and unranked. Consequently I don't place much importance on rising through the cord levels, comparing my abilities with others', obsessing about who does and doesn't get the next cord at a batizado and why, etc. I have a corda crua (used in many groups for unranked beginners) simply to hold up a couple pairs of abadás that will fall down without one. Even that got me into trouble in Bahia - people would come up to me on the street and say "careful, because in some groups that's the color of a mestre's cord, and they won't like you wearing one." :::shrug:::
Finally, being unaffiliated with anyone keeps me out of rivalries, politics, and the other nasty issues that can sometimes come between students and instructors of different groups. I try to respect, get along with, and learn from every capoeirista I encounter, and I've generally been successful.
In Conclusion...
I'm glad that for the first few years of my learning I haven't been a member of a "real" group; it has helped me become a more versatile, open-minded, and complete capoeirista. Please understand that I'm not saying I'm the perfect capoeira player - I consider myself very much a beginner, and I still have TONS more to learn. And I don't write this at all to criticize capoeira groups or their members - after all, I won't be a ronin capoeirista forever! I graduate Hamilton College this year, and when I settle down and live in one place for more than a few months at a time, I'll join a real group. Fortunately, my experience as a capoeirista sem mestre has led me to train with and visit so many groups' classes that I have a pretty good idea of what kind of group I'd like to be part of, both in terms of capoeira style and teaching style. Roberto has told me that his aim is to open our eyes so that when we do leave the college club and choose a group to join, we choose wisely. In this, I believe he has succeeded.