The Inner Circle - The Making of a Capoeira Instructor - An Interview with Graduado Guerreiro

The Making of a Capoeira Instructor - An Interview with Graduado Guerreiro

In the mythology of capoeira, there’s a familiar origin story: a young capoeirista starts training, dedicates herself to the art, grows under her mestre’s tutelage, and one day shoulders the mantle of “teacher” to guide a new generation of starry-eyed alunos.  Knowledge is passed from hand to hand by carefully considered instructors who assiduously guard a group’s lineage. 

But capoeira is still relatively rare in many places outside of Brazil.  Un-easy access to capoeira engenders a different origin story: a young capoeirista begins training, dedicates herself to the art, something unexpected comes up and her mestre moves away or quits, and she can’t find a new teacher.  Now what?  Out of necessity, she starts teaching.  It’s the only way she can train at all, but it’s an onerous undertaking.  There’s no guidance from above, no one to point her in the right direction.  This alternative story is, regrettably, common enough to be cliché.  I know plenty of instructors who started teaching before they felt ready—the responsibility simply landed on them without warning. 

In Minnesota, Graduado Guerreiro lived this exact scenario.  He began training with two instructors (a married couple) who moved after about four years.  Another student of theirs—a good friend of Guerreiro’s—took over the school, but it floundered.  The program limped on for a few years, but the organization from the top simply wasn’t there.  Guerreiro bounced in and out of capoeira during that time; events and rodas weren’t uncommon since he happens to live in an area where several groups coexist.  Then, a couple of years ago, his friend abandoned teaching altogether and Guerreiro was suddenly thrust into the limelight.  There was no one else with his experience who could step up and teach this group of students—he could either begin teaching or let the program evaporate.  He certainly hadn’t planned on teaching then.  “I guess maybe one day, that’s kind of the natural progression of capoeira, right?  The title ‘professor’ means teacher. So I guess I figured one day but I thought that would be a longer way away.  Not at the time that I began teaching, no, I did not see that.  I believed that was in the future.”  Nevertheless, he ultimately decided to assume the role.

G. Guerreiro, right, in an unusal matchup

I asked him why he made that choice instead of quitting or joining a different group.  Quitting wasn’t on the table; like many of us, capoeira filled a unique niche in his life.  Foregoing capoeira would leave a void. “There were times that I wanted to quit, a few years back, there were many times that I had considered quitting.  It was my ex-wife that convinced me not to.  She would say, ‘I know you’re upset, I know a lot of things aren’t going well, a lot of things are looking really really bad, but when you’re in the roda there’s this big grin on your face and there’s not that many things in life that make you smile the way you smile when you play capoeira.’  Even the people you have an issue with in the roda, when I was in the roda with that particular person, the game still developed—very interesting and positive.  The issue we had was null and void while the roda was going on.  Capoeira always had this sense of bringing me into this peace or clarity, and for that reason alone, I could never quit on that journey, even when I wanted to.”

And joining a different group?  His first experience with the school had left a deep impression. “For me, I think that, when I started capoeira I had two very amazing instructors.  They gave a lot to me in those first few years.  I held onto that, with all the ups and downs, with all the craziness that came afterward, there was that memory of how it always supposed to be.  And a lot of the friends, a lot of the successes I’ve had in my life due to capoeira, or the ideals and morals that capoeira instilled in me as a teenager, that I carry with me.  Because I was in [a particular capoeira group] I had already developed this loyalty to [my group], especially because how [my instructors] treated me and respected me, not just as a student but as a child.  They always showed a significant amount of respect to everybody and it wasn’t a lot about, you know, I’m your teacher, you’re my student and I’m better than you.  We were this family.  I always wanted to keep that in there.” 

His decision to teach opened a new world of difficulties.  The students were in limbo; they didn’t have uniforms, a curriculum, or even a space to train.  The administrative problems were at least as formidable as actually learning to teach.  Guerreiro quickly realized that running a school means much more than just being an instructor—he had to find somewhere to hold classes, secure uniforms, order instruments, figure out a way to collect tuition, learn how to market his classes to prospective students…he became, essentially, a small-business owner (despite already having a full-time job).  “It provides this new challenge that I’m still trying to piece together and discover.  I don’t exactly know what the challenges are in front of me with 100% certainty, because of being so isolated and separated from everybody else, there’s always that question of, hey are we doing this the right way?  No one’s directly above us here, no one’s checking in on us on a regular basis, or monitoring our classes, or what we’re doing and how we’re doing it.” 

Guerreiro in his natural environment

But his new ordeal did come with benefits.  Simply meeting the challenge was invigorating.  “I’m always able to push myself because of that, and because I’m able to push myself into that unknown, I’m able to further push the students that have been training with us.  Because we’re constantly evolving.  And they seem to be enjoying that.”

Striding into the unknown became the default.  He and his school are officially part of a large capoeira group, but the school is geographically isolated and still quite new—I canvassed Guerreiro on how he solves problems.  How much does he rely on himself to think through the problem?  How often does he call up another instructor and put the question to him/her?  “The majority of the time I sit down and think it out myself.  The reason why I don’t necessarily [ask someone else], I am not them.  And therefore the way that they may see something is not necessarily the way that I’m going to see it.  But over the last couple years I’ve asked [different instructors] the same questions and they’ve given me different answers to almost all of those questions.  So then I never have a clear answer anyways.  So I said, well why don’t I try to figure some of these things out for myself and if it works it works and if it doesn’t I’ll try again.”

However, that’s not to say he reinvents the wheel every day.  He’s quick to acknowledge the value of following a path already cleared by others.  In fact, this is the first conversation we’ve had where he hasn’t been asking the questions—normally he seems more at home listening and processing, rather than holding forth.  “So, this situation where they [other teachers] can clearly lead me through this and I don’t even have to bother having fallen for the trap or making that mistake.  But at the same time, I think there’s a lot of growth in making mistakes.  So I’m willing to make a few mistakes on my own, understanding that what will work and what won’t, versus someone telling me what will work and what won’t.  Because what works for some doesn’t necessarily work for others.”

On the topographical map of Guerreiro’s character, the tightest contour lines seem to be formed by his zeal for capoeira.  Speaking to him, it feels like the tallest object in his landscape.  Other valleys and regions are undoubtedly present, but overshadowed.  He’s been involved in the scene one way or another for nearly fifteen years, but his enthusiasm feels undiminished even after all this time.  Capoeira is a huge part of my life, and I struggle to imagine not training, but listening to Guerreiro I find myself thinking, “Man, this dude loves capoeira.”  He seems to eat, sleep, and breathe the art.  I know puppy-dog-excited first-year students showing up to class six days a week who look like stodgy layabouts next to Guerreiro.  He has children and a day job, but it’s difficult to imagine him in any context other than in abadas.  I don’t know anyone else with his tenure in capoeira who’s still over the moon to go to a batizado and take workshops, not just teach them.      

Capoeira me chama, eu vou

Now, nearly two years after a dismantled capoeira studio landed in his lap, Guerreiro has mostly found his feet.  There’s a rented space to train, regular classes for kids and adults, instruments and uniforms.  He’s fully accepted his role and is already looking up the road.  “In five years, I would like to have in that time our own space, with obviously students training very consistently.  I would love to be hosting our own events.  I would like also for students who’ve already been with us for a while to be in a position to teach, to share capoeira.  Something I myself encourage highly is for students to become more involved in, you know, and be leaders inside of the group.  I think it’s important for the longevity of capoeira…to want your students to have the desire to continue that vision.  To be able to hand some of those tasks off to individuals who can be trusted to handle them.  To have a few higher-ranking students in capoeira who can teach, have our events, have our own studio, and continue teaching and training capoeira.”

Given that this whole situation is not uncommon, Guerreiro’s in a good position to offer some insight to someone who finds herself, like Guerreiro, caught between teaching or quitting.  “I guess I would say to that person, first of all, decide what it is what you actually want, both in life and from capoeira.  Because the tests of a teacher are different from being a student.  They’re not the same.  There are huge differences.  If you’re not willing to handle such tasks, it’s best not to even start.  I know a friend here in Minnesota where their teacher stopped training and they kind of rallied together and got another guy from their group in a different state, and helped him transition from that state to here and begin teaching.  But I’ve also had the experience where somebody was put in the position to teach and they just weren’t ready or qualified for it.  It just never worked out.  So I would also say, understand yourself, understand what your strengths and weaknesses are.  Build upon your strengths, and definitely build upon your weaknesses.  Because, especially depending on how far along you are in capoeira, a lot of times people won’t respect you if don’t have a specific title or higher.  You have to be able to deal with that, handle that, brush that off.  A lot of people who get bent out of shape about that.  Can you be a leader?  Do you possess the necessary traits or qualities to do such a thing?  If you don’t possess certain qualities…personally I don’t believe everyone is qualified for such a task.  Or necessarily, hmm, don’t lack the potential to become that, but are not necessarily aware of what it takes to become that and therefore can not tap into that, and so it can be really hazardous for them or everyone else around them.  I guess those three things: what do you want from life, what do you want from capoeira, and to know yourself, know your strengths and weaknesses.”

The whole crew, caught in a moment of self-reflection

In my opinion, building a truly great teacher out of a given, generic capoeirista requires three ingredients: a deep, evolving passion for capoeira itself, a strong empathy for students (as in, “I genuinely care that my students improve and are fulfilled by my classes”), and, most importantly, the desire to see one’s students surpass oneself.  Too often, a teacher finds different ways to stand in the way of a student’s progress, whether by denying them greater responsibility in both the studio and the world of capoeira, or refusing to allow them to travel and learn from others, or simply undercutting their achievements.  When Guerreiro says that his teachers treated him well not just as a student but as a person and that’s precisely the quality he wants to preserve and cultivate in his studio, it resonates with me as the words of someone who’s on the path to be an exceptional, singular teacher.  In my experience, to find all those elements in an instructor is rare (a quick self-evaluation reveals that I myself bat only .333 most days).  None of these qualities have anything to do with what an instructor teaches, and everything to do with how they teach.  Judging an instructor by these criteria may say something about their classes, but it says much more about their character. 

The last thing he said to me bears this out.  “I was at a batizado over the weekend and there was another teacher, a graduado.  He had a falling-out with his group, a few times over, and he was starting a secondary chapter of that group and he asked me kind of some of the same questions.  ‘Things are really small right now and we don’t really know what we’re doing, my mestre he’s really far away and always busy, I don’t know what to do, I can’t stand that people don’t always come by to train,’ and this and that.  I told him something that I learned a long time ago from my grandfather who told me, ‘Never to despise humble beginnings.’  You have to be okay right where you’re at, and grow from there.  There’s nothing wrong with, you know, being small for a while, to understand that you have a lot of growing to do and learn those lessons of humility.  More connection to people, a stronger and deeper connection to people around you.  And in that I think you can find a lot of your strengths or notice your weaknesses.  There’s nothing wrong with being the little guy.  Never to despise humble beginnings.”

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  • My User Image

    Another great read. I'm loving this interviews series. Keep 'em coming!

    12/19/2016 3:37:30 PM
  • My User Image

    I've had the pleasure of teaching workshops with Guerreiro's young group in Minnesota and can attest to his passion and enthusiasm for both capoeira and the leadership of his group. I'm excited to see how he and his group grow in the coming years.

    12/19/2016 3:40:25 PM
  • My User Image

    Encouraging! It was great to hear about Guerreiro's experience; I can relate to it in many ways.

    7/27/2017 12:29:06 AM