My name is Leite de Coco. It means “coconut milk.”
I don’t remember the first time I heard the word “capoeira” – the African-Brazilian martial art-acrobatic-dance fusion set to live music – but I do know the first time I saw it was at my first class, more than a decade ago. It was an awful class, a two-hour ordeal that made me wonder, from start to finish, why I wasn’t at home, eating ice cream or doing shots of whiskey with my friends, who were, I was certain, eating ice cream and doing shots of whiskey at that very moment – instead of doing cartwheels and spinning around on the ground with eight strangers as they tried to kick me.
The class began harmlessly, that much I can say. We lined up and started with a ginga, an easy side-to-side, back-and-forth motion. Hey, it’s like a dance step. I can do this. This is easy. Then we add in some bending, some kicking. Ok, that’s harder. But I take one-hour spinning classes. This is nothing.
But it is something. It doesn’t stop. It goes on and on: the bending, the squatting, the cartwheeling. It is madness.
I nearly called it quits, when just 30 minutes into the two-hour class, one of the other students called out “Stop, who’s bleeding?”
Sweet Jesus, don’t let it be me I prayed, but of course it was. It was my toes, my feet, which had been singing with pain since a mere 15 minutes into the class. The young man tossed me a roll of tape and then wiped up my blood for me. That was nice of him.
But I hated this place, I hated this thing, this capoeira, with impossible movements requiring impossible strength that I didn’t have. I sat in the bathroom on the closed toilet lid, bandaging my bloody toes, trying not to cry. I’ll bet they expected me to leave; they expected me to shuffle out, whining about how sore I would be, taking my bag and saying, “Thanks, but I’ll be going now.” And truthfully, if there had been a window in that bathroom to climb out of, I might’ve left. But I simply couldn’t walk out and give up in front of them. I couldn’t take the smirks that would certainly be on their faces. So I walked out of that bathroom pretending like every muscle in my body wasn’t crying for mercy, that my feet weren’t burning, that my legs weren’t so shaky I thought they’d give out on me. I wanted to cry, but instead, I smiled at the teacher – a lithe, sinewy guy who couldn’t have been any older than me – and mustered up my best bravado.
“I might be bleeding,” I laughed, wishing I had a cool shot of Jameson in my hand instead of bloody tissues, “but I’m not going home.”
I finished that first class and couldn’t walk for a full week afterward.
This is what makes me a capoeirista.
Maybe you’ve seen capoeira – there was that one video game, and an awful, campy movie, “Only the Strong” – but even if you haven’t, I won’t go much into the history of it. How the origins itself are a little sketchy, how Africans forced into slavery in Brazil mixed their dancing rituals with fighting. How a big bowed instrument called a berimbau leads the game. How one theory says that the slaves hid their deadly martial art from their slavemasters by making it seem like just a dance. Kicks skim just over the opponent’s head, so close you can feel the breeze, followed by low, smooth, rolling escapes.
No, I won’t bore you with any of that.
Let’s just say that capoeira is, as my best friend’s husband put it years ago when he first saw it, “It’s like that movie ‘You Got Served,‘ but with the kiss of death.”
So, my nickname. My apelido. Once you do capoeira for a while, once you have a few months under your belt, in addition to playing a master, (which is your baptism into the art) you get a playful nickname. It’s something that’s telling about your personality, the way you play the game, or how you look maybe.
There’s Biriba – she’s named after the flexible wood they make berimbaus out of, meaning she is one who bends and is strong – a fantastically beautiful nickname. And there is Sapinha, the little frog. There’s Diamante, who is precious like a diamond and Abacaxi, named because her spiky hair looks like the top of a pineapple.
Honestly, I’d been hoping for something sexy and feline – “tigress” perhaps: tigresa. Or even gata, since gata means both “cat” and is slang for “total babe” in Portuguese. But I’ll be the first to admit that there’s very little that’s feline about me. I’m not a graceful woman by any stretch of the imagination and frequently do not land on my feet. So it was no surprise when Mestre Canguru (kangaroo) told me “You are leite de coco.” Leite for my milky white skin, of course, and coco “because,” he told me, “you are tall like a coconut tree.”
That’s almost as good as tigresa, right?
There’s this part of capoeira that you can’t explain to anyone else. You can’t understand it all, you can’t verbalize it. It’s bigger than words and thought and logic. But still, I like to think that maybe eventually, I’ll be given the key to the kingdom. I’ll just get how to do it and where to place the kicks and how to manipulate my partner. And ok, fine, it’ll be like “The Matrix” and suddenly everything will turn into binary code and fall into place. I’ll do macaco, amazonas, volta por cima – impossible moves, all of them – with ease. Maybe it’ll seem like everyone is in slow motion except me. I’ll anticipate other people’s moves before they ever make them.
It will be fantastic. It will be perfect.
But then again, the perfect roda doesn’t exist. The roda, you see, is life. In the roda, like life, you meet all kinds of people: new friends, old friends, people you want to be your friend, strangers, people you can’t stand, mean people, aggressive people, people you think will be mean but really aren’t, sweet people, sexy people, assholes, freaks, punks and posers. It’s kinda wonderful. And like life, you can’t plan it because the game is all improvised.
And that’s why it’s so terrifying.
And why it’s so beautiful.
The first time I played in the roda – I mean the first time I played with the big dogs, not just beginners – I waited to jump in the game and felt like I might actually die, as if I would pass out at the foot of the berimbau. It must’ve shown on my face, because Biriba – one of only two people in the roda I knew that day – leaned over and asked, “Are you ok?” And God bless her, God bless her, she jumped in the game before me so that when I jumped in I’d be playing with her, a friend.
During that game and for a long time afterward (and maybe even a little bit still) I was an awkward jumble of arms and legs, a hesitating mess of half-thrown kicks and shaky escapes with the urge to constantly apologize to my partner, “I’m so sorry I suck.”
The improvement of my game has been slow and marginal at best, so it’s hard to say why I enjoy capoeira so much. Why it’s one of the most important things in my life, despite the fact I’m far from gifted at it. In fact, I should hate it.
My first time in the roda was pretty much a mirror of how I frequently feel outside the roda, in real life:
…an awkward jumble of arms and legs. A hesitating mess.
Plagued with anxiety since elementary school, I frequently missed days upon days of class without any real illness other than a nervous stomach ache. Once, when I was actually sick, I threw up on the bus ride to school and for years afterward was terrified of a repeat performance. I frequently refused to eat breakfast. On bad days, my sister would have to coax me into eating a slice of buttered toast before walking down the long gravel lane toward the bus. On worse days, we’d have to call my mom because I refused to go to school.
In high school, it settled into a performance anxiety. Flute solos that were perfect at home were a string of wrong notes at the wrong time during rehearsals with the rest of the band. I managed to be sick for a lot of classroom presentations. I’m frequently labeled as snobbish, when really, honestly, I’m just the shyest girl in the room.
I can’t explain why capoeira doesn’t terrify me – I mean, it does – but not enough to make me stop, although some days are harder than others. And while intimidating, I can’t explain why a roomful of other capoeiristas staring at me while I play doesn’t make me run out the door. I can’t explain why I adore it so much that I sing capoeira songs on my way to the grocery store, how I see the roda in everyday interactions, at the post office, at the bar, on the train, why I simply can’t get it out of my mind. But maybe these things are best not to question, maybe those stones shouldn’t be turned.
Then again, maybe the answer isn’t so mysterious:
At one recent class, we’d been working on one of those impossible moves – volta por cima – a twisting, turning backbend. I got the chutzpah to try it in the roda and it wasn’t perfect and it was a little clumsy, but hell, I did it. I did it and the other people in class cheered me on – cheered – because they’d been struggling with it too. It really wasn’t all that impressive, but I was high, my body defying gravity – no, no – my body defying my brain.
I am a superhero, I thought. I am amazing.
I am Leite de Coco. It means “coconut milk.”
What makes you feel like a superhero? Go do it!
Note: My definition of “travel” is simply whenever you’re not home – and especially whenever you try something new. When you travel beyond your own personal boundaries. I wrote a first version of this story – my first try and subsequent falling-in-love with the Brazlian martial art of capoeira – 10 years ago for a now-defunct publication called No Touching Magazine. After a several-year gap, I recently returned to the sport and find that the feelings that drew me to it are still coursing through me. So it fits perfectly here – trying something new that terrifies me but also makes me feel alive, makes me aware, which is what Seeking Sati is all about.