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Can a woman be athletically aggressive?

May 26, 2009

Last night there was a gathering of angoleiros (players of Capoeira Angola, the Afro-Brazilian art/dance form) in Rio, and my group went to play. A capoeira game takes place between two players in a roda or circle, and as I looked around I inadvertently made a note of the male/female ratio, something I tend to do without being directly aware of it. There seem to be less women capoeiristas in Brazil than in the U.S., or if they do exist in larger numbers, they are underrepresented at more advanced stages.

One of the first games was between two women, one from my group and one from the host group. I don’t know the woman from the host group well, but I remember that at an event on Dia das Mulheres (International Women’s Day, 8 March) she’d said something that stuck with me: in capoeira many men continue to play with women as though they were fragile. She resented that assumption, she’d said, and having raised a kid since she was a teenager she knew the meaning of challenge in life. She wanted to be met with equally in the roda.

So last night this same woman played a woman from my group, and the discussion it generated afterward is what concerns me. The game was aggressive, especially for a ‘friendly’ game at an Afro-Brazilian heritage celebration, with the woman from the host group dishing out the attack moves on the woman from mine. But by all athletic/martial arts standards, the woman was well within her place to play like that: she didn’t smack, strike, or hit maliciously, just aggressively. She didn’t give her counterpart much chance to rest, which is not uncommon in a game where someone is ‘getting’ (cobrando) another person.

Here’s the discussion by some of the men in my group after the event: ‘Women are so aggressive.’ ‘Why is it you only see women play aggressively with each other like that?’  ‘Why did she play like that?’ ‘That girl is so annoying, she’s just out to get someone.’ Some of these statements are harsher in the light of day rather than the jesting, after-roda glow where we informally assess the more stand-out games. And it’s true that this particular game stood out for its aggression.

Yet this is just what concerns me: would it have stood out in such a way were the players two men? One of my male friends said it stood out to him because he doesn’t think men tend to play together like that, and women seem more ‘out to get each other,’ but that just seems short-sighted: controlled (mostly non-striking) assertiveness is the marrow of capoeira, and ‘good’ aggression between players at a roda tends to bring gasps, hollers and laughs from the audience.

So I want to know this: can a woman be aggressive in a dance/sport form still largely dominated by men without invoking real (or feigned) surprise? Can she decide to play an aggressive game or match just because she feels like it, because she feels ripe for a heated game, because she had a long day, because she wants to, and just because?

I’m not saying this makes a good or bad capoeirista. I just want to know if it will be ever possible to judge a capoeirista’s game as good or bad solely on the terms of her performative timing, guile and intuition rather than what’s between her legs.

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