The Things We Do for Love
How far would you go to bond with a man? For one woman, there were no limits-until she lost her identity.
I wish I could say I started exercising for myself, but as with many things, I did it for a guy. He was a helicopter pilot, and he had once been an expert in the Brazilian martial art of capoeira. I lived down the street from a capoeira academy, so I vaguely knew what it was (a mysterious mix of dance, fighting and acrobatics). But despite years of overhearing call-and-response singing pouring from the studio’s windows, I’d never been curious about what went on in there. Until I met the pilot.
That’s how I acted with men. If a guy was interested in something, I got interested, too. My high school boyfriend was into the Pixies and existentialist literature, and I still own every Pixies album and every book by Jean-Paul Sartre, all of them dusty from disuse. In college, I dated an outdoorsy guy and found myself wilderness camping, freezing my butt off in an ice-fishing hut, wondering when I could go back to the campfire to warm up. When I got serious with a finance guy, I opened an E-Trade account I never used. I expected the guys to love what I did, too, and when they didn’t (the outdoorsman hated going out dancing; Mr. Wall Street scoffed at indie films), I was devastated.
I also viewed every guy as a future husband, and I ended up getting married, at 24, to Mr. Wall Street, despite his disdain for the arts. When I was rejected from a graduate writing program, he called it “a relief,” declaring a writing degree “useless.” Clearly, our values differed, however much I tried to bridge the gap.
After we split up, I went for his opposite: a poet with a goofy smile. We moved in together after three months, and I immediately planned a trip to Mexico so he could adopt my passion for traveling. (He didn’t even have a passport.) I brought along books from his collection to brush up on the experimental poetry he loved.
When that relationship ended, the pilot-capoeirista swooped down on me, as if from the clear blue sky. When he invited me to a capoeira class, I of course said yes. I messed up even the basic moves, but as I watched him doing backward hands-free cartwheels, I fell in love. I left the class sweaty, exhilarated and determined to learn capoeira, so my future husband and I could be experts together.
Later that week, I visited Raízes do Brazil, the capoeira academy on my block in Brooklyn, and signed up for a month of classes for beginners, with visions of the pilot giving me private lessons on the side. Except he stopped calling. Then I noticed a Facebook post on his wall declaring his love for a woman (not me) who brought him toasted-almond ice cream. When I confronted him, he confessed that he had a girlfriend. “I realized that the feelings I should be having for you, I was having for her,” he explained. I hung up, furious. I’d just bought four weeks of capoeira lessons! Apparently, the classes would last longer than the relationship. Maybe I could still get a refund.
Perhaps it was the memory of how elated I’d felt in that one session, but I decided to go forward with the classes anyway. I’d always avoided exercise, bored by every fitness routine I tried. Now that I was 30, I told myself I needed to start working out. I hoped that capoeira would be exotic enough to hold my interest.
The classes were held in an open room with a hardwood floor and a mirrored wall. We students faced the mirror, dressed in T-shirts emblazoned with the school logo, the berimbau-an instrument made from a gourd-and the Brazilian flag. Mestre Foca, the tanned, muscular and charming Brazilian codirector, whose nickname means seal, told us we’d soon get nicknames-apelidos-of our own. Having a nickname is a tradition that was initially meant to obscure players’ identities, dating from the years when capoeira was illegal in Brazil.
Foca had met his wife, Instrutora Rouxinol (Instructor Nightingale), through capoeira, and they’d fallen in love, had a family and opened the school together. I suspected I could learn a lot from them, about capoeira and relationships. Rouxinol didn’t start capoeira because of Foca; she was advanced when they met. Unlike me with my “I’ll do anything to be your perfect mate” approach, they bonded over what they already had in common.
Under Foca’s tutelage, I got the basic moves down, followed by kicks, dodges and cartwheels. I couldn’t get my legs overhead at first, but I met three other women in the class, and we resolved to improve by practicing together in the park. We were taught to call capoeira a game, though it looks like a fight or a dance. You “play” in a large circle, with two people in the center at a time. When you’re in the middle and a kick comes, you dodge and respond with a different kick, trying to maintain eye contact and stay in sync; the other player is your opponent but also your partner. The sparring continues until someone steps in to take out whoever has been in the middle longer, and so on, with new players stepping in and older ones stepping out. As I got more comfortable stepping into the center of the circle myself, it struck me that the attacks, dodges and constant switchups required mirrored the rhythms of a relationship-a dance, fight and game all at once.
One day, after I’d been training for two months, Foca started calling me Joaninha-ladybug. He didn’t say why; maybe it’s because I’m petite, or maybe he thought I was lucky. Whatever the reason, I loved the name and felt proud to have it, even going so far as to have little ladybugs tattooed on the back of my neck a few months later. I’d always liked ladybugs and tattoos-I had two already-and suddenly, I felt comfortable doing what I wanted without worrying about others’ opinions. I thought of how a ladybug’s wings are hidden until it spreads them and flies. It seemed as if capoeira was helping me find wings of my own, without the pilot, the poet or any man, for that matter.
Foca liked to tell us that we’d cope with the same personal weaknesses in class that we did in life. My weakness was rushing (from one man to the next), and he liked to shout out at me, “Slow down, Joaninha! Put form in your movement, not speed!”
I discovered capoeira because of the pilot, but it brought to light the independent spirit I’d had all along. Although my ex-husband hadn’t approved of graduate school, I’d reapplied, was accepted and went. And when the poet reneged on a promised trip to the Florida Keys for my birthday, I went ahead and traveled there on my own. But only after starting capoeira did I consciously stop believing that having a partner was my utmost need.
Then, on a weekend trip to Boston, I met a guy and we hit it off. Because he lived so far away, I figured I wouldn’t see him again, but we ended up dating casually. I didn’t wonder if we’d marry or even demand a commitment. In capoeira, on the other hand, my commitment was growing. I advanced from novice status to the next level, and when my semiboyfriend couldn’t come to my graduation, I told him that was fine-and meant it. I was happy being surrounded by my new capoeira friends.
After a year, Boston Man moved to Brooklyn, partly to be with me, yes, but also for his career. We were together for another year, and then we amicably parted ways. This time, I wasn’t devastated, a first for me. Another first: I now have flat abs and firm thighs, but getting fit was actually an afterthought. With capoeira, there is so much to do and learn-movement, berimbau playing, acrobatics, Portuguese songs-that you wake up one morning and wonder when you got in shape.
“You seem more centered since you started capoeira,” a friend told me recently. It’s true, though sometimes I still imagine resolving things with the helicopter pilot, perhaps with a swift martelo-hammer kick-to his head. But not really. In truth, I should thank him, because if we hadn’t met, I never would have ended up traveling to Brazil with two capoeira friends or realized that even a man who wasn’t right for me could be a good partner temporarily. (Not everyone has to be marriage material.) And I would never have dreamed that an art that comes as close as possible to teaching a person to fly would turn out to be the very thing that keeps me grounded.