Figuring Out Who You Are

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Mestra Luar do Sertão on art, science, and the beautiful challenge of Capoeira

Interview by Kimi Eisele

Anne Pollack, also known as Mestra Luar do Sertão, has trained and practiced Afro-Brazilian capoeira and traditional Afro-Brazilian music and dance over three decades. She trained with Mestre Marcelo Caveirinha until 1996, when she founded Capoeira Mandinga Tucson, an academy for youth and adults. She directs the academy and Capoeira Institute Southwest, a nonprofit organization working to bring capoeira to underserved populations in the Southwest. Mestre Luar is a recipient of a 2019 SFA Master-Apprentice Artist Award. She worked with apprentice Aidan Miller-Wells to deepen his practice of capoeira forms and instrument-making.

Let’s start at the beginning. Tell me how you became a capoeirista. What were the early seeds of this practice for you?

Photo by Steven Meckler

I always had a connection with movement arts. I grew up with the understanding, although no confirmation, that a relative of mine was Maya Plisetskaya, a very famous Russian ballet dancer. My mom performed and taught modern dance in New York City as she was growing up and through college, and she got me started very early doing modern dance. I also had a lot of music in my upbringing. My parents were very into opera. Every Saturday, all day, in our house, opera blasted. My dad also played folk guitar and loved folk music. Later I became very involved in the folk community around Philadelphia. There were weekly square dances at the University of Pennsylvania, with some really incredible musicians, including John Krumm, who carried on the traditions of Old Timey music. At the time I didn’t play an instrument, but I love to sing, so I could join in in that way. I was really lucky to have that around me.

When I was looking to go to graduate school, I drove across the country. I got to San Francisco and had some friends there, so I stayed. I looked into the dance community there but didn’t find it that welcoming. I happened to move into an apartment, where a woman named Molly Strange lived. She was probably one of the very first American women to do capoeira. She had traveled already to Brazil by the time I met her. She got our other roommate Tim (Malabarista), into capoeira and after a couple of months, they got me into capoeira, too.

And then you fell in love with the form?

The clincher was that Mestre Marcelo Caveirinha, who later became my capoeira mestre, started teaching a class right after my dance class. My first impression was that capoeira looked like oddly done gymnastics. But once I started doing it, I saw the things I love, and still today love about capoeira. To play capoeira, you don’t have to memorize choreography. It’s all about the expression—what is the right choice of moves in the moment? I found it to be this very dynamic conversation in which the opponents are both competitors as well as partners in a dance. Capoeira is a fight for freedom. But in today’s world, that can be freedom of individual expression and creativity. Figuring out who you are within the spirit of this dance/fight.

When you’re first learning to do it, you have to face a lot of your own fears. Being a woman, I found one of the fears you have to face is being powerfully assertive—not being afraid to meet your challenge. American women, especially of my generation, are taught to be polite and considerate, the ones bending over backwards. To go against that, to try to trick the person and throw your best kick and move around your opponent so that they have no idea where you’re going or what you’re doing–these things aren’t mean, but rather, they’re an excitement and a challenge to meet.

Beautiful. I love that. Capoeira was originally performed by enslaved people who were using it as a camouflage, correct?

The traditional story is that Africans who were enslaved in Brazil used it to fight for freedom. But it was an oral history, so no one really knows the first 200 years, what happened exactly, or when the different instruments were introduced. But the idea was that the Africans wanted to train so they would be ready to fight for their freedom, and they camouflaged it by making it look like a dance. Supposedly they dressed in white because they would go to church on Sunday, or were made to go to church, and then afterwards, they would play capoeira. So they were in their Sunday best, which at that time was probably cotton sacks that had been made into clothes. White became the traditional garb of capoeira.

Anne Pollack plays contra Mestra Tigresa while becoming a Mestra herself at Luar Formatura, 2015.

To become mestre or mestra is a system of feats, like in karate or other martial arts, where you achieve levels and move up, right? Is that Is that how it works in capoeira?

It’s different in that you only can move up maybe once a year, sometimes not for two or three years. Not like Taekwondo where they have testing every couple of months, and you can be a black belt in two or three years. I started capoeira in 1986 and became a mestra in 2015. It’s a long process and a lot of dedication. My time as a teacher before I became a mestra was extended because I moved to Tucson in the middle of that. When I was supposed to become a professor, I broke both my legs doing a flip, so my process might have been a little longer. I also had two children in that time. But I kept on. During that time, I also got my PhD in anatomy and cell biology at the University of California, San Francisco. I became a pretty well published graduate student. I loved science. I had these two loves. After two years of grad school, I took a break for six months and went to Brazil. That was my first exposure to a foreign culture, a foreign language. I stayed about three weeks with a group of ten who’d gone with my mestre, and then I traveled alone for about four months. I learned some Portuguese, trained with a lot of different mestres, and had an incredible experience getting to know the Brazilian people.

I met with these women who were scientists in Sao Paolo, and they were like, why would someone in your position play capoeira? They just didn’t get it. When it came to the US, all of a sudden, the people who were doing it were artists, dancers, scientists, people who are older, people who were white. Eventually, decades later, Brazil realized that capoeira was something valuable. Eventually it became recognized under UNESCO as a protected cultural heritage. I feel honored that I was part of the beginnings of that happening and that I was one of the first generation of women doing capoeira.

Mestra Luar with first Capoeira Mandinga Tucson students Orna Amir-Picapau & Brian Smith-Escorpião at a batizado in 1997.

I moved to Tucson in 1996 and started a class at the University of Arizona Rec Center. I ended up teaching there for 14 years. I was still working in science. I eventually turned that class over to one of my students, because I wanted to open the Academy. At that point, I had to make a decision. I had two kids and two full time jobs. I could have stayed in science, or I could have gotten more involved in capoeira. I chose capoeira.

I opened my Academy in 2006. And in 2013, I made the next step of opening the nonprofit Capoeira Institute Southwest, which is our platform through which we do shows and teach and offer residency programs in schools. I also wanted to honor women in capoeira, so I have now a biennial event that I created called Arizona Guerreiras Go Global. Guerreiras are women warriors. We had our last one February 28-March 1, 2020. We were lucky.

The word “batizado” is Portuguese for baptism. What happens at a batizado? What is the premise?

The purpose of the batizado, per se, is to welcome and reward new capoeiristas. It’s not religious. It is to get that very first cordão, or belt. As people move up, they also participate and get their more advanced belts, each time they’re ready for it. My mestre, Marcelo Caveirinha created some of the first international capoeira festivals in the United States, in 1992 and 1995, in San Francisco. He brought in I don’t even know how many capoeiristas from Brazil to teach workshops for a full week. I continued this tradition. We would have workshops with different masters in different forms of Brazilian dance, music, and capoeira. On the final Saturday we would invite the public and parents to come watch. Every student has to play a capoeira master in order to get their belt. The students would also do performances of different dances we had rehearsed or different sequences of capoeira. We wanted to present it and educate the public in Tucson about what capoeira was.

Did the early mestres who brought the form to the United States have any concerns about cultural appropriation? Do you think they realized how popular it would get?

Right now I’m putting together a grant with my mestre and another mestre about the translation of capoeira as it came to different countries. One of the things we’re exploring is what happened when the form got here to the US. Initially it was really hard for them because no one knew what capoeira was. Of course, capoeira was originated by Africans in Brazil. When it came to America, it was a time when Black people here were trying to empower themselves and gain a presence. Still today. There were certain people who became teachers in the United States who were Black who would only accept Black students. But if you ask Brazilians who came to the US, they wanted it to spread, to popularize, and not be something contained within one culture. In essence, that’s what’s happened. Today, people from every culture in the world do capoeira and do it together.

When I started training, there were maybe 10 of us in our group. Now Mestre Marcelo has groups in Iceland, Italy, three groups in China, two or three groups in Taiwan, and groups all across the US. To make it through that process of getting to where enough people understood what capoeira was, and its values and the benefits it brings, was a very long process. I’ve never heard the issue of misappropriation of culture used by capoeiristas.

I held four or five, online Zoom events this year, which I called Mandinga Coast to Coast, and we had people from Mexico, Canada, Jamaica, China, Taiwan, Italy, Iceland, and then six or seven cities across the US all doing capoeira together–people who are Black, white, Asian, American Indian, and other Indigenous cultures, people who just came from every culture on the planet, in essence, doing this together and enjoying each other’s company and understanding that they were there to challenge each other, but not in a hateful way.

Student Renay-Caju plays Mestre Ninja at Batizado 2018.

What does Mandinga mean?

Mandinga is a very powerful word in the Brazilian culture. It means the magic of putting one over on someone, like hypnotizing your opponent, so that they don’t quite know what you’re up to. You can play this beautiful game and then surprise them with an attack because they’ve become enraptured by your game.

How have you had to adapt during this last year, given the pandemic?

All of my classes have gone online. I also have tried having classes in Himmel Park on Saturdays. We’ve done that, and then we’ve had to stop, and we’ve done it and had to stop. We’ve been going back and forth between online and one class a week in person. I’ve managed through writing many grants to hold on to our academy. The Academy is going to reopen, I hope, on April 1, with two in-person classes a week. The adults have been doing pretty well on Zoom, but most kids really hate it.

Given this year and all the things that we’ve dealt with as a community and globally, I’m curious about what can we extrapolate from the practice of capoeira and apply to daily living. In times adversity or even not?

Challenges help people to grow. Capoeira is a challenge, one limited only by the willingness of a person to persevere. Every person can get better at capoeira. And there is always going to be a capoeirista who’s better than them. Capoeira challenges us to become more flexible, both physically and mentally. Who am I willing to talk to? Who am I willing to train with? Am I willing to get out there in front of an audience and perform? Can I face the challenges inside myself as well as those presented in the capoeira game all in a moment’s flash?

I had one student, a girl who was probably five at the time. When she had her first batizado, she’d been training for a year and a half. She was so scared. She couldn’t bring herself to get up and move away from her parents and do it. We had some awesome mestres at that event, and between them and myself just saying, “Okay, just try this. You will surprise yourself,” she got up and played a beautiful capoeira game. Now she’s one of my most dedicated students. I have another boy who, when he was about six, stood up in front of everyone and sang a full capoeira song. Most adults can’t do that. It’s amazing for kids. People forget how to go through that process; they don’t always feel like they can put themselves in a vulnerable situation and learn to grow from that. Capoeira puts kids, teens, and adults in situations that challenge them, and then teaches them ways out, ways to maneuver the situation, to have choices and options—some more elegant than others, but all of them good—to get out of a situation and win.

Apprentice Aidan Miller-Wells or “Pinga Fogo” playing Instrutora Sabiá at Batizado 2018.

Who is the apprentice you’ve been working with?

For the Master-Apprentice award, I chose one student, Aiden Miller Wells. His capoeira name is “Pingo Fogo” because he’s got bright red hair and lots of freckles, which are called pingo, so “spots of fire.” We’ve worked a lot in the last year on his music, especially. He’s also been growing in the physical aspects of capoeira. He started with me when he was six, and he’s now 19. He’s really excited to make capoeira a part of his life forever.

I know music is such an important, inextricable thread from the practice. I don’t want to leave that part out.

You cannot play capoeira without music. That’s where it really becomes different from other martial arts. It’s the music that drives the capoeira. Many of the songs tell the history of capoeira. I remember Mestre Suassuna wrote a song once saying, “Oh, Americans can’t do capoeira.” Then a few years later wrote a song, “Oh, yeah, Americans are pretty good at capoeira.” So, the songs speak about the culture. And then the rhythm, speed, and energy that we play on the berimbau tells the players what kind of game to play and how fast to play. You have to feel that flow of the music.

I try to teach my students enough Portuguese that they can at least catch the essence of the meaning of the song. Also, clapping is really important. I personally love the flowing songs, the songs that are beautiful. But the chants–one line solo, one line chorus–are also really important, because they’re supposed to get you in that state of give and take, to find the flow within that drives the capoeira game. The mestre or mestra who’s leading the roda, the capoeira circle, is the one driving that. You might change the speed of the song, and then the capoeiristas playing should be listening and go with that or do what’s called a “volta do mundo,” walking around the circle, one following the other. Sometimes you might just sit back and let it go and see where the students take it.

Amazing ponte or “bridge” by young Caxinguelê, Mestre Luar’s son.

How has your practice or your teaching has changed or been influenced by this place—Tucson, the Borderlands, the Sonoran Desert?

I love Tucson. I came here and felt like I found my heart here. I love the beauty of what’s around us. One of the most wonderful feelings is to have a roda outside. Tucson allows us to do that, to bring the beauty of the outside into our capoeira roda. I also love the multiculturalism. There’s still a lot of prejudice underlying things here. There’s sometimes the issue of “Well, I’m white, I’m a woman, what am I doing here, doing capoeira?”  Some people in Tucson maybe feel I would be more authentic if I was something else. But overall, I have been really inspired by the community in Tucson, how responsive it is and how much they see capoeira as a positive and want to incorporate it.

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