Capoeira in a Roma settlement

In 2010, volunteer from the Anti-Discrimination Centre Memorial, Birte Lampart, suggested a new and unexpected initiative: she invited her friends, who practice capoeira, to work with Roma children – the residents of the settlement of Peri. Capoeira is something between dance and martial art, a very spectacular activity, accompanied by live singing and playing Brazilian traditional instruments. It was invented by the slaves who came to the South America.

Birte Lampart:

The deeper you know other people’s life, the fewer objections it causes.

Before I came to Russia, I realised that our so called “democratic” societies based on the principles of freedom and openness in the case of minorities understand the words “tolerance” and “integration” in some other way. Instead of respect and interest in others’ culture, we try to adapt it to everything we think of as civilized and right. However, before condemned, others’ culture should be understood. The only possibility to understand a culture is to learn about it. The better and deeper you do it, the more understandable and less objectionable it becomes.

In the beginning I worked as a translator in the Anti-Discrimination Centre Memorial. Then I was happy to start working in a Roma settlement – to teach English. The settlement amazed me with its mixture of everything and overflowing energy. The children of different ages were running around rolled dirty roads. The Roma are similar to Russians with regard to hospitability: they invited me to come over, gave me some tea and told about their difficulties – for instance, about obstacles they face looking for job. Recently a flower company opened 40 new job vacancies. But when they learned that Roma women wanted to apply, they rejected them at once. No Roma woman has an official work place at the moment.

The other problem is school. The Roma children attend school never beyond 5th form, and study  in a separate building. In fact, they do not have any opportunity to receive a proper education. Many children would like to study together with Russians. The most progressive Roma parents think the same. But so far the school has cooperated only in word, and the situation has not been changed for the better.

Thus, we started learning English firstly simple greetings and short dialogues, then songs, then we studied how to count in English, learned the English alphabet. The fifth formers who already knew some English named various languages and countries, tried to write the words on the blackboard. Though, English is their second foreign language (also Russian).

I enjoyed every journey to the settlement: I could rest after a big noisy city and feel I was needful. The children’s eyes shone with happiness during our classes. And then quite spontaneously I brought my capoerista friends to the settlement where they organized a master class.

We told the history of capoeira – a martial art of Brazilian slaves. The children listened to us with great attention. Valya, a teacher of Roma dances, translated some words into Romani. Then we sang together, beating time with our hands. We learned basic steps, kicks and acrobatic elements. The children were very quick to learn. In the end in couples we played roda which means “circle” in Portugese.

So, the St Petersburg capoeiristas met the Roma for the first time. They knew nothing about them. Besides that, the Roma people face many prejudices from the Russian people. The Roma children learned about the culture of a far-away country they knew nothing about. In my mind, the most interesting element of the meeting was that because of this new – beautiful and dangerous – dance, people of different ethnicities met via a “third” culture.

Andrei “Prontu” Girko, a capoeira coach

When I brought my students to a Roma settlement to organize a master class for the first time, I was a bit worried, I even sensed danger. Yes, I was told… Yes, I was prepared. But subconsciously I remembered: “Stay away from Gypsies.”

The first meeting was as if it was true. A Roma man saw a camera in my hands, came to me and said in a quite firm way:

Get your camera down. If you wanna film here, you must ask me.

Could I film here, please? – I replied.

Didn’t you get it? Wanna get it? – I could understand he was not joking.

Then we met the children. And it was wonderful. They reluctantly reacted to our request to show the way to the Cultural centre, but then they started to speak more eagerly, cheered up, so we didn’t notice how we got to the centre.

It was crowded. The children were rehearsing their traditional dances. The girls wore colourful skirts, the guys – three-piece suits. A group of Russian grown-ups in white dress drew out interest. We began. Music, rhythmic moves, cheerful atmosphere. The children joined us immediately. Laughter, acrobatic moves, absolute absence of discipline. Stop. I explained that capoeira is a martial art, so discipline is very important. Laughter. I repeated with louder and firmer voice. They became quiet. They can feel hierarchy; respect to the elder is imbibed with their mother’s milk. And then it was just celebration. In a few minutes the Roma children managed to do things my students needed a few weeks to master. They were not afraid of entering rota-circle at all. Portuguese songs were understood and accepted very well. They tried to sing together with us, clapped their hands with various difficult rhythms, not only one-two-three. Their musicality is impressive! When they could not remember capoeira moves, they danced their dances. The energy of a few 12-14-year-old guys overshadows rota-circles of experienced capoeiristas. Each brave move in the circle was supported by whistling and shouting. In a word, real celebration!

The second and third trips to the settlement were absolutely different. They were waiting for us, glad to see us, took pictures with us. There were more and more children. They were open and ready to learn some more, they also remembered everything we taught them before. They invited us to come again.

It was an amazing experience for me. I have participated in several projects already, but I was never met with such a warm attitude, such interest and happiness. It is obviously related to  the fact that the children live separately, so any entertainment is a world event. City children, and even children from orphanages, receive some attention from the city municipality and charity organizations. For historic reasons and because of the settlement way of life, the Roma children are isolated from the world. Their contact with the educational system, sports and modern culture are definitely not enough. I would like to thank Birte Lampart, a volunteer from Germany, who introduced us to the settlement, Anna Konovalova, dance teacher, who does really enormous work for the settlement children, and of course my team, the group “Mundo Capoeira” who realized this project.

Anastasia “Sardinia” Pupynina, a member of the Mundo Capoeira group

My first reaction to the suggestion of my friend and coach Andrei to go to a settlement was curious. The word “settlement” and “Roma” were strange to me, almost unknown. Since my childhood I heard alienation and distance in talk about Roma people. The perception of them as a group of “untouchables” took root and did not cause any doubt (Close your bag, there are Gypsies here! – Why? – Because they are Gypsies).  The trip with the group Mundo capoeira was a good opportunity to shorten the distance or at least to realize its scale. I was also professionally motivated: I study cultural anthropology, and I noticed a number of problems which would have remained unnoticed without personal contact – such as an attitude of the settlement Roma to the Roma people who live and work in the town; organization of school education; the cultural centre where we taught was at the same time educational centre, hairdressing salon, shoe shop, disco and who knows what else (I am not sure I saw everything). After all, collecting biographical interviews would be very interesting; it would also show that the Roma reality is something absolutely different.

After the first training we talked to Anna Petrova, a teacher in the school. Many things she told us sounded fantastic for us – nobody moves to the city, 12-13-year-old girls get married, the guys of the same age stop going to school and start working as they have to maintain the family. It was so strange to think: these were the guys who we taught just now how to do a cartwheel, who were giggling and did not believe us when we complimented their attempts. But in the summer they will live together as a couple. I mean they just behaved the way I behaved at their age, but in the summer will be in a situation which, for me, is far off, and for which I don’t feel ready.

The training lasted for a couple of hours. During this time we discussed the history of capoeira, warmed up, practised a few basic steps, then tried to do a cartwheel and in the end played and sang.

Unbelievable overflowing enthusiasm of the children and their energy scared me a bit at first, but then it motivated me to teach them. Motivated students are the dream of any teacher. To achieve that we had to organize “individual lessons”, at the second training each of us chose 1-3 children and practiced with them. To find a balance between having fun and serious work is very difficult, but I think that with a little time, we will manage.

Last year I worked with children, but never with so many at once. I was nervous before the trip about the training, what will happen if they do not like it or that my level is not high enough to teach other people. However, everything went very well: the children were very happy, so were we. The way back to the station was accompanied with shouting, invitations and new year wishes – we shouted as loud as the children.

Liliya “Narisinia” Fillipova, a member of the Mundo Capoeira group

I went to a Roma settlement twice.

Probably every person at some moment faces the problem of their “usefulness”. I was not an exception. That’s why I am very grateful to my trainer who gave me the opportunity to feel useful.

Of course, a Roma settlement was different from the one I imagined. The word “gypsies” was colourful, noisy, musical, but undoubtedly negative. “They will steal you and put in a bag,” “they will conjure and hex you” – who did not hear it from the parents and grandparents? To say the truth, I was a bit afraid of going there. But what do we know about these people anyway? As it turned out I knew nothing.

These Roma live in a settlement, separate from the locals. Their children finish usually only primary school, as our system is not capable of integrating such unusual students. At the age of 14 they start grown-up life. This is what I heard from the teachers and the children.

We did not go to the settlement itself, the classes were organised in the Cultural centre (by the way, it was well-restored) under the supervision of a teacher. She sees them home when it gets dark. The personality of Anna Petrovna should be described in a separate article. I was very impressed by what she does.

I was impressed by the children as well – they are like constantly moving, always full of energy and charisma. At first they looked at us with suspicion. But in half an hour they showed us their dancing hall and asked us to take a photo of them. Yes, children are children. But in this half an hour I forgot they were Gypsies who frightened me in my childhood.

In fact, they are very good at music. Even though they are not sporty, their energy replaces all shortcomings. I like the boy Giovanni. He was very quick on the uptake. Of course, to attract the attention of the children and make them listen to us was not very easy, but this only motivated us to find a common language with them.

We are the victims of our education, as our parents are the victims of theirs. But when I saw how the Roma children sing songs they have just learned and their teacher tell us who is getting married this year, I understood that the stereotypes dictated to me had disappeared.

Valeriya “Zhaguara” Sonnikova, a member of the Mundo Capoeira group

When I came to the settlement for the first time, I realized the extent of my distance from the mentality of the people living here. They have kept their ancient traditions as they were in the old times. The men are the head of families. They do not allow strangers to approach their “nests” and declare their rights at once, with the silent agreement of their “colourful” wives. The women – some of them are very beautiful – watch what happens and keep silent, but later, laughing loudly, discuss with their friends what they saw.

But of course Roma people do not live in the Middle Ages: they work, buy thing at shops. They are open to many innovations; accept many things from our life. But they still have difficulties with receiving an education: the school is too bad…

But children are children even in the settlement! They like everything noisy, with music and smiles. They respond to the attention paid to them. At first they probably thought we were a regular visit of “kind men and women longing to help the poor little children. Later they realized we were genuinely interested in them. They trusted us. It is the most important thing in the grown-up life – when you are trusted. I’d like to go back there as soon as possible!

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