Baptism by Fire

It is 100 degrees outside. I started sweating before I even got out of the subway and drank half a liter of water before our entire group had arrived. We clustered in groups under the shade of stunted trees planted in the middle of the sidewalk. Anything to get out of Cairo’s baking June sun.

But we had a good reason to leave the sanctuary of our air-conditioned apartments. Today is Cairo’s first batizado. For those of you who do not know Portuguese (I certainly don’t), batizado means baptism, which in capoeira means that today is the day that we earn our first belts. Our capoeira teacher in Cairo invited professors from France, Oman and Sharm al-Sheikh to fly in for our initiation ceremony followed by two days of workshops.

I had been eagerly and nervously looking forward to today since I got back to Cairo but I had not thought about the weather when I saw the date was set for mid-June. But despite the heat, about thirty of us gathered in the courtyard of a French school waiting for the professors to arrive. Luckily it is only 80 or 90 in the shade, by Egyptian standards, completely normal.

The music really began when the professors arrived. Two large drums pounded out a deep rhythm of bap boom bap, bap boom bap which was followed by ten tambourines, a bell and ten others clapping along. At the heart of the music was the unique twang of the barimbau and the rise and fall of the professor’s voice as he led us through a number of call and response songs in Portuguese. I am sure that the nuns who still lived at the school were wondering what the heck was going on in their courtyard.

We then split up into two groups, each making up one half of our large circle, with those earning the green (first level) belts on one side and those earning the green-yellow belts (second level) on the other. While the music continued, we would then pair off, one beginner playing with one advanced student in the middle of the circle, finishing to let the next pair begin. The kicks, cartwheels and handstands, timed to the rhythm of the music, warmed us up for the peak of the batizado. It was time to get our belts.

I have never seriously practiced any other martial art but I appreciated our professor’s perspective on the belts. “Do not get caught up with them,” one told us, “you cannot throw your belt into the ring and expect it to fight for you. They are markers of your ability but they should not be your limits. It is much better to have someone see you play and think, ‘wow, they only have that belt,’ instead of getting a belt and going no higher because you think you are so good.” Be humble and play well they told us, you are much more important than your belt.

But it was time. Those earning green belts (myself included) went first. Each person would play with a professor who would enter the roda (circle) with the student’s new belt tied around their arm, leg, chest or head as if saying, “here it is. Come and get it!”

The interaction between two people in the roda is called “playing” and I think that is the best way to describe it. Each person is not only moving along with the music, but also dancing with their partner, weaving in and out of their kicks or mirroring their cartwheels. Above all, everyone has fun. You can tell the professors pretty easily because they often have the biggest smiles on their faces. :)

When it was my turn, I faced the professor (who had my belt tied around his forehead) in front of the main group of instruments. We started by both cartwheeling into the center and then began the familiar swaying steps of the jenga. We traded spins and kicks, with the professor pressing me but also allowing me room to show off a little of what I had learned. At the end however, he deftly swept my feet out from under me in mid-kick, landing me on the ground and ending our match. Each round ended this way, with the professor finding some way to humble the newly graduated student. It is a ceremony that seemed to say at once, “congratulations on your belt, but you still have much to learn.”

The students earning the next level belt were much more interesting to watch with both students and professors kicking faster, ducking quicker and performing much more impressive acrobatics. As a surprise, our teacher in Cairo also obtained his next belt, but he had to earn it by playing with each one of the foreign professors in an incredible show of skill that at times caused me to stop and stare, missing the beat of the music.

The day ended with a final open roda where everyone freely played, all sporting their new belts. At the end of the day, the main professor spoke to us and said, “I am delighted to be here and I thank you all for coming and for inviting us. The students are the most important thing in capoeira, without them, we teachers are nothing.”

And with that, four hours and at least three liters of water later, the batizado ended. I spent so much of the time clapping to the music and I was actually sore from it the next day. I didn’t even know it was possible to be sore from clapping!

But we had earned our first belts. We were tired, sore and drenched in sweat, but it was worth it. If we are lucky, maybe the next batizado in Cairo will have air conditioning. :P