See a group of capoeira performers in motion.
_Heartbeat of the Game
The music of capoeira.
Those who have seen it performed before must search for just the right words to explain it.
It is music. In the shape of a circle, men and women dressed in white clap to African rhythms and sing and chant in Portuguese. One man pounds a conga–like drum with his whole body, while a woman rhythmically plucks the steel string of the tall wooden bow.
It is a dance. Inside the circle, two people crouch toward the ground and look in each other's eyes. To the pace of the music, their bodies bend and twist and jump around one another like spiders.
It is a fight. He round kicks toward her face; she swiftly crouches out of the way, shielding herself with her forearm. She moves forward into a handstand, legs up in the air jolting at him; he crouches into a low–to–the–ground cartwheel and out of her way.
It is strong, agile bodies pushing the ordinary bounds of movement. With nimble flexibility, their bodies continue to weave in and around one another — through lunges and kicks, jumps and handstands, spins and twists. They anticipate each other's moves, trying to keep from touching or hurting one another. After a few minutes, they finish with a handshake. Another duo replaces them inside the rhythm circle.
It is a game played in solidarity and music. Capoeira (kap–oh–WEH–ra) is an enigmatic form of dance and martial arts most likely originating in the sixteenth or seventeenth century among slaves in Brazil. Though today it is primarily played as a non–violent match of agility, the once–violent intentions of the game made capoeira a forbidden art form more than once in its history.
Capoeira "has an energy all its own.
It encompasses so much — rhythm, play,
ritual movement, folklore, dancing and fighting."
One Eugene, Oregon "capoeirista," a twenty–five year old with wild dark curly hair and soulful eyes, Davey Jackson, learned about capoeira from an uncle who told him about this rare martial art with African roots. To Jackson, capoeira "has an energy all its own. It encompasses so much — rhythm, play, ritual movement, folklore, dancing and fighting. And it's a really important part of the African diaspora." That history and energy are attracting people of all backgrounds to this art form.
The slaves in Brazil were South American natives and Africans. The Africans were taken from countries like Angola, Mozambique and Namibia. Some people believe that capoeira was brought to Brazil as an African martial art. Others believe that capoeira began among rebellious slaves who escaped sugar plantations into the wild rainforests. There, capoeira became a form of self–defense against white men and sometimes against one another. Its movements were possibly influenced by animals they saw in Brazilian forests and remembered from the African wild — monkeys, zebras, spiders. When slave owners forbade the practice as it seeped into the plantations, the slaves disguised it as a dance. Still others believe it began as a self–expressive form of dance within the plantations. They believe the movements came from an amalgam of motions reminiscent of African and indigenous tribal dances. Eventually for self–defense purposes, the dance morphed into martial art.
Capoeiristas today embrace the mysterious beginnings of the art form as part of its charm. Says Jackson: "Part of the beauty of capoeira is learning to accept that, just like there's mystery in life, there's mystery in capoeira." No matter how it originated, capoeira lived on for centuries until slave liberation.
Many capoeira historians believe that when slavery ended in Brazil in 1888, some free slaves joined street gangs. Capoeira became a violent mode of attack with players often hiding razors inside their clothing. Brazilian authorities banned capoeira sometime around 1890, but that did not stop people from secretly fighting using capoeira in the ghettos. By the 1930s, when the non–violent sport–like version of capoeira became legal again, many Euro–Brazilians took it up.
Only within recent years, though, has the Brazilian public stopped associating capoeira with slavery and gang life. Even ten years ago, mestre (instructor) Pedro Cruz, who hails from the Bahia region of Brazil, feared what his girlfriend's parents would think upon learning that he practiced capoeira. But Cruz did not let public hesitance about the art form stop him. "I was born in love with capoeira," he says. Today capoeira schools proliferate throughout Brazil, making the sport second only to soccer in popularity.
Capoeira came to the United States by way of New York City in the 1970s. Its striking resemblance to breakdancing causes some to surmise that it sparked the beginning of that movement. Yet long after breakdancing reached its mainstream prime, capoeira continues to be embraced by people throughout the country and the world. Its global popularity spurred the 2004 International Olympic Committee to consider introducing it as a performance sport. In the United States, it has spread into metropolitan areas and small towns alike.
Four times a week, the art form comes alive at the practices of Eugene's capoeira group, Grupo Raça ("raça," which literally means "race," also denotes determination and perseverance). Twenty–nine–year–old Cruz, with an enthusiasm evident in his wide eyes and smile, shouts commands in English and Portuguese. Tight clothing accentuates lithe and strong bodies of the mostly twenty–something men and women. Afro– Brazilian musical rhythms provide a high energy soundtrack to their workout. They help one another with intense stretches, work in reflective pairs doing slow–motion aús (cartwheels) across the floor. Learning complicated new move sequences proves a welcome challenge for some, a frustration for others.
They learn both defensive and offensive sequences. The goal of the game is to get one's opponent into a position in which he cannot defend himself, then to mimic throwing a blow at him. To Gabe Dour, an athletic college student who helped form Grupo Raça three years ago, "It's about trying to help camaradas [comrades] find their weaknesses. There is no winner or loser."
Another local capoeirista, Pieter Van Den Berge, says that for some the game is a way to control the opponent through movement. For him, the game tests his own strength. Inside the roda (rhythm circle), he strives to reach that place where "everything is effortless, spontaneous and creative."
Dour and Van Den Berge play for the physical challenge and because of a fascination with capoeira's history. The more Dour plays, the deeper connection he says he feels to its roots. "The roots of capoeira are struggle," he says. "A capoeirista trains and studies capoeira to overcome oppression and limitations."
Capoeiristas must anticipate their opponent's movements and respond quickly to every situation. As such, mestre Cruz claims "capoeira teaches people not to be afraid to fall." His students tell him how this notion of fearlessness transfers into their own lives — from people becoming more aware of their own surroundings to acting more assertively in uncomfortable situations to being less afraid to take on life's challenges.
"Part of the beauty of capoeira is
learning to accept that, just like there's
mystery in life, there's mystery in capoeira."
Certainly in its twentieth century U.S. form, capoeira no longer acts as a means of resisting oppression. But mestres still want players to remember the game's original intentions. Cruz infuses history lessons into his classes and encourages players to study more about a game he calls an instrument of liberation. And he teaches his students Portuguese song lyrics about oppression, strength and hope.
Jackson, who sought out the art form in part because of its roots, claims the spirit of liberation does, indeed, live on in capoeira today. "When I play really well, there's a connection," he says. "It is like the continuation of a tradition — where the energy is right and I feel free."