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Sunday, 16 November 2008

The Call of Brazil's Capoeirista

Written by Roxanna Benton
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As soon as the familiar notes start, ears perk up.


Within seconds, eyes start to flick around the room.


Smiling people start to form a circle while clapping and swaying to the beat.

Pavlov was right. It doesn’t take much. A bell for a dog, or five steely notes for a capoeirista, and off they go.

Never mind that just getting the birimbau to sing those five simple notes can be a grueling task. Never mind that after last night’s session, the muscles in your thighs made you swear off high kicks and low esquivas for life. And never mind that Portuguese is comically un-phonetic for English-speakers trying to learn it.

Capoeira draws in its players with music, singing, camaraderie and, of course, competition. The faces around the roda may be smiling, and the lips may be singing, but be on your toes when it’s your turn to enter the circle. The game is playful and its players are friendly, but it is game that wants a winner.

My husband and I started practicing capoeira five years ago. It is a sport that takes friendship, motivation and physical well being, and dumps them into a circle surrounded by people playing instruments and trying to out-maneuver each other. The call of Brazil’s Capoeirista, Capoeira, Brazilian martial art, Portuguese, Rio de Janeiro, Buzios, Bahia, armadas, roda, berimbau, Roxanna BentonThe recipe is addictive, and those first few notes from the berimbau are becoming more and more enticing to a growing number of people around the world. However, despite its growing prominence, when I tell someone that we play capoeira, the usual response is still, “What?”

Cop-o-wear-uh is a Brazilian martial art that began when slaves in the 16th century needed a way to disguise their resistance fighting training. They would form a circle and two participants would enter and begin to “dance.” The changing rhythms of the music indicated whether it was safe to begin practicing the fight, or to revert to dance-like movements again. Capoeira remained an illegal practice in Brazil until the 1930s, but has now become a symbol of national pride and identity.

So, when we had the opportunity to travel to Brazil this summer, we jumped at the chance to practice it in the country where it originated. (The fact that we happened to encounter pristine beaches, strange seafood, and a four-foot-long cockroach along the way made the trip even better.)

The best place to find capoeira in Brazil is probably in Bahia, a state located on the northeastern coast that has become a center for the retention and cultivation of Afro-Brazilian culture. It was here in the 1930s that one of the most well known mestres of capoeira, Mestre Bimba, succeeded in overturning the ban that made the practice of capoeira illegal and opened the country’s first school.

Unfortunately for the traveler visiting Brazil on a budget, it can be expensive to get to Bahia. It is much easier and cheaper to visit the larger cities of Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo. So, keeping this in mind, off we went to Rio de Janeiro, searching for the best fruit juice in the world, and a capoeira school that would let us join in.

The call of Brazil’s Capoeirista, Capoeira, Brazilian martial art, Portuguese, Rio de Janeiro, Buzios, Bahia, armadas, roda, berimbau, Roxanna BentonWe rented a car and drove 100 miles northeast of Rio de Janeiro to a town called Buzios. To say that the beaches in Buzios are pristine is something of an understatement, and we were lured away from our quest to find capoeira for several days while we warmed ourselves in the sun. The weather was perfect despite the fact we were traveling in June, the middle of Brazilian winter.

After several days of the laid-back lifestyle, it was time for us to find an instructor and we started our search by talking to the locals. People go to Buzios for the beaches, not the capoeira, so my trusted guidebook was of little help.

Fortunately, my husband had been studying Portuguese, and in Rio de Janeiro you will not likely encounter any English speakers outside of the five-star hotels. Many Brazilians are bilingual in Spanish, but not English, so my husband’s language skills proved to be invaluable.

When we began to explore the region outside Buzios, we found ourselves in the city of Cabo Frio. After asking around for classes, we were told to go to a park near the beach around 8 p.m. and ask the instructor if we could join in.

We had been warned about the dunes around Cabo Frio, as their proximity to both the beach and the favela (Portuguese word meaning shantytown) meant that they were sometimes a location for robberies. We tried to find the park in the daytime, but were unable to find it; later on that night after twenty minutes of searching, we were about to give up when we heard it.

Ch-ch-ching-dong-dong: the call of the capoeirista. There they were, thirty barefooted people practicing their kicks in unison on a concrete slab that had undoubtedly been used by futbol players only a few hours before.

As we approached the group, I began to feel nervous. What if it was a private class? What if tourists annoyed them? What if our skills were too low for this class?

Luckily, my husband had no such qualms. This was, after all, why we had come. He put his Portuguese skills to good use and asked the teacher if we could join. The instructor immediately and graciously accepted us into the group.

We kicked off our flip-flops and got at the end of the line, watching the other students move through the drills. My tension eased when I saw that they practiced kicks we were familiar with, and although I had never pictured myself throwing armadas after dark, half a mile from a favela, against a teenaged Brazilian girl, it didn’t seem substantially different from our practices back home. I kicked and she ducked. Then we switched. She kicked at me, and I ducked.

I had been worried about the language barrier, but we quickly learned the Portuguese translation for commands like, “Duck! I’m going to kick you!” or “Attack me!” so it was easy to follow along.

Before entering the roda, players touch hands as a show of good faith. This is to say, “I do not intend to hurt you.” Then, they begin to “dance” the ginga. It is from this basic step that all movements in capoeira are formed. This says, “We are on common ground, and we both will begin in the same place.” Then the kicks start to fly; players must be constantly aware of their opponent’s movements, ready to duck at a moment’s notice. Similarly, the attacker must be able to stop his kick if it is not ducked. It is this combination of power and restraint that is difficult to achieve. At the end of a match, players are usually smiling, and hands are touched again. “Thank you for the match,” (and thank you for not taking my head off).”

The call of Brazil’s Capoeirista, Capoeira, Brazilian martial art, Portuguese, Rio de Janeiro, Buzios, Bahia, armadas, roda, berimbau, Roxanna BentonThe class was made up of both children and adults with varying skill levels. Some students were in uniform, and others looked like they had walked off the street and joined in. Many of the children, the teacher later explained, lived in the favela not too far away. He told us that his classes are always free so that anyone who wished to, including us, could come and join in.

We were initially met with a respectful wariness, but it didn’t take long for the group to become comfortable with us. When my husband played against the mestre, it was a slow, respectful game; they did not try to beat each other. They both knew who was the better player, and there was no need to demonstrate domination. Their kicks and careful movements were much like a silent conversation between the two of them, and they slowly became acquainted. It may seem like an odd way to meet someone, with legs and arms flying, but they were spared from the awkward nuances of introductory conversation and were able to act out their emotions in the roda.

It is hard for me to explain what it is about capoeira that eases tensions and promotes friendship. All capoeiristas know that in order to eventually look good, they need to look ridiculous as a beginner. Also, it is rare for two opponents to actually make contact with each other; they throw kicks, but do not intend to hurt each other. The call of Brazil’s Capoeirista, Capoeira, Brazilian martial art, Portuguese, Rio de Janeiro, Buzios, Bahia, armadas, roda, berimbau, Roxanna BentonPerhaps it is this shared decision to ignore initial feelings of embarrassment and to fight each other without malice that fosters a sense of unity between players. Capoeristas fight to get stronger and better at the sport, but not at the expense of their opponent. However, that does not imply that there is no winner. In the roda, players get competitive and showy, and there is often a clear-cut winner even though no contact was made and no one was knocked down.

It is these combined elements of competition, collaboration and physical fitness that make capoeira so addictive, and playing it in Brazil was especially fascinating to be in the land where it still carries so much meaning for its practitioners. It was fun to explore the similarities and differences in the way we played the game.

So if you ever find yourself walking along a street in Rio de Janeiro, and you hear the twang of those first five notes— ch-ch-ching-dong-dong— follow the sounds to the roda so you too can learn how the music and movement can raise spirits and bring players closer together.


©Roxanna Benton


Last modified on Sunday, 16 December 2012

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