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Dance / Fight / Art

Capoeira mixes traditions to build community

By Elisabeth Friedeman

I'm sweaty from my workout, and pleased as punch because I've stumped my hyperathletic friend, the one who thinks she knows everything about every sport that ever was.

"You're doing cap-a-what's-it?" She cocks her head at me.

"Capoeira. Brazilian martial arts dancing. Like in that video game Tekken."

"Brazilian?" My friend's eyebrows go up. "Does that mean you have to, you know . . ."

My eyebrows go up, too.

"No! No waxing."

Capoeira ("cap-o-where-uh"), I explain, is a high-energy exercise that combines acrobatics, dance and martial arts. And while it may be sexy (one school, Capoeira Claremont, promises to "make members 33 percent sexier"), participants have to keep their clothes on. In fact, the official uniform is entirely modest: white pants with a white shirt.

I find capoeira especially helpful during unpleasant economic times. Like all exercise, it's an excellent stress reliever and helps to keep you healthy. It's also inexpensive and doesn't require special equipment. Most important, because you play capoeira with others, it builds a strong community and you make friends. Not only can you make friends with the capoeiristas in your own group, but it becomes an open invitation to other groups literally all over the world, most of whom share the same ideals of responsibility.

The respectability goes back to capoeira's history. Developed by slaves in Brazil, it was associated with street crime and violence, and so prohibited. A Brazilian named Manuel dos Reis Machado brought capoeira into an academy setting and developed a code of conduct that includes no drinking or smoking (hard activities to do with feet flying in your face, anyway).

Thanks in large part to his efforts, capoeira was legalized in Brazil in 1937. It made its way over to America in the 1960s through pioneers like Mestre Acordeon, a teacher in Berkeley. Now there are capoeira schools nearly everywhere, including where I train, the Mandinga School in Santa Rosa, which just celebrated its 15th anniversary. 

Is capoeira just the latest in a long line of designer-trend sports like yoga, muay Thai or mixed martial arts? All of these are unique and new, and all promise to be the one to change your life for the better. Yet capoeira has some real differences that I think are the reason it's certainly changed my life. One is that it is both an individual and team sport; just as it takes two to have a conversation, you can't play capoeira alone. But it's also an individual sport in that each player chooses her own movements, taking the consequences, whether good or bad.

Another major difference is that while some athletics use a soundtrack—aerobics and cheerleading come readily to mind—in capoeira, the music is an equally important part of the art form. Capoeiristas play instruments, sing and clap to create the good axé, or energy, that in turn inspires those playing in the roda, or circle.

What capoeira is really known for is its community. Maybe because of the past illegality, capoeiristas form strong, close-knit communities that extend outside class. Participants say they enjoy being a part of a group and, in these stressful times perhaps, having a place to share anxieties.

One fun symbol of capoeira community is getting a nickname. They were meant to protect people back when capoeira was illegal, like graffiti artists have nowadays, and while it's no longer necessary for safety, the trend continues. Traditionally given in Portuguese, some people's nicknames are flattering, like Gavião ("hawk"), but most don't give much in bragging rights, like Falador ("talks too much").

Capoeira allows participants to wear many hats (fighter, dancer, musician, singer), and since each game, or joga, can have a different feeling (playful, serious, friendly, competitive), mastering capoeira is a lifelong journey.

It's a trip that can be started at any point in life. Most people join capoeira in their 20s or 30s, late by Western standards. Some come with a martial arts or dance background, but many have never been athletic at all. There are kids and adult classes, most of which are all levels.


And capoeira is welcoming to all. Despite the undoubted coolness of the acrobatic moves, the fluidity of the basics, and the fun of the music, it is the friendship and community that keep so many of us hooked.

Mandinga Santa Rosa holds a free Open House event on Friday, April 17, at 6pm. The Dance Center, 56 W. Sixth St., Santa Rosa. 707.832.4033. .

Open Mic is now a weekly feature in the Bohemian. We welcome your contribution. To have your topical essay of 700 words considered for publication, write [email protected].


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