Shall we dance/fight?
The Brazilian martial art of capoeira is one of the most graceful, artistic ways to kick your own ass
Capoeira—dance-fighting, fight-dancing—the whole concept sounds like a bad reality TV show on Bravo. If I had been exposed to the art as a mere idea before seeing it, I would probably continue to compulsively mock it as so much cultural shoplifting—more hippie drivel imported by Hollywood from some newly chic Thirdworldistan. Like many martial arts to which Americans have been exposed, I can thank bad movies for my introduction to the sport. In this case, a particular little gem called Only the Strong, starring Mark Dacascos, a theatrical crime where an American G.I. helps raise-up ghetto kids by teaching them the sport. Think of it as Dangerous Minds meets The Karate Kid, except really terrible. Despite first silver-screen impressions, I have since become a devotee to the art—once I saw the graceful and acrobatic dance movements of capoeiristas, I fell in love with the art.
I studied capoeira briefly while living in Los Angeles, at the Brazilian Cultural Center, where hours of kicks were accompanied by the sound of dozens of people singing and clapping along with the prerequisite blisters on feet and body full of bruises. I had many times hoped to find another class someday. I never expected to find one here in Reno.
I saw a one-line mention of capoeira at the River School during Artown this year, and raced down there expecting to see an event. I went prepared for a presentation or showcase of Brazilian culture, some athletic individuals from out-of-town bringing us the music and skill of Brazil for locals to inspect. Instead, I was pleasantly surprised to find myself witness to eight people in the small River School studio being instructed by laid back, lithe capoeira, Brett Brolliar. Dressed in slacks and a button-down shirt and hauling around a video camera, I was poorly prepared to participate. I watched from the doorway, feeling like a shy kid.
But I wasn’t alone.
“I saw a presentation at BYU and I was most impressed by these little kids doing these really advanced kicks and flips,” says capoeira student, Joshua Glantz-Hucks. “But at the time I hadn’t heard it right and thought it was called ‘acappella.’ I was really surprised to find a class in Reno.”
“This class was my first exposure to capoeira,” says Cecila Padilla, one of several women that attend the River School class. “I was kind of intimidated, but everyone was so laid back, there really was no ego.” It can be easy to be intimidated. Capoeira is dazzling to watch when done by an expert. While the structure and athleticism of most martial arts lend them some degree of spectacle, few integrate it on such a fundamental level as capoeira. The different aspects of capoeira are such that describing it in traditional martial-arts terms is difficult. Soft and hard style or kicking versus punching don’t exactly tell the full tale. Whereas there are definite links to the combat arts in that there is striking involved, there are also deeper aspects.
More than a game
Music and singing are integral to the practice of capoeira. It creates an inherent spirit of localized community that I have not seen in other arts. Some practitioners of capoeira say that the integration of music and dance was a way for Brazilian slaves to hide their combat training from their masters in the guise of a communal gathering of harmless music and dance. Other theories contend that this was a natural evolution of different dance and musical traditions that the slaves brought with them to Brazil from West Africa. “There are a lot of different theories if you want to trance a direct linage in the history of capoeira,” says instructor Brolliar. “When the slave masters brought these Africans over they mixed up the tribes as a way to keep them separated. These were people who were thrown together who didn’t even speak the same language. I see capoeira as a way that they tried to maintain their African rituals while creating a larger community.”
For these reasons the combat aspects of capoeira are tied into elements that lie outside of their intended function. Even sparring in capoeira is referred to as a “game.” To initiate sparring is to initiate a game. “It’s like fighting, but not really—its more like play,” says Patrick Wilson, who has been practicing capoeira with Brolliar for a year now. “When I first came I saw that it wasn’t just two people trying to kick the crap out of each other,” he says. “People were smiling and singing, even people in the roda [The circle of spectators around the participants]. I started out really aggressive, but now its just more about having fun.”
“It’s a game, but life isn’t always about the best intentions, you know? People do get aggressive. And so when you contain those energies in the roda, that is the game,” Brolliar says, moving his hands fluidly as he speaks, seemingly second-nature. “You can’t always fight and be aggressive. You have to find your own path, heal and grow. Capoeira teaches you that not to snap, when someone is aggressive.”
The majority of the combat elements of capoeira consist of kicks that originate from the constant and almost dance-like movement of the ginga, or the back and forth rocking motion that is the foundation of all moves and sparring. The kicks are complemented by an endless variation of groundwork resembling breakdancing at times. It includes trips, sweeps, shoves and head-butts. The motion in capoeira, like in dancing, is constant; there is never a static moment. The kicks in a game move in sweeping arcs and bodies are constantly spinning or doubling-back in arcs. Evasion is done by dodging, ducking, laying nearly flat on the ground. And sparring is by far the most communal event of capoeira practice.
Participants in class form a circle, and while the entire class sings and claps along to a capoeira song, two practioners enter the circle and spar. “The music provides the energy, but when you’re in the roda you feel this intense magic, like everyone there is your friend,” Wilson tells me.
“Capoeira is about building a community that extends beyond the roda” Brolliar says. The sense of community and equality is something that is inclusive. Equality, even with the instructor. The official title for the highest teacher is “mestre.” It’s a word not like master, but more like teacher—but with even more respect. There really isn’t a word for it in English.
“I’m still trying to find a philosophy for myself as a teacher. It’s nice to push yourself and practice, and I know and feel my contradictions. But I feel free to express and teach what I know. My intention is not to control it; I’m a capoeira facilitator. Everyone feels welcome and everyone is welcome,” says Brolliar.
I have been attending capoeira “class” for two months now. The once-a-week work-out is still brutal at times. Staying low to the ground, handstands, cartwheels and dozens, if not hundreds of kicks in the course of several hours are reminiscent more of grade-school games then of any traditional “workout” I can think of. I walk a little funny, and my ass is still sore for about two days afterward. But why have it any other way? Who wouldn’t rather trade in the drudgery and tedium of a regular gym workout and training for something closer to play? And with dancing and music too? Well, if you insist.