March 08, 2006 News & Opinion » Featured story

'We play' 

From Brazilian slave camps to Rochester fitness studios, the cult of capoeira

When class is in session for CapoeiraMandinga Rochester, the rhythm grabs you from the parking lot. As you enter the Elton Street building, the steady thump... tha-thump... tha-THUMP suddenly swells, reverberating down the stairwell. The pulse and boom of sound envelopes you and connects with a place deep in your body. Even before you've laid eyes on the twirling limbs of the participants, it becomes almost impossible to resist the urge to move.

Inside the capoeira practice room, the sound seems strangely smaller. But immediately you witness the embroidery of the different artforms that come together to form capoeira: martial arts, acrobatics, aerobic exercise, dance, rhythm, music, song, and the Portuguese language.

Sometimes singing, instructor Todd Russell plays hand drum beats in slowly varying cadences. Following Russell's instruction, class members overlay complementary patterns of movement but in their own time sequence --- not unlike musicians working within their own pocket of rhythm but having to be mindful of the greater whole. In fact, the group takes on the appearance of an orchestra: Russell conducts and the bodies are instruments. Music becomes movement and vice versa, fused together by hypnotic, wave-like repetition.

CapoeiraMandingaRochester ("Mandinga" refers to a specific branch of the art) formed in August of 2004. The response was so enthusiastic that Russell, who at first commuted from Buffalo to teach, moved to Rochester. Class members describe the impact capoeira has had on their lives as profound. Across the board, they speak of almost unconsciously acquiring increased musical acuity, of feeling like they're building a sense of community that goes beyond what they may have experienced in team sports, and of gravitating towards Brazil and the Afro-Brazilian culture in which capoeira first emerged.

"At its most obvious," says OlaDlugosz, a graduate student spending a year in Toronto, "it's just a series of kicks. But there's so much more to it. It requires so much intuition."

"I've been a martial artist since I was a kid," says Martin Fischer, a small business owner and one of the more advanced students in the class. "I had always studied Eastern styles, which tend to be very linear. The movements, stances, and katas you see in a lot of the Eastern arts are based in attacking in a straight line. In capoeira, you're typically looking to use positioning, circular movements, and momentum to gain power. Also, I was immediately drawn to the music. I found it to be very powerful and motivating."

Capoeiristas, Fischer explains, refer to the combative aspect of capoeira as "playing." They prefer not to describe what they do in terms of fighting or sparring. "When I heard that," Fischer says, "I was taken aback. It didn't make sense to me."

While it's obvious to the naked eye that physical confrontation is one of capoeira's many facets, individual creativity and a kind of physical empathy also come into play.

"In the Eastern arts, there's not really a lot of room for the individual," Fischer says. "Capoeira really just lets you branch out and tap into what you're taking from the art and --- hopefully --- what you're giving back to it. I've practiced a ton of different arts and you really don't find that anywhere else."

Both Fischer and Dlugosz emphasize the importance of reading one's opponent. When two people square off in capoeira, they must constantly gauge what the other person's about to do, which involves cunning and deception. At times, in certain formations, the whole object is to avoid contact. Dlugosz and Fischer also stress that capoeira isn't competitive in the traditional sense --- the player seeks not only to outwit their opponent but also to make the other person's technique (called their "game") look as good as possible. Fischer refers to the face-off as a "conversation."

"Even before you're able to do all the physical things," Dlugosz says, "you learn to dance and you learn to sing. You have to have this sway and feel the beat of the music that's dictating how you're playing. You play a lot of the game with your head, because you anticipate what the person's going to do, read them and read their motions, respond to a lot of stimuli all at the same time."

What outsiders might refer to as "fighting," then, takes on the qualities of a dance --- which makes sense when you consider that capoeira developed during the Portuguese colonization of Brazil, when Portuguese colonists ruled over West African slaves. By necessity, slaves incorporated music and dance to disguise the fact that they were devising a way to defend themselves. They also needed to communicate --- in coded, musical terms --- the approach of white slave masters or law enforcement. So, to this day, capoeira retains a very festive appearance and an unmistakably Latin musical feel --- even when practiced by a mostly non-Latin group like Rochester's.

A recent fundraiser, for example, bore all the loose, noisy hallmarks of a Latin ballroom party, complete with ethnic food and a strong emphasis on dance and entertainment. Even at formal functions such as the annual batizado ceremony (where class members are "baptized" into the group and awarded level belts),capoeira is very much a spectator sport. In fact, events such as these depend on the audience clapping along to give them life, which contrasts wildly with the reserve often found in other martial arts ceremonies.

While the musical allure of capoeira is easy enough to put into words, the physical grace and composition displayed in its various formations --- the roda (group circle) and maculelê (one-on-one stickplay) --- simply have to be witnessed. Like the blues or other African-derived artforms that arose in the Western Hemisphere, capoeira embodies the festivity, spirit, and strength that can grow out of oppression. A dance sequence called Puxada de Rede ("Fisherman's Dance") that the students performed at the fundraiser demonstrated this in a particularly sublime fashion.

As Russell provided sole musical accompaniment on hand drums and sang the narration, a group of about 20 class members acted out a story about a fisherman who dies at sea after his wife has a premonition and tries in vain to warn him. With breathtaking restraint, the dancers conveyed the story's mournfulness using just their movements but making virtually no sound. As the events unfolded, a veiled female figure in blue --- Iemanji, goddess of the sea --- waved her arms at half the speed of the music and the rest of the dancers, establishing her character's otherworldliness. The piece showed the doomed sailor (played by Fischer) after his demise standing in counterpoint to both the goddess figure and his wife and concluded with his wife alone, kneeling in silence. Especially with the language barrier, the performance achieved the resonance and poetic power of opera.

If you spend time with class members, you quickly notice how much they adopt Portuguese phrases into their speech. To the casual observer, their enthusiasm might seem to veer dangerously close to a fetish, an attraction to something exotic.

The Rochestercapoeiristas' approach, however, comes across as refreshingly respectful and sincere when you consider that, in the US, it's hardly unusual for people to lift symbolism from other cultures with little understanding of or regard for their meaning within the cultures they come from. Everything from tattoos of tribal designs or characters from Asian languages to dreadlocks, "world music," and religious icons and mythology is treated as if it's there for us to consume and turn into fashion.

In that light, Dlugosz has her own ideas about why Capoeira draws people towards Brazil.

"Keep in mind that we'll never really know it," she says, "because we're not Brazilian. We don't come from the same kind of circumstance that caused this art to evolve. Even people that were training in Brazil in --- I don't know, the '60s? --- their reality was much different than us living in Rochester in 2006. It doesn't translate completely if you don't know where it came from."

But what about the self-defense aspect? How effective can a newcomer expect capoeira to be?

"I've taken women's self-defense classes in college," she explains, "but they didn't really give me much assurance, because it's just yelling 'NO!' and going for the groin. Whereas here, we do all kinds of different grappling, so it's not just that one reaction. I wouldn't say that I went into it with women's self-defense as my first objective, but inevitably, it has made me able to fight back if the situation calls for it."

Dlugosz and Fischer both imagine that life without the Rochester Mandinga group would feel somewhat lonely and disorienting. "I'd be pretty much on my own," Fischer says. "I would have to say what I'd miss the most is the people."

For Fischer, though, above all else, it'scapoeira's overarching philosophy, malícia, that holds the most power. In writer and capoeira expert Nestor Capoeira's words, when the capoeirista opens up and embraces this philosophy, "that is when strange things begin to occur --- the sensation of 'being there' during a game." He sums up malícia as nothing short of "the knowledge of humanity, of life, of the suffering and the motivation and fantasies of human beings."

For more information about CapoeiraMandinga Rochester, visit or call 319-6521.

Fast facts

CapoeiraMandinga Rochester's current membership of over 50 students now includes UR students taking capoeira as an accredited class in the Movement and Dance program.

Many of the musical, dance, and cultural elements that coalesced into capoeira originate from the southern Atlantic coastal region of Africa in what is present-day Angola.

Capoeira played a key role in the formation of Palmares, a slave-founded community that achieved self-governing independence from Portuguese colonial authority for nearly 100 years. The historical record indicates that one of Palmares' leaders, Zumbi, was not only a masterful warrior and strategist but an expert in the art of capoeira. Zumbi is a figure of mythic proportions in present-day Brazil, and November 20th is celebrated as a holiday in his honor.

As a form of defense for the Brazilian slave population, capoeira was not looked upon favorably by the white Portuguese ruling class. Long outlawed by the Portuguese and Brazilian governments, capoeira became heavily intertwined with banditry and the Brazilian criminal underworld.

The practice of capoeira was illegal in Brazil until 1920. Two capoeira masters, MestreBimba and MestrePastinha, were instrumental in raising capoeira's profile to legitimate status. Capoeira continues to sprout groups in many corners of the globe --- including Scandinavia, Australia, Japan, and Brazil's Japanese population.

The primary instrument used in capoeira is the berimbau, which consists of a string that runs alongside a wooden bow stuck into a metal gourd-shaped base and played with a stick to create a melodic, elastic-sounding drone. Hand drums are also used to create capoeira's rhythmic foundation.

Several recordings of capoeira music are readily available in the US and online. Instructor Todd Russell recommends releases by MestreSuassuna and his group Cordão de Ouro. Other recordings include Smithsonian Folkways' CapoeiraAngola 2: BrincandonaRoda and Curso de Capoeira Regional featuring MestreBimba.

Russell's recording, Crianças de Mandinga, is the only capoeira recording to feature choruses sung exclusively by children. Recorded in 2003 and 2004 in Emeryville, California, while Russell was teaching at an elementary school in Oakland's Chinatown, the CD artwork shows Russell holding a smiling student in a headlock.

Capoeiristas are known and referred to within the community by a Portuguese nickname. Though the nicknames are often chosen in a whimsical spirit, instructor Russell explains the use of nicknames is heavily steeped in tradition --- originally, nicknames were used to evade identification by the authorities, but for modern-day capoeiristas, the name that they are "baptized" with becomes an integral part of their identity. Todd Russell is known as Carcará, OlaDlugosz as Xarope, and Martin Fischer as Rebobinar.

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