22 February, 2007

“Afro Brazilian drum beats and traditional call and response songs make you want to move! Capoeira is driven by music. The song and rhythm dictate the speed and character of the Game. Capoeira is a quirky martial arts style that is both deadly and beautiful.” David Grandon

My Friend put it succinctly, “Oh Capoeria, its kick ass dance.” I pondered this as David Grandon called us to the center of the room to begin class. He was recently voted the nicest guy in Flagstaff for goodness sake, so he surely wouldn’t insist on kicking my bum… We began class by trotting around the class in a circle, followed by turning backwards, alternating jumps, and grapevines like I had learned in aerobics class years before. Yet, I would soon discover, that this was not that kind of (aerobics) class at all.
The little jaunt around the room was followed by stretches at a heightened pace, then moved into practicing jenga, a rhythmic base step that keeps the body moving, and gives the various other forms a place on which to build. The basic forms we practiced reminded me of a more refined break dancing with the movements closely oriented to the ground. This was followed by roda, a circle the group forms to hold space for two “dancers” to play, or practice their moves.
I hadn’t a clue to what was going on, and was pleasantly surprised to find that I was not thinking with my brain, but simply responding to what I was supposed to do, or try to do with my body… At one point I went to the sidelines to fervently guzzle water, when a friend watching from the sidelines asked me a question. I stared at her stupidly, it was at this point I had forgotten the English language; I could only speak with my eyes. For anyone who dwells in the attic region of their body, this is a great respite!
Capoeria has a rich and spicy history to match its’ visceral, kinetic allure, hey, it used to be illegal! This sort of stuff always perks up my ears, and I find the history to be as interesting as the art itself. The United States was not the only country on western hemisphere to dirty its hands in the slave trade. It is estimated that Brazil brought more than two million involuntary Africans to Brazil during this time!
As the Africans began to realize they were deemed for slavery, they planned revolt. This was a daunting task with the plethora of varied tribes and cultures meshing together without a common language. Eventually a group of slaves in Recife rebelled against their master, set the plantation ablaze, and set themselves free. They fled to the mountains of Brazil. A community formed, and was named Palmeres after the numerous palm trees of their mountain home. The community flourished, providing native African’s a destination once fleeing their captors. Tribes that had been former rivals in Africa united under a common goal to defend and foster their freedom.
Thus it is said, Capoeria was born. While there is no historical proof of Capoeria originating in Africa, one can not dispute the strong African influence. The modern effect is a marriage of various African & indigenous Brazilian ritual, dance and culture blended to form an unusual style of martial arts designed to appear as dance or “play.”
The community of Palmeres grew to an estimated 20,000 inhabitants, which became
a threat to both the Portuguese colonists, and Holland, who invaded Brazil in 1630 the
Portuguese colonists found themselves combating both the Dutch, and the former African slaves, until they were defeated. The inhabitants of Palmeres did not quit there, but used their jungle style, tricky Capoeria techniques to defend themselves, and define their identity as “capoiertistas.” Since the art was disguised as dance, it easily spread throughout the colony as a ritual, or dance practiced on Sabbath. The resistance to slavery continued for many years with over twenty rebellions staged by Capoieritistas! Slavery was eventually abolished in Brazil in 1888.
Many Africans returned to home, yet many stayed in Brazil, facing the harsh environments of the economy, and racism. Some capoieristas were hired on as body guards, some formed gangs. The basic function of the early Capoieristas is said to have been to disrupt the government… The ruling forces attempted to control the power of this adverse group, by forming a governmental “task force” to seek out those practicing the martial art. Capoeria was thus illegalized, and those discovered as practitioners were expatriated. Ironically, the government used Capoeria to combat the anarchists they sought to quench. One can imagine the show down on main street, Rio de Janeiro!
With this history in mind I viewed Mr. Grandon and his students with even more respect, and when they started doing flips, hand springs, head spins and all other sorts of super hero moves, I knew I needed to share this experience with others. This is the perfect routine for those who enjoy the discipline of martial arts, yet yearn for the eclectic aspects of multicultural pride and funky street style moves and beat. In fact, when I was trying to explain Joda to a friend, he asked if it was like the street fight scene in the music video, Thriller, by Michael Jackson. No. It was better.
“It is important for beginning students to understand that we are not just sparring, gladiator style. The communication, the continuous action and reaction between the two Capoeiristas transcends just movements. It is as if Capoeira is a language to be learned. The beginner reiterates the few words or phrases he has learned while the more advanced intertwines humor and complicated concepts with his opponent/partner. Offensive moves and defensive moves flow together so fast that they seem to be choreographed sequences. Experienced players have learned to read the other persons body and intentions and will execute dynamic kicks and acrobatics dangerously close while narrowly escaping the others attack. The language of Capoeira is colored by tradition, skill, trickiness, and stamina.” States Mr. Grandon.
Capoeria was prohibited until 1937. It is now practiced globally, and has been developed into a rich part of Brazil’s culture history, and is strongly practiced today.

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