Capoeira: Everything in motion
While cartwheels, handstands, and head spins are not traditionally associated with the martial arts, they are classic moves in the traditional Afro-Brazilian art of capoeira. Capoeira, a form of sport/dance often classified with the self-defense disciplines, is practiced everywhere in Brazil, and incorporates elements of dance, music, and acrobatics, as well as fighting moves. On Martha's Vineyard, a dedicated group of local students/practitioners are taking steps to create a following for the activity here.
An ancient form of movement, capoeira was developed by African slaves in Brazil sometime after the 16th century, and often practiced in secret. According to capoeirista Pablo DeOliveira, the slaves, who were from a number of different villages with different languages, used capoeira as a means to communicate and share different dance and fighting forms. It was also in the slaves' interest to learn self-defense, but to disguise that intention, the discipline became less of a martial art and more of a ritualized dance. In its more modern incarnation, called Regional, there is virtually no physical contact between opponents. Feints, dodges, and parries combine in a beautiful, fluid performance.
Photos by Lynn Christoffers
Capoeira classes are held on Monday and Wednesday evenings at RISE Dance Studio in Vineyard Haven. Currently the group of about 13 students are all Brazilians, but they are trying to attract interest outside the Brazilian community, and capoeira is being offered as part of ACE, the adult continuing education course at the high school. "Not a lot of people know that we exist," says Mr. DeOliveira.
The students, relative beginners who gather twice weekly at RISE studios, start each two-hour session with a long series of warm-ups. This is crucial given the athletic nature of the sport. Dressed all in white and barefoot, the class includes about one third women, and ranges in age from 11 to 40. Students wear two cords around their waists with colors signifying their level of ability. The dual cords allow for intermediate levels.
The second hour of the class consists of drills, alternating with paired practice. At the end of the class, the group forms a circle, called a roda, and participants take turns sparring in the center. Although the performance appears choreographed, the pairings are random, and the moves impromptu, with opponents cartwheeling and moving around each other in an almost synchronized style. The skill is in quick reactions and following a partner's moves. Nelson Aguilar, who has been practicing capoeira since he was 13 years old in Brazil, explains how it's done. "Two people have to coordinate the moves. From the cord you know what game they play. You start slow to see how the other person plays."
The flow, as well as the gymnastics and dance moves, makes the art fascinating to watch, especially when two skilled capoeiristas are paired. The group's instructor, 28-year-old Adilson ("Gunga") Ribeiro, is fascinating to watch. Effortlessly, he executes head spins, walking handstands and back flips. Some of the advanced practitioners' acrobatics resemble break dancing.
"Gunga seems like he doesn't have any bones in his body." marvels 11-year-old Lucas Pinheiro, who's been practicing capoeira for four years.
Mr. Ribeiro, who has been studying for 13 years, comments, "People seek capoeira as an alternative entertainment - something to do after work. Although this is kind of hard on you physically, even people who do hard work enjoy coming here because it's relaxing and everybody's friendly."
Music is an essential part of capoeira. "Music gets you into the rhythm," says Lucas.
There's a lot of laughter, and during the breaks, people collect in groups and chat with observers on the sidelines. More accomplished students are happy to pair up with beginners, and there's a surprising lack of competitiveness. During the roda, onlookers in the circle clap to the rhythm and express admiration for daring moves by advanced students and more basic maneuvers by novices.
Despite the informal nature of the classes, the sport requires discipline, like all martial arts, and is dictated by rules and rituals. The Martha's Vineyard group started up about two years ago and belongs to a regional association led by Mestre Chuvisco, a well-known capoeira master in Boston.
Last June, he brought students from his many schools around the northeast to Martha's Vineyard to join together with the Martha's Vineyard capoeiristas in giving a presentation near Oak Bluffs Harbor in June. The following day, the group held a Batismado, or baptism at the high school, at which students were awarded new levels of cords. The Martha's Vineyard group hopes to host a similar event this summer.
As important as the social and therapeutic aspects of capoeira are, there's also something important to be learned from a sport that teaches non-aggressive defense. Says Mr. DeOliveira, "The roda imitates life. It teaches you to deal with the things of life. You've got to be responsive and ready to react. You can translate that into work and not lose your cool whatever happens."
Gwyn McAllister is a regular contributor to The Martha's Vineyard Times.