Angola capoeira now offered on Martha’s Vineyard

Leandro Lemos demonstrates a handstand to YMCA of M.V. campers. From left to right: Dauphine Michel, Anthony Cancellare, Sidney Emerson, Charlie Rickard. — Photo by Ralph Stewart

In Brazil, capoeira as a sport is second only to soccer in popularity. Kids can be seen practicing the form of dance/martial arts on the streets, and there are academies devoted to the art. With the arrival of Brazilian immigrants to this country, the sport has spread throughout the United States and elsewhere, and for many years there has been a thriving group of capoeira practitioners, or capoeiristis, on the Vineyard led by a master named Gunga.

Leandro Lemos has been working with Gunga since arriving on the Island 14 years ago. Mr. Lemos is a native of Bahia, Brazil and has been active in capoeira since he was six years old. Now Mr. Lemos has started teaching a form of capoeira that is different from the one that the Island group has been training in and demonstrating at schools and gatherings for a number of years. He has started offering classes in Angola capoeira through various institutions.

Capoeira was introduced by African slaves in Brazil in the 16th century. It was originally invented as a way for slaves to defend themselves against brutal masters and for refugee slaves to fend off would-be captors. It was eventually outlawed and was transformed into more of a dance form with music to disguise the underlying purpose. Regional (pronounced hay-jo-nal) capoeira, the form that Gunga has been teaching, incorporates moves from other martial arts and acrobatics. Angola, which Mr. Lemos is introducing to the Island, is a more pure form of the art. He says, “Angola is the roots — where everything starts with capoeira.”

Capoeira is practiced by two opponents facing off. It is characterized by a lot of synchronized movement and subterfuge, as well as offensive kicks. It is fascinating to watch as it involves spins, turns, precisely aimed kicks, evasive defense moves, and acrobatics accompanied by percussion and song. There is generally no contact between opponents — feints, dodges, and parries combine in a beautiful, fluid dance of sorts.

A capoeira class or performance is centered around a circle of participants who take turns sparring in the center. Music is a very important part. Musicians playing tambourines, drums, and a one-stringed instrument called the berimbau are part of every performance. The berimbau is made of a long wooden bow, a single steel string, and a gourd for resonance. The music incorporated with capoeira is mainly percussive and often includes chant-like lyrics.

Mr. Lemos adds lessons in the above instruments to his teaching repertoire, that also includes African dance, samba, and Maculelê, a dance with long sticks.

Today, the former fighting art is practiced as a form of entertainment, as exercise, and as a spiritual discipline. Mr. Lemos says, “It’s mind, body, spirit.” He adds, “With the exercise you work all the muscles. You’re stretching, and there’s the music.” He always includes a warm-up and stretching in his classes.

Mr. Lemos describes the difference between the regional and the Angola variations. “Angola is slower and on the ground. It’s more of an interaction game — like a chess game. It’s more acrobatic. And Angola is more spiritual.”

He says that he finds himself in a trancelike state while engaging in the sport. “You get the energy from the slavery ancestors. When I play capoeira, I don’t even think about it. It’s just flow. The movement comes naturally. The music works like a mantra.”

Mr. Lemos says, “When capoeira gets you, it gets you for real. It works like therapy. When I have stress, I go train.”

Capoeira provides the benefits of both sport and dance. Says Mr. Lemos, “You work motor coordination. You work your body discipline, flexibility, balance. You’re working everything.” Mr. Lemos notes that there are practitioners in their 70s and 80s and that he works with people on their own level. He believes that anyone can enjoy the sport.

Mr. Lemos notes that he was doing regional capoeira for 17 years, including voluntarily teaching at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth for four years, before he was invited by a master, or mestre, to become part of a New York based Angola group whose mission is to spread capoeira all over the U.S. “That’s the kind of invitation you can’t so no to,” Mr. Lemos says. He compares it to a Catholic being invited for an audience with the Pope.

For his part, Mr. Lemos hopes to keep a big part of Brazilian culture alive among his transplanted countrymen and also to introduce non-Brazilians to the sport. For Brazilians on the Island he says, “It’s a good opportunity for them to get close to their Brazilian culture…Capoeira has been a part of my life since I was six. I could not see myself without it.”

Classes are currently available on Mondays at 7:30 pm at Shephard Fine ArtSpace in Oak Bluffs and at The Yard in Chilmark on Wednesdays at 6:30 pm. ACE MV will be offering capoeira classes in November. Mr. Lemos will be leading a capoeira performance during the upcoming Built on Stilts dance festival.