They’re captivating, those ubiquitous, action-packed capoeira videos circulating on YouTube. But they hardly do the activity justice.
So fluid is the movement among participants in this Afro-Brazilian melding of martial arts and dance, so syncopated the kicks and feints as they square off inside a circle of musicians pounding out percussive beats, that capoeira comes off as choreographed as anything the Alvin Ailey troupe might present.
All it takes, though, is one swift kick to the solar plexus to convince the uninitiated that the ancient discipline is not to be dismissed as mere dance spectacle.
Ask Patrick Hilligan, a capoeira mestre (“master” in Portuguese) and owner of the Move! Studio/Capoeira Agua de Beber in Sacramento, Calif. Once, travelling in Brazil with an American capoeira contingent, Hilligan boldly stepped into a roda (circle) against a strapping Brazilian teenager.
“I thought I was pretty advanced at that point,” recalls Hilligan, 38. “I’d been training for years. But this guy turned in a split second and kicked me so hard that it lifted me off my feet and threw me out of the circle.”
That definitely wasn’t choreographed.
“The two players are making it up as they go along, responding to each other’s movements,” Hilligan explains. “It only looks (choreographed) because it’s happening so smoothly. Well, most of the time.
“Sometimes it might be a cooperative and playful situation with no contact. In other situations, it can be quite combative, using takedowns and blows.”
But Hilligan is quick to add that capoeira is about far more than brute force. Other martial-arts disciplines, such as Brazilian jujitsu, are available for those seeking self-defense or specific fighting skills.
Capoeira is, rather, a melding of music, dance, celebratory cultural rituals and acrobatics. As such, it draws people looking for alternatives to standard exercise and fitness routines.
You could practice capoeira for years and not experience much contact, if you want to avoid it. Or, like Hilligan, you can incorporate kicks, flips and takedowns, and get pretty physical.
“We do get an eclectic mix of people in here,” he says. “We get musicians. We get former gymnasts and dancers. We get hard-core martial artists. A lot of them are drawn to the challenge.
“I won’t say it’s an easy activity that people will get right away. But that’s part of the beauty of it. You can spend 20 years learning capoeira and still have lots to learn.”
Two years into the sport, Michelle Wallace of Sacramento, 24, has become hooked on capoeira because of the physical challenge and cultural enrichment.
“Just running and doing crunches didn’t work for me,” she says. “I majored at Sac State in international intercultural communications. In this, not only do we learn a martial art, we learn Portuguese and the history of Afro-Brazilian culture.”
Capoeira is steeped in ritual.
It dates back at least 500 years.
The origin is still debated, but the most widely accepted theory is that capoeira was developed by Africans enslaved by the Portuguese in Brazil as an undercover way of practicing fighting techniques under the ruse of dance.
Music plays a vital role in capoeira. Drums, berimbau (a bowlike, single-string instrument), pandeiro (tambourine) and agogo (a double-belled instrument) set the tone of those squaring off in the circle. Students take turns playing the instruments and singing in Portuguese.
A fast tempo leads to a frenetic confrontation featuring kicks, cartwheels, back bridges and other contortions. A slower song signals a more dance-oriented coupling, featuring kicks and feints, but little or no contact.
“It’s kind of like a game of chess,” Wallace says. “You want to be able to predict the next move your opponent will do, so that you can complete a takedown or move out of the way. It’s hard to have the muscle memory to do that. I still need to develop that fluidity.”
Hilligan, whose humor and unassuming persona belie the sagacious title of mestre, puts it this way:
“Creating this dialogue of movement, capoeira teaches you how to deal with the unexpected with control rather than with emotion. You can use that in real life.”