Capoeira catching on in exercise-crazed Seattle

A capoeira demonstration by the group Senzala Evry in Dammarie-les-lys, France last year. (Photo by Marie-Lan Nguyen)
(Photo by Marie-Lan Nguyen)

About this time last year, I was going to the gym relentlessly, going from cardio machine to cardio machine, counting reps, lifting weights.

Frankly, I was bored. I was bored with the “stillness” of the movements and I’d gotten to the point where just the thought of the gym atmosphere was nauseating.

I heard about capoeira through word of mouth and began watching a series of youtube videos to educate myself on the Afro-Brazilian martial art. The capoeiristas looked like they were dancing but fighting at the same time. They appeared to be concentrating deeply, but their movements were smooth and free.

I had to try it for myself.

Although there is some debate over the origins of capoeira, it is agreed that it started as a self-defense practice by the African slaves of Brazil in early 16th century. These movements were played in secret because it was illegal for slaves to practice self-defense against their masters. In order to keep their moves secret, they disguised them as dance moves and played capoeira games in small spaces so they wouldn’t be noticed.

It wasn’t until the 1970s, that Capoeira mestres began to travel and teach around the world, eventually reaching the United States. It is because of these teachings that so many capoeiristas travel to Brazil to train in the art, learn Portueguese to communicate with mestres, and engulf themselves in the culture.

An 1824 painting by Augustus Earle depicting an illegal capoeira-like game in Rio de Janeiro. (National Library of Australia, Canberra)
An 1824 painting by Augustus Earle depicting an illegal capoeira-like game in Rio de Janeiro.
(National Library of Australia, Canberra)

My first capoeira class was an immediate introduction to the culture. The instructor emphasized that capoeira was not for attacking, but for escaping, and that it is important to always track your partner’s head.

He began leading the class by showing the movement of the ginga (Portuguese for “rocking back and forth”), a triangular movement of your legs and arms swinging and protecting your face. Most of the movements that were initially taught were defensive, such as esquiva (escape or dodge), moving your head and torso out of the way when a kick is coming for you. The moves are slow and concentrated, creating a very meditative atmosphere both mentally and physically.

The second portion of the class was dedicated to a roda (a circle of people where capoeira is played), which is conducted by the bateria (a row of capoeira instruments) including the instrument berimbau, a one-stringed percussion instrument that sets the tone of the game.

The roda is a perfect time to show off the new moves you learned in class and practice bringing mandinga (magic and cleverness) into your game. Everything that happens in the roda is meant to be fun and playful, even if you accidently get bumped. The classmates are very supportive of students at different levels, and no movement is made maliciously.

A roda de capoeira at the Oficina de Artes Itaparica in Brazil. (Photo by Lionel Scheepmans)
A roda de capoeira at the Oficina de Artes Itaparica in Brazil. (Photo by Lionel Scheepmans)

Since I have been training in capoeira, my awareness has heightened in all aspects of my life. I feel more mindful of my surroundings, my body’s capabilities, and most importantly, I began believing in myself more.

Every class teaches me something new about myself. Even though it was intimidating at first to play someone in the roda, but it is now something that I look forward to. I have learned, amongst many other things, that practice and patience make anything possible.

 

There are a number of capoeira schools in Seattle that provide instruction in various styles and traditions. Here are a few recommendations:

Capoeira Malês led by Mestre Curisco, has classes weekday evenings and Saturday afternoons in their studio in the Old Rainier Brewery Building.

Seattle Capoeira Center has a new location off Rainier Ave with classes Sundays, Mondays and Wednesdays.

Fenix Capoeira offers adult and youth classes weekday evenings in the Dance Underground studio on 15th Ave E.

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