You all know dance when you see it, right? Graceful, stylized movements through space driven by musical rhythms. And sports; we can all identify a sporting event, like boxing for example. You wouldn’t mistake a boxing match for ballroom dance, would you. Or, what about martial arts. With its origins in combat techniques using all parts of the body, we can distinguish it from either boxing or ballroom. Right?
Unless you are watching Brazilian capoeira. A brilliant coalescence of all three, capoeira is a martial sport played to music. I had an opportunity to watch part of the yearly promotional ceremonies (called a “Batizado”) of the Raizes do Brasil, a Santa Cruz-based center for capoeira and Brazilian culture on Saturday afternoon at Louden Nelson Community Center.
As my husband and I approached the studio, we could already hear the music and smell the sweat. We paid our modest entrance fee and, despite the crowd, found two seats near the front. There were 50+ capoeiristas creating a circle open at the front to allow the audience of varying numbers to watch from the rows of folding chairs or from standing positions along the walls.Capoeira is a fascinating mock-combat art created by escaped African slaves in Brazil around the seventeenth century. There are many theories and mythologies about its origins but everyone agrees that it derived from African fighting and communal traditions and has evolved in many directions. Today, it is practiced all over the world and while styles may vary, fundamental features remain common. The description below reflects the features I observed at the Raizes do Brasil Batizado.
Players of all ages and abilities from capoeria schools all over the region gathered in a circle called the roda (pr. HO’da). At the head of the circle were the musicians: three playing berimbau—a stringed instrument with a gourd and long neck—and one drummer playing a tall drum called an atabaque. The host of the event and special invited guests—in this case Mestre Papiba of Raizes and Papiba’s teacher from Brazil, Mestre Ralil—also gathered there and introduced the songs. These are often sung in a call-and-response pattern, reflecting capoeira’s African origins, though they may be narrative as well. Everyone in the roda joins in. It is this communal musical effort that drives the mock combat that will take place inside the roda.
Two players enter the ring and begin to spar. They begin with a rhythmic, off-center, rocking step called a ginga. You might recognize it from hip hop where it is used to get a rhythm going and to prepare for a flashy trick. I’ve heard tell that the hip hoppers saw Brazilian capoeristas playing in the parks of NYC and borrowed a few things. True or not, it’s a good story.
I remember reading once that capoeira is the art of deception. Players misdirect their opponents by feinting, provoking, and standing on their heads. Really, the do cartwheels and handstands and elbow balances…they’re always upside down or getting ready to go upside down. Their torsos are low, feet in constant motion, legs sweeping in circles and arcs. They improvise a dance, responding to one another. No one wins in capoeira; it’s the play that matters.
This was a Batizado, a baptism of beginner students who have demonstrated their commitment to capoeira by their consistent training and progress. Each student is baptized by playing with a senior teacher and there are at least a dozen ranked levels of achievement. The colored waist cord indicates the students rank, paralleling the Japanese martial art tradition of rank belts. We arrived too late for most of the cord ceremonies (and, regretfully, the maculele ceremony and Danda da Hora’s samba performance), though we did witness the awarding of a few “professora” cords. But there was still plenty of capoeira play to come…and some samba too.
I don’t think I have ever seen a more diverse crowd in all of Santa Cruz. Men and women, young and old, brown and white. They played together with serious intentions and great joy. Tumbling and weaving, circling around one another, sweeping legs under the opponent, surprising by deception, they played with vigor. And then they clapped each other on the back, hugged, grinned, and laughed.
Capoeira, samba, and candomblé belong to a complex of Afro-Brazilian dances expressed as sport, social dance, and religious practice respectively. After a long and exciting hour of capoeria de roda, the players became samba dancers, challenging one another in the ring, showing off their best samba moves. Danda da Hora was invited into the circle and lead the group in a final fast paced, glorious samba.
Capoeira is an exciting and unusual movement art and a dynamic force for creating community. The Batizado is a yearly event so put it on your calendar for next May. It is open to the public and you don’t need to know anyone or anything about capoeira.