I remember the first time I ever witnessed a Capoeira performance in Central Park. I was entranced by the coordination of the players, all clad in white and chanting in an unfamiliar language. Most intriguing were the long Berimbaus, musical bows they played rhythmically to complement the action. As I watched the performers pair up in the middle of a circle of men chanting with drums, I couldn’t tell if I was watching a fight or a dance, but I knew I had to learn more.
Impressed with the skill and solidarity of the group, I ventured over to ask about it. I approached the leader, Joao, a tall, muscular man with a welcoming smile. He was so kind that he invited me to join them for a class.
“Me? In a Capoeira class?” I thought to myself. The most athletic thing I had ever done prior was one weekend of Pilates. I was always the timid type, so to say this would be out of my comfort zone is an understatement. As strange as it seemed, I agreed, convinced that if they were all so muscular and toned this might be a way for me to lose the extra pounds that had been accumulating around my waist.
My first day of class I didn’t know what to expect. I was intimidated by the skill of the acrobatic dance that involved so many defensive maneuvers. I watched my classmates pair up quickly, as I stood to the side. One person would kick as the other ducked low to avoid the blow. Then another would do a cartwheel and return to their original, low, and crouching position.
They would rhythmically lunge at each other in an elegantly choreographed tableau. Afraid of looking clumsy, I was still more of an onlooker at the beginning of my journey.
What’s behind it
Sensing my hesitation, my teacher Joao took me aside to explain more of the history behind the sport.
I learned that Capoeira was developed by African slaves who needed a way to defend themselves against their masters. They decided to surreptitiously devise a fighting style that was disguised as a dance.
The movements are smooth and sweeping. While you and your opponent are striking limbs at another, it’s done in such a way as to seem like it’s all done in tandem and as though no harm can come of it. But in all reality, if you use this against someone who isn’t trained in the artform, you can deal some heavy blows.
I was more confident about the process. I would get a workout and increase my skill in self-defense. It took me a while to get into the acrobatic aspect of it. However, in time my body adjusted to the movement and I enjoyed the feeling of being able to defy gravity through the many spin kicks that were included in every round of Capoeira.
I slowly gained in my agility and flexibility. Before long I was doing Gingas, Escapes, and kicks with ease. In time, my legs became stronger with every ginga or low lunge. My abs became much more toned with every escape move which involves a low twist of the abdomen to avoid my opponent’s kick. Of course, with all the spins, hip circles and acrobatics, the extra hip fat flew away with it!
In addition to the physical, total body workout that is Capoeira, there is a mental aspect of it as well. The sound of the drums beating fiercely sends a signal to your brain that you need to move. Not in an uncomfortable or fearful way, but in a commanding and concentrated way. It’s as though you can feel the drum beat waves traversing your body and allowing you to syncopate to its rhythm.
Your mind is focused and concentrated as you anticipate your opponent’s next move, knowing that their aim isn’t to harm you but to prepare you to be on guard and respond with grace, speed, and the appropriate amount of force that can be adjusted as needed. Far from a mindless workout, your senses are alerted and awakened by Capoeira allowing you to feel an even greater connection between mind and body.
Apart from the physical transformation I also gained an insight into a foreign culture, its history, and its traditions. I made connections with people through online special interest groups and organized events.
A whole new world
Eventually, this brought me to the origin of Capoeira- Brazil. I finally picked up enough Portuguese to travel and see where it all began. To say that Capoeira caused me to see the world in a new way is an understatement.
It changed me and made me more willing to leave to see places I had only dreamt of. There was such a thrill in seeing native Brazilian people practicing an art form that originated from their ancestors and which they were carrying forward with such intensity and pride. I am grateful for my mentors in Capoeira, who encouraged me to take a chance on an unusual exercise that afforded me poise, wisdom, and a wealth of cross-cultural connections.