Capoeira preserves culture, nourishes all aspects of a person

(Originally published in the October-November 2001 issue of Synchronicity Magazine)

By John Geary

Two men approach each other in a crouch as the sounds of exotic, percussive music permeates the air. One ducks to the front; the other ducks to the side. It looks like they are preparing to fight, but they are both smiling. They do not seem to bear each other any ill will. It begins to look like they are doing some kind of dance.

It is both and it is neither. It is more than a dance, but also more than fighting. It is a 400-year-old Brazilian martial art known as Capoeira.

Like all martial arts, Capoeira is more than a way of fighting. The practice of Capoeira can enhance and nourish all aspects of the self: physical, mental, emotional and spiritual.

"It involves physical movement, but that physical movement translates into a philosophy of life," explains Troy Millington, a member of the board of the Capoeira Aché Brasil Calgary and a veteran student of the art. "Life can be a tricky place … if you work in a circular fashion, you find that things that go out from you often make their way back to you.

"Many people who practice in our Capoeira tradition find they are enriched in their overall life in terms of being able to look more positively at a number of things that come toward them and feel more confident in their ability to deal with them, both on a physical level, but also on a mental and emotional level."

Capoeira combines dance, music, acrobatics with self-defence techniques. There are two main styles: Angola, a more traditionally-derived style; and Regional, a faster, more acrobatic style with more fighting elements.

The tradition began in Brazil in the 16 century, developed by slaves as a method to empower themselves and ward off their enemies. The history of Capoeira is somewhat shrouded in mystery because when originally developed, it had to be practised in secrecy once slave masters realized its lethal potential. There are very few written records left from its early days for a couple of reasons.

"The people who abolished slavery were quite ashamed of its legacy," says Millington, "so they destroyed all the records - ship's manifests, lists of owners, and along with it, a lot of the history pertaining to Capoeira and its roots. Much of it was handed down though oral tradition anyway, so much of it was not written down. It's reconstructed now through the memories of people who have spent a long time practising Capoeira."

While similar to some of the more traditional martial arts that come to us from Japan, China and Korea, it also has its differences. One of the biggest physical differences is the way Capoeira is described and practised.

"Capoeira is described as a game, it is played like a game, its intention in terms of training is a game," says Millington. "Like any game, it has a light-hearted aspect; however, it also has a full, intense, take-a-person out aspect. But the spirit is that of a game. You have two people working together at the same time they are working against one another.

"That dynamic tension of working together and against each other really differentiates it."

A second aspect that differentiates it from other martial arts is the fact that it works in a 360-degree sphere.

"People practising Capoeira are in constant motion, circling, crouching, cartwheeling … so it's very difficult to determine at one point in time where that person is going to be in the next moment."

Music is another one of the key elements of Capoeira. Its music draws much of its essence from African roots, but there is also a Latin American influence to its sound. Musicians play instruments such as the atabaque (drums), pandeiro (tambourines), caxixi (maraca-like instruments) and the instrument considered sacred and vital to Capoeira, the berimbau, a miniature bow that actually dictates the pace of the game and influences its energy level.

The music in Capoeira is more than background sound. Anyone practising Capoeira learns to play an instrument in addition to the different physical moves. Capoeira is usually performed inside a circle of people known as a roda (pronounced "hoda"). Some play instruments while others clap and sing to generate energy.

The Calgary group works under the direction of Mestre Eclilson de Jesus, whose school is based in Vancouver. There is also an Edmonton Capoeira group that works with a school based in Brazil.

The 15 to 20 Calgary students meet twice a week. During the summer, they often hold outdoor rodas at Prince's Island Park on Sunday afternoons. They currently train at the Nat Christie Centre, at 141-18th Ave SW.

If you would like to obtain more information about Capoeira, call Silvia Rossi at 714-8612, or Stan Loo at 703-6543; or, visit their website, http://www.capoeiraachebrasilcalgary.ca/index.html