Watching the free running tapes two days ago reminded me of capoeira, a Brazilian martial art that I practiced for three years almost three decades ago sometimes three evenings a week. I was probably the oldest guy in the class—someone asked me if I was 24, when I was actually 42—and also one of the few white students. Some of the guys were street venders or construction workers. It was a strange contrast to leave a photo exhibition on Fifth Avenue and 57th Street with the Wall Street suits buying up art and walk three blocks to a run down dance studio that smelled of sweat and lacked ventilation.
If I didn’t know these gentle athletes who laughed and sang with me, I might have feared them in the street as strangers. It bothered me a lot to realize how easy it is to be prejudiced and so wrong about people you don’t know. I do recall one conversation in the dressing room, when a young man I really liked with a big smile was telling his friend that someone had started a fight with him, so he gave him a special capoeira kick that knocked him out and worried the kicker that he had killed him…
I loved the music everyone played and the songs we sang in Brazilian Portuguese as we formed a circle (roda) around the two “fighters” in the center. In the video above, you see the bow shaped birimbau and the tambourine (called a pandeiro), which I enjoyed slapping. I also played the triangle and the agogo, which sounds like a cow bell. Everyone clapped to cheer the capoeiristas on to more energy and more dangerous moves.
Capoeira originated with African slaves in Brazil in the 16th century who were not allowed to have weapons. So they developed this dance and music to fool their masters, while they practiced one of the deadliest fighting styles in the world. By inserting razors in their toes, they could easily kill their enemies. And even without any weapons, they could dominate most fights. The sport is still one of the most powerful of all martial arts.
The stylized sweeps and kicks in the videos are all meant to miss your opponent and simply practice the deadly moves. This “dance” has become an art form on its own these days, and just this week Jelom’s Viera’s dance company, DanceBrazil, is performing at the Joyce Theater in New York City.
I went on a trip with some classmates to Salvador and Rio in Brazil that was organized by Jelom when he was my mestre (master). It was a fabulous adventure to work out in the day in the dank heat…then at night watch my new friends in colorful costumes as they performed in swank clubs for tourists. The spontaneous shows I watched earlier in practice halls as three birimbaus were played from the heart or the top athletes tried to outdo one another with sparkling and unexpected moves made the choreographed club performances seem soulless in comparison. But the paying, drinking customers in the clubs never knew what they were missing. For that brief period, I was an insider and have reveled in that experience with fondness and gratitude.