At once a martial art, a dance, a style of music, and a way of life, the Brazilian art form capoeira this year celebrates its 25th anniversary in the United States. Capoeira master and choreographer Jelon Vieira, who helped pioneer its introduction here, commemorates the occasion May 23 through 28, when his company, DanceBrazil, performs two world premieres at the Joyce Theater.
Mestre João Grande’s berimbau commands the capoeira game on 14th Street.
“When I arrived in New York in 1975, I found that Americans did not know about the strong African presence in Brazilian culture,” says Vieira. “People had an image of Carmen Miranda with fruit on top of her head, but nobody knew about capoeira.” The DanceBrazil concert reflects Vieira’s priorities. One new piece, choreographed by Bahian dancer Carlos dos Santos Jr., tells the legend of Anastacia, a tribal queen who taught captive Africans in Brazil to syncretize their orixá deities with the identities of Catholic saints as a religious survival tactic. A second premiere, by Vieira, is called Ginga, a word meaning “to swing or sway,” as in capoeira’s fundamental side-to-side movement. To ginga, Vieira says, is to understand the special Bahian way of speaking, eating, walking, dancing—and playing capoeira.
In capoeira, two figures swing their bodies in a dance of strategy and cunning, punctuating their fluid dialogue of circular kicks and well-timed escapes with occasional head spins and back handsprings. A percussion orchestra, led by the berimbau (a single-stringed bow with a gourd resonator and a wailing tone), sets the speed and style of their play. The rhythmic singing of a circle of onlookers invokes famed capoeiristas of the past or recalls the history of African slavery that marks this art form.
Enslaved Africans brought elements of capoeira to Brazil. The country’s elites associated it with disorder and violence, as well as with potential slave resistance. Legally banned at the end of the 19th century, capoeira’s practice was legitimized in the 1930s and has been resuscitated as Brazil’s “national sport” and a symbol of Afro-Brazilian culture. “Capoeira is a cultural transplant in the United States and it is important that my American students learn about capoeira beyond its movements,” says Berkeley-based master and author “Bira” Almeida (Mestre Acordeon).
Capoeira has grown fast outside of Brazil. Renowned master João Grande marks more than a decade of teaching at the Capoeira Angola Center in New York; there are many other talented masters and instructors. On the West Coast, legions of capoeiristas have made the San Francisco Bay area another hotbed. Capoeira instruction has spread throughout the world, introducing a heritage that goes far beyond the physical.
Studying capoeira means perfecting the improvised art of “playing” in the circle, or roda. Though hierarchical and often organized around rank, capoeira schools teach a personal discipline that is as flexible and round as capoeira itself. The form’s spontaneity and playfulness can be deceptive in more ways than one, however.
“Brazilians seem to hang around more, play more songs, and Americans seek to acquire that energy by hanging around Brazilians,” states Michael Z. Goldstein (Mestre Ombrinho) of Capoeira Angola Palmares. The first and only North American capoeirista to attain the rank of master, Goldstein, 41, can count on one hand the number of Americans who began training with him in 1981 and are still involved in capoeira. Explaining the dropout rate, he suggests that North Americans can be betrayed by their misguided ideas about Brazil. “The hardest thing for me was getting over being in love with Brazilians.”
Goldstein advises potential capoeiristas to shop carefully before committing to a school, evaluating the instruction and asking themselves how they and their bodies will respond to a particular style of capoeira. Some schools descend from the Capoeira Regional of Mestre Bimba, the first master to set up an officially sanctioned academy in the city of Salvador, Bahia, in the 1930s, and his students; others from the Capoeira Angola of Mestre Pastinha; and yet others from disparate but less widely recognized lineages. Many of the best-known schools in Brazil have representatives in New York, including several of capoeira’s highest-ranking women, such as Mestranda Edna Lima of the Abadá Capoeira group and Professora Jô of the Capoeira Brasil group.
Vieira, a longtime teacher and master of capoeira, chooses to spread information about the form through performances like DanceBrazil’s. “Globalization means Americanizing the world,” he says, and capoeira can decolonize the body and the mind. “We don’t have anything to celebrate [during this year’s quincentennial of Portugal’s colonization of Brazil] except 500 years of corruption and abuse of justice,” Vieira recently told street kids with whom he has been working in Bahia. “But we do have the right to educate our own children.”
Web Extra: Capoeira musical selections (RealAudio)
(clips courtesy of The Capoeira Foundation)
Capoeira Classes in New York
Capoeira Angola Center
Mestre João Grande
Mestranda Edna Lima
Graduado Boca do Mundo
Grupo Capoeira Brasil
Capoeira Angola Palmares
Grupo Liberdade De Capoeira Dos Palmares
(Newark, New Jersey)
(Additional links are available at www.planetcapoeira.com.
Mestre Acordeon: www.capoeiraarts.com)