First, I heard the music. Instruments-mostly foreign-produced hypnotic beats and rhythms that stirred something primal inside me. I turned my head, compelled to see what all the commotion was about on this sunny winter's day. And then I noticed-a dance, maybe? Some sort of sparring? Acrobatics?"What is this?""Capoeira.""Capo-what?""Ca-po-ei-ra. It's a Brazilian martial art." "Oh."But capoeira isn't just a martial art; it's a way of life. The Brazilians are definitely on to something, and thanks to a few teachers who settled locally a decade ago, more San Diegans are moving closer to the modest ideologies of capoeiristas and changing their lives as a result. Not only is it a way to get physically fit, but with the mind-body-spirit connection, capoeira affects all areas of your life. In addition to jumps and flips, you'll learn dance, how to play several exotic instruments, the Portuguese language, new history and culture, and will gain an instant family. "I've seen some students come in who were really introverted or secluded. They're really shy, and as they learn to play capoeira, they come out a little more," says Robert Vacca, 35, a capoeira "professor" with ASCAB (American Society of Capoeira Arts from Brazil, pronounced "as-kah-bee")."It reflects in everything in your life. The things you learn in capoeira start to change you-the way you walk, the way you talk-it changes your attitude," he says. "I've seen people come in who are uptight and stressed out, and then after a couple of years they have a whole different attitude on life. And that's because you meet so many different people, including a lot of Brazilians, and they have a whole different attitude on life. Here in the States, we get caught up in making money and basically just don't really focus on what's important. Capoeira has helped me to have a different attitude and just enjoy life, and not get too down when bad things happen, and really appreciate when good things happen."It makes sense if you consider capoeira's humble beginnings.Capoeira began in Brazil roughly 400 years ago, its movements considered part fighting method, part dance, according to the ASCAB website. Whether it's a Brazilian creation or has roots in African culture-brought to Brazil by African slaves-is a point of debate. Regardless, African slaves practiced capoeira and its resemblance to a ritual dance is likely the reason it was banned in 1888, then offically declared illegal in Brazil's first constitution. By the 1930s, though, the Brazilian government had done a 180, declaring capoeira legal. "The feel is more like boxing, as far as the ducking and weaving and the moving and the fluidity of it," says Vacca-known among the community as "Pipoca" (the Portugese word for popcorn) because of his incessant jumping around when he first began. What separates capoeira from other martial arts, Vacca says, "is this whole element of deception in capoeira called malandragem. It's trickery. You fake to one side with your foot down low and then kick up high with your other foot. Or just lulling your opponent into a false sense of security, and then, out of nowhere, a surprise sweep will put them on the ground." But there's a lot of fun to be had, too. "The whole deception is you're trying to make your opponent think you guys are just playing," Vacca explains. "That's why they say "play capoeira,' because they don't want you going in with an aggressive attitude and to hurt people. Anyone can rush at each other and throw fists and feet. You want to set it up to where you surprise them at the last minute. You create a dialogue between you and your opponent and then you catch them off guard." Rarely do capoeiristas refer to each other by birth names. Once you're "baptized" or born into capoeira at an annual batizado, a mestre names you. Nick Sleetfoot, 33, a Native American capoeira instructor, is known as "Pajé," which means "Indian witch doctor." He says he's happy with his name but adds that "names can be rough in capoeira. People know me as Pajé, and when they find out my real name, I don't even look like a Nick to them. It's just how you're used to seeing me as a person. It's strange because their name might be Bat, but you find out their real name is Chris. And Robert-Pipoco-he has a pretty acrobatic game. "Witch Doctor' can be intimidating. But who's going to be afraid of "Professor Popcorn'? So, some people change their names." Though Brazilians are deeply religious people, capoeira's level of spirituality in America depends greatly on the individual. "Christian, Jew, Hindu, Muslim-that's a part of you and you're going to bring that," Vacca says. "If you're a spiritual person, then capoeira will be very spiritual for you. There's singing, drumming, and all these kinds of things are designed to elevate what we call the axé (pronounced "ah-shay")-the good energy, life force, vital energy. You can see it. When you get a bunch of people all focused on one thing, and they're really, really into it, everybody feels it."Capoeira is done in a circle, called a roda," Vacca explains. "When everybody's facing each other and the instruments are playing, and you have two players in the middle, and everyone's focusing on them, singing the same song, and clapping in time to the music, you're definitely going to feel something. It doesn't have to be religious, but you will feel something. And if you don't, then you're not doing it right."
For More Info...
American Society of Capoeira and Arts from Brazilwww.ascabcapoeira.org
World Beat Centerwww.worldbeatcenter.org