The New York Times | 22 Dec 2000 Issue | Catharine Chatham
Capoeira: Too Beautiful to Be a Fight
Two men, dressed in baggy whites, face each other and crouch in front of a berimbau player, who has begun a rhythmic melody. The men clasp hands and bow their heads as if in prayer, then slowly spin away on their heads and hands, tumbling into the middle of the ßoor. One arcs into a handstand, the other rolls on his shoulders around and up and over. My husband and I watch from the back of a crowd that claps and sings in accompaniment.
You’re learning that?” my husband asks incredulously.
Yeah, well, sort of,” I say.
The berimbau, an instrument made of a bow, string and gourd, picks up the tempo, and the men in white react and spin around, unleashing vicious kicks at each other, but none lands as each man ducks, ßips or rolls out of the way. This looks choreographed, too beautiful to be a Þght, too graceful to be dangerous.
The tempo increases again, and the two men move at such a furious pace around each other that they resemble spinning tops. Then suddenly, just like that, they shake hands, hug, and another pair take their place. We are at the Capoeira Batizado at St. Mark’s Church, 131 East 10th Street in the East Village, at a baptism for students of capoeira, a Brazilian martial art.
Complex in its mixture of music, dance, violence and ritual, capoeira (capa-RAY-ah) is closer to Merce Cunningham than Jackie Chan. The legend is that African slaves in Brazil developed capoeira to Þght for their freedom. They couldn’t train in broad daylight, so they disguised their Þghting as dance. In capoeira you don’t Þght, you play. Players are in harmony with each other, not in opposition. There is no score, hence no winner or loser. It’s only a game.
“So why aren’t you out there being baptized?” my husband asked.
“Are you kidding?” I looked at him.
I had been taking capoeira classes for about two weeks under the tutelage of Edna Lima, a mestranda, or master. Ms. Lima is a small, elegant woman who became a capoeirista in her native Brazil.
She is the Þrst woman to earn the rank of mestranda. She also holds a Þfth-degree black belt in karate and will represent the United States in the Pan American Games in that sport in June.
I study the two capoeiristas at the Batizado and try to pick out the combinations that I had learned in class, but the players are too ßuid, too quick. I only see the turning kicks and spins. The players look as if they had nothing to do with each other, as if they were involved in their own playful acrobatics, but occasionally a kick lands or one player gets his legs swept out from beneath him, reminding everyone that capoeira is, in its heart of hearts, a weapon.
I had always been curious about martial arts and was convinced that once I took a couple of classes, I’d be able to ßip grown men with little effort. But my athletic interests always led me outside: bicycle racing, hiking, swimming, running and tennis. These sports left me in
one tight knot. I’ve never been able to touch my toes or do anything close to a split. I wanted to increase my ßexibility and coordination. Besides, I’d seen Jean-Claude Van Damme movies. He does the splits in every single one; it had to be the kung fu Þghting. Since capoeira is a mixture of dance and Þghting, it intrigued me and seemed to be the perfect discipline for increasing coordination and stretching out my uptight body.
After I found capoeira, I found Ms. Lima, 39, who has not only been practicing capoeira since she was 12 but also has been teaching it since she was 13. I scheduled a private lesson and met her at one of the many gyms where she rents space. Not sure what to wear, I had on running shoes and loose Þtting warm-ups, as did Ms. Lima, only she was barefoot. Of course, Mr. Van Damme was always barefoot, and I quickly slipped off my shoes.
The Þrst thing we did was stretch and lunge. Most of the movements in capoeira are built around lunges, and Ms. Lima began by showing me the correct way to do them, knee over heel, so that I didn’t strain my knees. Then I learned the most basic move, the ginga (JIN-ga).
The ginga, which means “swing,” is central to all capoeira moves. Imagine a speed skater swinging his arms back and forth as he moves and shifts his weight from right leg to left leg. It is the same with a ginga, only you step back on one leg into a lunge, swing to the side and step back on the opposite leg, arms following. If capoeira were strictly a dance class, ginga for beginners could be drawn as a triangle: sidestep, swing and back; sidestep, swing and back. But when the capoeiristas ginga, they improvise, forming unusual shapes.
My lack of coordination and ßexibility began to surface at this point in the lesson. As I attempted the ginga, I looked like a robot whose parts were beginning to rust. Ms. Lima looked natural, swinging in a ßuid, well-oiled manner, as if she had a dozen or so more bones in her hips than I. From the ginga Ms. Lima went into a cartwheel, to the ginga and back into a cartwheel.
“O.K., now you do it,” she said. I did a ßoppy little cartwheel, managed to ginga and cartwheel again. I had to do it again and again as Ms. Lima shouted out the move, “Ginga, au’, ginga.” The ginga was difÞcult enough, but I also had to look through my arms and keep my eyes on her.
“Always look at your opponent,” she said. “You don’t know what he is going to do.”
After cartwheels, we went on to basic kicks. I kicked from the ginga. I kicked with my hands on the ßoor, my buttocks in the air. I kicked as I spun around, which landed me on the ßoor in a heap. I became tangled in all the kicks because they never originated from a standing solid position, but rather they started from some sort of motion: ginga, a cartwheel, ducking or spin. By the end of our lesson I was confused about left and right, not to mention drenched with sweat and winded.
That evening I attended Ms. Lima’s martial-arts class at Equinox Gym at Amsterdam Avenue and 76th Street. The class is made up of about 30 extremely devoted students who pay a monthly fee and meet three times a week. Students are expected to learn the songs of capoeira and to play the instruments.
Everyone was dressed in white baggy pants except me, a tenderfoot in dark sweats. Some students, undoubtedly noticing the look of terror on my face, greeted me and told me I was going to love capoeira. Ten minutes into the class I was convinced that no one in the room had ever been a beginner. They were too ßuid and comfortable.
The class split into pairs and worked on combinations. Kristen, who had been a capoeirista for about a year, helped me with the ginga. “Relax, step wide,” she said. “Your pelvis is too far back. You’re off balance.” The class progressed through several switches of pairs (everyone who paired with me insisted that we just do the ginga) and then worked in unison on combinations as Ms. Lima shouted out moves: “Ginga, au” (cartwheel), “mei lua de frente” (crescent kick), “armada” (spinning crescent kick), “negativa” (defensive drop).
Were we Þnished? I stood and swung around to see that everyone else was crouched on the ßoor, one leg in front of the other, arms protecting their faces. “Role, ginga.” I jumped when she said “ginga.” I knew ginga! But they were already crouching, rising and kicking and crouching again. At the close of the class it was time for the roda (HO- da) or circle.
Three students played instruments (berimbau and drums) and everyone sang as, two by two, students entered the center of the circle and played. I could not play; I could hardly stand. Besides, you only play in the roda if you know what you are doing. The students were slower than the masters who demonstrated at the Batizado, but they were still captivating. Two would play, a third would cut in, those two would play, a third would cut in, rotating as smoothly as a military dance.
The next day I could hardly walk. The lunges had worked muscles that had forgotten they were around to work. The worst pain was in my buttocks. They had never hurt as they hurt at that moment.
I decided to practice and stretch. Since I had no Brazilian music to play, I put on “KC and the Sunshine Band” and tried to ginga. It just wasn’t the same. The only way to alleviate the pain was to go back and do more capoeira in a class.
I became more comfortable at a second type of class that Ms. Lima teaches at the Sports Center at Chelsea Piers, the Capoeira Workout. The Capoeira Workout, created by Ms. Lima, is for walk-in type classes at gyms, which makes it perfect for novices. The technicalities and construction of capoeira movements are taught slowly, and Ms. Lima encourages her students from the martial- arts class to attend the workout because the same practical and vital moves are repeated over and over.
After going through a lot of ginga, kicks, cartwheels, hand stands and dodges, the class ends by repeating combination after combination in a conga line that moves across the room, all to a belting Brazilian beat. The workout class turned out to be more strenuous than the martial- arts class but not as intimidating.
Though it was hard to believe, I slowly improved. I got closer to my toes, and my feet developed a few protective calluses from the barefoot workouts. I felt very conÞdent when I could follow the combinations and participate in the conga line. It was a lot of fun. Capoeira had made me feel as if I could dance, even if there had never been any evidence to support this in the past.
There were always novices who wandered into the Capoeira Workout class out of curiosity only to develop a look of terror on their face after the class got under way. I could not wait until class ended when I could go over to the newcomer and offer a few words of encouragement, even throwing in an assuring “You’re going to love capoeira.”