Capoeira in Brazil
In the office here we've decided to try and get our team to train in as many different arts as possible, in as many different countries as possible (sounds like a terrible hardship we know!). One of our team (trained in the more traditional arts only) was already in Brazil, so we decided to send them along to a traditional Capoeira class in Rio.....
My martial arts training is pretty broad but also classical – Japanese Jiu Jitsu, Kung Fu, Karate, Judo, Aikido, Qi Gong – all very traditional and mainstream. So to me Capoeira has always been that crazy uncle of martial arts (if you do Capoeira it will seem much more normal to you I’m sure. But to me with my training it feels like an alien world).
My only previous experience with Capoeira was Eddie from the Tekken games, and sparring with a few people who had Capoeira experience. So when I decided to attend a local Capoeira class in Rio during my recent trip to Brazil, I was really entering the unknown.
My hotel phoned the school’s instructor for me, to check that it would be ok for a lumbering, non-Portuguese speaking foreigner with the mentioned above experience in martial arts to attend their class.
The hotel told me that it would be fine, but to be warned that the teacher didn’t speak any English. This leads me to hastily ask the concierge to write down a few Portuguese phrases for me, so I can point at my notepad during the class in a vague attempt at communication.
On the evening of the class I find the school easy enough – it’s held in the sports hall of a sports club in the Barra region of Rio. It’s 8pm, and still very hot and very humid – it’s going to be a very different session to the cold wooden floors and mats of England that I’m more used to.
As I’m hanging around waiting for the instructor I smile and nod at a few of the students who have arrived – it turns out most of them speak some English. This relaxes me a little as at least now I can communicate.
The teacher arrives, carrying drums and bags of instruments I don’t recognise. I must stick out like a sore thumb from her Brazilian students as she comes straight up to me and introduces herself in English – this is a good start! My fear of trying to copy alien movements (alien to me anyway!) in a language I don't speak just been relaxed.
The class starts to assemble the instruments and chat jovially amongst themselves, and asking me in turn where I am from. It’s all very friendly and welcoming.
And then the class begins. The class gathers in a circle in the centre of the hall and start to sing, clap, and play the instruments. The drummer and a stringed instrument I have never seen (held by the instructor) keep the pace and everyone joins in with much enthusiasm. My English-ness sets in and I clap timidly at first, but I soon get in to the spirit of the event and the confidence of my clapping improves. I do not attempt the singing however, as I can definitely not sing in English, so Portuguese would be a stretch.
This was a much more enthusiastic start to a class than what I’m used to. It was happy and lively, born out of the rhythmic origins of the art in slave-time Brazilian history. No bowing, no formalities, just music.
After the musical introduction we are paired off to do the “ginga” movement in pairs. Now I had vaguely heard of this move before, but had never tried it. My partner spoke English and after a short while had me moving in roughly the right kind of way. So far so good – I wasn’t making a complete fool of myself.
What followed were a series of stretches (just like home, something I can do!), and more ginga, each time getting deeper and looser – not so easy. The instructor made this look so simple (as all good martial artists do).
The fun really started though when kicks were added. Trying to time a kick in a ginga movement or ducking a kick using ginga movement was difficult but great fun. Suddenly this martial art of dance had a martial purpose to me. I could see first hand how to use this in a fight.
Next up was a familiar drill pattern with a Brazilian twist. We went up and down the hall doing kicks and cartwheels, again with the ginga movement. My kicking skills from my previous training helped a little here, although adding those to a completely new way of moving is harder than you might think.
After this the class was split into 3 – advanced, beginners, and me. My task was to Capoeira fight a chair. The instructor very kindly spent a lot of time with me (intermittently shouting instructions to the other groups) and taught me the basic movements – ginga, kicking, blocking – using a chair as a makeshift opponent. 20 minutes of constant ginga movement in that heat was a great workout, and at the end of the task I finally felt like I was getting somewhere with the moves.
The end of the class was by far the most interesting for me – sparring. The class formed a circle, and 2 students were picked to go into the middle and spar. This was done at first without music, so the students set their own pace. The students cartwheel into the circle and then begin. Seeing these moves I had just learnt applied was fascinating. And it was so refreshing to see the whole class watching intently, cheering both students on, and applauding any attempt at all by any student. Which is just as well when it came to my turn……
I was paired with a senior student (presumably to make sure their kicks were controlled so the new guy wasn’t knocked out first class). At this point I was quite nervous. Sparring in my arts doesn’t usually get such an intimate audience, especially when I know very little. But as soon as I cartwheeled into the circle my nerves went a little, and amazingly I didn’t actually do that bad. Knowing how to kick from my other arts helped a lot, as did knowing how to avoid being hit. I’m sure my ginga movements were terrible, but I survived!
The next round of sparring was to singing, clapping and instruments, with the instructor setting the pace with her stringed instrument. This felt like real, raw, traditional Capoeira – incredible. The students really did fight to the beat of the drum, and the whole class was really involved.
Again my turn came round, and again I didn’t get knocked out. What I did notice is that without realising it, I was automatically fighting at the pace of the instruments. When you’re fighting in Capoeira the music takes a hold of you and guides you.
With sparring over there is more singing and music in a circle and then class is over. Everyone comes up to me and hugs me and shakes my hand, I thank the instructor for allowing me to participate, and I head back to my hotel covered head to toe in sweat, wishing I had longer in Rio so I could train with them again.