Capoeira Academy teaches students Brazilian martial arts

Denis Chiaramonte teaches Capoeira, a Brazilian martial art, at the Cordao de Ouro Capoeira Academy in Champaign on Tuesday. Erica Magda

By Emily Thiersch

In a one-room studio on Springfield Avenue in Champaign at the Cordao de Ouro Capoeira Academy, a small group of students – most of them graduate students – assembles nightly to practice the martial art of Capoeira, which hails from Bahia, the heart of Afro-Brazilian culture.

In the case of Capoeira, however, “martial art” is an almost completely impotent term. For its devotees, Capoeira is a lifestyle. It is also a game, or jogo; a stylized art form; a conversation; a community; and a manifestation of Brazilian culture, replete with history and meaning.

“There’s nothing like it, really,” said Bert Rivera, senior in Engineering. “Capoeira is a unique art form.”

To the sound of the berimbau, a wooden one-string instrument, students practice sequences of movements that include kicks, crouches, cartwheels and countless moves that elude easy definition. They make frequent contact with the ground, their bodies changing shapes with such ease that they seem to be hinged at the hips.

When sparring with a partner, players stand close to each other, escaping and attacking with careful attention to their opponent’s movements.

To an audience member, the result resembles a performance art, a choreographed dance.

To the player, it is a game requiring strategic thinking and cunning.

“You ‘win’ by outsmarting in Capoeira,” said Lydia Majure, graduate student in Engineering and president of the University of Illinois Capoeira Club. “It’s a strategic game, like chess. You kick someone and have to prepare in advance for their response. There are endless variations of movements.”

The objective of Capoeira is to point out an opponent’s vulnerability by demonstrating the ability to knock him down. “I didn’t understand the psychology of Capoeira at first,” Majure said. “It’s not just about doing a fancy trick or kicking really fast. It’s about making the person who’s watching think, ‘Wow, he could have kicked him.'”

The ability to read body signals and respond quickly is critical to skill in the roda, a part of Capoeira when two players spar to the sound of the berimbau while surrounded by a circle of other players. Players “buy in” to the center of the circle, taking each other on in good-natured combat.

It has a spillover effect in players’ daily behaviors.

“Capoeira sharpens your senses,” Majure said. “You have to be alert to movement or someone will trip you. I’m more alert than before. If someone picks something up across the floor, I notice.”

There is an etiquette built into Capoeira. Players have a sense of a distinction between good-natured and overly aggressive combat.

“People take their own issues into the roda sometimes,” Majure said. “But it’s generally impressive how friendly everyone is, considering how capable we all are of violence.”

Eventually, players’ bodies become hardwired to respond quickly to attacks with the moves and sequences they have practiced in class with relentless repetition, though Majure said she rarely uses moves exactly as practiced – she just develops instincts and hopes that her body and mind work together when she is in the circle.

“You can’t play Capoeira by a script,” Majure said. “It’s like a conversation.”

Players must be careful not to fall into predictable patterns of response that would make them vulnerable to opponents.

Students of Capoeira at the University often pick it up out of interest in its cultural richness, which distinguishes it from other martial arts.

Majure, like many of the 20 or so students who go to classes regularly at the Academy, is learning to play Capoeira instruments like the berimbau and atabaque, along with studying Portuguese and Afro-Brazilian culture, from samba to cooking.

Another draw of the sport for students is its unique mental and physical benefits.

Through Capoeira, Majure said she realized the capacity of her mind and body to achieve feats she had previously considered beyond her reach.

“Capoeira has movements that you don’t find in any other martial art,” Majure said. “You build strength with your own body weight. You have to support your body in unusual ways.”

Capoeiristas often balance their weight on their hands, whether cartwheeling or holding themselves up with their legs hovering just above the ground.

The most devoted Capoeiristas dedicate their lives to the art form.

“I wanted to enter to be serious, to become a mestre (master),” said Denis Chiaramonte, the main instructor at the Cordao de Ouro Academy in Champaign and co-owner with his wife, Aisha. “I gave up everything to Capoeira.”

Capoeira has become a globalized sport. It attracts a constant flow of foreigners to Brazil and has become an important Brazilian export as it is localized in distant corners of the world. Capoeira masters from Brazil often move abroad, including to Europe, the U.S., Israel and Japan, to teach. Capoeira, considered in Brazil before the 1980s to be a sport for the lower class, has become increasingly trendy among the Western middle class.

Though it has been appropriated by cultures far from Brazil, most practitioners contend that the ritual and tradition of Capoeira have retained their authenticity.

“The culture is rooted in Capoeira. It is a prisoner of Capoeira,” Chiaramonte said.

Of course Capoeira has, like anything, changed gradually and incorporated new cultural practices.

“Things don’t ever stay the same,” Rivera said. “As Capoeira becomes more diverse, it becomes better; there’s more to it.”

To advance in Capoeira, a player must understand its cultural history.

Capoeira practitioners are expected not only to master sequences of moves and display skill at playing in the roda to advance to higher cordaos, or cords; they must also learn to play the instruments of Capoeira – first keeping rhythm with their hands and voice, then learning the berimbau and possibly other instruments, like the atabaque drum.

“Music is integral to Capoeira,” said Majure. “You don’t have to get the beat exactly. It’s more like it sets the tone. You have to do it a long time to follow the nuances.”

The songs are often metaphorical and contain, amid the Portuguese lyrics, words in Yoruba and references to the deities of the Afro-Brazilian religion of Candomblé. They indicate which style of Capoeira the players should play, whether Angola, in which players generally stay closer to each other and to the floor, or Regional, a newer style.

Capoeira has its roots in Brazilian slave culture. Slaves distilled African martial arts into a seemingly more innocuous, game-like form to appease their masters, who outlawed the practice of any martial arts. When slavery was abolished, the Brazilian government forbade any manifestations of Afro-Brazilian culture, and blacks took to practicing Capoeira covertly until it was legalized in the 1930s when it was recognized as a legitimate art form by the Brazilian government.

“Capoeira is tied to cultures that would naturally be close-knit: slave groups or gangs that suffered oppression,” Majure said.

Capoeira is a community enterprise, involving all players in the energetic, frenetic rodas.

“We have a strong community,” Majure said. “We’re all friends. You don’t want to hurt someone (in the roda) who you’re going to go to a bar with after class.”

Majure started learning Capoeira in 2007.

“There’s about a six month struggle for most people,” Majure said. “The first month is really hard. Then things just started to click.”

Majure said she practices sometimes in her apartment, conditioning herself to keep the scale of her movements small – a desirable quality in Capoeira – so as not to hit the dining room table.

“Some people start Capoeira thinking they just want exercise; then they become a mestre,” Majure said. “Other people get all heroic and say they’re going to become a mestre, then drop out.”

Majure has traveled within the United States to Capoeira batizados, or events that bring together Capoeiristas from around the world to practice in rodas and workshops together. About twice a year, the Capoeira Club and the Cordao hosts batizados, inviting international Capoeira masters.

Majure has hosted Capoeiristas in her apartment – friends of friends who are visiting Champaign for batizados – and knows that when she travels for Capoeira, the same will be done for her.

“When I do go to Brazil, I know that people will house and feed me for free,” Majure said.

Majure hopes to travel to Brazil for a five-day batizado next January.

“Capoeira gives back what you give,” Aisha said. “It has so much to offer. You give 100 percent, you get back 100 percent.”

The Capoeira Club will host a campus event in November in the Illini Union. The group will show a movie about the globalization of Capoeira and lead an open workshop for students.