As the drum starts to beat, the scene is set in the basement of the William Monroe Trotter Multicultural Center. Seven students sit in a row with various Brazilian instruments. The mestre, or teacher, steps up, and begins a call. The students respond, singing a song in Portuguese praising the power of women.
Once the music starts to build momentum, two female dancers step out onto the floor. They begin moving their arms in wide circles, swaying back and forth as if challenging an opponent.
Suddenly, the drum resonates with a loud boom and the main singer shouts, and the dancers’ motions pick up. The two women fly over each other, legs high in the air and arms punching within inches of each other’s faces. There are calculated attacks and acrobatic escapes, as the two dancers continue to spar, until finally the drums wind down and they shake hands, pleased with the result of their game.
These highly choreographed movements are not a fight, nor a dance, but the “fight disguised as a dance” known as capoeira.
Capoeira, the Brazilian martial art that is rising in popularity among Americans, is practiced every Tuesday and Thursday night here in the spacious basement of the Trotter Multicultural Center. Students of various ages, races and agility levels gather to learn the wonders of this mysterious and energetic art from the grand mestre, Cabquinho Dantas.
FROM PLANTATIONS TO POLITICS
Capoeira has developed over a long and tumultuous history. Historians have traced its roots to the coastal regions of Central and West Africa, the areas most heavily affected by the Atlantic Slave Trade. It was here, in the kingdom of N’dongo, located in the present-day country of Angola, that capoeira-like movements were first used as a form of martial resistance to Portuguese slave traders.
At the onset of the slave trade, warriors under the regency of Nzinga, the female ruler of N’dongo in the early 1600s, used the ritual dance called N’gongo to combat invading slave traders. N’gongo, a fighting dance that mimics the kicking motion of fighting zebras, is said to be the source of many capoeira movements. Many of these warriors who fiercely resisted Portuguese slave traders were nonetheless captured, and transported to colonial Brazil.
Once these captive warriors arrived on colonial plantations, N’gongo gave birth to capoeira, which became an effort to escape slave bonds and regain freedom. Capoeira was practiced in secret on Brazilian plantations for over 400 years, where blacks masked their fighting practice by setting their aggressive movements to music and dance.
Many of these slave fighters were then able to use their capoeira to defeat and elude their masters. Ancient capoeira involved movements that allowed for the restrictions of chains, as participants threw themselves into handstands, kicking with their feet and often leveling their opponents with one swift kick.
After slavery was abolished in Brazil in 1888, capoeira continued to be prominent as a form of resistance. Over time, capoeira evolved into a social and political force. “In 19th century a capoeira was not a dance, but a group of men who fought together in the style now called capoeira,” said Latin American and Caribbean Studies Prof. Jesse Hoffnung-Garskof.
“These groups were important for the organization of politics because local bosses frequently employed them as bodyguards,” he explained, “But they also marked a kind of independence for some black Brazilians, because in the parts of Rio and Salvador that (the capoeiristas) controlled, they had more power than government officials.”
Hoffung-Garskof added that this political force was eventually stopped by elites in the Brazilian government.
“In Rio, capoeiras were pretty much wiped out by police toward the end of the 19th century. At the same time, the nation’s government began kicking poor, mostly African-descended, residents out of the center city. It would have been impossible to clear these neighborhoods, and push the residents into the slums outside the city, without first cracking down on the powerful capoieras,” he said.
CAPOEIRA IN BRAZIL TODAY
Since the 1950s, capoeira has been growing in significance, experiencing a revitalization in Brazilian culture as a more peaceful dance form, said Hoffnung-Garskof.
“At the end of the 20th century, capoeira has been part of a process of reasserting the importance and value of the African and African-Brazilian contribution to Brazilian culture,” he said.
He added that this new capoeira is no longer intended to be a form of aggressive resistance.
“The reawakening of capoiera, as a kind of dance and martial art no longer associated with violent gangs, is part of a broader movement to celebrate African contributions to Brazilian national culture,” he said.
Roshani Dantas, an active Michigan capoeirista, and wife of Ann Arbor mestre Cabquinho Dantas, said capoeira’s modern revitalization began in the 1930s with a mestre named Pastinha.
Pastinha brought capoeira to the city up, a part of Salvador da Bahia, Brazil where many affluent people live, said Roshani. Cabquinho added that Pastinha then received a written invitation from the mayor of Salvador inviting him to teach capoeira in the academies.
“That’s how really capoeira became noticed by a lot of people, tourists and things like that because it was able to move to the ‘city up,’ ” Roshani said.
As the academic capoeira continued to grow, Cabquinho’s father began to teach. “When I was 10 years old I used to look underneath the door in the academies and I would ask my father, ‘what is that?’ He would say, ‘come to my school and find out,’” Cabquinho said. So he did.
After spending many years in Brazil developing his capoeira career, Cabquinho immigrated to Miami in the 1980s with a Brazilian dance group. After many requests from audiences for him to teach capoeira, Cabquinho took up the role of a mestre and began teaching classes.
Cabquinho moved to Michigan in 2000 with his wife Roshani, and began to prepare to teach capoeira in Ann Arbor. At the first workshop, despite little publicity, 32 people showed up. In the past five years, Cabquinho’s mission has expanded, and now includes studios in Detroit, Ann Arbor and East Lansing.
PHILOSOPHY AND RECONCILIATION
Since the 1950’s, capoeira has grown in significance as an important cultural concept in Brazil. To Mestre Cabquinho, capoeira is a philosophy to live by.
The first thing he teaches his students, he said, is “the philosophy of the art so (they) won’t think it’s a fight.”
“It’s a life philosophy,” said Roshani. “You’re doing the music and the movement and the art form, but at the same time you really don’t realize how it’s helping your life.”
“Before I realized it I was doing these things in my life like graduating college and moving on to grad school (because of capoeira.) It gave me a clear passion for what life is really about and showed me a lot of things. It helps clear different obstacles in your life,” she said.
According to Cabquinho, today’s capoeira is about reconciliation. “They think it’s a race thing,” he said, referring to people who don’t understand capoeira.
“This art form has no color. I want to see a black person playing against a white person. (Let it be) a tight game, full of theater. Let’s rescue the past. This is not the moment to close your eyes,” he said.
Despite the positive role capoeira can play, the martial art can also be dangerous. In the game, opponents move slowly, yet with power, and often with one person’s foot only inches from planting a solid kick on their opponent’s leg or head. The danger comes “when a person doesn’t know how to disguise a fight as a dance. He ends up hurting a friend and he ends up with people talking badly about capoeira. Capoeira is only good things,” Cabquinho said.
American Culture Prof. Lucia Suarez, who specializes in Latin American studies, said people who live in a “marginal existence” today, such as in the shantytowns that surround several major cities in Brazil, use capoeira to organize. “Capoeira plays an important positive constructive role in the community. It gives a sense of possibility to people who otherwise have a lot of work and a lot of misery to withstand,” she said.
“It allows them to link to … different grassroots programs (which) have been able to work with capoeira, (incorporating) education and hygiene to bring a sense of community to these people in the more impoverished (areas),” she said.
Last nights’s workshop at the Trotter Multicultural Center kicks off three days of workshops lead by Cabquinho with a special guest appearance by Titos Sompa, a dancer/singer/performer from Brazzaville, Congo, who will also lead dance workshops. Tonight’s workshop will be held at 7:00 in the Michigan Union Wolverine room. The events end Saturday with a capoeira performance in the Michigan Union Wolverine room at 3 p.m. The performance on Saturday is free. Workshops are free for students and cost $10 for nonstudents.