Capoeira connects New Yorkers with Brazilian culture

by Nia Phillips, Brazilian Beat Reporter —

A group of people dance in a circle in a studio in Manhattan singing Portuguese songs as their teacher plays a traditional one-stringed Brazilian instrument with a gourd attached to it. Others play a drum and tambourine to help create the beat to the music.

In the middle, two students practice their moves, kicking, ducking, and swaying side to side.

After a little time, two more students entered the circle repeating the same movements. This scene continued recently in a weekly class in the Brazilian martial art of Capoeira.

While the sport purely Brazilian in every sense, most of the students in the classroom are American.

Capoeira Instructor Paula Verdino participates in Omulu Capoeira Guanabara’s Batizado ceremony.

Capoeira, Brazil’s national sport, is now practiced all around the world. In New York City, classes are offered to children as young as two across the city.

One popular Capoeira teacher is Tiba Vieira. He moved to the United States 15 years ago and has been teaching for New York Capoeira Luanda, held at the Alvin Ailey Extension School, since 2001. He began teaching children Capoeira when he came to the United States which is appropriate because he began his training at the age of 12.

“I think Capoeira is a little bit of everything,” says Vieira, who has studied the sport for more than 18 years. “It’s a sport, it’s an art, it’s a martial art. I see Capoeira as a blend of dance, music, and martial art and acrobatic movement. This is an art form.”

Vieira’s class is one of many throughout New York City. Once a year, classes hold a ceremony called a Batizado where students test their skills against their instructors. On a recent Saturday, a group called Omulu Capoeira Guanabara held its annual ceremony in the gymnasium of the Beacon School on the Upper West Side.

About 25 students of varying ages and levels gathered for the event. While Omulu Capoeira Guanabara teaches children as young as four, this event was for its adult students in Manhattan and Brooklyn.

One of the school’s founders is Jorge Luis de Lima, better known as Mestre DiMola, helped lead the Batizado. The Master instructor described the sport saying, “For me, Capoeira is beyond my life, it’s much more than that.”

As a Master, it makes sense that Luis de Lima said this. It takes about 30 years to become a full Capoeira Master; the number of years he has practiced the game. He sees Capoeira as more than just an activity, but a way to connect with the sport’s rich cultural history. He said candidly in Portuguese after the Batizado, “Many Masters already left us. They aren’t alive anymore, but through this they’re still present.”

Connecting with the past is a fundamental part of Capoeira. The sport started in 16th century Brazil with the introduction of African slaves to the country to work in sugar cane fields. Capoeira emerged as a means for slaves to preserve the fighting techniques they brought from their home countries. Disguised as a dance through adding music to the movements, the sport was born as both a means of self-defense and cultural preservation. Even though the Brazilian government abolished slavery in 1888, Capoeira remained banned in the country until the 1930s.

Today, Brazilian attitudes towards Capoeira are very different. Not only is it very popular in the nation, but also those who learned the sport at home have now brought it with them to other countries. Brazil experienced mass emigration in the 1990s following an economic crisis. Many Brazilians moved to the United States, bringing Capoeira with them.

While Capoeira is Brazilian in every sense, the people filling the classrooms in New York City are not. “It’s very rare to have Brazilians doing Capoeira,” said Vieira, “In my class you’ll have 3 or 4 at the most.”

Regardless, Americans too are making Capoeira an important part of their lives. Anna Prouty is a Barnard student and member of Columbia University’s Capoeira Club. She says she is one of 15 students who regularly attend classes led by a Brazilian instructor. Prouty started Capoeira two years ago. She says she discovered the sport, as suggested by a friend. Even though she is not Brazilian, she too feels a connection to the sport. “It’s an expression in something kind of different,” says Prouty, “Like we’re all tying into this history and this tradition.”

Even though she has not been practicing the sport since childhood, Prouty has a similar enthusiasm about Capoeira seen by Brazilian instructors throughout the city. Her words were not too different from Capoeira Instructor Paula Verdino. One of a few women teaching at a high level, the Bahia, Brazil native is the winner of prestigious awards in the sport such as “Best Female Overall” at the World Capoeira games. When speaking about her love for the sport she said, “I think that it’s amazing. It’s self confidence, strength, direction, it’s entertaining, it’s good for mind, body, and it’s great exercise.”

This is what helps make Capoeira more than just a mysterious Brazilian game. It’s a combination of sport, art, music, dance, tradition, and discipline. It helps keep Brazilian traditions alive, and is becoming part of the fabric of Capoeristas around the world. Through Capoeira students in New York City can connect to the culture of the African slaves who arrived to Brazil 400 years ago.

As Verdino said, in Capoeira, “You really feel what you do. You really have the love inside for it.”

7 Responses to “Capoeira connects New Yorkers with Brazilian culture”

  1. Kimberly Motley says:

    Very informative article. I am encouraged to see if classes are offered in my area.

  2. Angela Motley says:

    After reading your article, I was inspired to see if this very interesting sport made its way to the Boston area. I am happy to say that Boston has been exposed to this wonderful Brazilian tradition!

  3. Julie Williams says:

    Nia excellent article. I love the combination of art, dance, discipline and sport. I will definitely try it. Julie


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