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Dancin’ in the streets

By Neil Greene, Special to the Daily Planet
Monday July 08, 2002

Kicks and punches spilled into the streets Saturday, as hundreds of onlookers circled around a pair of smiling capoeira dancers, known as capoeiristas. The crowd cheered as the two gracefully ducked their opponent’s offensive and countered with closed fists and elbows, never making contact and always moving to the rhythm of the live musical accompaniment called the roda. 

Saturday was the Capoeira Arts Cafe’s fifth annual Brazilian Festival, which celebrated the “batizado”– the baptism of new students into the world of capoeira. 

Capoeira is a Brazilian martial art which combines dancing and acrobatics with kicks, blocks and spins common to other marital arts forms. Capoeira, however, is more lighthearted and joyful than other martial arts– it’s considered a game, a ritual, a way of life. 

Berkeley happens to be the home of Mestre (Master) Acordeon, founder of the United Capoeira Association and the Capoeira Arts Cafe and the first person to teach capoeira in the United States. 

Since 1978, Acordeon has taught hundreds of students the native art form and is considered an icon in the capoeira community. Saturday's event not only demonstrated the community’s widespread admiration and respect for Acordeon, but also showed the increasing popularity of capoeira– now practiced by an estimated 5000 capoeiristas nationwide. 

"To my students outside of Brazil, capoeira is a complex and fascinating art, a physical challenge and a philosophical enigma that comes from a socio-cultural and historical context that is completely different from their own," Acordeon said. "However, capoeira has deep meaning for all true capoeiristas, responding to each one's many questions of existence, independent of his or her nationality, sex, age, economic situation or ethnicity," he added. 

Susan McCallister, who has two capoeirista children, had only praise for the cafe’s ability to create a sense of place and community for the students who train there. 

“The cafe has become a place that people count on, it’s like another family,” she said. In addition, said McCallister, capoeira is not a loner’s sport, because to practice capoeira one must have a partner. “You’re dependent on another person, so when you play it’s like a musical improvisation. People are riffing off one another,” she said.  

It’s the element of music and dance that attracted 13-year-old Jonah Katz, who said he first saw capoeira on his friend’s video game. "In Teken there's a guy in it who does capoeira, and I thought that was totally cool," said Katz. He added that capoeira’s constant flow of motion has helped improve his dance and increased his self-awareness. 

Mestre Rony flew in from Sarasota, Florida for Saturday's event. A capoeirista for more than 20 years, Rony first became interested in Capoeira for its aspect of combat, yet over time his performance style, like his reasons for continuing to practice, have evolved. 

"You learn it's something different, and you end up staying because of the friends and music. The martial arts are always there but you end up playing with friends who love what I love. We all fell in love with capoeira," he said. 

Rony trains every day so as to not be defeated by his opponent and stay on top of his peers who are as determined as he is. All the hours of dedication lead to a language of motion, said Rony, by which capoeiristas can decipher their opponents’ move seconds before it’s made, then execute a defensive move and counter attack. 

"It's ongoing, it never stops,” said Rony. “It's like chess– there's always somebody trying to do better and it's happening all over the world," he said. 

Also in attendance at Saturday’s event was 27-year-old Jeremy Bigalke, a self-proclaimed martial arts sympathizer. Bigalke watched intently as two capoeiristas stood on their hands, kicked, back-flipped and hopped in an attempt to better their opponent. Bigalke said that while he no longer practices capoeira, a brief stint as a capoeira student has fostered a respect for the art’s non-violent exertion of energy and an admiration for its ability to wed fighting with dance and music. 

In particular, he added, what continues to attract him to capoeira events is the physical appearance of the capoeiristas. 

"These are the healthiest, strongest people in a group. It's my elemental idea of a body mood," he said. "It's a combination of motion and strength and people standing around and talking. It's how the sidewalk feels. It's an inspirational crowd even if you don't talk to anyone. But I'll go home and do my 100 push-ups, and when I run I'll have a new purpose." 

First drawn to capoeira for its aggression and acrobatics, 23-year-old Kelly Johnson, of Sacramento, said she appreciates the way that capoeira has taught her to channel energy. Otherwise, she says, energy can become stagnant or frustrating if not given the proper outlet. She also enjoys learning Portuguese in the roda and knows that, if faced with a confrontational situation in the streets, she could defend herself. 

"I feel like if someone wanted to mess with me, I could take them on if I had to," she said. When asked about where she'll go with capoeira, she mirrored a sentiment held by many capoeiristas at Saturday’s event: "Wherever it takes me, if it took me to Brazil, that'd be nice."