Image by Mike Zaia
The art, struggle, and enduring tradition of capoeira in
Though the experience was more than five years ago, I still vividly remember my first brush with capoeira. It was a Saturday, sometime around 11pm, and I was eating a late dinner among a gaggle of Brazilians, Americans, and internationals of various ages and backgrounds at a hole-in-the-wall Brazilian joint in Winter Hill, one of Somerville’s last Brazilian strongholds. We were all there to celebrate capoeira (say it: cap-WEAR-ah), the beautiful and physical practice in which fight meets dance, developed by African slaves in Brazil in order to resist oppression, maintain cultural connections, and cultivate community.
The restaurant had taken on the feel of a party rather than a chatty dining room. Forro dancing, a partner arrangement and one of Brazil’s 50-plus native dances, was underway in the background, its apparent mix of salsa and traditional line-dancing blending in like wallpaper. Others seemed to barely notice, but to my unfamiliarized American eyes, the sight was mesmerizing. As was the smell of barbequed Brazilian steak, beans, and plantains, which found its way inside my pores, allowing me to not only taste but also feel the flavor.
A handful or so of Brazilian capoeira “mestres” (“masters” in Portuguese, they are among the most exalted instructors) sat at long wooden tables, chatting in English with their students and occasionally hurling Portuguese expressions back and forth at one another. A lot of their specific comments whizzed over my head, but I recall the vibe like it was yesterday, because it was when I first came to realize that this remarkable and colorful tradition thrives in these parts. Specifically, the scene in Winter Hill was the first night party for a Batizado. “Baptism” in Brazilian Portuguese, Batizado is an annual three- to four-day event involving capoeira workshops, classes, meals, parties, and notably “rodas,” which are dance circles full of passionate action and call and response. If you mashed square-dancing with the Electric Slide and water aerobics, Americans still wouldn’t have anything like it.
The Batizado was designed by modern capoeira groups to celebrate the indoctrination of new students and the “graduations” of veteran capoeiristas (traditional Angolan dedicants do not have such routines). Since the first one I attended, I’ve thought a lot about the art and culture involved. I’ve even practiced some capoeira, and for a time considered the topic for my ongoing series on dance movements, which has so far included features on nightlife and yoga. It took some understanding, but in the interest of sharing my unique experience and that of others with readers who are unfamiliar with the practice, I undertook this effort not just to describe the vibrant tradition, but to consider how this region has become a hub for capoeira, and a destination where teachers and students from all over the country and the world come to be baptized.
ONLY THE BOSTON STRONG
In the past 20 years, the capoeira scene in Boston has grown from only a couple of instructors, each with a few students, to an expanding community of roughly a dozen official schools, each staking claim to a different area or neighborhood. Massachusetts boasts one of the largest Brazilian populations in the United States, while the Boston Redevelopment Authority finds that Brazilians are the fastest-growing immigrant community in the commonwealth. All things considered, it’s not surprising that capoeira is so popular, as it has historically touched themes of freedom and oppression, both topics that are front and center in contemporary immigrant Boston.
In order to better comprehend how capoeira helps to foster connection and resistance, and to help preserve community, I looked to the roots.It’s among a number of special dances and musics that have been suppressed and even outlawed around the world, often at least partially because they pose a threat to a powerful status quo. That’s the history of capoeira in Brazil in a nutshell; while it was made illegal during the country’s slavery period, those who practiced were continually persecuted well after the institution was abolished in 1890. Today, capoeira is highly regarded in Brazil, and even holds the title of the country’s “national sport.” This reluctant embrace—but not necessarily the spirit behind it—is not unlike the way Boston politicians praise the Boston Tea Party, but hypocritically condemn those protesting their lack of representation in government today.
There’s also capoeira’s outlaw reputation, largely through affiliation in the post-slavery era with street gangs and violence in Rio de Janeiro. In the northern state of Bahia though—a state considered to be the most “African” in terms of both culture and demographics—capoeira was often seen in popular festivals around the same time. According to researchers, negative images attached to capoeira in Brazil’s collective consciousness have historically stemmed from a general affiliation with brutal racism and slavery attached to the country’s past. The outlawing of capoeira was arguably one way for a dominant class to impose their eroding power. One local mestre tells me, “I was arrested many times as a fifteen- and sixteen-year-old doing capoeira.” The reason: “discrimination against black culture.”
Today, there is an ideological tug of war between capoeiristas dedicated to the “liberatory struggle against oppression,” as anthropologist Greg Downey refers to their traditional beliefs, and those whose affiliation is more closely aligned with modern street stylings. Thrown into this mix are the ghosts of slavery, memories of violence then and now, and the settings in which capoeira comes to life. While traditionally practiced in the open and in plain view on the street in its native country, capoeira also occupies studio, education, and community spaces, like it does here in the United States, and has an integral presence in modern forms like breaking and house dancing—all of which have contributed to a seemingly contradictory status from Brazil to Boston.
Likewise, capoeira has gained popularity and respect among Bostonians, even as the debate over appropriation—or “cultural vampirism” as one local mestre puts it—kicks in New England. As modern forms proliferate, and a shift continues from an Afrocentric “liberatory struggle against oppression” to “whitened,” or “bourgeoise” versions, some say capoeira has lost touch with its African roots. As critics who support more traditional Angolan forms are quick to point out, the modernization of capoeira—away from slower, inverted, loose movements and toward faster, aggressive, upright postures often characterized as “regional”—may be happening for the wrong reasons. Namely, such forms are sometimes believed to be in response to the demands of new, white university students from privileged environments, at first in Brazil but now everywhere. That capoeira had to win the hearts of privileged folks in order to gain respected status in Brazil has served as a major source of controversy.
On the Boston front, most practitioners I spoke with claim that capoeira schools are distinctly diverse in terms of class, race, and ethnicity, and that a number of them focus on social justice issues and put youth at the forefront of their mission. To that end, despite claims that modern forms are disconnected, Boston capoeiristas—Brazilian and non-Brazilian alike—communicate and create with community in mind, and in order to respond to adverse situations peacefully. In the same way that slaves used capoeira to cope and survive, many Brazilian capoeiristas endure in the face of social structures that often deny their existence.
Image by Mike Zaia
ALL IN THE FAMILY
It’s Monday night at the Dance Complex in Cambridge, and the entire place is shaking from the sound of African and Brazilian instruments echoing from the capoeira class that’s rocking in an upstairs studio. After an hour of vigorous warm-ups and choreography drills, the class has culminated in what is called a “roda.” Translated from Brazilian Portuguese to English as “circle,” the roda is a dance scrum in which two participants “play” a game of capoeira amidst spirited instructors, and in which experienced practitioners lead songs in Portuguese and make music. It’s essentially a jam session.
Inside the group’s circle, two people perform a chain of flowing movements, each a creative response to the other’s previous display. The result is a beautiful and seamless flow of motion, an expressive “conversation between two bodies,” as capoeira is often called. This lively energy, the beauty of the free and flowing movements, and the danger of capoeira’s fight create an ecstatic atmosphere packed with emotions. Think teenage love, that first kiss. As old timers tumble through a perfect whirlwind, newcomers stand with their eyes wide open on the outer rung. More than a couple of the young ones look intimidated, at least until someone encourages, or sometimes even pushes them to join the action.
The class is taught by Mestre Chuvisco, one of two beloved “grandfathers” of capoeira in Boston (the other one being Deraldo Ferreira, the founder and artistic director at the Brazilian Cultural Center of New England). A native of Minas Gerais, Brazil, Chuvisco has been playing capoeira for over 40 years, and teaching for nearly that long on multiple continents. When Chuvisco first arrived in Boston 20 years ago, capoeira was virtually nonexistent in the area. In a translated interview after his Monday night Dance Complex class, the mestre brings me back to basics.
“No one knew what capoeira was,” Chuvisco says. “I used to pass out flyers, and people would glance at it and say, ‘I don’t know what this is—take it back.’” Still, he managed to start a small capoeira group, “Mandingueiros dos Palmares,” with just two students, and to eventually grow that into a movement that now trains up to as many as six times every week in studios and other spots in Cambridge, Somerville, and Boston. Similar accomplishments also serve as a point of pride for Ferreira, the other “grandfather” of capoeira in Boston, who teaches capoeira Angola in some of the same spaces.
For Ferreira, his effort to professionalize his practice helped him stay in Boston permanently. “Capoeira is what eventually got me citizenship to the US,” he says. “If you were a professional you could get a green card.”
Status is one thing. Family is another, and for Ferreira and other teachers around here, capoeira creates community. Chuvisco learned from his father in Brazil, and trains and teaches alongside his wife and two children (another one of his sons is a professional MMA fighter who incorporates capoeira into his sport). In the case of others, capoeiristas may be the only local kin they have. “I don’t have any family here,” an area mestre once told me. “So my group is my family right now.”
In the same way that capoeira once served as a means of supporting slaves in Brazil in the face of structures that sought to divide and conquer them, in modern day Boston, the practice comparably serves as a defense for immigrants who feel marginalized. As such, capoeiristas have placed a heightened importance on the familial and communal aspects of their tradition. Lydia “Cremosa” Edwards, an immigration attorney and capoeira practitioner for more than a decade, says, “You can imagine if a person is, despite being here for many years, treated like a stranger due to immigration. To have a home base, a family, and a roda that doesn’t care about that … is huge. I’ve seen this consistently … The only other place I feel that is probably as open is their church.”
Capoeira nurtures strong community through group dynamics. While some students pop in for a workout like you would at a fitness class, for the most part students and teachers encourage and see lots of committed devotees who come not just for the physical engagement, but also for philosophical and cultural exercise. It’s inevitable, they say, for some to get “bitten by the bug,” as one local student, Gabe “Gigante” of Capoeira Angola Quintal in Somerville, explains the connection.
In Chuvisco’s experience, he has found Bostonians to be “very serious about capoeira.” He adds: “They may not know capoeira [as well as Brazilians], but they value the culture and find it very rich.” For serious participants, Chuvisco says capoeira becomes part of who they are. “You have to find yourself … it’s a philosophy of life. I breath capoeira. It is in my pores, it is there in my sleep, in my family, it’s in a hug with a student, it’s in a handshake … Capoeira involves me 100 percent, and I involve it 100 percent … What feeds me all these years is that the deeper I get into capoeira, I find a new robe bigger than I had imagined earlier.”
Along those same lines, Chuvisco’s student Jason “Compasso” Ri, who also teaches, notes that capoeira tests more than just his physical body: “Capoeira is a way of approaching life,” Ri says. “Not everyone sees it as a journey … some people just see it as a fun class or a workout, but I don’t see it that way.”
Putting aside the differences between castes and social niches, there appear to be a number of underlying values that unite capoeiristas. Whether someone is as dedicated as Ri or less so, there can be a transformation in everyday life, affecting not only how one moves, but how one behaves and interacts. Capoeira allows its people to practice creative resistance: With each movement, practitioners attempt to respond peacefully and creatively through whatever hardships lie ahead. There’s a general opposition to reacting out of fear or violence.
Then there is the cultural connection, especially for expat Brazilians longing for their home turf. Chuvisco says one of his main reasons for leaving Brazil for the US was that he “felt like he wanted to internationalize his work [with capoeira], not only bringing it to other nations but specifically to expat Brazilians so they could relive their roots.” He and others speak of transcending geographical boundaries, and of helping people feel at home.
“I remember we had someone who came in from Brazil,” says Ri. “It was as if we had created ironically in Cambridge, Mass, a bubble of Brazil; for that brief moment in time that man was home … I remember thinking how much a relief that must have felt for him—maybe he doesn’t feel like he always belongs. I think it’s very much a way to reconnect and create a connection to Brazil and to Brazilian culture.”
Adds Chuvisco: “The first year I was here it was very difficult—I missed Brazil, but the energy that came from me to stay here came from capoeira … When I teach, I stop missing Brazil because in the moment I feel I’m always at home whether I’m in the US or in Brazil… I still have contact with everyone [in Brazil] who is is connected with capoeira … Every time I go back, to be in touch with these people, it revives this energy.”
I did the bulk of my research on capoeira, and on related issues of appropriation and trauma, during a surge in national news about police brutality and violence against people of color across America—clear-cut examples of how largely dormant discussions of social ills can reinvent and reincarnate. In speaking with capoeiristas about these developments, it’s easy to see the positive utility of capoeira in contemporary society—to bring light through creative resistance and struggle.
The rise of capoeira is directly tied to its role as a resistance against unsavory circumstances. This goes for individuals as well as at the macro social level in Boston, much like in Brazil. Demerson “Negao,” a native of Brasilia, Brazil, who teaches and trains in the Hub, says, “Capoeira is used to rescue people. I know many people in Brazil that wouldn’t have gotten anywhere without capoeira—some who were street gangsters, homeless.” Negao says the capoeira masters of today are sometimes the abandoned youth of yesterday. He continues: “This is what capoeira is—it brings people together. You have a place where everyone knows you and respects you—that’s number one for someone that lives on the street … It’s a form of therapy.”
Image of capoeira in Palestine via capoeirapalestine.wordpress.com
Others point to the way capoeira has been used to bring people together on a global scale in times of social conflict. “Capoeira does not just connect people to Brazil, it connects them to the arts,” says Ferreira of the Brazilian Cultural Center of New England. It’s [now] recognized by the United Nations … in Israel and Palestine they have played capoeira without conflict … The only martial arts I can see bringing people together in this way is capoeira.”
Speaking from the standpoint of individual liberation, “Bambu,” who trains and teaches alongside Chuvisco, notes capoeira’s powers of resistance: “If you’re in a situation where someone is trying to oppress you, capoeira still has a lot to offer even in this context—as a tool to fight back oppression … A force doesn’t have to be as blatant as slavery. Being in an underprivileged environment where you have no options or feeling trapped—any situation you feel trapped—having something where you can express yourself and forge ties and feel close with people, those same benefits are just as powerful.”
Another practitioner, Wellington, notes how capoeira has both kept him in contact with Brazilian culture and simultaneously helped him resist internalizing negative stereotypes. “What drove me to do it for so long was resistance to being completely Americanized,” he says. “There’s still a part of me that wants to be Brazilian.”
From the outside looking in, it’s increasingly the case that capoeira helps to validate Brazilian culture in the eyes of Americans, and to serve as a point of resistance against negative ideas about immigrants. In the words of another mestre, “There’s a stereotype that Brazilians are behind Americans and that translates to an institutional level … But there’s a lot of change. People are starting to look at what Brazil has, and one of those things is capoeira.”
According to Lydia “Cremosa” Edwards, the immigration lawyer, capoeira above all signifies intelligence, and as such commands respect. “It’s an intellectually smart art,” she says. “If you’re a kid who never went to school but can sing and play and play instruments—you can’t deny that person’s intelligence … To learn a language, to play music, and play in the roda, you have to be intelligent.”