Fighting in Style 

Brazilian martial art marries music, combat

Capoeira defies definition. It's a dance, it's a martial art, it's a lesson in history. It's a swirling art born from necessity that comes with its own soundtrack. It's a celebration of life, culture and physical ability.

The Afro-Brazilian martial art is built around a soundtrack full of syncopated rhythms and chanted melodies. The moves are smooth, fluid and graceful, yet undeniably powerful.

Watching a "jogo," or game, as matches are called, observers are left with the distinct impression that they could easily have the bejesus beaten out of them by one of the fighters, who would look really good doing it.

"It's yoga meets martial arts, meets dance with music, culture and history," said Kevin Hall, leader of Fitness del Norte, a Boise-based capoeira group.

Capoeira is a contradiction in more than one way. It's a fighting style set to music in which fighters look more like dancers performing complicated choreography than people trying to do physical damage to each other.

It's also a graceful art form with roots in African slavery and militant uprising that was once so controversial, it was banned in its home country.

Now, capoeira is one of Brazil's latest exports, and a sport that's gaining recruits across the United States. Well-established schools are already spread throughout California, and as students move away, they're taking capoeira with them.

Such is the case with Hall, who moved to Boise from Southern California three years ago. Capoeira wasn't in Boise, and Hall was left to continue his practice on his own. But soon, he met others who had heard of capoeira and he began teaching in his own back yard or in public parks.

The small group began to grow, and soon they were meeting in a rented dance studio, the Muse building or wherever they could find space. Then, Hall met someone with connections at the downtown YMCA, and the group found a home that fit its personality.

Now, capoeira classes are held every Monday evening in a small dance studio tucked into the maze-like recesses of the athletic club.

On a recent evening, a half-dozen gathered to play. Facing a mirror-lined wall, they slowly eased into the upbeat Brazilian music emanating from a small stereo balanced on a chair. Movements began to take on an intensity as Hall led the group through a series of warm-ups, circling the room in twists, spins and even a crab-walk—which sounds much more impressive when called by its Portuguese name.

Gliding across the wood floor, the group began to follow an intricate series of moves, each building on the next to create what initially looked like a dance, but morphed into fighting moves, complete with roundhouse kicks and leg sweeps.

Hall called it an "athletic game of tag," in which fighters perform complementary series of movements. While they don't actually make contact with each other, each tries to outdo the other, leading to complicated games of strategy. The more experience someone has, the more the game looks like a live-action game of chess.

This dual personality as art and weapon is responsible for the creation of capoeira, Hall said.

The practice was born in the 1500s, when African slaves in Brazil were looking for a way to learn to fight. Training in any type of combat was illegal, so the slaves created something that looked like a dance to anyone watching.

Hall said capoeira lore holds that a group of slaves on a plantation used capoeira to stage a bloodless revolt, escaping their captivity. To this day, themes of freedom and liberty permeate the history-drenched songs that accompany capoeira.

Hall first discovered capoeira for himself in the mid-1990s, while competing in a martial arts tournament. As he faced an opponent he had never met before, he watched the man drop into a series of moves that Hall thought looked a bit ridiculous.

"It looked so foreign, so weird," he said. "It looked like something he made up."

Hall figured his competitor wasn't any real competition—until he was on the receiving end of a kick to the back of the head that he never saw coming, quickly followed by a second.

Hall made it a point to find out what the strange movements were and was soon training with a mestre (teacher), Gui Debarros, in Huntington Beach, Calif. He was hooked.

A calm and focus accompanies the physical challenges of capoeira that attracts Hall. For others, it's the combination of disciplines, and still others appreciate the uniqueness. Hall's core group ranges from 12 to 15 people, and includes everyone from beginner to trained martial artists and professional dancers.

The whirling, rhythmic movements and pulsating beats are effective recruiting tools for those drawn in by the grace and fluidity. Practitioners feign kicks and punches as they spin and drop to the floor. Some more advanced movements throw the fighters into inverted poses, and motion never seems to stop.

It can be daunting for some who aren't quite prepared for the full-body workout that comes with the process.

"It will grab you," Hall said. "Some, it doesn't let go. For some, it's a little too much. It's a unique practice."

But Hall doesn't want to scare anyone away. Classes are modified to meet the ability levels of participants from beginners to advanced. During demonstrations at the YMCA, Hall has seen everyone from children to senior citizens trying their skills at capoeira.

Those who decide to study capoeira get far more than a workout. The physical training comes along with lessons in the history and culture of Brazil and those who created the practice, as well as basic instructions in Portuguese, the language of capoeira.

Those who continue the training will be given a capoeira name—holdovers from when capoeira was considered the domain of criminals and practitioners had to use aliases.

Hall, or Papagaio, is thrilled to see the growth of capoeira in Boise. Already, a second group has formed. Based in Eagle, Brazilian Capoeira's members often train in tandem with Hall's group.

Hall is also in the final stages of planning for a three-day festival celebrating capoeira. His own mestre from California will lead the workshop, tentatively planned for early September.

Each day of the event will focus on a different aspect of the practice, beginning with the music and traditional instruments, then moving on to the physical movements and finishing with a roda, the circle in which a capoeira jugo is performed. Participants will have the option of signing up for individual days or the entire workshop. A location and final dates have yet to be decided.

For those who would like to try out their capoeira skills a little sooner, Hall teaches class from 7:45 to 9:15 p.m. each Monday at the downtown YMCA. Class participants do not need to be YMCA members, but there is a $10 fee per class.

For more information, contact Hall at 208-340-2823 or e-mail papagaio.game@gmail.com

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