A Fight-Like Dance

Admittedly, Capoeira isn’t for everyone. The Afro--Brazilian martial art features leg sweeps, handstands, and acrobatic exchanges between two sparring practitioners who are encircled by fellow capoeiristas and a mix of song, rhythm, and ceremony. The art — described as a dance-like fight and a fight-like dance — dates to the 1700s in Brazil. Today, capoeiristas can be found circling up in their rodas (pronounced ho-dahs) in most major American cities and in many college towns.

A capoeirista for more than 20 years, Robert H. Moser, 41, is a professor of Portuguese and Brazilian studies and the former faculty sponsor for the campus Capoeira group at the University of Georgia in Athens. He first found his way into the fray as an undergraduate in Berkeley, California. “I’d always wanted to do some kind of martial art, and I knew I’d be spending a year studying in Brazil.” He began to train with a mestre, a master, in San Francisco in 1988. “I couldn’t get enough. I would drive two hours on a weeknight to get to class.” He continued his training during the year that he lived abroad in Sao Paulo.

The Message
Capoeira students train in sequences of leg kicks, arm movements, and other acrobatics for the first part of class. Then, they prepare for the roda: Instruments are tuned, chants learned, choruses rehearsed. Finally, the capoeiristas form a large circle, 10 to 30 feet in diameter. Two players come to the roda’s entrance, at the beating -berimbau, a single-stringed musical bow with a gourd resonator. The instrument symbolizes the authority of the mestre, and its rhythms control the action. bow. The music builds, and the players wait for the gesture that welcomes them into the roda and into the game. When all goes well, Moser says, the roda takes on a life of its own.

“People who were tired from practicing kicks and cartwheels and headstands for two hours find new energy. They are swept away by the hypnotic beating of the drum.” Ideally, there is a perfectly balanced tension between the fighting and the dancing. That balance fascinates Moser, who often sees the dance in the roda mirrored in daily life.

Sparring capoeiristas collaborate to create a thing of beauty in the midst of possible danger. Because of Capoeira’s kicks and jabs, you can never totally let your guard down, Moser says, even with someone you know well and certainly not with someone new to you. “At the same time, your guard cannot be 100 percent up,” he says. “You can’t be so tight and concerned that the other person will trip you or kick you. Your personal game suffers then.”

Capoeira is a dialogue not unlike that which is experienced when first meeting someone. Emotions abound: inferiority, superiority, insecurity, bravado. Capoeira, Moser has found, is instructive for managing that tension between maintaining your guard and letting an interaction unfold and flow.

Social Spirituality
As a child, Moser attended Quaker meetings with his great-grandmother. “You enter the meeting house and sit in silence for 15, 20, 25 minutes, until someone feels moved to speak. That pause is a remarkable, powerful time of reflection,” Moser says. “With Capoeira, you might have anywhere from 40 to 100 people sitting quietly in a room. There’s this almost-tangible current of electricity [flowing through] people reflecting deeply, meditating together.”

That social spirituality is a draw for Moser. The energy in the roda is intensified through song, clapping, the playing of instruments. “Capoeira intrinsically comes from this social interaction, that together we’re developing this ritual, in the same way that other social rituals can be extremely moving, more than you’d ever expect,” he says. “It’s like going to the funeral of someone you don’t know. You have no reason to grieve, but you end up bawling your eyes out. That’s very spiritual — and very human — and makes us feel more connected.

Jennifer Derryberry Mann writes, edits, and teaches yoga in Athens, Georgia.

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