10 - The Michigan Daily - Friday, February 18, 2005
Resistance to Art
Brazilian style of martial arts known as capoeira gains popularity
A sthe drum starts to beat, the scene is set in the
basement of the William Monroe Trotter Multi-
cultural Center. Seven students sit in a row with
various Brazilian instruments. The mestre, or teacher,
steps up, and begins a call. The students respond, singing
a song in Portuguese praising the power of women.
Once the music starts to build momentum, two
female dancers step out onto the floor. They begin
moving their arms in wide circles, swaying back
and forth as if challenging an opponent.
Suddenly, the drum resonates with a loud
boom and the main singer shouts, and the danc-
ers' motions pick up. The two women fly over
each other, legs high in the air and arms punch-
ing within inches of each other's faces.
There~are calculated attacks and acrobatic
escapes, as the two dancers continue
to spar, until finally the drums wind
down and they shake hands, pleased
with the result of their game.
These highly choreographed
movements are not a fight, nor
a dance, but the "fight dis-
guised as a dance" known
Capoeira, the Bra-
zilian martial art that
is rising in popularity among Americans, is practiced
every Tuesday and Thursday night here in the spacious
basement of the Trotter Multicultural Center. Students
of various ages, races and agility levels gather to learn
the wonders of this mysterious and energetic art from
the grand mestre, Cabquinho Dantas.
FROM PLANTATONSTO POLnCS
Capoeira has developed over a long and tumultuous his-
tory. Historians have traced its roots to the coastal regions
of Central and West Africa, the areas most heavily affected
by the Atlantic Slave Trade. It was here, in the kingdom
of N'dongo, located in the present-day country of Angola,
that capoeira-like movements were first used as a form of
martial resistance to Portuguese slave traders.
At the onset of the slave trade, warriors under the regency
of Nzinga, the female ruler of N'dongo in the early 1600s,
used the ritual dance called N'gongo to combat invading
slave traders. N'gongo, a fighting dance that mimics the
kicking motion of fighting zebras, is said to be the source
of many capoeira movements. Many of these warriors who
fiercely resisted Portuguese slave traders were nonetheless
captured, and transported to colonial Brazil.
Once these captive warriors arrived on colonial planta-
tions, N'gongo gave birth to capoeira, which became an
effort to escape slave bonds and regain freedom. Capoei-
ra was practiced in secret on Brazilian
plantations for over 400 years, where blacks masked their
fighting practice by setting their aggressive movements
to music and dance.
Many of these slave fighters were then able to use
their capoeira to defeat and elude their masters. Ancient
capoeira involved movements that allowed for the
restrictions of chains, as participants threw themselves
into handstands, kicking with their feet and often level-
ing their opponents with one swift kick.
After slavery was abolished in Brazil in 1888, capoei-
ra continued to be prominent as a form of resistance.
Over time, capoeira evolved into a social and political
force. "In 19th century a capoeira was not a dance, but a
group of men who fought together in the style now called
capoeira," said Latin American and Caribbean Studies
Prof. Jesse Hoffnung-Garskof.
"These groups were important for the organization of
politics because local bosses frequently employed them as
bodyguards," he explained, "But they also marked a kind
of independence for some black Brazilians, because in the
parts of Rio and Salvador that (the capoeiristas) controlled,
they had more power than government officials."
Hoffung-Garskof added that this political force was
eventually stopped by elites in the Brazilian government.
"In Rio, capoeiras were pretty much
wiped out by police toward
D~a~iy Staff IReporter
the end of the 19th century. At the same time, the
nation's government began kicking poor, mostly
African-descended, residents out of the center city.
It would have been impossible to clear these neigh-
borhoods, and push the residents into the slums
outside the city, without first cracking down on the
powerful capoieras," he said.
CAPOIRA IN BRAZIL TODAY
Since the 1950s, capoeira has been grow-
ing in significance, experiencing a revitaliza-
tion in Brazilian culture as a more peaceful
dance form, said Hoffnung-Garskof.
"At the end of the 20th century, capoeira
has been part of a process of reasserting the
importance and value of the African and
African-Brazilian contribution to Brazilian
culture," he said.
He added that this new capoeira is no longer
intended to be a form of aggressive resistance.
"The reawakening of capoiera, as a kind of
dance and martial art no longer associated with
violent gangs, is part of a broader movement
to celebrate African contributions to Brazilian
national culture," he said.
Roshani Dantas, an active Michigan capoei-
rista, andwifeofAnnArbormestre Cabquinho
Dantas, said capoeira's modern revitaliza-
tion began in the 1930s with a mestre named
capoeira to the
city up, a part of
Salvador da Bahia,
Brazil where many
affluent people live, said
Roshani. Cabquinho added
that Pastinha then received a
written invitation from the mayor
of Salvador inviting him to teach capoei-
ra in the academies.
"That's how really capoeira became
noticed by a lot of people, tourists and things
like that because it was able to move to the
'city up,' " Roshani said.
As the academic capoeira continued to
grow, Cabquinho's father began to teach.
"When I was 10 years old I used to look
underneath the door in the academies and
I would ask my father, 'what is that?' He
would say, 'come to my school and find out,"'
Cabquinho said. So he did.
After spending many years in Brazil devel-
oping his capoeira career, Cabquinho immi-
grated to Miami in the 1980s with a Brazilian
dance group. After many requests from audi-
ences for him to teach capoeira, Cabquinho
took up the role of a mestre and began teach-
Cabquinho moved to Michigan in 2000
with his wife Roshani, and began to pre-
pare to teach capoeira in Ann Arbor. At
the first workshop, despite little publicity,
32 people showed up. In the past five years,
Cabquinho's mission has expanded, and
now includes studios in Detroit, Ann Arbor
and East Lansing.
PH LOSOPHY AND
Since the 1950's, capoeira
has grown in significance as an important
cultural concept in Brazil. To Mestre Cabquinho, capoeira
is a philosophy to live by.
The first thing he teaches his students, he
said, is "the philosophy of the art so (they)
won't think it's a fight."
"It's a life philosophy," said Roshani.
"You're doing the music and the move-
ment and the art form, but at the same
time you really don't realize how it's
helping your life."
"Before I realized it I was doing these
things in my life like graduating college
and moving on to grad school (because
of capoeira.) It gave me a clear passion
for what life is really about and showed
me a lot of things. It helps clear different
obstacles in your life,"she said.
According to Cabquinho, today's capoeira
is about reconciliation. "They think it's a race
thing,"he said, referring to people who don't under-
"This art form has no color. I want to see a black person playing
against a white person. (Let it be) a tight game, full of theater. Let's rescue the past. This
is not the moment to close your eyes,"he said.
Despite the positive role capoeira can play, the martial art can also be dangerous.
In the game, opponents move slowly, yet with power, and often with one person's foot
only inches from planting a solid kick on their opponent's leg or head. The danger
comes "when a person doesn't know how to disguise a fight as a dance. He ends up
hurting a friend and he ends up with people talking badly about capoeira. Capoeira is
only good things," Cabquinho said.
American Culture Prof. Lucia Suarez, who specializes in Latin American studies, said
people who live in a "marginal existence" today, such as in the shantytowns that surround
several major cities in Brazil, use capoeira to organize. "Capoeira plays an important
positive constructive role in the community. It gives a sense of possibility to people who
otherwise have a lot of work and a lot of misery to withstand," she said.
"It allows them to link to ... different grassroots programs (which) have been able to work
with capoeira, (incorporating) education and hygiene to bring a sense of community to these
people in the more impoverished (areas)," she said.
Last nights's workshop at the Trotter Multicultural Center kicks off three
days of workshops lead by Cabquinho with a special guest appearance by
Titos Sompa, a dancer/singer/performer from Brazzaville, Congo, who
will also lead dance workshops. Tonight's workshop will be held at
7:00 in the Michigan Union Wolverine room. The events end Saturday
with a capoeira performance in the Michigan Union Wolverine room
at 3 p.m. The performance on Saturday is free. Workshops are free for
students and cost $10 for nonstudents.
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