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A graceful game of dance

Challenging and playful, the Afro-Brazilian martial art capoeira angolais gaining fans across the US as an unique alternative to conventional aerobics and exercise classes.

By David HolmstromStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / August 17, 1999


For Aggie Sardi, a former gymnast, it was love at first ginga.

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Then came au, and finally rabo de arraia.

Put these three basic body movements together, and they become capoeira angola. Born in Brazil, this amazing and graceful game of movement has spread to Europe and many places in the United States.

Picture two people, sometimes inches apart, always moving and bending around, down, and over each other as they move their legs and arms while Brazilian music plays.

They improvise from three basic positions designed to "trick" their opponent into being off balance. They touch the floor, kick high, swoop, crouch, and rotate in moves and countermoves like playing chess.

Capoeira angola was invented by African slaves brought to Brazil's Portuguese plantations some 400 years ago. It is the forerunner of break dancing, and is blithely described by one participant as "this weird yoga push-up thing." (Capoeira is pronounced "cop-WAY-ruh.")

At first glance, it's a mysterious ballet of bent arms, extended legs, cartwheeling, and crouching while moving - enough to send couch potatoes cowering. But stare long enough, and you realize this is a disciplined form of total physical movement.

Today capoeira angola - and another version known as capoeira regional - occupy a growing place at fitness centers and health clubs across the United States. Capoeira regional is more of a martial art compared with the playfulness of capoeira angola. Both take years to master.

Both provide a demanding alternative to mere aerobic bouncing and the dull repetition of conventional exercising. Participants like the blend of physical exertion, agility, dance, song, strength building, historical tradition, and "family" that comes with it.

At the Brazilian Cultural Center of New England in Cambridge, Mass., Ms. Sardi, a computer consultant, pauses in a sweaty practice and says, "It's all about placement, how you manipulate your opponent in fun and at the same time get out of the way.

"The big thing is to try to get them in a position to take them down. But you don't take them down because not doing it means you have enough control to stop."

Capoeira angola is believed to have grown out of techniques developed by slaves to defend themselves while planning escapes. Their efforts were later cleverly disguised as dance accompanied by music from a berimbau, a simple stringed instrument, and singing and chanting.

The movements appeared to be a harmless dance, but the Capoeiristas were really practicing fighting and defensive techniques.

After the abolition of slavery, capoeira became associated with gangsters. The dance form was driven underground when the Brazilian government banned it in 1920. Not until 1937, after a demonstration dance before the Brazilian president, was the ban lifted. Capoeira began to be taught in schools, universities, and even military academies, swiftly becoming part of Brazilian culture.

"In Brazil, it's like soccer," says Deraldo Ferreira, founder of the Brazilian Cultural Center and a mestre or "master teacher" of capoeira angola. He is from Santos, So Paulo, and began studying capoeira in l975.