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.

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

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.

"I did the regional style for a number of years," he says, "but it had nothing about tradition, and it wasn't as rich in meaning. So I changed, and six years ago I decided to do straight capoeira [angola]. We try to keep everything pure."

Some of his students have been practicing capoeira angola for more than seven years. All are devoted to the grace and fullness of the experience.

In New York, Edna Lima, one of the few women practicing capoeira regional with the high title of mestranda, says, "Regional is a lot more acrobatic than angola. The spin kicks are higher, and there is more energy."

In addition, the music accompanying regional is contemporary, and unlike angola, a competitive belt system marks the progress of a student. Ms. Lima has also won numerous titles in Karate championships.

Some rivalry exists between angola and regional, but Lima, who teaches regional at many locations in New York City, says, "I respect angola, and if we interact with them, we can do angola style. But capoeira is always changing."

A student at the center here says of regional's martial-art emphasis, "They want to fight and hurt people, and angola doesn't emphasize that kind of competition."

Classic capoeira angola begins with a roda, a circle of eight to 10 players in which the mestre, by the style of his playing with other berimbau, drum, and gourd players, sets the fast or slow tempo of the game for the two players, who begin in a kneeling position before the mestre.

"Capoeira is based on deceit and trickery," says Chris Brownly, who has been playing the game for six years. "It's called malandragem, and it's not like stealing your wallet, but more like, 'I'll play and untie your shoelace while you aren't looking, and then you trip over it and we both laugh.' "

A roda can last for two to three hours, as players change places. "It's not about winning," Mr. Ferreira says, "but who plays the best game, because no one wants to look sloppy. A long time ago the players used to play for tourists' money, and they had to get the money with their mouths. The faster ones got the money."

As the roda proceeds, the mestre subtly influences what is happening, much like a director of a play.

"You have to listen to him or her," Sardi says, "and know what to do. He may be telling me to go in close because I'm smaller, and I play better in close with a big person. He'll change the rhythm of the music and give me a hint."

Mr. Brownly calls it "a game of chess with your body."

Sardi says it was "love at first sight" when she first saw capoeira angola played nine years ago. And Ferreira says, "The players always smile because it's art and fun together."

For Brownly, who is a counselor for troubled youths, the capoeira experience goes beyond the game and the joy of the physical exertion.

"Skip the music, the history, and all that good stuff," he says, "and what keeps me here is that these guys are my second family, and that's something I haven't found anywhere else."

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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