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30 June 06 words: Greg Shelton
"Capoeira cannot exist without music. The berimbau rhythms direct speed, style and emotion"

The world of martial arts has always held our fascination, being both a form of combat and a great way to get fit. Despite our love affair with kung-fu films and Shaolin monks, martial arts groups can often prove elusive to those people unwilling to step into a ring from which they may return with a broken jaw.

Capoeira, an exciting and challenging fighting system originating from Brazil, tests both physicality and strength but in a scenario more akin to breakdancing than a full-on brawl. Combining non-contact fighting manoeuvres with dance and music, capoeira is an all-round experience for body and mind. With regular classes held at the Nottingham International Community Centre by the Cordao De Ouro (Rope of Gold) Capoeira group, the high kicking flare and rhythmic passion of capoeira is open to everyone willing to experience something very different.

The roots of capoeira lie within the slave trade to Brazil that lasted from the 16th to the 19th Century. Arriving from Angola, Congo and Mozambique, African slaves secretly maintained the dances and traditions of their homelands against the continuous threat of violence from their oppressors. Capoeira developed through the need to resist and fight, though also to lift the spirits of the capoeiristas and as a result, it is as much a celebratory dance ritual as a form of combat.

When Brazil finally abolished the slave trade in the late 1800’s many of the capoeiristas were left poor and unemployed and were forced into criminal gangs. The perceived association between the art from and crime prompted the government to outlaw capoeira in 1892, with the punishment for contravening the ban being the severing of the capoeirista’s tendons. Capoeira continued to flourish through the underground despite the crackdown and in 1918 was finally legalised. Spurred on by the developments of Mestre Bimba and Mestre Pastinha (the modern fathers of capoeira) in the first half of the last century, capoeira is now a worldwide phenomenon, capturing the imagination of people from all ages and all kinds of backgrounds.

Capoeira classes are best attended with an open mind. The exercises, traditions and etiquette are all very different from other martial arts. The first step to master is the “ginga”, a fluent stepping movement capoeiristas engage in before attacking or reacting. If you can ginga with a certain degree of grace and flow then you will start to immerse yourself in the capoeira experience, though keeping up with the class throughout the teaching of the more complex attacking, defending and manoeuvring sequences can be more of a challenge.

Despite the initial difficulties involved in performing many of the sequences, help is always on hand from Contra Mestre Papa Leguas, the head instructor, and the other experienced members of the group who can be identified by their “apelidos”: Brazilian nicknames tied to aspects of their personality. The use of apelidos is a throwback to the days of illegality when such nicknames were used to confuse the police.The highlight of every class is the roda (or wheel), the circle formed by members of the group, in which capoeiristas engage one another or “play”. Set to the pounding beat of the atabaque drum and the rhythmic twang of the berimbau (a single stringed instrument that is the traditional symbol of capoeira) and filled with the clapping and song of circle members, the roda is an atmospheric stage in which students can showcase the skills they have learnt during the class, whilst pitting their wits against an opponent.

Though beginners are always encouraged to experience the roda first-hand (it is one of the best ways to develop), it is also highly exciting to observe other members display their talent and dexterity. As the beat of the atabaque gathers pace, the action inside the roda accelerates to frantic speeds, with back-flips, cartwheels and close-shave kicks illuminating the contest.  

I spoke to Mascote and Tatanka, who have been members of the Cordao De Ouro Nottingham ever since its conception in 2001, about their outlook on the art form.
What separates capoeira from other martial arts such as kickboxing or karate?
Mascote: The main difference is that capoeira is not full-contact. It is a game of wit and reflex with rules of respect and conduct, rather than a competition over who can pull the fastest punches. Also, the musical and social elements of capoeira and the sense of community are not found in any other martial art or sport that I know of.

What can a beginner expect from a class at the Cordao De Ouro?
Tatanka: A fun and friendly environment with a great teacher.
Mascote: Beginners may often be overwhelmed by the intensity of the training initially, though we pride ourselves on allowing for all levels of fitness, co-ordination and stamina within the classes. There are always regular group members eager to assist newcomers. My advice for beginners is: don’t expect everything to fall into place instantly but give the process a few weeks and you will really start to feel the benefits.

Music, rhythm and song play a big part in capoeira, how do they enhance the art?
Mascote: Capoeira cannot exist without music. The berimbau rhythms and songs do not just accompany the games but direct their speed, style and emotion. Upholding the traditions of capoeira is highly important to the art form and members must learn the basic aspects in order to fully participate in the roda. When there are fifty of so people in the roda singing and cheering together, the action inside is indescribable!
What does capoeira bring to your lives?
Mascote: A great deal of enjoyment and many great experiences as well as a large social circle in which I can relate to people from all walks of life.
Tatanka: A positive attitude and lots of good friends: all that I have, I owe to capoeira and my teacher.

Cordao De Ouro Nottingham website

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