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The Art of Capoeira: Float like a B-boy, sting like Bruce Lee

JON HELGASON/ Arizona Daily Wildcat

Andre Newman as "Aranha," or spider, spins and kicks while Chris Berry "Aranha," or caterpillar of fire, dodges and sets up for his next move.

By Lydia Hallay & Kevin Smith
Arizona Daily Wildcat
Thursday Mar. 21, 2002

Capoeira combines fighting, music, acrobatics into a style of movement with historical roots

There's no denying the coolness of breaking boards with your hands or catching flies with chopsticks. But Mr. Miyagi never taught Daniel-san how to strum a tune on a berimbau. And the Ninja Turtles hardly impressed on the dance floor with kicks and jabs, unless of course they were busting out with Vanilla Ice's "Ninja Rap."

"Capoeira," a martial art with a long history, combines fighting, music, acrobatics and a fluid style of movement that is meant to impress on the dance floor.

Involved in martial arts since the early 1970s, Dondi Marble said his interest in capoeira wasn't aroused until the mid-'90s. While teaching martial arts styles escrima and muay thai in 1995, Marble met a student who practiced capoeira.

"I was completely turned on to it - became obsessed, passionate and started doing a little bit with my group here in Tucson," said Marble, who teaches capoeira at the ORTS Studio in Tucson. "What was particularly important to me, what I really liked, was the African roots of it, being that capoeira was developed and came from the African people brought to Brazil."


Capoeira terms you should know:
  • Capoeirista- a Capoeira player
  • Mestre - master, senior Capoeira teacher
  • Batizado - the Capoeira initiation ceremony; baptism
  • Cordčo - colored belt awarded to mark grades of advancement in some academies
  • Ginga - the fundamental Capoeira movement
  • Corridos - call and response songs accompanying action in the circle
  • Jôgo - game
    Roda - circle; space for playing Capoeira
  • Maculźlź - another martial arts dance to music, involving rhythmic stick play
  • Malícia - deception, trickery, cunning, double-dealing, misdirection
  • Africans enslaved by colonialists in 16th century Brazil are thought to be the developers of capoeira. Because slaves were forbidden to practice any sort of martial art - it was thought this would make them a physical threat - dance-like elements were incorporated to give capoeira the appearance of an unassuming, recreational activity.

    Still, the danger of being caught practicing capoeira was great enough to spur its participants into maintaining a "stay-on-your-toes" ethic that is still evident among partakers today.

    "You have to always be on your guard because you never know what's going to happen," Marble said. "You can never expect that the person you're playing with is going to be nice, cooperative or uncooperative."

    Marble said that unlike other martial arts where the goal is to defeat an opponent by beating them physically, the objective of capoeira is to intellectually outmaneuver the opponent.

    "Our objective isn't going in and pummeling somebody to win," he said. "Our objective is more to outsmart our opponent by doing tricks than to physically manhandle our opponent. On any given day, someone might get the best of another person, but there's never a winner or loser," he said. "You never know where the game stands."

    Tucsonan Gilda Delgado, who has been practicing capoeira for more than two years, says she appreciates the form's freedom.

    JON HELGASON/ Arizona Daily Wildcat

    Rhonda Marble as "Onda," or wave, shows a series of handstand kicks.

    "I used to do a different martial art," Delgado said. "It was too rigid for me. There wasn't a lot of movement. (But capoeira) incorporates music, dance, fighting, a different language - all the things that I love."

    Music, both live and recorded, is another key component of capoeira.

    "The best music is, of course, capoeira music," Marble said. "There are numerous cassettes and CDs produced and put out by different capoeira groups and "mestres" (masters of the art form) from here in the states and Brazil that you can get."

    Capoeristas also create their own music while engaging in the game, using a mix of chants and indigenous Brazilian instruments.

    "When we do a 'holda' (circle of players)," Marble said, "people play the instruments: three on berimbau, two on pandeiro, one on atabaque, and one on the agogôs. So they're playing the music, singing and the people sitting in the circle are keeping the energy going by clapping and singing back in response to the singers to give the energy back to the players."

    Capoeira beginners find they learn more than just movements.


    Capoeira Instruments:
  • Berimbau- lead instrument in Capoeira, a musical bow of African origin, sound produced by striking a rod and a ring or coin on a metal string attached to a bow with a resonating dried gourd.

  • Pandeiro - (tambourine) originally from East Africa. Made of wood, goatskin and five sets of jingles.

  • Agogôs - made of iron and steel, sound is made by striking a stick against the instrument's two bells.

  • Atabaque - large drum. Skin made from cowhide and tightened through a system of metal rings, rope and wooden wedges.
  • "You learn music, you learn to play different musical instruments," Marble said. "You learn another language almost. (You) learn to sing in Portuguese and many people go on to learn to speak and understand Portuguese. You learn a rich history and culture."

    Dondi said the skills students attain while learning capoeira can be helpful outside of the "roda," or space for playing capoeira.

    "You learn so many things," Marble said. "It teaches you how to get around, go through, go under and stand up to many obstacles you will face in your day to day life."

    Capoeira does not require rigorous physical fitness training in order to excel at it.

    "A lot of people are like, 'Oh, I have to go lift weights, I need to go do yoga and get flexible,'" Marble said. "To build your body strong in capoeira, do capoeira. Do the movements, and that's what makes you strong."

    What Marble looks for in a beginning student, however, is not necessarily athletic talent.

    "We want students who are good musically, good also physically," he said, "and then that they have some mental and spiritual thing about them that they can carry on and pass to other students and those that want to go on to teach. This is the objective of capoeira: to continue on with this route, this culture, this history, which was brought with the African slaves. To make it grow stronger, to take it all over the world."

    Chris Berry, who says he will attend the University of Arizona next fall, is Marble's assistant teacher. He said practicing capoeira takes dedication.

    "I learned that it was a way of life," Berry said. "It's difficult, but I love it."

    Though the level of dedication varies from person to person, Dondi has chosen the path of the eternal student.

    "I've dedicated my life to capoeira," he said.

    Capoeira is taught at the ORTS Studio, 121 E. Seventh St., 624-3799, at the UA Student Recreational Center and at other locations throughout Tucson.

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