It's a Sunday afternoon, and to the call of the berimbau, a large instrument resembling a bow, the people scattered around a pond at Duke Gardens assemble into a circle. One man begins beating a large drum and another picks up a tambourine, joining the berimbau in music. Soon the resonant voice of the berimbau player joins in, echoing throughout the gardens.
As the people in the circle clap and sing a chorus, Olynda Spitzer and Sidarta Ribeiro make eye contact and meet at the head of the circle. Smiling mischievously at each other, they shake hands and swiftly cartwheel into the ring, their eyes fastened to each others' as their graceful kicks and acrobatics speak a dialogue of play and trickery. Spitzer and Ribeiro are challenging each other with their bodies. As the words, the music and their movements come together in the circle, an art of solidarity and resistance is created.
Spitzer and Ribeiro are demonstrating capoeira (cap-o-WAY-dah), a movement both beautiful and potentially deadly, which is at once a dance, a game, a dialogue and a martial art. Capoeira is also a performance of the history of resistance rising out of the Brazilian era of slavery. And it's catching on in the Triangle.
For Spitzer, a 22-year-old global experience coordinator and museum educator at Exploris in Raleigh, capoeira is a way of life. Spitzer became fascinated with the art after witnessing a capoeirista perform in a field one summer day in Durham four years ago. She began her study of capoeira with a group in Colorado later that year, before developing her own independent study with a mestre (master) in Brazil in 1998. There she discovered the various dimensions of capoeira in the Brazilian culture--the children playing it in the streets, the music on the radio, and the lifestyle of capoeira as an everyday demonstration of the history and culture of Brazil. In Brazil, Spitzer became impressed with the way that "capoeira touches so many areas of being and has such a real sense of community, philosophy, and spirituality all in one."
Returning to the Triangle, she found it difficult to find capoeira as complete as she had experienced in Brazil. But she slowly began meeting others with the same passion. Last fall, the group met Sidarta Ribeiro, a Brazilian capoeirista who recently moved to Durham and currently works at Duke University. And then, according to Spitzer, the "axe" (spirit) began building.
That same fall a capoeira group was formed in the Triangle, which grew into a collective, with each member teaching the others based on his or her experiences and strengths. Within its first year, the Durham Capoeira Collective has already begun to invite professors and mestres to the Triangle to guide the trainings and share their wisdom with the group.
Thirty-year-old Ribeiro, who's known by his fellow capoeiristas as "Piloto," began practicing the art at the age of 27. Though starting late, capoeira has always been a part of his life. Raised in Brazil, he was attracted to capoeira through the memories of his father--who particularly loved the music--and for the politics of resistance that it embodies. He began practicing capoeira regional--a fast-moving form in which break dancing has its roots--with Professor Caxias in New York City in 1999. He later began to study capoeira angola, a slower, more traditional form, with Mestre João Grande in New York, the most important living mestre of capoeira. Ribeiro is currently practicing both forms.
Capoeira is o jogo, a game. It's played in the form of a roda, a circle of bodies surrounding the two who play. It consists of a dialogue of jogar, body play, tocar, musical play, and brincar, verbal play. Dictated by the berimbau, a bowed instrument that leads the game, the pandeiro (tambourine), and the atabaque (a large drum similar to the congo), the two players within the roda converse through play, following the movement of the other's kicks and acrobatics with esquivas (escapes) and responding in turn with their own show of grace and attack. The motions are all connected by the ginga, the fundamental movement of capoeira. White, the traditional color worn by the workers in the Brazilian cane fields, is still worn today.
Around the roda the other players clap and sing, creating energy and solidarity for the two players within. The songs are often social commentaries disguised as metaphors, or they may comment on the game that is being played. The songs are also connections to roots and history, as one commonly sung about Paraná, a region along the border of Brazil and Paraguay where many slaves were sent to fight under a false promise of freedom. Sung today in the roda, it's a reminder of the spirit of capoeria's past.
Capoeira emerged in Brazil during the Portuguese slave era. Its origins are uncertain, but many of the movements and rhythms carry a strong African influence. As the only defense against the armed Portuguese, the African slaves would secretly practice capoeira in an act of resistance against their masters. Disguising the deadly nature of the game with song and dance, the slaves were able to hide from their masters the true nature of their play. With such skill and trickery, many successfully escaped servitude and were able to set up their own secret African communities where capoeira was free to flourish.
But with the end of slavery on May 13, 1888, capoeira began to take on new meaning. It became more widely played throughout Brazil and its main activities involved the disruption of the political life of the country. As influential members of society increasingly began practicing capoeira, the government felt threatened by the violent nature of the game and made capoeira illegal in the 1890s. But the practice continued, disguised now as a folk dance that made it more acceptable to society as a traditional Brazilian art form. It was during these years, well into the 1920s, that the use of capoeira nicknames became common, concealing the player's identity and making it more difficult to be arrested.
Capoeira eventually gained credibility in Brazil as a folk art important to national culture and history, and under the influence of Mestre Bimba it became recognized as a sport in the 1930s. Two forms of capoeira developed around this time: angola, the more traditional form influenced by Mestre Pastinha, and regional, a faster, more acrobatic version developed by Mestre Bimba in the 1930s. Today both forms are widely played in the streets and under the guidance of professors and mestres in Brazil and throughout the world.
Capoeira encompasses many different meanings depending on the individual, group or region. For many, capoeira symbolizes freedom, love and tolerance. While some street rodas do use violence, Ribeiro notes that capoeira is "of the slave, never of the slave owner. For this reason, violence should always be kept out." For many it symbolizes comradeship, and the bonds among the members of the Durham Capoeira Collective transcend training and play. The spirit, or "axe," is much bigger than the game itself. Spitzer says that "capoeira is dangerous but nurturing at once, and to have these two things is very whole to me." Capoeira offers a unique space for communication, understanding and liberation. According to Ribeiro, it serves "to liberate the body and mind, to become freer and to be able to act in the world and to free the world. That is what capoeira is all about."
At Duke Gardens, on this Sunday afternoon, the capoeiristas have been playing for nearly an hour, and they're growing tired. Catching a second wind, the roda gains momentum in its final chorus, and now it is Peça Rara and Porangui teasing each other and showing off their best moves, with Porangui spinning on his head while Peça Rara performs a handspring. The tempo quickens, and all in the circle sing a chorus of "Boa viagem," Brazilian for "Have a good trip." Suddenly, the music stops and everyone claps and hugs, all sweaty and bodily exhausted, but filled with axe.
Capoeira classes are being taught in various locations daily from 8-10 p.m. by professor Caxias, who has recently moved to Durham. Sept. 17-22, there will be a workshop led by Mestre Cabeja with a baptism, or initiation celebration, to be held on Saturday, Sept. 22, in Virginia Beach. For more information on classes, workshops, rodas, and the upcoming baptism, e-mail melistar99@hot mail.com.