Hip-hop beats from the class next door slip through the Capoeira Evolução studio walls. "Don't worry, we'll drown them out in a few minutes," says capoeira instructor Alex Rodriguez. In minutes, a Portuguese song peals through the studio. The timbre of instructor Corey Pena's voice is shiver-inducing. The beat of his hand drum is so precise, it seems as if it could slice like a knife. The corresponding movements of the capoeira participants are slick. High kicks in unison. Quick twirls. White uniforms stained with sweat. And this is only the warm up.
Capoeira, which originated in Brazil, combines martial arts with music and acrobatic dance movements to create "the ultimate form of self-expression," says capoeira practitioner Felipe Robertson. Unlike martial arts that focus on combat, capoeira is considered a game, or a jogo, in which the objective is to avoid getting hit.
"It's about asking a question, your question being a kick and your response with your body, being an evasion," Rodriguez says,
The art form is steeped in its Afro-Brazilian roots. Original participants, mostly slaves from Africa, developed capoeira in Brazil as a means of fending off armed colonial agents. Music was adopted to disguise this martial arts form as a dance, allowing the slaves to learn how to defend themselves in secret. Still, in 1890, capoeira was officially outlawed in Brazil, not to be revived until the 1930s, by Mestre, or master, Bimba.
Centuries later, the signature switch of the berimbau, a Brazilian string instrument, and thump of the atabaque, or hand-drum, continue in the Capoeira Evolução studio, where capoeiristas practice in front of an oversized mural depicting the thin, white-clad Mestre Bimba. The music dictates which type of capoeira is played: the age-old, fighter Angola style, the traditional Regional style, established by Bimba, or the contemporary style, an increasingly popular form of capoeira that is described by Rodriguez as graceful.
During their weekly Thursday night practice at the studio, 12 students gather in a circle, or ronda, and the capoeira match begins. Two at a time, the opponents approach the top of the circle, sitting on their haunches under a line of musicians, waiting for their signal to begin. After a small nod from the lead berimbau player, the sparring pair jump, backflip, or cartwheel into the jogo. The energy inside the circle is mesmerizing. Whip-snapping fast or fluid and slow, like Neo in "The Matrix" evading a spray of bullets, the capoeiristas don't even touch each other. Rather than a game of fight, this game is one of reaction, of predicting and outmaneuvering your opponents, much like a bodily game of chess, or a physical playing out of life.
"Capoeira is definitely an allegory for how you choose to live your life," says student Elizabeth Gaines, who drives almost four hours from Denton to attend the classes twice a week. "The jogo is a type of conversation. You don't want to go into it with preconceived notions about what you want to say. You have to listen and be present. And that's something that you can take into your real life."
The Capoeira Evolução studio, which opened last August, is home to more than 60 students, ranging in ages from 4 to 54. Rodriguez opened the current studio and spearheaded the creation of after-school and in-studio children's capoeira programs. He and Pena are not only the lead instructors but also longtime friends who both grew up training under master Rodrigo Zerlotti.
Zerlotti moved to Austin in 1990, bringing capoeira with him. He used the action flick, "Only the Strong," as a local introduction to the then-obscure art form. "He used to sit outside of movie theaters and hand out fliers to people after they came out of the movie," Rodriguez says. "That was the only tactic he had at the time."
Eventually, Pena and then later Rodriguez took over the practice from Zerlotti, who moved back to his hometown in Sao Paulo, Brazil. "This is our second family," says Rodriguez.
Since the early '90s, capoeira has taken off in Austin, with groups practicing throughout the city. Instructor Pablo Bazaldua from Capoeira Launda Austin attributes this uptick to the city's fit-minded personality combined with capoeira's community-building spirit. "In my group I do have a rule: When we have a new person show up, whether it's a guest from another city or a beginner trying out a class or someone coming to watch the class, we go up to the person and introduce ourselves ... to give that person a sense of belonging," Bazaldua says. Instructor Da'Mon Stitch from the Capoeira da Rua group says that Austin benefits from diverse capoeira groups, each of which "creates a universal language that in the end, unites us."
The evidence of an entire, unifying culture curated from this martial arts form is clear: There are standardized white uniforms, colored chords signifying graduating systems, and nicknames, harkening back to its illegal status, when practicing slaves used monikers to thwart the law. Participants admit that capoeiristas tend to be passionate about their practice.
Felipe Robertson, known by his capoeira nickname Graduado Negro, packed up his bags and moved from Corpus Christi to Austin in October 2005 because "it was the only way I could truly advance my capoeira," he says. Always an athlete, Robertson says that capoeira fills a void in him, and that by providing access to musical instruments, diverse languages and a family of friends, it also "fills voids in me that I didn't even know I had."
Recently, more women have also been coming to this traditionally male-dominated practice, says instructor Pena. He notes that when the Capoeira Evolução studio first opened, about 20 percent of the students were female, compared to at least 50 percent now. At a recent class, some female students say that they joined for the obvious benefits of physical fitness and friendship. Others found capoeira through the gateway of other martial arts, such as taekwondo. Still others, like Gaines, originally came to heal a broken heart. But all agree: Gender has no bearing on the efficacy of the practice. In other words, facing a male in the jogo is not as daunting as facing a novice, whose kicks may land, unpracticed and hard, in one's side.
"It doesn't matter if you're a guy or a girl," says student Maria Norman. "It's about your level of performance. The best game is with someone who is better than you because they will always teach you something."
At the end of class, after two, sweat-soaked hours, Pena and Rodriguez sit on their haunches at the top of the circle preparing to spar, a Brazilian bead necklace hanging around the former and a gold cross glinting off his opponent. They each tap the bottom of the berimbao, and they're off. Here then, lies the heart of the Capoeira Evolução: the 15-year friendship that has been cemented as the two practiced capoeira, sometimes face to face, but always, side by side. Theirs is more play than fight, as they kick and duck, flip and swerve, all the while with boyish grins on their faces. Their movements are unrehearsed but nevertheless in unison. Toward the end of their spar, they bend over each other, walking back and forth, harkening back to the original slave dance. The lifeblood to lifeblood spirit of this game is never more clear than in this moment.
Contact Reshma Kirpalani at 445-1789.