Story by Devin Gosberry
Photos by Taylor Wilder
Multimedia by Peter Ye
Once a month, students from Eugene and Portland come together to learn and share Afro-Brazilian culture at the Core Star Cultural Center in Eugene, Oregon. But before students engage in capoeira, they gather outside the center, a warehouse-turned-fitness studio, to share in music and song. Contra Mestre Dilaho, leader of the CTE Capoeiragem Oregon chapter, treats students who arrive early to an informal jam session. When Dilaho begins strumming his berimbau, a traditional Brazilian instrument, a young woman plays a soulful rhythm on a tambourine. Dilaho belts out lyrics in Portuguese, the national language of Brazil, and his students respond in kind. For the students of CTE Capoeiragem, Capoeira is interwoven in every aspect of life.
Capoeira is an Afro-Brazilian martial art made up of a graceful mosaic of movements, shapes, and sounds that are meant to create tension. The matches, known as games, are at once a fight and a dance as opponents act as allies and adversaries. Capoeiristas, students of capoeira, learn the art’s fundamental movements as a group. Their repertoire of skills includes the áu, the term for cartwheel, ginga, a movement done to protect the body from attacks, and a variety of kicks, handstands, and ground-hugging movements. Students’ skills are tested in the roda, a circle where games take place. The roda is the life and energy of capoeira.
Students gather around the two fighters and the instrumentalists, or bateria, at the head of the circle. The capoeiristas are at the mercy of the berimbau player, who dictates the game’s pace by how quickly the music is played. The class leader sings a line of lyrics, and the students answer, creating a call-and-response tempo. Once the stage is set, the capoeiristas face each other at the head of the roda, and complete an áu to begin their match. As one capoeirista kicks, the other answers back with a handstand. More experienced fighters may even add a high-flying kick or flip in the roda. This creativity and openness adds an element of playfulness to the art form. Although students learn the same techniques, a capoeirista must be inventive and cunning to outdo an opponent.
A game can be playful, but it also has the potential to be deadly. Davey Jackson, a spirited CTE Capoeiragem student and instructor who has been practicing for ten years, believes capoeira should be understood as an exhibition rather than a competition. “The object of capoeira isn’t to win, but you do want to best your opponent. At the same time, some rodas are a little bit more spirited than others. Some can be quite competitive and even violent,” he says. “There’s this fine line: We’re cooperating; we’re competing; we’re trying to best each other. But we’re trying to bring out the best in each other, too.”
Learning that capoeira is the only martial art with African roots is what drew Jackson to the sport. Capoeira dates back to Brazil’s colonial period, Jackson’s uncle explained to him, when African slaves were shipped to the country to work on sugar cane plantations. Capoeira developed as a form of resistance and a way to preserve their culture; its tension was derived from slaves’ efforts to mask the martial art as a dance in front of slave owners. After the slaves gained freedom, the sport’s combative nature was exposed when many Brazilian street gangs and some former slaves adapted the sport to their needs. It became seen as a dangerous, ritualized form of aggression, and Brazil banned the practice in 1892.
The efforts of Manuel Dos Reis Machado, known as Mestre Bimba, led Brazil’s ban on capoeira to be lifted in 1937. Machado reclaimed the art from the streets and brought it into the classroom, requiring students to wear white uniforms and follow a code of ethics known as “Mestre Bimba’s Rules.” Machado’s version of the sport arrived in the US in the 1970s, and it is the foundation of the capoeira Dilaho teaches today.
As Dilaho leads his students through a series of songs in Portuguese, he is youthful and lithe with an air of childlike enthusiasm. Anyone would be surprised to learn he has been practicing capoeira for 22 years and teaching for 16. “That’s baby time. Some mestres have practiced for 60 or 65 years,” Dilaho says. Although he is not a mestre, the highest rank in capoeira, his experience and dedication to the martial art have earned him the title of Contra Mestre, the second highest designation a student can earn.
Inside the center, students gather inside a room with whimsical walls covered in clouds. A graffiti artist in his mid-twenties furiously performs a series of kicks, while an 11-year-old martial arts enthusiast shadow boxes with a black punching bag twice his size. A 65-year-old man watches himself in the mirror as he slowly practices a sequence of moves. Students bring different skills based on their body type to the games, but in capoeira no one is superior. “Someone who is bigger or stronger doesn’t automatically have an advantage inside of capoeira. In that sense, it is a democratic environment,” Jackson says.
As the time draws closer to the 2 p.m. class, more students begin filing in, and Dihalo greets the more experienced practitioners affectionately by their apelidos, or nicknames. He calls one of the class’s youngest students Papagaio, Portuguese for parrot, because of his chatty nature. “He always repeats after me,” Dilaho laughs.
Once the whole group arrives, Dilaho starts class by leading the students with a jog around the studio’s perimeter before they move into simple moves such as ginga. They challenge their skills with kicks, lunges, squats, and flips across the floor as the class progresses. Once the students are winded and their white uniforms are drenched in sweat, they prepare to play a game. Three students grab a tambourine, a berimbau, and a congo drum. The class forms a circle and with the first strum of the berimbau, the studio is filled with the harmonious sound of instruments and voices.
In the roda, two capoeiristas stare intently into each others’ eyes as they move; suddenly, one player sweeps his leg across his body aiming at his opponent’s face. The other player crouches in defense in time with the music. Every now and then Dilaho stops the game to offer critiques and to emphasize the importance of having respect for each action taken. After all, this is a dangerous game. Clapping and singing, the group stays tightly together to maintain the roda’s energy. In this moment, a spirit of unity fills the studio. “Capoeira is the best thing for life. Inside of capoeira you have many opportunities for creation, new friendship, and new life,” Dilaho says.