Capoeira: The Joyful Martial Art

A 400-year-old Brazilian martial arts discipline is making inroads in New Jersey fitness circles.

Love at first sight: Newark native David Morgan found his calling during a vacation in Brazil, where he saw capoeira being played in the streets.
Photo by Tom Medvedich

Halle Berry’s backflips in Catwoman; the Amazon natives’ ground-sweeping leg moves, which tripped opponents in the latest Indiana Jones movie; the roundhouse kicks of Eddy Gordo and Christie Monteiro in the video game Tekken—all are examples of capoeira (cop-WAY-ruh), a 400-year-old Brazilian martial art and dance form that is making inroads in New Jersey.

A martial art where you “play” instead of fight and show your skill by feigning and evading blows instead of landing them, cap-oeira was developed by Africans enslaved in Brazil as a way to prepare for combat and—potentially—freedom. The slaves disguised their training as dance.  When capoeira was outlawed after slavery was abolished in Brazil in the 1880s, practitioners played on, adopting nicknames to conceal their identities. Nicknaming persisted even after capoeira was legalized and declared Brazil’s national sport in the 1930s. The tradition continues today.

“People usually come for one reason and stay for five more,” says David Morgan, a capoeira profesor, nicknamed Gaivota, or seagull, for his swooping counterattacks. “They come because they want to learn how to fight or because they are musicians. One guy came because someone gave him a berimbau—a bowed percussion instrument whose twangy notes dictate the tempo of the game—and he wanted to learn how to play it.”

Music is an integral part of capoeira. Along with the berimbau, the tambourine (pandeiro), cowbell (agogô), and conga-like drums (atabaque) provide the music for players inside the circle (roda).

Morgan, 39, taught enshin (full-contact) karate in his native Newark until he vacationed in Brazil in 1999 and saw capoeira being played on the streets. “From the first time I saw capoeira, I had to do it,” he says. “When I came back to the states, I got lucky. There was a school in Newark.”

Morgan began training at Grupo Liberdade de Capoeira, the Newark school that introduced capoeira to New Jersey. The school’s owner, Robson Ribeiro, had immigrated from Rio de Janeiro in 1988, bringing his love for the “joyful martial art.” Ribeiro, a capoeira mestre, or master, opened Grupo Liberdade in 1996.
Morgan launched the Afro Brazilian Cultural Center of New Jersey in Montclair two years ago. He recently expanded, renting office space next door as a second studio to meet a 30 percent increase in enrollment since the school opened. Morgan also teaches after-school capoeira programs in Montclair, Newark, Hillside, and Orange.

Capoeira has two basic styles: Regional is fast and showy, emphasizing high kicks and somersaults; Angola, the traditional style, is slower and more focused on trickery. Its ground-hugging moves include deep lunges, conceived as escapes, that fluidly move into inverted poses in which, balanced on hands, one kicks to attack.

People spinning on their heads or standing on their hands are not uncommon, but Morgan promises you do not have to be a superhero to play. One of his students, Cameron Boyle of Montclair, started at age 39 and is still a committed player—or capoeirista—four years later. Her husband and two children also play.
“It’s a great way to bond for the whole family,” Boyle says. “Capoeiristas are a close knit community, like a tribe.”

The importance of communication—following the music’s tempo, the song’s lyrics, and your partner’s body language—distinguishes capoeira from other martial arts, says Kasey Sanders, 37, a Ribeiro protege who operates a studio, Capoeira Sol Nascente, in Long Branch.

“Capoeira to me is a fountain of youth,” says Sanders, noting that its flowing movements are better for the joints than the repetitive motions of other sports. “You work muscles you didn’t even know you had.”
There are at least ten capoeira academies in New Jersey.

To find one near you, go to capoeirista.com.

If you enjoyed this article, you also might like this story about a bodybuilder who strived to achieve peak physical condition. Click here to read: First at Last.

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