Getting Fit, and Taking Hits, with Capoeira
FARAI CHIDEYA, host:
On the last fitness challenge, I tackled Tae Bo. Now it's time for another martial art form that's growing in popularity - capoeira. I took a class at the school Capoeira de Brazil in Los Angeles.
(Soundbite Mestre Boneco shouting)
CHIDEYA: Off of a dingy industrial strip in L.A., a group of fit men and women are gathered in what looks like a dance studio. But although the moves are easily as graceful and athletic as modern dance, they're practicing Capoiera - a Brazilian martial art. Their teacher, who's playing the drum, is called Mestre Boneco.
(Soundbite of drum beats and man shouting)
MESTRE BONECO (Capoiera Teacher): (Unintelligible) Now, let's combine the three movements. Lift it up strait. Lift it up sideways. And lift it up around. Chinga(ph) and do the same thing to the other side.
CHIDEYA: I'm by far, and not being modest here - the least well equipped person to take this class. A couple of the students are nearly mestres, or masters. Others are beginners. But this adventure in my fitness challenge requires upper body strength and flexibility. Neither of which come easily to me. Nonetheless, I follow along as best as I can.
I'm just gonna watch.
MESTRE BONECO: No.
CHIDEYA: I' just gonna watch, I'm just gonna watch. Yes.
MESTRE BONECO: No, no, cause I have something for you.
MESTRE BONECO: What are you gonna do?
MESTRE BONECO Here. Bend your knees a little bit and then try to go over. And control, finish curl(ph) up.
MESTRE BONECO: Twenty times.
MESTRE BONECO: Take your time.
MESTRE BONECO: Loose your bumps.
CHIDEYA: Okay. That sounds good.
MESTRE BONECO: Out in, out in.
CHIDEYA: Oh out in. Okay.
MESTRE BONECO: And then boom. The other side, yeah, control. Don't lose your bumps.
CHIDEYA: This is like wax on, wax off. I'm already confused. Help.
He shows me how to do basic kicks and a stepping and blocking move called the ginga.
MESTRE BONECO: (singing) Ginga-ginga he oh, oh. Ginga-ginga hey oh. Last time. Ginga eh, oh, oh, o. Don't push up right away.
CHIDEYA: The ginga allows opponents to face off, move around a circle called roda, and block oncoming kicks. Advanced capoeiristas(ph) do flying cartwheels and roundhouse kicks. Beginners don't try those moves. And even Mestre Bonego was a beginner once.
Mr. LOUIS ALBERTO SIMAS (Mestre Boneco, Capoeira de Brazil, Los Angeles): I was born in San Pablo but I grew up in Rio.
CHIDEYA: Mistre Bonego was born Louis Alberto Simas. When he was a child, he ran into some teams practicing capoeira on the beach. They invited him to learn too.
Mr. SIMAS: At the very first time that I saw, I felt and I said, you know what, this is, that's what I want. I didn't know how to do the movements, but I felt really comfortable. I felt that I knew that before. That's why I think it's destiny. It has a lot of culture behind. And it's not just throw legs and flips and it's much more than that, much more than that.
CHIDEYA: But learning capoeira wasn't easy, and the physical challenges were only part of that.
CHIDEYA: But learning capoeira wasn't easy and the physical challenges were only part of that.
Mr. SIMAS: When I was in the academy, people just kind of make joking on me. And when I at home the same. Because, like I said, capoeira was prohibited a long time ago. And people, they don't like to have your sons - or my parents at the time - play capoeira because it had a bad reputation.
CHIDEYA: Enslaved Afro-Brazilians developed capoeira as a way of appearing to dance but training to fight. Like many martial arts, it became a form of street fighting as well as legitimate competition.
When Mestre Boneco started training, his parents were concerned he would get beat up, hanging out with men that they saw as thugs. But Mestre Boneco says the other capoeiristas also wondered why a white guy would take up what was seen as an Afro-Brazilian pursuit.
Now Mestre Boneco has been practicing capoeira for more than 30 years and teaching more than 20. Today capoeira appeals to people of all nationalities and backgrounds.
Mr. BONECO: Here at our studio, we have all the races. The black, yellow, red, purple, green - all the colors. Just clapping hands, just having fun. I think that's what the world needs. You know what I mean? And I think capoeira is the medicine that's going to heal the world.
CHIDEYA: One of Mestre Boneco's newest students, Tamia(ph) Ward, agrees. She saw people playing capoeira at a Brazilian-themed party, but it took her a year before she signed up for lessons.
Ms. TAMIA WARD (Capoeira Student): I initially was apprehensive because I thought it was a sport that men did. There's definitely a masculine and a feminine entity that coexist together. And when I came, there are so many women and they're just as powerful as the men. They're graceful - the men are graceful - and it just coexists so well together here.
CHIDEYA: Tamia doesn't seem to be phased by the fast pace of the class. But my knees and thighs are starting to complain, and so is my lower back. Capoeira requires that you remain in constant motion and be ready to explode with power in your kicks.
That seems like a dream to me, but Tamia, who's coming three times a week, sees improvement with every class.
Ms. WARD: Yeah. It's a school. It's a way of life. It's a community here. You know, it's a family. That's, when I walked in here I'm thinking, oh, okay, here's your uniform, here's you set of, you know, skills that you're supposed to learn. But it's more than that. To me, it's more like a community, it's more like a family where you come here to grow and to expand your knowledge, your awareness and your abilities.
CHIDEYA: After going through harsh instruction when he was learning, Mestre Boneco makes sure that students, no matter how new to the practice, feel welcome.
Mr. SIMAS: The energy here it's, I mean it's kind of good because I try to keep the energy all the time, that good energy. Because I think that's the way it is. We need to have a lot of love and we need to give a lot of love so we're going to receive a lot of love. That's like a feedback.
CHIDEYA: Finally, the highlight of the class: a roda. Student's gather in a circle. Two-by-two they squat down, clasp hands and begin to play a capoeira. Much to my surprise, a woman grabs my arm and directs me to play. I get into the ring with a handsome built guy and spend a couple of minutes dodging his gentle controlled kicks. It may be baby steps but capoeira is addictive. I'm going to come back for more.
Mr. SIMAS:: All right, all right, all right. We're done for today. Thanks for…
(Soundbite of applause and cheers)
Mr. SIMAS:: (Singing) (Foreign Language Spoken)
CHIDEYA: You can listen to some of my earlier adventures in fitness at our Web site, NPR.org. On the next fitness challenge, NEWS & NOTES' nutritionist Rovenia Brock is back to debunk some common diet myths.
(Soundbite of music)
CHIDEYA: Thanks for sharing your time with us. We'll be back tomorrow. To listen to the show, visit NPR.org.
I'm Farai Chideya. This is NEWS & NOTES.