A new class with a kick

It is not often that you see someone do a series of flips in the middle of a fight, let alone a handstand.

But flipping was a common sight last week when Dalhousie’s Capoeira Club kicked off its first meeting with a quick skirmish.

Capoeira is a Brazilian martial art, often performed to the sounds of music and people clapping.

Participants stand around the combatants in a circle and clap as two opponents spin around each other, almost showing off at times while mock sparring.

The two combatants fight without actually touching each other.

The club is operating with support from Halifax’s capoeira group, Dendê Do Recife, with its instructor, Ross Burns, running the sessions.

It’s not just open to Dal students; anyone can join. One person attending the session was treating it like a chance for her to practice three times a week, rather than the twice-a-week sessions that the local capoeira group offers.

“When our instructor mentioned that they were adding another class, I thought, ‘This is great, this is an opportunity to train more than regular,’ so I was happy to come down,” said Mary Frances Lynch, a community relations manager.

“I went to Brazil, four years ago, and started training down there. I was there for three months, and fell in love with the sport and the music and the dance element.”

The club meets on Tuesday evenings, at 7:15, for an hour at the Studley dance studio. There is a $5 fee per session, or $40 per term.

Eleven people attended the first session, and three people were trying capoeira out for the first time.

“This is a beginner’s class, so I wanted to try,” said Heather Darwish, an elementary school teacher.

“It was really challenging, but well worth it.”

Capoeira does not have a strict set of rules, but rather allows for personal interpretation, with each school putting a different emphasis on the ritual, fighting, dancing and playing aspects of it.

Ritual aspects of it are present – such as the playing of the berimbau, a single-stringed instrument sort of like a musical bow, and the circle around the participants – but the school focuses more on having fun than strictly teaching its students a disciplined fighting style.

“That’s where capoeira happens, a circle of people clapping and singing, those instruments … and then two people in the circle playing the game,” said Ross.

“The best way to describe though, it is fighting, it is dancing, it is improvising and competing and challenging each other, facing off in a certain way. It’s a game; it’s a nice way I feel to look at it.”

In order to become a master, or mestre, of capoeira, you need to have at least 30 years of experience.

Burns, who has been practicing since 2003, is considered a senior student, even though he does teach it to others.

Participants spar against each other in the Tuesday class. (Photo: Nikki Jamieson)
Participants spar against each other in the Tuesday class. (Photo: Nikki Jamieson)

“If you went back 50 years, just based on circumstances … because it was this thing that happened, kind of like folk art, so there wasn’t like an exam you took. It was just like if you were good enough that someone was like ‘This guy is a master,’ it was kind of an informal title originally,” he said.

“These days its more rigorous. … You really need to have some experience teaching and to be doing the thing for years and years, and have a relationship with lots of students of your own and teachers of your own. These days it would be rare that someone would gain that rank without 30 years of experience or more.”

Dane George and two friends founded the club last year, but they could not host sessions until Jan. 20 because they could not find a suitable studio space.

“It’s a little bit of a struggle, to find good spaces,” said George, president of the club.

“In the fall I found it was difficult to find a space near Dal that was available consistently on weeknights. We would like to promote capoeira on campus and I feel that to do that we need a space very close by.”

Dendê Do Recife was founded in 2005 by Mestre Azeitona, Mestre Fabio Cuencas, and Monitora Paula.

It has approximately 50 members, and is the only capoeira school in the Maritimes.

The closest Canadian capoeira school is in Quebec.

History of Capoeira

Unlike boxing or karate, which have clear roots to ancient Greece and Japan respectively, experts cannot agree where the martial art of capoeira originated.

       It may have come to Brazil from Africa when Portuguese conquistadors took slaves there. Others argue that while there may be African influences, capoeira was created entirely in Brazil.

       What is accepted is that it was practiced by slaves, secretly, in Brazil in the early 1800s until they were freed in 1888.

       Unfortunately, capoeira soon became associated with crime. In Rio de Janeiro, capoeira had evolved into purely a fighting form, commonly associated with criminal gangs, and was outlawed in 1892 in the Brazilian Republic’s first constitution.

       However, in Bahia it evolved into a ritualistic dance and game, and was practiced in secret, in fear of persecution.

         It wasn’t until the 1930s that capoeira became legal. Mestre Bimba opened a school, Centro de Cultura F’sica Regional, in 1932, using the school’s name as a loophole to legally practice the sport. It became officially registered in 1937, legalizing the practice.