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Passion in the round

Welcome to the strange world of capoeira - a heady blend of dance, fight, meditation and music.

By LISSETTE CORSA
© St. Petersburg Times
published May 19, 2002


photo
[Times photo: Mike Pease]
Leandro Rabell, 15, plays the pandeiro at the batizado ceremony.
TOWN 'N COUNTRY -- As his students tumbled and stretched to the low-pitched drone of the berimbau, Eduardo Torres confessed: "Capoeira is my life."

Within a few days of this gathering at the Gold's Gym on W Waters Avenue, Torres' Capoeira Volta ao Mundo group would celebrate its first annual batizado and troca de cordas, a ceremony in which beginner capoeristas are inducted into the afro-Brazilian martial art and more advanced students move up a level.

"If I didn't have capoeira, I would go crazy," said Torres, 24. "It's my way of meditating. Without, it I'd be lost."

Capoeira changed Torres' life. He got off drugs and ended up following his mestre, or teacher, across the country to Florida's west coast, where Volta ao Mundo was born.

I, too, entered the world of capoeira while at the end of an unhappy marriage in Miami. Through capoeira I learned about a different culture, became exposed to music I had never heard before, began learning a different language, and accomplished physical feats that at first glance seemed impossible.

Indeed capoeira's many layers are what attract most people. But as I became more involved in the game and worked toward my green cord, I witnessed how capoeira could also be used in deceitful ways. My mestre used capoeira as a form of trickery and sacrificed camaraderie to his own self-adulation.

By the time I received my green cord it had no value to me.

Precise kicks, fluid dodges

In the game of capoeira, known as a jogo in Portuguese, two players inside the roda (pronounced hoda), or circle of people, engage in a sinuous game in the air and on the ground. They respond to each other's moves with precise kicks, floor movements and fluid dodges, and embellish their game with graceful acrobatics, all to the rhythm of the berimbau and traditional songs sung in Portuguese.

Capoeristas believe players inside the roda are influenced by divine energy from Yoruban deities, transmitted by those who surround them, and that their game is commanded by the berimbau, the most important instrument in capoeira music. The single-string bow, played with a stick, is often referred to as the soul of capoeira. Its melancholic sounds resonate through a hollow gourd, dictating how the game should be played.

Torres began practicing capoeira seven years ago in California under the direction of mestre Rony Costa, Volta ao Mundo's founder.

"I loved it right from the beginning," Torres said. But at first drugs got in the way. "I decided if I wanted to do capoeira I had to get off drugs, so I did."

In 1996 Costa, originally from the Brazilian town of Pirassununga in Sao Paulo, moved to West Florida and asked Torres to help him establish a school. They eventually settled in Sarasota, and Torres began giving capoeira classes in Tampa last summer.

Now living in Tampa, Torres is searching for a permanent training space to call home. Like Torres, many capoeristas consider the centuries-old afro-Brazilian martial art to be a way of life.

"In Brazil, capoeira is a subculture," said Melissa de Alencar Laxy, the only Brazilian student at Volta ao Mundo in Tampa. "Capoeristas have their own way of talking, they hang out together, they party together, and they prioritize capoeira above everything else."

Most U.S. adherents have far more demands on their time. Yet capoeira plays a significant role in the lives of many Volta ao Mundo students. Some describe it as a turning point. Others say it's a source of continuous growth.

Becky Davis, a Temple Terrace mother of three, ended up practicing capoeira when she sat in for her eldest son's training session at Volta ao Mundo. Five years later, long after her son quit practicing capoeira, she's still playing.

"It's been a never-ending learning process," said Davis, 30. "Capoeira plays a big part in my life. I don't go a day without listening to the music. Sometimes I'll go weeks wearing my abadas (capoeira training pants); not the same ones, of course."

Laxy, who performs Polynesian dances for the Christian outreach group Island Breeze, uses capoeira to remain rooted to her native Brazilian culture.

"It's very fulfilling for me to be able to sing songs about my country and to listen to others who don't speak Portuguese attempt to sing in my language. I feel real when I do capoeira and I identify with the core of who I am."

It is an emotional and spiritual experience, saidJarmary Torres, who just graduated from the University of South Florida.

"When I play, I forget about everything else," said Torres, who discovered capoeira while studying in Italy and eventually quit college soccer to dedicate more time to the sport. "I fell in love with it."

A co-worker told her about Volta ao Mundo last summer as she was suffering through the loss of a sibling and a close friend.

"I was so depressed for so long," she said. "Knowing that I could start doing capoeira again brought me back to life."

Spiritual and symbolic

Capoeira is as complex as individuals who partake in the jogo.

Most historians agree that African slaves in Brazil developed capoeira in their struggle for freedom.

Often called a fightlike dance or a jogo da vida (a game of life), capoeira is more spiritual and symbolic for modern-day capoeristas in the United States than the kind of combative force once used by slaves in 19th century Brazil.

Still, Eduardo Torres warned, if you make a wrong move in the roda you will get beaten up.

Torres encourages his students to develop their unique interpretation and expression of capoeira without sacrificing style or technique.

Lenin Isabel, a 19-year-old student at the International School of Design and Technology, found his voice in the music. Learning the songs and how to play the berimbau added new meaning.

"It changed everything for me," he said. "So much that it started changing the way I played capoeira. It's the best thing that's ever happened to me."

Aisha Perez, a 25-year-old social worker who just received her green cord from Volta ao Mundo, found her expression through her interaction in the game.

"A lot of martial arts are violent, but in capoeira it takes two to make a game flow," Perez said.

Perez, who discovered capoeira while doing missionary work in Joinville, Brazil, last summer, recalled the first time she witnessed two players in a roda.

"It was impacting," she said. "The public's reaction was very festive. The onlookers were as much a part of the game as those who were actually playing. I had never seen anything like it."

Postscript

Last summer I dropped out of capoeira in Miami Beach and began looking for a new group. My search led me to Volta ao Mundo's Web site. I dialed up Costa and ended up participating in a weeklong workshop in Sarasota.

There I found what I had been looking for -- people from all walks of life brought together by their love of capoeira and nothing else. As fate would have it I moved to Tampa for job-related reasons and enrolled in Volta ao Mundo's group, where I had another chance to be a part of capoeira.

Receiving my green cord for the second time marked a new beginning. This time it meant something.

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