Capoeira is the best martial art ever, period. PERIOD, I said! A Brazilian martial art with origins in Africa, Capoeira is known for its flashy kicks, sweeps, acrobatic maneuvers, and constant movement, all of which are well blended into a dance-like choreography.
A Capoeira game is typically held in a Capoeira roda where two practitioners, or Capoeiristas, carry out various movements and sequences in a small to large circle formed by Capoeiristas playing musical instruments, singing songs, and clapping their hands. It’s fun, it’s energetic, it’s engaging, and it’s definitely inspirational!
But perhaps what really makes Capoeira truly stand out above the rest is that it’s not just a martial art and game but an embodiment of culture—Brazilian culture. Capoeiristas learn of Capoeira’s history in Brazil, how to sing Capoeira songs in Portuguese, play Afro-Brazilian musical instruments such as the Berimbau and Atabaque, and dance Afro-Brazilian musical forms like Samba and Maculele.
Is Capoeira the most effective martial art to use in a street fight? Not by any means; at least, in my opinion. I’ll leave that to Jiu-Jitsu, Krav-Maga and Muay Thai, fighting styles that take a far more aggressive approach to combat. Nevertheless, Capoeira is an invigorating martial art with many practical applications that can be utilized for self-defense. Potent methods include the use of powerful kicks, counter-attacks, takedowns, evasive techniques, and other versatile movements.
With that, Capoeira is the best to take up if you’re looking for a more holistic experience when practicing a martial arts discipline. You’ll learn to fight, sing, dance, and become an active participant in a realm brimming with rich history, culture, diversity and axé, or positive energy. Doesn’t that sound fun?
My journey into the awesome world of Capoeira began on a college road trip. I, along with a large group of classmates, was on a coach bus heading to a conference at a university in Mississippi. As fate would have it, someone popped in a DVD of The Protector (2005) and it was then and there that I watched a dreaded Lateef Crowder pull off a classic Capoeira fight sequence against the film’s main star, the relatively unknown-in-the-US-at-the-time Muay Thai practitioner, Tony Jaa.
I couldn’t believe it! He was busting out spinning kicks with lightning speed. He maneuvered around his opponent using cartwheels and hand spins to throw even more kicks from the oddest angles imaginable, and all the while “dancing” to a silent melody. Though he would go on to be defeated, this short scene would ultimately spark my interests in learning more about the Brazilian martial art form, and martial arts in general.
Before long I found myself tuning into every major UFC PPV fight to catch the sport’s biggest stars—Anderson Silva, Jon Jones, and Rashad “Sugar” Robinson—in action. I always thought, “If only I could do what they could do!” I didn’t care about style or the hot-debate of which was the most effective; I just wanted to learn anything.
Fast-forward about 2 years later and I had been working as a Site Manager of an after-school homework, tutoring, and enrichment program at a middle school in Compton, California. As part of a short-term enrichment activity our company had, to both my surprise and delight, arranged for a Capoeira Instructor to teach my students once a week.
He’d teach us a few basic techniques, attacks, and escapes such as Ginga, Esquiva, Au Fechado, and Mei Lua, and even let us practice using a Berimbau and singing Capoeira songs. On the last day of school he brought a few of his fellow Capoeiristas to join us and we held a small roda on campus with the students.
Talk about awe-inspiring! They did flips, handstands, a variety of fast kicks, and sung highly energetic Capoeira songs at the top of their longs. What I found most intriguing was their energy. They were tremendously passionate about their craft and overflowing with positivity and optimism. My interest in Capoeira had come full circle and it was then that I decided to get more hands on by taking part in a few classes.
By August of 2009 my friend and I had joined Mestre Amen Santo’s Capoeira Batuque in Culver City, California. Unbeknownst to me at the time, Mestre Amen Santo was and is a worldwide recognized Mestre of Capoeira, and was even the lead choreographer and actor in the famed 1993 Capoeira movie Only the Strong.
Under his and other instructors’ tutelage I begin my amazing journey into the world of Capoeira, not only learning the history, culture, and techniques of the Brazilian martial art, but I was also challenging my body, making new friends, learning a new language, and growing more confident while surrounding myself in one of the most positively spirited environments I’d ever been in.
By June of 2010 I participated in my first Capoeira Batizado—a graduation ceremony for Capoeiristas—and received my first belt, a green belt.
The Capoeira Belt Test
The first stage of receiving my belt was undergoing a Capoeira test where I had to carry out some basic moves that Mestre Amen called out at random. It’s funny; until this day I can clearly recall how intimidating the experience was and how nearly every newbie in the room felt nervous, but we all managed to pass in the end, at least, I think. The next day Capoeira Batuque held a naming ceremony and each of us had to play against an advanced instructor, professor or mestre to receive our official Portuguese Capoeira name.
The Capoeira Naming Ceremony
The Capoeira naming experience is a widely fun and traditional aspect of the Capoeira process. Capoeira names are usually given to beginners based on their playing style in a roda, but if you’re unlucky, a mestre may designate a name based on any and everything other than that. Unusual attire the inductee may be wearing at the time, peculiar facial or body features the individual has, any past history that the mestre is aware of; any and everything is fair game.
Fortunately I was granted the name ‘Dende’, a staple palm oil of Brazil that equates to good energy and flavor, by the now Contra-Mestre Muito Tempo, who was also one of the Capoeiristas that had joined our end-of-school roda in Compton, CA, and inspired me to join Capoeira Batuque. My friend on the other hand was introduced as ‘Bato’, which means webbed feet. That’s right, he just so happened to be wearing those popular hiking shoes that are fitted to your feet during the roda. I still tease him about his name even until this day!
The Capoeira Belting Ceremony
The Capoeira belting ceremony arrived the next day and we were joined by mestres and Capoeiristas from all across the world. To receive a new or higher level belt, each person had to play an advanced instructor or mestre for a few minutes in front of everyone. During a belting ceremony, the unwritten rule of the instructors is to be playful, yet, try to sweep or takedown their inductee to the ground. With that in mind, the higher the level of the belt-seeker, the more embarrassing the fall one should expect.
The energy of the Batizado was ridiculously vibrant and bursting with cheerfulness. I’ve since forgotten the name of the Mestre I played against, but I do recollect that he almost took me to the ground at one point or another, and that I managed to bounce back soundly!
In June of 2011 and at 24yrs. old, I received my green belt and was officially inducted into the Capoeira world via Capoeira Batuque: Culver City under Mestre Amen Santos. It was a proud moment of my life and I was ecstatic to have my family, friends, and training partners with me.
Over the next months I’d spend more time training and gradually improving. I found practicing Capoeira to be so fun that my friend and I were hitting classes on an average of 3 times per week. I even propped myself up to participate in music and Samba dance classes. My toughest challenge was learning Capoeira Angola, a slower paced Capoeira game that required more upper body strength and playing low to the ground. Our teacher managed to move about effortlessly, but I felt that the workouts from Capoeira Angola were the worst, in a good way of course.
Furthermore, I participated in a few events that Capoeira Batuque would put on around town and had even began teaching my students—I had since moved to another middle school location in West Los Angeles—during our enrichment period.
I’d also link up with my fellow Capoeiristas at parties and festivals around town, and join in on small pop-up rodas at Venice Beach.
I’d say that Capoeira was slowly becoming an integral part of my life, and I couldn’t have asked for more.
Capoeira in China
And then 2012 arrived. My aspirations for living abroad had led me to accept an English teaching position at Kid Castle English Training Center all the way across the world in China. And so I had not only become far away from home and completely emerged in a different environment and culture, but I was also miles away from the nearest Capoeira training center I knew at the time, Capoeira Mandinga, which was located in Shanghai.
And sure, I tried getting to Shanghai as much I could to train but it was just too expensive and inconvenient. I’d have to take a taxi to the train station in Kunshan, take the train to Shanghai, hop on the subway, then walk to the training center. When class was over I’d have to rush back to the station and repeat the process. The long stretch of time and energy it would take to get there and back was more than I could handle.
Nevertheless, I did find time to train on my own, spending a fair amount of time at a local gym and in the park. I’d bring along my phone, play a few Capoeira tunes, and record myself to see what I was doing wrong with certain movements, as Capoeiristas commonly do.
I’d also have a lot of fun showing off moves to my Chinese colleagues, who had never even heard of Capoeira or tried doing a handstand in their entire lives. I’d even put on a performance at some of our activities and outings and try my best to teach them how to perform simple moves such as the Ginga. And yep, it was a hilarious, epic fail of mass proportions each and every time.
Over the next two years I practiced Capoeria less and less, but I did still manage to practice other martial arts. Luckily, and I mean luckily, a mixed martial arts instructor from the US had been teaching MMA at a local gym and a good friend of mine had already started the classes. He encouraged me to join, and I did. We practiced boxing and striking, takedown techniques, and best of all, I discovered the equally as awesome world of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu.
Nowadays, as I’m closing in on 30 years of age and dealing with the challenges of living in a foreign country, changing jobs, starting a business, being in a relationship, saving money, staying fit, and so on, I find myself reminiscing more and more about the awe-inspiring, healthy, and overwhelmingly positive atmosphere that swept into my life like a tidal wave by practicing Capoeira. In 2 months, I’ll move to Shanghai and start working at a new organization. I’ll be closer to a few places where I can do some Capoeira training and I also hope to continue learning Jiu-Jitsu. I can’t wait to delve back into Capoeira, and when I do, I just hope I’ll have a new story to tell. If you’ve never considered learning Capoeira, go ahead and give it a try; take it from me, it will change your life!
Capoeira Tem Dende! Salve!
UPDATE: As of May 2016 I have begun training Capoeira with Capoeira Brasil in Shanghai under Instructor Café. If you’re in Shanghai and want to train Capoeira, feel free to join us! Find out more at the Capoeira Brasil Shanghai website!