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Crazy for Capoeira 

Exotic Brazilian martial art is here to stay

click to enlarge A capoeria class in progress - MATT STEVENS
  • Matt Stevens
  • A capoeria class in progress

This past April, Colorado Springs experienced a quiet revolution of sorts. No, not the conservative takeover of City Council, but rather the beginnings of a quiet cultural, if not spiritual, awakening: capoeira.

Say what?

Capoeria (pronounced CAP-uh-WAY-ra) is a 400-year-old Brazilian art form that requires all of the balance, strength, endurance and flexibility of a martial art, but also incorporates dance, music, drumming, acrobatics, singing and clapping. The result is a fluid form of ritual dance and movement infused with what looks like a lovely combination of gymnastics and break dancing. Uh-huh, break dancing.

The subtle blending of the elements of dance and martial arts makes capoeira unique to the world of martial arts. That's why it is "played," not fought.

Capoeira evolved in Brazil during the 1500s when Africans were brought there and then enslaved to work the sugar cane plantations. As slaves, they were not allowed to practice their traditional forms of martial arts, or any self-defense techniques, so they disguised their training by incorporating traditional dance moves and songs, using instruments like drums and gourds to set down traditional rhythms.

Over time, capoeira became an important form of self-expression for the slaves, as well as an important unifying element of the culture. Because such cultural unity among slaves was seen as a threat, it was eventually outlawed in 1890. But it continued as an underground folk art, and finally resurfaced in the 1920s and enjoyed wide popularity throughout Brazil. Finally, in the 1950s, capoeira once again became legal.

Though capoeira began to take root in the United States -- mainly in urban centers like New York and San Francisco -- in the '70s, it wasn't until January 2000 that it finally found its way to Colorado Springs, when Anne Lauritzen and her husband, Mago, began teaching the area's first formal capoeira classes. The Lauritzens and their performance team, then located in Utah, were invited to perform and teach workshops for students at Colorado College several years ago.

Over 100 students attended the workshop, and the performance sold out. The overwhelming response planted the seed for the expansion of classes to the Springs.

Are you a capoeirista?

When I arrived at Fusion Pointe Studios -- a quaint old church at the corner of 23rd Street and Pikes Peak Avenue in Old Colorado City, recently remodeled as studio space for dancers and artists -- the large studio upstairs was filled an air of adrenaline and the frenetic motion of 17 tumbling and dancing capoeiristas.

Deep in concentration, working their way across the wooden floor through a sequence of sideways lunges, spinning kicks and karate-like hand movements, the class's attention was focused on their instructor, Mago.

As he called out each movement in the sequence, the class moved across the room in neat, well-synchronized rows.

Whether calling moves, speaking individually to students or answering my questions, Mago's energy is palpable, and his enthusiasm infectious. He has been dedicated to capoeira for almost 10 years, and is currently the highest-ranking instructor in Colorado.

Formally trained in various martial arts since childhood, he'd never heard of capoeira until he visited northeastern Brazil in 1994.

"I saw it, and fell in love instantly," he said.

Though he was there for two years, he did not begin formal training until he returned to the United States. "And that started as a social thing, with just one other friend," he said. "But through word of mouth, it grew, which is usually how it happens."

Let the game begin

After the initial exercises and drills were done, Mago organized everyone into a roda -- a circle in which capoeira is traditionally played.

Once the circle was formed, a rhythmic background was provided by brisk clapping, djimbe, a tambourine and two berimbaus -- traditional single-stringed instruments, with a gourd attached to one end, that are tapped with a bow to produce a hypnotic resonance.

As the rhythm gained momentum, the group then began to sing a Brazilian folk song in Portuguese telling the story of the plight of past capoeristas.

Once the energy was flowing, the first two players moved to the middle of the circle, interacting and engaging in playful attacks and counterattacks, performing the intricate interplay of kicks, tumbles and dance moves they had practiced throughout class while the rest of the circle looked on.

Players entered and exited the roda one after another in fluid succession, with no interruptions of the game.

After everyone had a turn in the middle, the music slowly wound down and the circle disbanded.

Though class was officially over, some students had reconvened with their partners and continued practicing movements in front of the large floor-to-ceiling mirror.

"See what I mean?" said Mago. "Sometimes I just can't get rid of them," he laughed. "It's addictive. It is huge positive energy."

"And," he added, "a great way to build self-esteem and get into shape."

In hopes of inspiring interest to the point of addiction, Brazilian Capoeira LLC, the official name of the organization, is offering one free month of classes. They meet twice a week, one night on the north side of town and one on the West Side. For information about class times, locations and prices call 231-6833.

  • Exotic Brazilian martial art is here to stay

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