It was with great reluctance that I first stepped into the Roda; a small circle of French people clapping their hands and singing in Portuguese. The prospect of someone aiming a kick at me while I sheepishly ducked in the centre of the group didn’t fill me with joy.
But when you are living in a small village in a foreign country you are more willing to try new things to make friends. So it was that our estate agent Olivier (one of our closest friends in the village) convinced us to join him in his weekly Capoeira class.
But what is Capoeira? Here’s a definition from the pages of Capoeira-World.com:
Capoeira is a martial art that combines elements of fight, acrobatics, music, dance and rituals in a very elegant and magnetic way. Performed by two people, it is often called the “Capoeira game”… Capoeira is always played with a smile on the face symbolizing that the capoeiristas are not afraid from the danger that is coming.
The history of Capoeira is pretty interesting. It was started by African slaves in Brazil about 500 years ago. These slaves taught themselves fighting techniques for self-defence, using traditional music, singing and dancing from their home countries as a way to hide the combative element of their movement from their masters. You can find more about the history of Capoeira here.
The best way to understand it is to watch it in action. You’ll notice that, although it resembles a martial art, it is non-contact, with the duo in the centre taking it in turns to go on the attack while the other protects themself from the move. When done by pros, it is fluid, dynamic and mesmerising to watch, uplifting the mood of spectators and players alike with incredible energy flowing outwards from the circle.
But you can’t expect to play Capoeira in this way from day one. It took several weeks for me to learn some basic moves and start putting them together in in a way that even vaguely resembled Capoeira. And even after doing it for a few months my pace looks like slow motion compared to more experienced members of our group.
When you’re not in the centre, you are still participating, singing the traditional Portuguese slave songs, which are simple to learn, and clapping along to the twanging of the Berimbau (a string instrument played by the teacher to dictate the pace of the whole experience).
It is also a very effective workout. The class starts with a series of warm-ups and partner based activities and is followed up with the circular format of the Roda. By the end of the 90 minute class, my legs are aching and my heart is beating fast. I can feel the benefits; it strengthens my leg muscles and aids my flexibility, with plenty of lunging and stretching.
But it is the feeling of elation that comes from bringing people together, singing and taking joy in movement that really makes Capoeira stand out from being just another exercise class. It also seems to attract cool people, with an interest in the world and a love of travelling and different cultures. That is the case for our local group, anyway.
In July I attended the Capoeira end of year ceremony where all the different groups in the region came together, the masters performed expert demonstrations and we, as beginners, were awarded our first cream and yellow cords, which our teacher wrapped around our waists, before sending us into a Roda in front of about 50 people to “fight”. I’d be lying if I said this wasn’t slightly intimidating.
The ceremony also gave me my Capoeira name. Everyone who practices Capoeira is given a Portuguese nickname; another tradition from slave times. It might sound like fun but there is more to these nicknames. As well as intending to create camaraderie in the group, Brazilian master Mestre Cafuné explains:
Having a nickname also demonstrates the first principle of the capoeira game – trickery, deception, the coming-and-going of the ginga, the showing oneself and hiding oneself, the advancing and retreating, the ducking down and coming up, the attack and defense.
They are often based on animals and I was worried I was going to get something embarrassing like “chicken” to reflect my slightly flappy, panicky style of movement. But the masters took a close look at me and enjoyed a few minutes of throwing ideas around before declaring that my name would be “Paciência”, the Brazilian word for patience.
I’m not entirely sure why they chose this for me (if they knew my temperament they would quickly discover that I am a person of limited patience). It could be simply because I was at the end of the line of those to be named.
Or perhaps it was because they knew I would need a lot of “paciência” if I was ever to become a Capoeira pro, pulling 360 degree kicks in the air or twirling on my head.
But I like to think it was an unsubtle message to me from the universe that it is time to be more patient in every aspect of my life; moving fluidly and elegantly through this crazy world. A reminder to enjoy each moment of the day, without wishing for things or people to hurry up.
Thank you Capoeira, for reminding me of this and for giving me a new, fun physical activity in a circle of kind, interesting and inspiring friends.