Flipping Out

Valley Capoeiristas bend, twist and defy gravity. They're even cooler than ninjas -- and they have better abs too.

 by Mani O'Brien
 published on Thursday, September 22, 2005

Students play the drums and the berimbau while they wait to take their turn dancing in the roda. The berimbau is just one of the traditional instruments that students learn to play as a part of their capoeria class. They also learn the atabaque and the pandeiro.
Underwood says, "When you enter the roda, it doesn't matter what tax bracket you're in, what religion you are, everyone is friends, everyone is equal, no one is necessarily inferior or superior." Take it upon yourself to try capoeira for the first time. Underwood demonstrates moves typically practiced by expert capoeirists and beginners alike.
On the cover
Students at Scottsdale's Grupo Capoeira Brasil-Arizona learn the history of the game as well as the complicated dance moves. acapoeirista Matt Underwood. Clockwise from the top left: Angelique Marquand, the group's instructor, dances in the roda with "Scorpio," one of her advanced students. Two students in the roda. A student takes a break during practice. Students dance in the roda. Matt Underwood dances with another student in the roda. Students wait for their turn to practice their moves.

A dozen people dressed in white stand barefoot in a circle. Drums beat in the background. Two players stand face-to-face and recognize each other with a small bow as they bend their knees to a squat. They enter the inner part of the circle, spinning and cartwheeling. The two prowl toward each other, moving their bodies to pace of the drum beats; kicking, bending and twisting into what becomes one fluid motion. They circle around each other, rocking back and forth, ducking to avoid the other's smooth kicks. The players defy gravity as they twist sideways, flipping and tumbling faster, slower and faster again until the movements become fluid, arms and legs flowing, bodies flailing, until the next challenger enters the ring.

The players do not leave the circle bruised. They never even make contact and they leave the circle laughing.

The game, capoeira (pronounced cap-o-wear-ah), has gained a lot of exposure through Hollywood this year. The smooth moves of capoeira were used in "Catwoman" and "Ocean's 12." It also appeared in Gwen Stefani's "Rich Girl" music video, as well as Usher's "Caught Up." Bernard Focker (played by Dustin Hoffman) described it best in the movie "Meet the Fockers" as he kicked off his sandals and said, "This is capoeira, man. This is hardcore shit."

Although Hollywood may make it look like a new-age tae-bo fad, capoeira is an ancient art that has been practiced for over 500 years. A kind of fighting wher the players dance, flip and simply move in ways that seem impossible.

The Inner Circle

Kinesiology junior Matt Underwood, 20, is tall and thin with pale skin, gleaming blond hair, blue eyes and a wide smile. At first glance, you might not realize that Underwood is fluent in Portuguese, nor that he is a student of capoeira, an Afro-Brazilian form of martial arts.

Underwood is a member of Grupo Capoeira Brasil-Arizona, a 50-member capoeira group that practices in Scottsdale. He has been practicing for two and a half years. The people of Grupo Capoeira Brasil-Arizona are friendly, and welcome guests with smiles. They greet Underwood with hugs and kisses on both cheeks. The students wear white pants and different colored cords around their waists, each of which represent their level of experience and expertise. The majority wear white and yellow cords, representing the lower levels, which take between three months to two years of training to achieve. Capoeira masters, or "mestres," wear black cords and must have a minimum of 25 years of training. Since Underwood has been practicing capoeira for two and a half years, he wears yellow cords around his waist.

Capoeira is many things, Underwood says. It is a form of exercise, but more appropriately, it is an expression, or even a conversation. The game of capoeira is performed when capoeiristas form a circle, or "roda" (pronounced ho-da), and confront each other with a series of moves they've been taught. These moves include anything from kicks and spins to back flips. Capoeiristas don't consider it fighting, but playing, a game that anyone can learn.

"Capoeira is not for any one group of people," Underwood says. "It is for little kids, old people, men or women; you can be really skinny or really big. Capoeira is a way that you express yourself, so everyone can play."

But capoeira is more than just the game. Many parts of Afro-Brazilian culture are incorporated into the art. Students learn to play traditional instruments such as the berimbau, the atabaque, the pandeiro. In addition, capoeiristas learn maculele, the dancing portion of capoeira in which moves are choreographed. Through learning the different parts of capoeira, Underwood says, people gain better understanding of Brazilian culture.

"The music, the dancing, the language of capoeira helps you to expand the mind to understand things from a different perspective," he says.

Keeping Traditions Alive

Although Underwood has studied different types of martial arts since he was 4, he says he enjoys capoeira most because of its integration of Brazilian culture. The culture is what keeps him coming to class as many nights a week as possible.

Underwood watches intently as his instructor Angelique Marquand, or "Borboleta" (meaning "butterfly"), demonstrates movements. She is young and petite, with dark hair and well-defined, muscular arms. Green cords hang from her waist, symbolizing her instructor status. She has been playing capoeira for seven years. She guides her class by demonstrating move after move with ease. Marquand's movements are smooth and controlled, as she shifts from a low squatting position, ducks her head toward the floor and kicks high, swinging her body around swiftly and landing on solid feet. She directs her students to repeat the move across the floor both ways.

Marquand says capoeira was developed over 500 years ago by African slaves living in Brazil, but here are many disagreements over some aspects of the tradition of capoeira, since all information has been passed down through word-of-mouth. In the late 1500s, slaves would gather at the end of the day and practice capoeira as a way to not only lighten their spirits, but also to learn how to defend themselves in a discreet manner. They would play music and practice their moves, which were disguised as dancing. Because of the game's rich history, Marquand says she tries to retain the traditions of capoeira and Brazilian culture. For example, the practice of "maculele," the dancing portion of capoeira, has nothing to do with the game, but is passed down to keep the Afro-Brazilian practice alive, she says.

Like Marquand, Underwood's movements are confident and smooth. He walks across the hardwood floor on his hands with ease -- what is called a "bananeira." At ASU, he is known as Matt, but in class, he is "La Garta de Goiaba Branta," or just "La Garta," meaning white caterpillar. He was given this special "apelido," or nickname, at one of his ten batizados, or capoeira graduation ceremonies. Capoeiristas gain a nickname based on quirks or tendencies that they have, Underwood says. Seeing him wriggle and tumble, bending in ways you think impossible, it's easy to see how Underwood gained his apelido.

"It's kind of funny, no matter what your name is you tend to grow into it," he says. "People will get their names, and all of a sudden they start showing signs of what their name represents."

It's Everybody's Game

By watching the students of Grupo Capoeira Brasil-Arizona, it's apparent the way they develop their own style of playing capoeira. Five capoeiristas form a straight line at the head of the roda, holding instruments. There are three different-sized berimbaus, the instrument that symbolizes capoeira. A single berimbau looks like a bow and arrow with a long, thin wooden stick with a wire string that attaches at the bottom at a hollowed out bowl that looks like a gourd. It creates a deep twang that resonates and dictates the tempo of the game. There is also a 4-foot-tall conga drum, the atabaque and a tambourine, or pandeiro. The remaining players clap three times to begin the game. The music continues in a call-and-answer manner as instrumentalists call out to players who return their song. The music controls the capoeiristas as they tumble and play.

In the roda, Underwood is assertive and energetic, yet playful. The roda reveals many things about capoeiristas' personalities, he says. He explains "malicia," a principle of capoeira that means being able to understand a person and realize their intention by watching their body language.

"You have to be careful in the roda, you never know what can happen," Underwood says. "The energy can change as the players change. It might change tempo, it can be more or less dangerous at times, it can be energetic, it can be amazing, or fluid, slow and graceful."

In October, Grupo Capoeira Brasil-Arizona will host its Fourth Annual Batizado ceremony, or graduation ceremony. Batizados give students the opportunity to graduate to the next belt level and to show off their skills, Marquand says. Underwood is looking forward to his eleventh ceremony, not only for the games, but also the celebration of Brazilian culture.

"A lot of people don't realize the amount of Brazilian people who live here," he says. "This is a way for us to do something to show that this culture is interesting, and put in out there so people can gain an understanding of other people in their community."

Underwood adds that capoeira is for everyone by sharing a favorite quote: "O Capoeira nao e privilegio de ninguem. Capoeira e p'ra homem, menino, e mulher."

It means "Capoeira is nobody's privilege."

Reach the reporter at mani.obrien@asu.edu.

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