By Emily J. Weitz
Capoeira was born of a fight for freedom, and the spirit of freedom remains at the heart of the Brazilian martial art form today. The slow, graceful movements were perfected by slaves as they pretended to be dancing, but were really training to overthrow their masters. Capoeira continues to balance this ferocity and grace, and it’s a practice that channels the souls of the oppressed and their unvanquished quest for freedom.
Long after slavery was abolished in Brazil, the practice of capoeira persisted. Similar to breakdancing in New York City, capoeira artists would gather spontaneously, and crowds would gather around them. Little pockets of capoeiristas sprang up throughout the country, cultivating their own unique brands of the practice. In the 1940s, a cleansing in Brazil that sought to stamp out African culture forced capoeira back into the closet, but Mestre Bimba revived it and pulled it into mainstream culture. By the 60s, he had formed academies, competitions, and specific routines that came to be defined as Capoeira Regional, from the Bahia state.
The states from which capoeira traditions stem are important. If you bring a capoeira form to another state and proclaim yourself a great capoeirista, you’ll be met by opposition – violent opposition.
“You couldn’t come in to Rio de Janeiro from Bahia and say you’re the best,” explained Henry Young, who has studied capoeira extensively in Brazil since he first discovered it in 1978. “There’s a fierce sense of loyalty and a sense of statehood and you will protect your state and its reputation against interlopers.”
Young discovered capoeira in New York City, where two of Bimba’s senior students were teaching with support from Alvin Ailey. One of these teachers, Jelon Vieira, told Young that if he really wanted to understand capoeira, he’d have to understand Brazil. So Young moved to Brazil for a year in 1980, and studied the culture, the history, the language. Since then he’s traveled back and forth countless times, and he’s watched capoeira grow into a worldwide martial arts tradition with affiliates in Asia, North America, and Europe.
“I would consider myself a first-generation ambassador,” said Young, “because I’ve lived and studied there and performed with Jelon.”
A first generation ambassador of this soulful and deep-rooted practice offers lessons in capoeira three times a week here on the East End: At Hayground in Bridgehampton on Mondays and Thursdays, and at the Y in East Hampton on Wednesdays. His classes are the real deal: this is not just a way to get your abs toned, though it inevitably will.
A capoeira class with Henry Young seeks to encompass all that capoeira is. There’s the warm-up, meant to prepare the muscles and the body for action. There are the postures, meant to teach forms of combat and defense. There’s the game, where “players” enter the circle and put what they’ve learned to use in graceful combat.
“This is where you apply everything,” said Young. “If you’ve learned these movements and sequences, this is how you apply them with an individual who knows what you’re capable of, knowing what counter-movements might be.”
And then there’s the music.
“Capoeira was born in a musical society,” said Young. “You learn to play instruments and sing songs in Portuguese. That’s an important and incredible aspect of it, because a lot of information is being given in that music. There’s singing. There’s playing. It’s spiritual.”
Young introduced Hayground to capoeira in the 90s, and one Hayground teacher, Arjun Achuthan, perpetuated those teachings through the years. Achuthan had been interested in capoeira since he saw a documentary on it, and when he met Young, he seized the opportunity to learn.
“I first saw capoeira in the mid-90s and I was entranced,” Achuthan said. “I saw breakdancing, mixed with gymnastics and martial arts, all set to mesmerizing music and the beautiful Portuguese language.”
As soon as Young started classes at Hayground, it was clear that capoeira was a powerful teaching tool.
“Children love the playful nature of capoeira, and the theater of it,” said Achuthan. “It’s an interesting concept in a martial art that the ‘fight’ is called ‘jogando’ or ‘playing’.”
Now Young is back at Hayground, and his goal is to immerse students in capoeira to the extent that they could go anywhere in the world, find a capoeira group, and join.
“There’s a protocol,” he explained. “There’s a circle of players, musical and otherwise. The circle is a complete unit, and there’s amazing energy within that circle. Musicians are the most important part of the circle, and the rest of the circle is comprised of players, waiting to play in the game, to test their skills against one another. Within the music are cues that let the players know when they are to enter.”
As they wait, players join in the music, singing the call and response refrains guided by the musicians. As participants in this practice, they are connecting to a tradition that’s bigger than any one person. So the wellness promoted through capoeira is physical, of course. But it goes much further than that.
“In this class, you’re touching on physical, spiritual, and emotional wellness,” said Young. “You’re doing exercises that remind you of what you used to do as a kid : cartwheels and inversions, movements with other people. It’s an amazingly gratifying workout, and you’re part of a whole community.”
Move to the Rhythm
Since capoeira is a martial art form that was only able to survive because it was masked as a dance, music is an essential aspect of the experience. That’s why Young spends time after every class explaining the structure of the music, and introducing students to the five major instruments.