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Sometimes You Need an Englishman to Teach the Brazilian Art of Capoeira

Mestre Matthew and Giovana Every nationality carries its own stereotypes, and sometimes they happen to be true. If British people are known to like tea and be polite, Brazilians, are frequently associated with Carnaval and football. Being a Brazilian myself, I have to admit that in this case, the stereotype is right, but there are exceptions, and I guarantee I am not the only one.

My country is also famous for its wonderful beaches, the Amazon and the zesty caipirinha drink, to mention only some of the good points. And let's not forget capoeira.

If the name doesn't ring a bell, here is a quite simplistic definition: capoeira is a mixture between a martial art and music. I would say that it is also a hypnotic art and a cultural expression that began as a relief against the oppression of slavery.

Capoeira was created in Brazil by African slaves 400 years ago and it brings together self-defence, mental-power, physical condition and music, in a sequence of beautiful and smooth movements.

I confess that I had always wanted to give it a try when still living in Brazil, but I have never done it. After five years in the UK, I came across a capoeira class in London and decided to take the challenge and joined in.

Matthew Fagg is the English instructor, also known as Graduado Doidão, which in Portuguese means "crazy guy". He was very kind to even lend me an abadá (capoeira trousers) for my first lesson.

The class started with 15 or more minutes of a very energetic warm up. I think I am a fit person, I regularly swim twice a week, but when we started with the press-ups, I realised that it was time to review my own concepts. To help us to get into the mood for the first swaying movements, there was always the lovely swinging capoeira music in the background.

In the world of capoeira, being flexible and having good balance is a bonus, but not a requirement. Ginga, which means "swinging", is the very basic move and the first one I learnt. By the end of the hour-and-a-half class, it was also my favourite one, thanks to its smooth and rhythmic movements, easily following the music.

Next came the cotovelada, which is an elbow strike; the galopante, very similar to a hook but done with the hand opened; and the cocorinha, which consists of squatting to avoid a strike, but these are only three of the dozens of techniques in capoeira.

As Matthew explained to us, capoeira has to be practiced as a dialogue of movements, in a playful way, not aiming for a fight – and I think this is very sensible, at least while we are beginners. Matthew had his first contact with capoeira in 2001 and has been running classes since 2008.

The group was small, very open and patient with uncoordinated newcomers like me. Matthew's enthusiasm makes the class very dynamic; I enjoyed myself when each new move was presented, and I mean even the awkward takedown called arrastão.

It may be tricky to describe it, but if the translation helps, it means something like "a big drag". Literally, you pull your opponent by the trousers while head butting their stomach. The other person's fall has to be done with style, folding one of the legs, stretching the other towards you and supporting the weight of the body sideways only using the hands, without sitting on the floor. This break-fall is called negativa and it was definitely not an easy one for somebody with a little more than an hour of capoeira experience.

Towards the end of the class, the playback music was swapped by Matthew's live performance of berimbau, accompanied by students on the easier-to-play pandeiro (tambourine) and agogô (double gong bell).

Capoeira without music is not capoeira, and the single-stringed berimbau is the one to set rhythm and tempo. We went into a roda formation, in a circle, and Matthew called us in pairs to the centre to practice.

When it was my turn to go to the middle, I felt that I was part of the group, even not being able to remember people's names or the right sequence of teasing moves.

I struggled to spar, but the best for me was to feel the roda's energy coming from the music and above all, getting in touch with a part of my homeland's culture that is fascinating but somehow still unfamiliar to me.

Service:

www.capoeira-ceara.co.uk

Giovana Zilli is a Brazilian freelance journalist and a former Biology teacher, living in London since 2004. She has recently published in Brazil Passos Contados & Crônicas na Mochila, a travel book, not yet translated into English.

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