Capoeira (pronounced kah-po-AE-rrrrah) is: A. the newest latte from Starbucks; B. the Mafia’s term for a hitman; or C. the Brazilian answer to tai-chi.
If your final answer is C, you may go to the head of Greg Downey’s class, where the Notre Dame assistant professor of anthropology will teach you, among other things, Portugese songs and how to play the berimbau, a single-string, bow-like percussion instrument with a gourd on one end. Both the singing and playing are essential to the Afro-Brazilian martial art, which is the object of Downey’s scholarly research and one of his hobbies.
A leading U.S. academic authority on capoeira, Downey currently is writing a book about its effect on practitioners. The martial art, which has been described as a mixture of urban street fighting techniques and African-derived “challenge” dances, has its origins within 19th century Brazilian street gangs. This outlaw history, Downey argues, explains the surprising set of values the practice transmits. “Some of [the values] are directly opposed to those taught through other disciplines,” he says. “They include cunning, trickery, wariness, playfulness and a kind of self-confidence or theatricality.”
Although capoeira has become a point of Brazilian national pride and now is taught in schools as part of physical education, as late as the 1920s the government was attempting to suppress it.
The traditional game is played within a circle of people known as a roda (HOE-dah) . Members of the circle play the berimbau and other instruments, which set the tempo for two players who engage in a stylized dance-fight. The encounter may last anywhere from a few minutes to an hour. Movements include cartwheels, handstands and other acrobatic feats. A game can range from a slow, chess-like series of strategic movements to flurries of quick attacking moves. The ND anthropologist says the point of the game is to demonstrate control of the space through artistry and skill; the ideal is to cause an opponent to lose balance and fall.
“It’s a hard workout,” says Downey, who has been playing capoeira since 1992, when he first learned of it from a Brazilian classmate in graduate school. "If you’ve never done it before, capoeira will kill your legs because it requires you to stay very close to the ground.
“Every side of your personality can come out in the roda,” he adds. “Your playfulness, your competitive side, cooperative side, aggression, sense of humor, aesthetics — it’s all there and it’s all about position and placement, finding vulnerabilities.”
Although not as well known as the Asian martial arts, capoeira has begun to spread beyond Brazil, with groups springing up in such diverse places as Israel and Japan. Downey estimates there are 100 capoeira groups in the United States, including the one he started last year at Notre Dame.