Capoeira Half Dance, Half Fight

Combining fighting power with dancing finesse, Afro-Brazilian capoeira is a centuries-old art form practiced to music and singing

Friday - May 19, 2006
By Lisa Asato
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Instructor Paul Kolbe
Instructor Paul Kolbe

At the Capoeira Hawaii studio on Waimanu Street on a recent Saturday morning, five children make their way across the room doing low-to-the-ground, inverted moves, resembling the graceful movements of primates. Later, instruments are brought out from a corner by the window, and the school’s highest-ranking capoeirista, Contra Mestre Rod Ussing, asks, “Who’s going to start?”

A young boy who raises his hand clangs his cymbals in four beats, and the others join in with chest-high drums and a skyscraping stringed instrument called a berimbao. When they return to acrobatics 15 minutes later, they perform an impressive one-handed move, spinning their bodies up and over. “Left hand down,” Ussing advises, often adding good-naturedly, “Eh, your other left.”

Austin Chaffee-Poor and Kenan Gordon ‘play’ to the music
Austin Chaffee-Poor and Kenan Gordon ‘play’ to
the music

Capoeira is an Afro-Brazilian martial art that combines fighting power with dancing finesse. A centuries-old art form, capoeira is “played” not “fought” to music and singing. Born from the adversity of slavery and used as a way for conflict resolution, capoeira, with its side-to-side and back-and-forth dodges, cartwheels, spins, inverted kicks, flips, and head hits to the torso, is compared to an improvised conversation, as well as to physical chess: making your opponent expect one thing then hitting him with another.

Capoeira “can be so many things because there’s something in it for everyone,” Ussing says. “It can be a full-contact drag ‘em out ugly fight, or it can go the other spectrum - pure movement, an acrobatic dance that involves no contact whatsoever, a dance just for fun. And everything in between, pretty much.”

Joe Provencher, Paul Kolbe, Rachel Mark and others provide the music while students dance
Joe Provencher, Paul Kolbe, Rachel Mark and
others provide the music while students

There’s also annual batizados, a non-religious event in which students are initiated and receive what can be humorous nicknames. “My name in capoeira is Contra Mestre Entrada,” Ussing says. “Directly translated it’s ‘entrance,’ but in Portuguese slang it’s ‘receding hairline.’

“Usually the capoeira nicknames are insulting.

Sometimes you get a cool one like pantera or tigre (panther or tiger) but generally it’s less flattering.”

Keiki instructor Rod Ussing works with Austin Chaffee-Poor
Keiki instructor Rod Ussing works with Austin

Besides the children’s class, the school offers an adult beginner class, which attracts about a dozen men and women, and a mixed-level class that attracts about 20.

Megan Inada, who’s 28, has been training for about two years and has earned the second-level rank signified by a green-yellow cord. Last Saturday she was cordless, having left it at her office in Kakaako. “I usually come from work,” explains Inada, who is the coordinator

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