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The Scarlet & Black

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Capoeira Club Moves to Bucksbaum draws crowds

By Giovanni Garcia

Anyone familiar with Capoeira, a Brazilian martial art meets acrobatic dance fighting, has probably seen a roda; a circle of players singing, fighting and throwing the occasional back flip. At Grinnell, Capoeira classes can be found weekly at 7 p.m. in the Bucksbaum dance studio.

Charlie Kessner ’12 and Sofia Tedesco ’14 co-teach Monday night’s capoeira class in the Bucksbaum dance studio. Photograph by Emma Sinai-Yunker

Capoeira emerged as a product of Afro-Brazilian slavery circa 1500 AD. At its inception, it is believed to have been a martial art disguised as a dance, a cunning tactic employed by Brazilian slaves to seize their freedom from their unsuspecting masters.

“Once it was established as a focal thing of the slaves in Brazil, Capoeira became a lynch pin for a whole movement of cultural expression … as a new Brazilian identity,” Charlie Kessner ’12, co-president of Grinnell College’s Capoeira group said.

Under the Portuguese, Capoeira faced a long ban. During this period, the reputation of Capoeira was conflicted, as the Capoeiristas who used their lethal ability to free themselves tended to turn to crime. However, over the course of its own history and that of Brazil, Capoeira has found a new place in society.

“At the turn of the twentieth century, there was kind of a spark of a new direction for it,” Kessner said, “where there were a few masters who wanted to practice it more recreationally and then bring about another movement in cultural identity for Brazilians.”

With globalization, Capoeira has spread in popularity beyond Brazil. In the United States, Capoeira began to intrigue American martial artists in the 70s. Today, at Grinnell and around the world, Capoeira is better thought of as a game.

“It’s probably the most friendship-based martial art. This is definitely the most cohesive martial art, also because we don’t have set kata like other martial arts do,” said Sofia Tedesco, ’14, Capoeira co-president, in comparison to other martial arts in which she has been involved.

Capoeira has adapted to its large and multicultural following by implementing features more familiar to “Eastern” martial arts. Capoeiristas, after entering the larger community by initiation at an annual “bautizado” (baptism), gain a belt to which they attach shorter cords as they progress. Also, capoeiristas are more recently organized into schools. Participants in a uniquely communal and giving art, capoeiristas who have attained the maximum cord level begin to teach others, as a “professor,” “mestre,” or, most adept of all, “contra mestre.”

Grinnell’s group is also involved in the grand tradition of Capoeira, sharing an affiliation with a celebrated contra mestre Ninja and Cornell College’s large capoeira group. Members are privy to what Charlie Kessner calls, “a large support network,” the inviting and caring community that surrounds Capoeira and its practice. A certain playfulness abounds among capoeiristas, as demonstrated by the monikers among those nicknamed, like those of contra mestres, “Ninja” and “Tanque” (Tank). The movements of Capoeira itself still today seem to be disguised behind a light-stepped dance, peppered with dodges and kicks and punctuated by cartwheels and handstands.

Perhaps the most ingratiating aspect of all is Capoeira’s versatile appeal to peoples of a broad array of interests. Tedesco recounts how she began Capoeira in her first year at Grinnell, drawn by a previous interest and participation in martial arts. For Tedesco, Capoeira’s innate camaraderie and fluidness provided a new avenue for her life at Grinnell.

“It became an expression, and, honestly, really good homework relief,” she said.

Kessner, on the other hand, began to practice Capoeira in middle school. Now, he enjoys its strong musical component most of all, his experience informed by his interest in musical ethnology and his majors in Music and Anthropology.

Inviting others to share in this dynamic art form, Tadesco said of the group, “Practices are Mondays from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m., no experience necessary, Bucksbaum dance studio.”

“It’s good fun, it’s a good aerobic exercise. Don’t be intimidated by it; it’s really a beautiful thing that more people should do,” Kessner said.

Dancers, martial artists, those interested in Capoeira, or anyone who “just wants to know how to move” is welcome to join this remarkably friendly group at their own pace and bring whatever passion they want in their encounter with Capoeira.

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