I am a real New Yorker.
By that, I mean that I moved to the city (in 1995) in order to see what I couldn't see anywhere else. Unlike many contemporary new New Yorkers, I didn't come here to be "safe" and to shop. I came here to take risks and to grow.
At that time, New York was still a place where, pretty much everywhere you looked, you could see something and someone you couldn't see in middle America. This was the New York which enabled me to discover the Brazilian martial art Capoeira.
I did so in spring of 1999 when I happened upon a Capoeira demonstration at my gym. I was instantly mesmerized. I decided right then and there I didn't just want to do what I saw the instructor do, I wanted to be the kind of person who could do it.
Fourteen years later I am still training Capoeira. I am now what's called in the martial art a Capoeirista - which is a Capoeira identity that one earns through confronting and surviving the incredible and grueling dedication, trials, and risks that go with playing the game.
Today, Manhattan is a place to come to see exactly what you can see in the suburbs. As I've said before on these pages -- Kansas has invaded Oz.
But Capoeira is still here, and is as mystical, vibrant, authentic, electric, diverse -- and Brazilian -- as it ever was. My group Motumbaxé (pronounced "mot-tum-ba-shay") Capoeira, headed up by world famous Capoeira master Lampreia (pronounced Lam-prey-ya) - is having an event called a Batizado on Saturday, June 29 at the Lower East Side's Essex Street Academy from 11 to 3. If you long for the diverse, cosmopolitan, international, electrifying and non-middle American city that once riveted you, or if you came here recently and Subway Sandwiches, 7-Elevens, bank branches, Starbucks, frat boys, "mommies", tourist trap "parks", and people drooling into their iPhones have failed to stir you, you should consider putting the event on your calendar.
Capoeira: The Break Down
Capoeira -- pronounced "capo-wey-da" -- is an Afro-Brazilian martial art that combines dance, music, percussion, songs, self-defense techniques and acrobatics. According to legend, Capoeira began over four centuries ago, when African slaves in Brazil trained to fight under the guise of dance in order to fool their masters and liberate themselves. Graceful sweeps and cartwheels performed to rhythmic drumming concealed their deadly techniques of attack, defense and trickery...and a totally one-of-a-kind martial art emerged.
Capoeira is played in a circle, called a Roda (pronounced "hoda") to the sound of live music -- specifically songs written for the sport, and instruments (the Berimbau, the Atabaque, the Pandeiro and Agogo) which determine the rhythm, pace and style of game that is played.
Capoeira is incredibly beautiful and can be performed as a dance. But anyone who goes into Capoeira thinking that is a harmless "dance" does so at their own peril -- it is a dangerous martial art in which one minute your opponent is whimsically flipping on her or his head with a smile on their face, and the next instant aiming a kick you didn't see coming straight for your face. And meaning it. That is a part of what is referred to in the sport as mandinga, which is the trickery and deception that is central to a powerful Capoeira game because the most successful attempt to kick or take-down your opponent is the one they don't see coming.
Although soccer is the most popular Brazilian sport, Capoeira is Brazil's indigenous contribution to the world of martial arts, and for many Brazilians (especially those of African heritage) Capoeira is considered to be their true national sport.
A Batizado -- or "baptism" -- is a traditional Capoeira event where new players are initiated and Capoeiristas advance in rank. At a typical Batizado -- such as my group's on the 29th -- world-class professional Capoeiristas (almost all of whom are Brazilian) from other groups come to help initiate new players, play each other, and to perform for the audience.
If you have ever happened upon Capoeira and seen experienced Capoeirista's play the game it is always riveting -- nobody can walk by Capoeira and not stop to watch.
But when you see professional Capoeiristas who have been playing the sport since they were children on the beach in Bahia demonstrate their chops, it is a whole other level. I would describe Capoeira in that sphere as a combination between Carnival, Cirque du Soleil and a back-alley favela street-fight. It is truly a sight to behold. And a Batizado is the place to witness it... and thankfully, there will be no tourists.
Capoeira: A Gringo's Perspective
Having done nothing but lift weights since I was 15, I was totally unprepared for Capoeira when I began -- I was all muscle, and no strength.
It was about 4 years before I really had what would be considered a game in Capoeira; before I could automatically mold my body and my muscles into its impossibly demanding postures; before I comprehended a basic vocabulary of kicks, ducks, take-downs and "Floreio's" (which are flourishes deployed not just for beauty's sake, but to show off skill and to throw your opponent off-guard); before I began to understand the various types of games to play -- São Bento Grande, Benguela, Angola -- and how the music determines those games. It wasn't until 2004 -- when I had already advanced 5 chord rankings to a respectable orange -- before I overheard my instructor Lampreia comment to someone else while watching me play, "now that's a Benguela game." I will never forget that moment, and I'm quite certain it doesn't take five years to earn praise from your instructor in Soul Cycle.
Around 2006, when I was finally beginning to hit my stride in Capoeira, my career came in and swept my time and energy away, and for three years -- while I published two books back to back and stared a media consulting business -- I was only able to train part time at a Capoeira basics class Lampreia taught at a downtown dance studio. Despite being totally exhausted, I kept on because I realized that I truly, deeply loved the martial art, and I never felt as alive as I did while training.
With my books out, my business launched, and no longer suffering from exhaustion, I came back to class to train full time again in 2009. Within two years I had gotten my previous game back, and began to have serious breakthroughs. And at long last I learned the real key to playing an intelligent and successful Capoeira game, which is the clarity of mind and body that comes from fearlessness. In a state of fearlessness, your training takes over and you can almost just sit back and watch. It the middle of the flurry of extreme activity, Capoeira is in fact very Zen.
(Although professional Capoeiristas from Brazil balk at promoting the martial art's fitness benefits because they see that as bastardizing the art, I would be remiss if I did not point out that the physiological benefits are out of this world. I personally consider training in Capoeira to be the ultimate body upgrade.)
In 2011 I finally earned my graduate chord, in over twice the time it took me to earn my two college degrees. So when anyone tells me about their 6-month course to be credited as a "Yoga instructor", let's just say that I'm not impressed.
Not Taking Risks Is The Real Danger
In a nutshell, I took the risks that went along with becoming a Capoeirista and I have grown. Thanks to Capoeira, I am not the same person I was in 1999 -- I am greater.
As for the value of risk, I would say that nothing great was ever achieved through safety. Nobody riding on a still exercise bike staring at a TV screen at a spin class is going to be moved to a lifetime of change and growth. No one is making indelible life memories at Zumba. No one will conquer great challenges and even greater fears and become greater as a result of Foursquaring that they are at Soul Cycle. No one on their death bed is going to wish they had spent more time scrolling.
On my death bed Capoeira will go down as one of the most important ways in which I knew I was truly alive, and I achieved that by embracing risk and the unknown. And while I am not Brazilian, I am a Capoeirista -- and that is something that could not be gained through shopping. Or safety.
Mestre Lampreia's Motumbaxé Capoeira Batizado:
Saturday, June 29th
11am to 1pm, Workshop
1pm to 3pm, Batizado.
Essex Street Academy - 350 Grand Street (between Grand Street and Broome Street).
Guests will include Mestres Abara and Ariranha from New York, Contra Mestres Chuvisquinho and Coreba from Boston, and Professor Pica Pau from Florida.
Thursday and Friday, June 27th and 28th, 7pm to 10pm, Essex Street Academy, $55 for both nights
Mondays and Wednesdays, 8:30pm to 10:00pm, Saturdays 7:00pm to 9:00pm
City Center Ballet Arts
130 West 56th Street between 6th and 7th Avenues, 6th floor
$20 per class / $160 for the month