On a wearying, blizzardy night when traveling seems impossible, Ernesto Machado, 25, and his girlfriend, Holly Payne, 21, are undaunted. They head to the inconspicuous storefront for the Tribo Afro-Bahiana de Capoeira Angola Tradicional (TABCAT) in southwest Detroit, as they have three times a week for months. Diminutive in stature, neither Machado nor Payne has the look typically associated with a martial artist. Then again, capoeira is a martial art with an unusual story.
Over the next couple of hours, with Brazilian percussion instruments setting the pace, Machado and Payne take their turns at the center of a circle of students. They seem to dance more than spar. They cartwheel and tumble cat-like, perform flips and handstands. The emphasis is more on rhythm and fluidity than actual combat. Capoeira is a martial art in which theater camouflages the martial core.
And along with the others here, typically a half-dozen students from 8 to 50 years old, Machado (a Puerto Rico-born self-described “computer nerd”) and Payne (Ohio-born, trained for years in ballet) join a tradition that is arguably 500 years old, reaching back to Africa by way of Brazil, and that has spread across much of the world. It’s been in America since the ’70s — with some experts speculating it influenced the earliest break-dancers in New York — and even made its way into the popular video games Tekken 3 and Tekken 4. Films such as 1993’s Only the Strong have apparently given it a modest boost as well.
Here in Michigan, various capoeira groups popped up on the campuses of Ferris State and Eastern Michigan universities in the mid-’90s as students with limited skills who may have visited Brazil began teaching the art form in the absence of a traditional mestre, or master. As these early groups disbanded as students graduated, capoeira in Michigan was almost lost. But a couple of centers could be poised to boost capoeira locally.
At TABCAT, owner Jose Vincente Dantas, better known as Mestre Caboquinho (pronounced MES-tray cab-o-KEEN-yo), says his purpose on earth is to conserve and teach the traditions of capoeira Angola as they were passed down to him through his family and community since the days of Brazilian slavery. In this regard, Caboquinho sees capoeira Angola as a way for African-Americans to connect with their heritage and others to appreciate the emancipation, both physical and mental, that capoeira can bring. Born in Bahia, Brazil, the epicenter of Afro-Brazilian culture where some argue capoeira found its birth, Caboquinho knows the capoeira that he teaches is authentic, and that its roots reach back centuries.
He may not see eye to eye with Detroit-born Gary “Trovoada” Williams, who teaches a different capoeira style, but Williams, too, sees capoeira as an art that can bring self-understanding to people of all races and backgrounds.
Whether it’s performed on the beaches of Brazil or the academies of Detroit, the beauty of capoeira is undeniable. The physicality revolves mainly around players dancing in fluid motion called a ginga in a circle called a roda. When players in the roda are out of sync, the game is stopped and players must start again and again until they find each other’s rhythm. This can continue for quite a while, and is often funny. Capoeiristas may smile or strut in a boastful manner to get a rise out of one another, then without notice, spring into a handstand and kick rapidly at an adversary who was lulled off-guard.
But with capoeira, the object is not to strike or injure your opponent, only to show your strike. With practitioners coming within inches of making contact before pulling back, winning and losing are acknowledged only within the hearts of the participants; victory goes unspoken.
On a more fundamental level, players are constantly forced to look inside of themselves and their opponents; shyness, anger and deception are all made apparent inside of the roda. Capoeira is described by the legendary Mestre Pastinha of Brazil as “a way of seeing and living life.”
“My favorite thing about playing capoeira is you get to see people for who they really are,” Payne says. “You see if they can take a joke or if they’re very competitive. A person can lie to you to your face, but inside the roda, everything is revealed.”
Payne is studying culinary arts and Machado is an IT consultant. They met and fell in love through practicing capoeira when they lived in Ohio. They say that the sport’s fluid movements and balance between game, dance, fight and theater had an exotic effect on their emotions. Caboquinho also met his wife Roshani while playing capoeira. In fact, that relationship brought him to Michigan. He says there is a simple reason that affection often shows its face while practitioners are playing the sport.
“Even though the times we live in today are about violence, capoeira is about love.”
Two distinct styles of capoeira are practiced worldwide; capoeira Angola, the “traditional style,” has its deeper roots, and capoeira regional (pronounced HEH-jo-nal), a slightly more aggressive style, originated about 75 years ago.
“Regional is a little bit quicker than Angola, there is more movement and it’s also a more aggressive art form,” says Williams, who teaches a contemporary style largely based on regional twice a week in Redford and Royal Oak. “Angola on the other hand is slower, more to the ground — the dynamic is based more on trickery and deception,” Williams says. He teaches under the umbrella of Capoeira Mandinga.
George Payapilly, who studies capoeira Angola under Caboquinho at TABCAT, disagrees: “I don’t think Angola is lower to the ground or that regional is quicker, when we play each other in the same roda, the person who has more experience controls the style of the game no matter what.”
Outside of Brazil, it’s not uncommon for practitioners of Angola and regional to disagree on almost everything — including the roots of their disagreements. Not surprisingly, it’s difficult for them to work together.
“There is a mentality in regional that thinks less of Angoleiros,” Caboquinho says. “People prefer aggression and violence over peace — that is the way of the world right now. It is the same with Angola and regional. With Angola, we don’t try to prove anything, but people reject us.”
Professor John Lowell Lewis at the University of Sydney in Australia has studied and written on capoeira since the ’70s. His Ring of Liberation: Deceptive Discourse in Brazilian Capoeira is one of the classics on the subject. A practicing capoeirista himself, he sees the split in capoeira as similar to the divisions between Asian martial arts.
“Everyone seems to teach the best version of the sport and everyone else’s approach is crap,” Lewis says via e-mail.
Capoeira regional was started by the legendary Mestre Bimba in the 1930s as a way of legitimizing capoeira, which at that point, had taken on a roguish reputation, associated with gangs and slums. Bimba began teaching it inside academies, giving capoeira a new legitimacy. Oddly, the two schools coexist better inside Brazil than outside.
Some capoeira practitioners such as Williams consider themselves to practice contemporary capoeira, a mixture of both styles that seeks to put the “politics” aside and focus solely on the sport.
Not surprisingly, Caboquinho thinks this is impossible.
Capoeiristas, anthropologists, historians and others have several theories about the origins of capoeira. All historians agree that capoeira is rooted in Africa, but as the Africana encyclopedia puts it, there’s still debate as to whether it arrived in Brazil intact or was forged by enslaved Africans in the New World.
One popular theory argues that the original movements stem from an Angolan courtship dance called N’golo, the zebra dance, in which men mimicked the kicking of zebras in mock combat. Another theory suggests that capoeira is a combination of fighting techniques that were used by the soldiers of Queen Nzinga (1583-1663) who ruled the region now known as Angola in the early 1600s. As Portuguese forces attempted to subjugate the African population, Queen Nzinga, a brilliant strategist, fought back with guerrilla tactics. Historians note reports of warriors “catapulting across rivers,” as a means of escape. Nzinga’s army was eventually captured and sold into slavery. As a result, this theory holds, many of the enslaved Africans taken to Brazil were highly trained warriors who further developed capoeira under their new captive conditions.
“People from Angola brought pieces of capoeira to Brazil from Africa 500 years ago, but it was incomplete,” Caboquinho says. “In actuality, all African slaves worked together to develop capoeira when they got to Brazil. There was no reason for capoeira in Africa before this because Africans were free. Capoeira was developed only by people who’d had their freedom taken away.”
Despite the harshness of enslavement, once in Brazil, Africans were often allowed to practice cultural forms of expression, many of which centered around music and dance. Historians believe that the movements of capoeira were secretly developed in the slave quarters on myriad plantations, blended with dance steps and acrobatics so that overseers wouldn’t be alarmed. Musical instruments, such as the berimbau and the atabaque, further disguised capoeira. Different rhythms were created to alert capoeiristas of approaching danger and to help them avoid capture.
Quilombos, or secret villages, where escaped slaves lived among other native groups for years, were key to the development of capoeira. The escaped Afro-Brazilians, often referred to as maroons, were notorious for using capoeira against hunters, trackers and soldiers who were attempting to return them to slavery. Survivors of ambushes with maroons described scenes of mayhem, stating that the maroons appeared from nowhere striking them with blows from angles that they could not fathom.
After slavery was banished in 1888, many Afro-Brazilians flocked into cities such as Salvador and Rio de Janeiro searching for work, but were often turned away. Criminal gangs using the techniques of capoeira began surfacing shortly afterward. It would be decades before capoeira shed its connection with the underworld.
By the ’70s, capoeira began moving beyond Brazil. Several mestres saw enormous opportunities in Europe and North America. Brazilian scholars such as Nestor Capoeira of Rio de Janeiro feel the primary motivation was monetary gain. Regardless, academies sprang up in cosmopolitan cities such as Paris, Berlin, Amsterdam and San Francisco. There are reportedly more than 25 academies in the Bay Area of California alone, and according to capoeira.com there are capoeira academies in at least 83 countries, mostly focused on the regional style.
Dutch capoeirista Doron Joles, who practices capoeira regional in Holland, says its athleticism is emphasized in his country; the African origins of capoeira do not much interest his Dutch peers.
“Most of the capoeira groups that you see in Holland are regional,” Joles says via e-mail. “But there are a few Angola schools here as well. Our teacher, Mestre Paulo, who is from Brazil and has lived in Holland for 10 years, has a lot of philosophy in capoeira but it is difficult for him to teach this knowledge to his students. He no longer tries to teach the philosophy.”
By contrast, Wayne State University student Erv Green, who studied capoeira Angola for more than a year, says the self-defense and athleticism weren’t nearly as interesting at learning about his ancestral history.
“I preferred Angola because of the intimacy and because it was rooted in Africa,” says Green, who is African-American. “Regional seemed too diluted and incomplete. I wanted to learn more about my culture so I chose Angola.”
The local view
It’s not clear whether capoeira in metro Detroit will take off, fade away or just keep holding on. There may be no more than 75 students or so, and both Caboquinho and Williams say they are losing money at their efforts.
Williams, 31, says he has about 25 students, most of whom are dedicated, but he wishes more people were willing to try their hand at what has been his passion for most of the last decade. He was first attracted to capoeira in the early ’90s and has studied intensively, reading books in both English and Portuguese to gain a better understanding of the subject. He is not a mestre, and he’s never been to Brazil, but through workshops and practicing locally, he gained the courage to begin teaching three years ago. He works a day job and says capoeira helps him establish balance.
“It’s hard for capoeira to flourish in Michigan because you have to deal with other martial arts that are more established like karate and tae kwon do,” Williams says.
This is a reality Caboquinho, now in his fourth year of teaching in Michigan, knows all too well. Capoeira has been in his family for decades, back as far as 1932. His father, also Jose Vincente Dantas, trained with legendary Mestre Joño Bodeiro, who opened the original TABCAT in Bahia in 1959. The school was eventually passed on to the elder Dantas and then to Caboquinho in 1997. There is a still a school in Bahia, one in Miami and the newest center in Detroit. At 41, Caboquinho feels the pressure of being the only male in his family with the authority over the tribe. In every aspect, capoeira is his life.
He began teaching classes twice a week at the SereNgeti Ballroom in Detroit in 2001. Classes were small, but he moved to Wayne State University where he taught for two years using a room inside the dance department. That’s when he gained the bulk of his following, while also performing with his students at popular festivals like the Concert of Colors.
During moments of reflection, he says he fears he is only laying the groundwork for capoeira Angola to find a community in Michigan. Even if this does not happen until after he returns to Brazil, the toil and struggle of planting these seeds will be worth it, he says.
“In my country, we have summer all year long,” Caboquinho says with a laugh. “But here it’s only three months summer and nine months winter. Believe me, I am suffering in Michigan.”
His hard work, however, is beginning to produce results. He now teaches five days a week, driving between Lansing, Ann Arbor and southwest Detroit, where he opened his center at the end of last year. The center itself, unlike the spaces he rents on college campuses, is an exhibit of Afro-Brazilian culture with photos, artifacts and instruments of his native Bahia, an authentic Brazilian experience.
His student roster is growing, but is nowhere near his dream of a tribe working together to help save Detroit.
“I want to see my brothers learning capoeira, but I am scared because my people are not coming,” Caboquinho says. “I don’t understand how you can have this many black people in one city and they’re scared to learn something from their own history.”
TABCAT will sponsor a festival called The Return of Capoeira Angola: Black Traditions of Brazil in the U.S. at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor on Feb. 16-18. There will be music workshops, lectures on the history of capoeira and capoeira performances and workshops. Percussionist Titos Sompa, originally from Brazzaville, Congo, will be a featured guest. The workshops are aimed at people of all ages and athletic abilities.
Caboquinho also hopes to sponsor an even larger event in August as an official grand opening for TABCAT. The event is to highlight mestres from Bahia, Brazil, and stress the importance of capoeira in everyday life.
Caboquinho hopes this event will help unite many of the capoeira groups throughout Michigan and the Midwest, though he’s skeptical about working with some regional and contemporary groups.
“There is so much to capoeira that people here in Michigan can benefit from,” Caboquinho says. “If you are humble, you will see my art is real life. For 500 years, capoeira has helped people escape oppression and maintain freedom. I know capoeira can do the same for people in this land as well.”
Centro da TABCAT is located at 4647 Michigan Ave., Detroit. Call 313-361-9030 or visit tabcat.org. For information about the upcoming University of Michigan festival call 734-697-1563 or e-mail [email protected]. Mestre Caboquino also teaches at Trotter House in Ann Arbor and at Michigan State University in East Laning. Gary “Trovoada” Williams teaches at the Redford and Royal Oak YMCAs. Contact him at [email protected]. Jonathan Cunningham is a freelance writer. Send comments to [email protected]