Charles Darwin would have been fond of my hobby.
Upon visiting Brazil, Darwin did not like what he saw there: “The state of the enormous slave population must interest everyone who enters the Brazils... I hope the day will come when they will assert their own rights & forget to avenge these wrongs." Perhaps it is true that this hope for equality inspired Darwin to formulate his theory of evolution. I cannot argue with the authors of Darwin’s Sacred Cause whether his “passion for racial unity is what drove him to touch this untouchable and treacherous subject.” Nonetheless, I’m sure that seeing me play capoeira would have made Darwin smile.
My knees are bruised up and my joints hurt, but every week after work or after classes I commute for about an hour to play capoeira.
Capoeira’s legendary evolution is the main reason to love this form of art. While no one can confidently tell the story of capoeira, the most popular version holds that African slaves in Brazil disguised the practice of martial arts as a form of dance and play. To this day capoeira looks innocent as the players get into a circle, play instruments and sing in Portuguese.
It was briefly outlawed in Brazil as the practice of criminals in 1890 but soon after it became legal again and spread across the world. Algeria, Cambodia, Russia, Japan, Greece, Lebanon, Zambia, the United States and many other countries have capoeira academies. There are relatively few countries that have not been exposed to capoeira yet.
What makes it so unique is the bonding spirit of liberty and mutual respect. Put a crowd of capoeiristas from different countries in one room and in minutes you’ll see such spirit in action. Music flows, the crowd chants in response to the lead singer, two fighters play inside the circle (called a roda) — there is no need to speak the same language, or share any common beliefs.
Capoeira fighters come in all shapes and sizes. The youngest can barely talk, the oldest see their grandchildren go to school. But every week we all get in a big circle, play, and sing about love and freedom.
Afro-Brazilian slaves practiced capoeira to escape the horrors of their daily lives; we do it to release stress and have fun. Yet we are grateful for this gift of art that brings together people of different backgrounds. Darwin would have clapped to this celebration of the dancing fight to freedom and racial unity.
*Z is from a country that made up the Soviet Union, and her writing on cultural and political matters could have a backlash when she returns home from the U.S., so she writes under a pseudonym.
(The photo of capoeiristas in Maryland is by Z and is used with permission. To see a video of capoeiristas from the D.C. area in action, please check below.)
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