'These days, capoeira is everywhere. If they send people to the moon, it will be on the moon," says Eclilson de Jesus.
De Jesus is a 36-year-old mestre or master of capoeira, a 400-year-old Brazilian martial art that arrived in North America only 25 years ago. Developed by slaves as a weapon to strike for their freedom, it was outlawed in Brazil for such a long time -- it only became legal in the 1930s -- that in order to survive it was disguised as dance.
The outcome is an exhilarating art form that in North America has undergone yet another metamorphosis. Associated as recently as the 1970s with desperate battles between Brazil's poor and the heavily armed police of its military government, capoeira in Canada and the United States has become a favourite of children and teenagers. Breakdancing in the U.S. is partly an adaptation of capoeira by black kids. The exotic music, the acrobatic flair and the friendly solidarity of capoeiristas, who dance in pairs surrounded by a circle of supportive brothers and sisters, has proven intensely attractive to children and alienated adolescents.
De Jesus himself was invited to Canada 10 years ago by several children's theatre festivals. He quickly set up a school in Vancouver, and now divides his time between it and the school he founded in Brazil. He also founded Aché Brasil, the performance group that opens tonight at Toronto's Lorraine Kimsa Theatre for Young People.
"When I first came to Canada, I thought it needed some Brazilian culture," says De Jesus, who speaks an approximate English heavily coloured by Portuguese. "That's why I stayed here."
He calls capoeira a "beautiful art that gives self-confidence," and based on seeing a rehearsal of his show, that would seem to be true. Several musicians range themselves around a heavy drum called the atabaque, a small metal drum called the ripinique, and a bow-shaped wooden instrument with a single metal string called the berimbau, which is played with a bow while the player alters the pitch by moving a stone up and down the string.
The two dancers, dressed in low-slung white cotton pants, face each other and circle in a rhythmic, semi-aggressive hip-swaying motion called the ginga. Then one will suddenly pivot on a single foot, kicking high with the other leg in a graceful circular action, the chapa, which the other dancer escapes with equal grace. It is beautiful, but in other circumstances, could take somebody's head off.
The early history of capoeira was lost when the Brazilian government abolished slavery in 1890 and decreed that all records of the slave industry be destroyed.
Even the origin of the name is disputed: Some say it is from Tupu, a Brazilian native language, others believe it goes back to the Kikongo language of Africa, where the word "kipura" describes the movements of fighting roosters.
Slaves imported from Africa developed this lethal fighting method because they had no access to weapons. Some stories credit the invention of it to Gangazumba, the leader of a jungle settlement of escaped slaves called Quilombo Dos Palmares, which survived Portuguese and Dutch attacks for a century due to the physical prowess of its fighters.
Capoeira spread among still-enslaved blacks, disguising itself as a ritual dance. The fighters would practise raw fighting movements until an overseer approached; the berimbau player, who also served as watchman, would alter the music so the fighters would know it was time to modulate into dance-like movements.
During those centuries, a "philosophy" (as De Jesus puts it) became attached to capoeira. It emphasized group solidarity, freedom and joyfulness, and also has some elements of syncretic African-inspired spirituality. As long as Brazilian masters dominate the teaching of it in North America, students are expected to pick up this philosophy, together with a smattering of Portuguese words associated with the movements and music. "It's not good for my culture if people don't learn the philosophy," he says. They're also expected to play the instruments, since the democratic impulse of capoeira insists that everyone be prepared to do everything.
So it's tough to learn well. But at the same time, the music and group solidarity make the time pass quickly and easily. People bored with aerobics claim that an hour of capoeira feels like 10 minutes. Fifty-year-olds find themselves able to do somersaults and handstands. And the combat aspect keeps the mind ticking: "It's a physical game of chess," said one U.S. practitioner.
"It makes you work all the muscles," says De Jesus. "It's not like other martial arts. You do small movements close to the ground, and then you leap up and make big acrobatic gestures. I have a student who was an aerobics instructor, and after his first lesson with me, he said that his bum hurt, as well as some other muscles he didn't know about before."
De Jesus, at 36, has a chiselled abdomen and biceps like pot roasts. It's the oddest thing to watch him spiralling on his head on the floor, knowing that his adolescent daughter Vanessa often performs alongside him.
But the physical marvels achieved by Brazilian capoeiristas also have something to do with the poverty of its practitioners. In Eclilson's native Pernambuco region, the poor people are physically trim to begin with, and have endless hours of free time to practice.
"When I was 15, I would get up at 4 or 5 o'clock in the morning and go to the beach, where I did capoeira all day long," he says, smiling. "In Canada, people always have appointments. So we must adjust to that."
He has a genius for adapting capoeira. In Pernambuco, where it is practised in an aggressive form because until recently it was used in combat with the police, "I have tried to calm people down."
He emphasizes its multiracial nature. Because it was created by African slaves, some black Americans have adopted it as part of a supposed African culture that only incidentally evolved in Brazil.
"It was developed in Brazil by people who were black," De Jesus acknowledges, "but it's an expression of the Brazilian people, and we are a mixed population. Blacks and whites live together. Look at my skin," he says, plucking his copper-coloured forearm. "That's Brazil. Nobody there would say, 'You are white, you can't do capoeira.' Sometimes, it is hard for Americans to understand this."
Although capoeira became legal again in the 1930s, it is still forbidden to teach it in Brazilian schools, and the government only recently agreed to pay a small pension to some of the celebrated but now elderly mestres.
But things are getting better. Pele, the celebrated soccer star, served as minister of sports in the Brazilian government and tried to have capoeira accredited as an Olympic sport. With its wildfire growth in other countries, this may still occur.
If it gets too respectable, won't capoeira lose the edge that makes it so attractive? "It has lasted for 400 years and overcome many obstacles," says De Jesus. "It always wins. It's strong. You can't explain it."