Capoeira club mixes dance, martial arts and music

It began with Charlie Kessner ’12 playing the Berimbau at the Grill within ear shot of Kenji Yoshino ’11. Amazed at the fact that there were others who loved Capoeira, Kessner and Yoshino teamed up with Tessa Cheek ’12 and formed the Capoeira Club. Now the club meets Sundays and Mondays 7-9 p.m. and 8-10 p.m. on Wednesdays.

“I got into it because I thought it was cool, and one of the reasons I’ve really stayed with it is just because it covers so many fields,” Kessner said.

Grinnell Capoeira

One of the leaders of Capoeira Club, Kenji Yoshino'11 demonstrates a esquiva lateral – or lateral escape during the first part of Monday night's class in the Natatorium dance studio. - Ben Brewer

Indeed, Capoeira is an extensive art form that began in Brazil in the mid 1500s and then developed in the 1800s into a form that includes music, dance and martial arts. The diversity in Capoeira mirrors its diverse roots.
“[It was created by] not only Africans but also Brazilian indigenous,” Kessner said. “And as they were in the fields they worked together and created a synthetic tradition and a culture emerged.”

Slaves in Brazil used Capoeira as a way to maintain their culture and build a sense of community. It allowed people from very different regions to come together against those that oppressed them. For example, the Berimbau, a traditional Capoeira instrument, was used to keep the beat and cadences, but also to signal warnings.

“When something wasn’t right, or, say, a slave master was coming by, they would play a specific pattern on the Berimbau and everyone would go back to work,” Kessner said.

For a long period of time Capoeira was outlawed in Brazil because Capoeristas were associated with crime, but the culture and tradition carried on. Today it is popular for its unique music, challenging and beautiful dance moves and exercise benefits.

While Capoeira is certainly a workout, it is still a beginner-friendly dance. Yoshino and Kessner always have participants stretch before the dancing begins. At a Capoeira meeting, Yoshino usually begins by going over some key points to remember, such as staying on the cadence to match a partner.

“You don’t fight in Capoeira, you play,” Yoshino said.

Grinnell Capoeira

Charlie Kessner '12, left, instructs Molly Gallagher '14 on technique of playing the atabaque on Monday night. Musical prowess in capoeira is valued as highly as proficiency in the physical aspect of the art. - Ben Brewer

After a few such reminders, Yoshino moves the participants forward by showing them a couple of fundamental moves such as “cadeira.” For about 20 minutes, Yoshino goes over the moves, the fluidity of Capoeira and, along with Kessner, walks around to make sure beginners are not struggling. After a short water break, there are times when Kessner is able to go over music. In such classes, the group will play different traditional Capoeira instruments and sing songs in Portuguese. During these group singings, all involved are able to feel the sense of community Capoeira brings.

For those looking for ways to exercise in creative ways, Capoeira should definitely be considered. Exercise and a love for the art are the two main reasons that drew Victor Pinheiro ’13, a native Brazilian, to the club.

“When you’re a Grinnellian, it becomes very easy to become very sedentary. And since Capoeira is a lot of fun, it makes it a lot easier to do something physically demanding,” Pinheiro said.

Yoshino emphasized the power of the workout as well.

“It works out muscles you don’t even know you have,” he said.

Of course, the club also takes some time off from burning calories to watch “Only the Strong,” a movie filmed in the early 1990s whose plot revolves around Capoeira, For those looking for a new club to join that has it all, Capoeira might be the one. At least, Pinheiro definitely recommends it.

“It’s so much fun, and there’s a lot of camaraderie and athleticism. It’s really healthy,” he said.