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Capoeira é Magia: ACSF and Why Capoeira Changes Us

February 19, 2008

When playing in the roda, capoeiristas are said to employ mandinga, exude malícia, and through it all, exhibit magia. Outside of the roda though, what is the spell that capoeira puts over us? What is the magic that follows us out through the academy doors and pervades our daily lives, scattering pixie dust in a way that uplifts children, grants second chances, and transforms communities?

Capoeira é magia--what else could it be?

ABADÁ-Capoeira San Francisco (ACSF), for one, has part of the answer. Founded by Mestranda Marcia “Cigarra” Treidler in 1991, ACSF strives to preserve and spread the traditions of Brazilian cultural arts such as capoeira, while using the martial art to promote social change and inspire personal growth in students, specifically disadvantaged youth.

To achieve these ends, ACSF offers a smorgasbord of programs out of their Brazilian Arts Centre in San Francisco’s culture-infused Mission District. Most notable is the RAY (“Reaching All Youth”) Project named after a talented student who was killed in 2003, which provides free or significantly discounted capoeira classes to children and youth 5-19 years old, who come from low-income families.

According to the ACSF website, capoeira is effective as a tool of change because of the following ways in which the art influences its practitioners:

  • it provides children and youth with positive role models
  • it gives children regular physical and cultural activity that is not provided at school
  • it helps them to “realize their full potential as responsible, confident, productive citizens”
  • doing capoeira keeps kids off the streets after school
  • it provides “building blocks” on which children develop healthily, such as positive relationships, skills building, safety, participation, and leadership skills
  • it gives participants exposure to different cultures and new art forms
  • it encourages new ideas and a new approach to life

At first, reading over these, I was somewhat skeptical. Is this capoeira or is it a YMCA camp?, I thought. Also, not all capoeiristas would necessarily make good all-around role models (especially when you consider our historical counterparts!), and many of the things on that list could be applied to any martial art, or in fact, any sport or engaging extracurricular activity in general. What is it, then, that makes capoeira so special?

For me—and this is going to be an extremely basic and preliminary response, which I expect will deepen and evolve as I learn and read more about capoeira in the future—it is the last two items on the list above that come closest to giving shape to the intangible.

From the first, I’ll extract “exposure to different cultures”. As is often cited, one of the characterizing aspects of capoeira is that it is not only accessible to everyone, but is actually regularly taken up by people off of grids going every which way in life. In Brazil, Mestre Bimba’s academies drew in students from varying socioeconomic levels; in Canada, classes are true-to-life samples of the country’s “cultural mosaic”; and of course, the question of gender is hardly one worth asking anymore (hardly).

My point is, by practicing capoeira, you are not only exposed to Brazilian culture, but to the cultures and backgrounds of all the fellow students and capoeiristas in your class, as well. Last summer, I went out for brunch with a good friend who also does capoeira, and she said something that summed it up perfectly:

Basically, you have this huge group of people from all completely different backgrounds, with absolutely nothing in common, except for the fact that they all do this thing called capoeira.

Forget Obama; just turn every caucus and primary into an introductory capoeira class, and voilà: instant unification!

Furthermore, imagine a child today starting to train at a capoeira academy from a young age. Having grown up among such unified diversity and integration, the adult capoeirista would then likely be more open to others’ cultures, beliefs, or systems of thoughts and values. This, when applied to a larger segment of society, then might theoretically help to eliminate those annoyingly tenacious gremlins such as racism, sexism, or homophobia.

The second point, the idea that capoeira “encourages new ideas and a new approach to life”, I would attribute to the fact that capoeira is so much more than what anyone ever tries to say it is. It’s not just a martial art, dance, game, philosophy, sport, movement, or fight, but some definition-sidestepping, intuition-seducing, contradiction-joyriding fusion of them all. “The whole is greater than the sum of its parts” was, I’m beginning to think, written by a capoeirista.

Because of this all-encompassing element of capoeira, my opinion is that it affects us so much because we just can’t keep it contained within any one part of our lives. To start becoming a full capoeirista, you must dabble in philosophy as well as in weight-training, develop perfect rhythm as well as (if possible) a Portuguese accent. Capoeira comes at you from so many different directions that you have no choice but to incorporate it into your life, not just a boxed-off part of it. This also explains my last point, which is that even though I said most of the results above can apply to other afterschool activities as well, it is capoeira that, unlike many other passions and past-times, captures everyone and anyone, whether they are old, young, dreamers, cynics, or have a natural talent for it or not.

Finally: anything that gets me to run when I don’t have to? Now that’s pure magia.

Picture source:

Joaninha, who writes under her capoeira nickname, has practiced capoeira since 2005. She is an undergraduate English major, and is interested in a career in writing, editing, publishing, journalism, or related fields. Joaninha also runs her own blog, Mandingueira, which is a feminist blog about capoeira.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. February 19, 2008 6:00 pm

    Thanks for your inspiring post, Joaninha!


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