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Capoeira instructor Trevor Wagner plays the berimbau while two students spar in the circle.

North Oakland academy teaches capoeira to area youth

on August 28, 2012

Instructor Yania Escobar (standing, far right) guides her preschool capoeristas through a sparing match.

Instructor Yania Escobar (standing, far right) guides her preschool capoeristas through a sparing match.

On a Tuesday afternoon, in a Piedmont Avenue studio between a yogurt shop and a purveyor of vintage European goods, Yania Escobar has her kinder warriors—a half dozen 3 to 5 year olds — gathered around one of the many perfect circles outlined on the gym floor in colored tape. Escobar crouches over. She steps from one foot to the other, swaying side to side, while moving her arms about in front of her.

“Can anyone tell me what this move is called?” she asks.

Ginga!” shouts one of the students. It’s pronounced sheen-gah, and it’s a capoeira word—Brazilian and African, like capoiera itself. The opportunity to practice this martial art and other elements of Brazilian culture brings Bay Area adults and kids to Mandinga Academy and Brazil Center on a regular basis.

On the other side of the academy, Trevor Wagner is helping his students, the 6 to 12 year olds, turn themselves upside down. The capoeira cartwheel they’re learning is called an aú, and the name comes from the visuals: capoeristas performing this move look like the letter Awhen they bend over. Then they transform into a letter “U” as their legs kick straight up into the air.

Wagner’s students are wearing the standard capoeira uniform of white pants and t-shirts. Some of them have braided rope belts around their waists. The belts come in various shades of blue or green, to signal rank, and Wagner watches carefully as pairs of students make their way across the floor, bending, kicking and arching.

“Slow down, slow down,” Wagner says. To one boy, struggling to make the transition from an A to a U: “Put your hand on the ground.” The boy does the cartwheel and keeps his balance.“Yes!” Wagner cries. The boy is still bowed upside down, with his mighty mane of blond hair completely covering his face. A triumphant voice emerges from amid the tresses. “I succeeded!”

Moments like this accentuate Wagner’s love of introducing capoeira to a new generation. “There is an innate flexibility and strength in kids because they are growing,” says Wagner, who has been practicing capoeira since 1998, when he stumbled upon it at the Recreational Sports Facility at UC Berkeley. “When they get something, they have the ability to do it pretty quickly and pretty well.”

This type of support for youth is one of the many goals of the community created by Marcelo Pereira, the Mandinga Academy’s artistic director and head instructor. He founded the nonprofit organization when he came to the Bay Area in 1984 from São Paulo, Brazil. The academy first set down roots on Piedmont Avenue roots about eight years ago, and has been in its current space, on the block between Linda Avenue and 41st Street, since 2009.

Pereira started his training under very different circumstances than his youngest students.

“I used to live in the periphery of a very tough neighborhood,” he says, while seated in the academy office. A Brazilian flag is draped over the front of his desk. “To survive,” he says,  “I had to fight.”

He was only 10, Pereira says, when he began contending with the street fighting around him. The fights were escalating, so in 1974 at the age of 14 he began to train in capoeira to learn about martial arts and self defense.  He had always heard of capoeira, but it helped him in ways he did not expect.

“I thought, ‘I’m going to learn this and learn to fight better,’” Pereira says. “The more I trained with the discipline, the more I learned how to avoid conflict. You start seeing the potential of conflict, and you know how to deflect and get out of the situation.”

Thanks to the training, Pereira’s increased strength and agility gave him the physical vocabulary of attacks and evasions to deal with any street fighting challengers if necessary. His increase in self-confidence, he says, forced those considering starting trouble to give it a second thought.

In many martial art forms, the objective is to lunge forth and assault your opponent into undeniable submission. But landing the most punches and kicks is not the point in capoeira. At its essence, capoeira is about the art of the escape, which makes it far more complex than it looks on the surface.

“In other martial arts forms, you can learn to block direct attacks fairly quickly,” said Pereira. “But eventually you will face someone much stronger than you. And when you block their attack, you can get really hurt.”

While in their sparring circle, capoeristas must remain in the present moment, in tune with their opponent and able to respond quickly with creative evasion when they do attack.

Instructor and capoerista Yania Escobar shows the variety of capoeira belts while Mateo Suassuna hides underneath them.

Instructor and capoerista Yania Escobar shows the variety of capoeira belts while Mateo Suassuna hides underneath them.

The more creative the evasions and counter responses, the better. This is why capoeira doesn’t have the expected winner and loser seen in other martial art forms. The judging of performance is very subjective. Worldwide competitive capoeira matches held in Brazil for very advanced practitioners are decided by criteria that depends heavily on which style (Angola, Regional, Contemporânea) is being followed, and any other details the match hosts demarcate as important.

The person making more aggressive charges might easily be declared the loser if that’s all the contestant has to offer, but in this arena knock-outs are known to happen. Many capoeristas have taken their skill sets to mixed martial arts (MMA) and ultimate fighting championships (UFC). On the other hand, most capoeristas who become professionals teach and open schools.

Pereira’s martial arts training blossomed into a career that took him, like many other capoeira mestres, to other countries to accommodate the growing interest in this indigenous Afro-Brazilian martial arts form, which has a long and controversial history.

Brazil was a 16th century colony of Portugal, and one of the western hemisphere’s largest recipients of Western and Central Africans during the transatlantic slave trade. Africans from different ethnic groups developed and practiced a special martial art that was disguised from the authorities by the incorporation of dance and music.  With participants around a circle called a roda, two artists of this capoeira art would enter the circle to spar—although their matches were (and still are) called “playing.” The others in the circle would sing and clap, until it was their turn to enter. Next to the roda might be a group of musicians playing various percussion instruments or the berimbau, a single stringed guitar-like instrument, played with a stick. The flowing arm movements, sweeping leg arches and complex kicks and flips looked like general merriment to the untrained eye.

Yet these players were hiding, and training, in plain sight. Many relied on their capoeira skills and strength when they escaped from slavery. Africans who escaped slavery, native Brazilians, and Europeans formed multi-ethnic settlements called quilombos in distinct areas of the mountains and the jungles, and practiced capoeira to defend themselves from attacks from colonial and Catholic rule. Over the centuries, authorities have tried to ban capoeira, and punished those caught practicing it. Now it is a source of national pride and one of Brazil’s biggest cultural exports.

Capoeira’s complex belt series show ranking and skill, but the absence of formal winners and losers sometimes make it a hard sell for neophytes thinking about trying it out. Pereira often has to explain some of the benefits that capoeira offers beyond a fun sweaty workout and the binary system of triumph and defeat.

“You learn to be creative, and start discovering stuff that you can do that you didn’t imagine you could do,” he says. “When you are in the circle, you start dealing with fighting situations in a very safe way.  The more advanced you become, the more aware you can use it in a real fight situation.”

Capoeira depends upon community, something Escobar instills in the lessons for her pre-school aged students.  The class for 3-5 year olds is built around play, learning basic capoeira moves, an obstacle course, and learning to be a good citizen, she says.

“They have more body awareness, and awareness of the limits between them and other people,” Escobar says.  “The community culture of capoeira is respect and discipline. If they are not listening, I would say, ‘I’m trying to teach you something. If you want to learn it, you have to listen.’ So it’s not ‘Listen to the teacher,’ but, ‘Hey, this is why we’re doing this.’”

Marta Frota Bentley (standing, center) and Talita Suassuna (seated, with tambourine) help with the youth capoeira class.

Marta Frota Bentley (standing, center) and Talita Suassuna (seated, with tambourine) help with the youth capoeira class.

This dedication to community and culture is part of what brought friends and their children to Mandinga Academy. Suassuna and Bentley are both from São Paulo, Brazil, but met here in Oakland. Their sons crossed paths during various sports activities, and when one of the mothers heard the other speaking Brazilian Portuguese, they connected and became friends. Now it’s not only the boys who practice capoeira; when they are done with class, and working on homework, both sets of parents are playing in the adult capoeira classes held in the early evening.

“They know for us it’s part of Brazil and part of who we are,” says Suassuna. She and her family have since moved to Pleasanton, she says, but are willing to make the drive to Oakland several times a week. “This culture is a little piece of Brazil that we can have every week, and they find other kids like them that speak Portuguese and English. So I think it connects them.”

Bentley, who still lives in Oakland, feels the same. “I wanted them to have more access to Brazilian culture and language and music and instruments,” she says.

It appears to be working. When asked what about his favorite part of capoeira class, Bentley’s son Lucas says, “Playing the instruments.” His current favorite is the ago-go, a small percussion instrument, which he runs to get and show to everyone.

Lucas (left) shows his brother Max (right) and others the ago-go. Lucas' favorite instrument to play during rodas.

Lucas (left) shows his brother Max (right) and others the ago-go. Lucas’ favorite instrument to play during rodas.

Introducing capoeira to kids is no small feat; there are multiple layers of martial arts movements, playing instruments, new rhythms, and Portuguese songs in Portuguese where everyone is expected to join in. Wagner says this creates a connection that goes beyond the regular student-teacher bond and the camaraderie they have with their classmates.

“I think it really helps the kids build a sense of community in that they have to take care of each other—learning control, and to not kick your friend, which you don’t really get from a lot of martial arts.” Wagner says.  “Not just the fact that we’re teaching you how to kick somebody or something, but that you get to be in control of that. I think the hand-eye coordination is amazing.  I use muscles I never even knew I had.”

The hard work is worth it, Wagner says. “They make me happy,” he says. “Whenever I’m having a bad day, I always feel a lot better when I come in here.”

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Photo by Basil D Soufi
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