Brazil’s lethal backstreet ballet

[words by Mark Eveleigh / photograph © Tatiana Cardeal, The WideAngle]

“Just take your time and find your ginga,” Wagner Rocha Gonçalves is telling me. ‘Ginga’ translates as ‘rhythm’ in Portuguese, and this is the moment when it dawns on me that the Brazilian martial art of capoeira is not going to be nearly as easy as it looks.

Performed well, capoeira is a graceful and yet potentially lethal Brazilian backstreet ballet…but we Englishmen are not famed either for our grace or for our sense of rhythm. The traditional single-stringed berimbau is beating out a hypnotic beat, but there seems to be a terrible breakdown in communications somewhere between my eardrums and my erratically scuffing feet. The tropical pace of life in Rio de Janeiro has way of putting a swagger in your step but it seems that I am still ill-equipped for a battle of rhythm with even the clumsiest carioca.

“Capoeira was conceived in Angola,” Wagner had explained earlier, at the start of my first training session on the beach, “but it grew up among the slave plantations of Brazil and is now one of the most widely exported parts of our culture.”

Wagner himself grew up in the violent world of the favelas, the slums that sprawl up the hills just a couple of miles west of chic Ipanema. His friendly chatter and ready smile seem at odds with his fame as an ultimate fighting champion. He works as a physiotherapist but his first love is the capoeira that he teaches to his neighbours and, at times, to clumsy tourists like me.

“Historically, capoeira was developed as a way for an escaped slave to protect himself without weapons,” he explained. “It was outlawed and the slaves tried to camouflage it as a dance. Capoeiristas who were arrested were tortured to get the names of others.”

The fighters were forced to be cunning and malícia (malice or trickery) is still one of the central tenets of the martial art.

The lesson is going better than I expected. I keep my centre of gravity low – still trying to find that elusive rhythm – and, as instructed, try to swing a kick over Wagner’s head. But my balance is off and all I manage is a solid thunk with my heel onto the back of his bowed head. Although it wasn’t done with deliberate ‘malícia’ I am aware that this is almost certainly the only time I will ever kick a cage-fighting champ in the head.

Wagner Rocha Gonçalves can be hired for capoeira lessons (either on the beach or at his Rocinha gym) through his Facebook page.

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