There is a lot to wrap your arms around in trying to categorize capoeira. It is a Brazilian form of martial arts, but it’s also song, music and dance. And it comes with an intriguing history.
Every Saturday at 11 a.m., 12 to 15 youngsters ages 4 to 12 meet at the city of Charleston’s James Island Recreation Complex to learn the sport from leader Jesse Colon. Adult classes are at noon Saturdays as well as 6:30-8 p.m. Tuesdays and Thursdays.
“It’s approximately 500 years old,” said Colon, who learned capoeira while living in New York. “It came about through the slave culture, from African slaves being brought over to Brazil. It’s also mixed with the indigenous Indians who lived in Brazil and also the Portuguese culture.
“It was a way for the slaves to work out a way to liberate themselves and defend themselves in a disguised way. They could pretend they were either playing a game or dancing or signing and onlookers wouldn’t necessarily know they were training to fight. And into the 1900s, it was completely illegal.”
After slavery ended, it moved into the cities, where vagabonds and petty thieves used capoeira to prey on innocents, and it remained illegal until the 1930s, when Mestre (Master) Bimba helped get the ban lifted.
Now, Colon said, capoeira is the second largest sport in Brazil behind soccer.
“It’s a game. That’s what I like to think,” said Colon, who works in IT support for the Charleston County Sheriff’s Department. “Our sport is set to music. There are specific instruments that tradition and history have put with capoeira.”
Colon, the only capoeira instructor in the state, and his wife, Linda, met in capoeira classes. And their sons, Marcos, 9, and Lucas, 5, participate with their parents.
Colon said he had a background in tae kwon do and in drumming when he became intrigued with the idea of being able to combine the two passions. In addition to his day job and teaching capoeira, he also is part of the Brazilian band Malandro Soul.
Colon said the instruments used in their roda (Portuguese for circle and pronounced “hodha”) are the berimbau, a stringed instrument played with a gourd; an atabaque, a tall floor drum played with the hands; and the pandeiro, a tambourine.
The participants, including musicians, sing in Portuguese in the circle, which helps keep the energy alive, Colon said. Much of the class time includes learning the moves that later are incorporated into the roda, which Colon calls a personal competition. As the circle sings, two or more participants move inside and make moves and counter moves.
“We challenge ourselves and we challenge our partners,” Colon said. “You respond to what one person does. The singer will sing to everyone else what kind of game they want to see: the content of the game, the speed of the game. The persons playing the instruments dictate what type of game is played. Everything is related.”
Colon said there is not a lot of contact at the beginner level; that can come as the student becomes more advanced.
Colon takes every opportunity to expose others to the sport. He gives demonstrations at schools and community centers.
That’s the way Jalen Brown, a first-grader, learned about capoeira. Colon came to his school for a presentation.
“Jalen played flag football, but after that, we were looking for another sport,” said Terrell Brown, Jalen’s father. “We didn’t get in basketball and we saw this. He loves it. It has been great. I think the discipline he is learning is great. It makes him want to behave a little better.”
Colon said it was difficult finding a place to introduce the sport to Charleston. He said he contacted “every in-state sports facility, every recreation complex, every gymnasium, and the rec center here was the only one that gave me a chance.”
“Because it’s not a popular martial art, it doesn’t have the mainstream recognition of others,” he said. “I find a lot of people search it out, and many become serious because they want to learn. It’s a game. It’s fun. It’s a personal challenge.”