The rhythmic whir of Brazilian music and traditional Portuguese chanting lasted for hours one recent Thursday night in downtown San José’s Parque Morazán.
A crowd circled around the group of musicians and dancers. Observers watched two of the dancers cartwheel into the center of the ring. In their bright yellow uniforms, they twisted around the pavilion doing a dance of acrobatic flips and martial arts. The action moved like one of those slow-motion fight scenes from the movies. Someone kicked, the opponent ducked, and the blow passed just inches over the combatant’s head. Then they spun and flipped and kicked into another improvised scene. After several minutes, a dancer would tag out and be replaced by another.
The furiously deliberate dance known as capoeira lasted three hours.
Half combat, half performance art, capoeira was originated by African slaves brought to Brazil in the 1800s. The movements look fierce and swift, but contact is never made between performers. The fundamental rocking-back-and-forth movement – called ginga – also has been described as the heart of Brazilian soccer and samba music.
Several capoeira groups practice in the San José area, and every few weeks they gather in downtown San José’s Parque Morazán, in the park in the northeastern suburb of Guadalupe or in some other space for a roda – the high-energy show that draws observers in with its rhythmic music and mesmerizing dances. As Alex Almendárez of the club Capoeira Herança Angola explained, that’s the purpose of the roda, “to spread the capoeira.” There are no sanctioned competitions in Costa Rica. Here, capoeira is more like an outdoor dance party.
“Combatants are players,” Almendárez said. “It’s not a competition or a fight with capoeira. The very central concept of capoeira is to enjoy.”
At Capoeira Herança Angola, practices are divided into two parts: an hour for learning the music and two vigorous hours of physical training. The Portuguese chants talk about life and work and have been passed down for centuries. So have the unique instruments that help maintain the rhythm.
The most recognizable capoeira instrument is the berimbau. The African-born bow instrument consists of a long flexible stick, a gourd and a wire that secures the two pieces. A smaller rod is used to strike the steel string and create a buzzing sound. Berimbau players also hold a rattle that shakes as they beat the string. The atabaque, a type of drum, and the pandeiro, a type of tambourine, add percussion to the beats. The agogo, a type of bell, also is used commonly in Brazilian samba music.
Carlos Castillo, who has practiced capoeira all over the world, including South Korea and Washington, D.C., founded Capoeira Herança Angola club in 2005. He saw capoeira start to take off in Costa Rica in 2001. His group represents the most traditional roots of capoeira, a style that started in Angola, he said.
Once the dancing portion of the class began, eight students matched up with partners on the floor. The class contained graphic designers, physics students and one female participant.
The Afro-Brazilian tradition is a hodgepodge of just about everything.
“Capoeira is a mix of many things,” Castillo said. “In capoeira, there are parts of movement, parts of instruments, parts of playing, there are songs, there’s the language, the culture, the theatrics, the dance, the story, the tradition, the legacy.”
The movements portray an odd combination of combative steps like leg sweeps and head butts, as well as graceful dance moves like spins and handstands.
There are variations on capoeira, too. At Rueda de Sol in Sabanilla, east of San José, capoeiristas practice the regional style. While the traditional capoeira Angola focuses more on dance-like movements, regional capoeira has much more aggressive, frantic gestures.
“If you want to practice, you have choices,” said Gabriel “Formiga” Esquivel, an instructor at Rueda de Sol. “There are different styles. Regional is more like a fight, more active bodies.”
No matter the tradition, the rodas produce an engaging celebration. The music and action never seem to quit. After 10 minutes, it’s easy to figure out the rhythms and the arrangement of the chants. The endurance displayed in the event might be the most impressive aspect. As one hour pushed into another, signs of fatigue were hard to identify. Almendárez attributed it to an adrenaline rush created by the feeling of music and song taking over the park area.
“It gives us more enthusiasm,” Almendárez said. “There’s more to pick up from the music. You enter a trance from the ambience. There is a beautiful energy created.”
To see videos of capoeira, visit The Tico Times blog at theticotimes.wordpress.com.