The Monday blues seem to plague campus in epidemic proportions, but Joseph Natter ’17 has discovered an unlikely cure: capoeira, a Brazilian martial art that combines self defense with dance. Every Monday night at 7:30 p.m., Natter, who developed a passion for capoeira four years ago and has previously taught classes at elementary schools, leads a lesson in the martial art in the Wrestling Room of the Freeman Athletic Center.
The classes are open to capoeiristas of all levels. Natter teaches moves ranging from the basic ginga, a rhythmic stepping motion that involves shifting the body back and forth, to the more complex gancho, a roundhouse-like kick known to deceive opponents. The movements are slick and graceful. As Natter jumps, twists, and kicks, always defaulting to the basic ginga, he shows remarkable strength and discipline.
The crowd was small but mighty on the evening of 24 Feb. Natter, who wore the traditional white capoeira uniform known as an abadá, waited calmly for students to arrive and later led a class consisting of two fellow freshmen. He reviewed the moves patiently, paying special attention to this reporter, for whom coordination has never been a strong point.
Natter hopes to better publicize his classes, which he calls Capoiera Mondays, and is eager to introduce Wesleyan students to the martial art. He is confident that anyone who experiences it will immediately see its appeal.
“I don’t think that many people know about it yet,” he said. “But I think they would be excited to learn it.”
Though capoeira may not be widely practiced at Wesleyan, it has received some academic recognition. Professor Ana Paula Höfling, an Andrew W. Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow at the Center for the Americas, taught a Latin American Studies class last semester called “Performing ‘Africa’ in Brazil,” which focused on capoeira. She has also written extensively on the rich history of the martial art, whose origins are difficult to detect due to the scarcity of surviving documents from sixteenth–through nineteenth-century Brazil.
To this day, it remains unclear whether capoeira was invented in Africa and later developed in Brazil by the African slaves who were brought there, or if it first emerged in Brazil and is merely inspired by early African dance.
Regardless of the answer,
scholars tend to agree that capoeira merges dance and self-defense for pragmatic reasons. Brazilian slaves would practice fighting in order to cultivate self-defense skills and strengthen their bodies so that they could someday escape the plantation. During capoeira practice, one slave would play the berimbau, a simple, single-string percussion instrument, and simultaneously stay on the lookout for approaching masters. The berimbau player would inform the slaves of an approaching master by slowing down the rhythm of the music. The slaves would accordingly alter their militaristic movements to appear dance-like and nonthreatening.
For Efraim Silva, a longtime mestre (master) and the owner of Connecticut Capoeira & Dance Center in New Haven, capoeira’s convoluted past is part of what allows people to relate to the art. The various narratives of its history may contradict one another, but Silva believes they are effective in their ability to foster personal connections to capoeira.
“When people tell a story, they either add or take things out, and they make whatever that version or point of view is,” Silva said. “If you read a few books about capoeira, you will see a lot of things don’t agree because in a lot of different places, it really is people’s point of view. People embellish things. They had experience in capoeira with some master and they say, ‘Oh, this master was able to do this.’ And it is true for them, but if you ask people from the same time that met the same master, they might not agree.”
As vast as Silva’s knowledge of capoeira’s history is, his main goal, of course, is to teach the martial art itself. Silva began training at age 17 in São Paulo, where he grew up, in order to fight an older brother who bullied him. He moved to Connecticut 25 years ago, and, after five failed attempts at establishing capoeira studios in various towns in Connecticut, opened one in New Haven that became popular. Silva, who also teaches capoeira at Yale University, has been teaching at the Connecticut Capoeira & Dance Center in New Haven for the past 17 years and has trained various mestres who currently teach capoeira in Connecticut.
Among Silva’s disciples is Joel Mendelez, who discovered capoeira in 1998 on a trip through Central America. Mendelez later began training on the beaches of Venezuela, his home country, and in 2002, moved to the United States, where he trained with Silva for four years. Three years ago, he founded Ginga Brasil, a Wallingford-based capoeira school, and he currently teaches children’s capoeira classes at the Green Street Arts Center in Middletown.
Mendelez is specifically drawn to capoeira because of its health-restoring abilities. Prior to practicing capoeira, he played sports like soccer and basketball and practiced other martial arts, which led to several injuries.
“I liked it because it was different,” he said. “It was more like healing your body instead of hurting your body.”
Mendelez also appreciates the multifaceted nature of capoeira. The martial art requires strength, flexibility, rhythm, cooperation, and musical abilities, and Mendelez believes all play equally important roles. Mendelez’s students have the most trouble learning to play the berimbau, but Mendelez maintains that music is crucial to the practice of capoeira. In addition to providing rhythms for the capoieristas to move to, berimabau music serves as the base for the call-and-response songs performed in a group circle during capoeira sessions.
“[The berimbau], obviously, is part of the capoeira, so you need to be able to play it,” Mendelez said. “Otherwise, you cannot make the circle, and your students cannot develop in capoeira because you didn’t play the music for them. They will not get it, and if you don’t make the circle, you cannot practice capoeira. You can move by yourself, but capoeira is the connection between two players and everybody. So capoeira is all of us, not one of us.”
Mendelez believes that capoeira can help those who practice it with coordination, balance, and strength in other activities. Mendelez himself rides unicycles and juggles professionally.
“You need to practice, so my way of keeping my body moving is capoeira, but my work, what I do for a living, even if it doesn’t require capoeira, is capoeira,” he said. “The gift of capoeira is your body gets strong, which you can apply when you play basketball, football, or any other thing, when you drive, when you do everything. The constant movement of capoeira, it carries during the whole day, I think.”
Furthermore, Mendelez feels the influence of capoeira in non-physical aspects of his life; the martial art has taught him the virtues of patience, balance, and discipline.
“It’s just like a philosophy of life,” he said. “You will become capoeira. In everything, you will start seeing capoeira. When you walk, when you work, when you study, you enter capoeira.”