Group increasing visibility of Capoeira in Pittsburgh
Capoeira’s roots are in southern Africa, where the first traces emerged of the covert martial art.
Over centuries in Brazil, enslaved, uprooted Africans culled its forms – disguised as ritual dance – in plain view of their Portuguese captors. Only in the past century, in fact, have Brazilian leaders legalized the interdisciplinary art form and philosophy that is Capoeira.
It can turn lethal with a sudden, deft kick among its more skilled practitioners. But Capoeira (cap-oh-WAY-ruh) rarely does, especially in the United States, where it has been practiced for about 30 years. It’s both martial art and performance art here, celebrating a cultural tradition that reaches back centuries into the region now known as the Democratic Republic of Congo.
One American performance group that incorporates Capoeira as a major part of its shows is Nego Gato Inc., which has academies in several cities, including Pittsburgh, New York City and Washington, D.C. The group will perform Saturday at Bellefield Hall on the University of Pittsburgh campus, attempting to increase interest in the discipline and its role in African-Brazilian culture.
During a roda (HO’-duh), Capoeira practitioners, or Capoeiristas, sit in a circle as two members of their ranks, often hovering low to the ground, slowly twist through an improvised series of cartwheels, high kicks and back flips, avoiding their opponents’ moves rather than blocking them.
The seated Capoeiristas waiting to enter the circle either sing call-and-response in Portuguese or play percussion instruments such as the pandeiro (similar to a tambourine), atabaque (a medium-sized hand drum) or the berimbau (a gourd on a long, wooden pole with a single string stretched across it, played with a stick).
It doesn’t look like competition unless a sudden kick or punch knocks someone to the floor.
“It still is a martial art. It still has fights that come out of it, but that’s something that’s not a common thing. In our school, it’s more of an aberration (to fight),” says Justin Laing, Nego Gato’s program director, who on a recent weekday afternoon was teaching elementary school-age children the acrobatic steps of the basic form.
Laing, aside from teaching noncompetitive adult Capoeira classes at the University of Pittsburgh, instructs children as young as 5 at an after-school program at Miller African Centered Academy in the Hill District.
Marva Ford, a Hill District mother, says she didn’t enroll her 8-year-old daughter, Londyn, in the program to learn self defense.
“There’s a little more knowledge and history” in it than in most extracurricular activities available to her daughter, Ford says.
Providing that history to African Americans is a major goal of Nego Gato Inc., says its founder and namesake, Jose Sena, better known as Nego Gato. The nickname, which translates from Portuguese as “Black Cat,” comes from the way Sena moved when he practiced Capoeira in the Bahia region of Brazil, his childhood home and the cultural center of Brazil’s African population.
“Some people say (Capoeira) came from Brazil. They don’t give credit to the Africans. It didn’t come from Brazil; it came from Africa. I thought it was important for me to share (African-Brazilian) culture, especially with African Americans,” Sena says while en route to Tallahassee to establish another academy.
It’s not just African Americans who practice Capoeira, though. Students in Laing’s adult classes include whites and South Americans without African roots.
Guilherme Barbone, for example, is a native of Sao Paulo, Brazil, who is a freshman at the University of Pittsburgh. He says he never explored Capoeira in his 18 years in Brazil, and first studied with Laing in Pittsburgh. His main reason for his interest now, he says, is “always to learn a little more of Brazilian culture.”
For Saturday’s performance, Barbone’s group will join about eight of the 30 children in Laing’s after-school program and Orixa (oh-REE-shuh) dancers affiliated with Nego Gato Inc.
Orixa dancers – Laing is one – represent the five aspects of nature in the spiritual lives of the Yoruba people in Africa. Their spiritual tradition carried over into Brazil, where slaves combined it with the Christian beliefs of their Portuguese captors. Apropos to Capoeira’s simple uniform of black sweat pants and a white T-shirt, the Orixa dancers each wear a different color – red, blue, gold, brown and a blue-green.
“When you see a dance like this, you’re seeing different aspects of Afro-Brazilian culture,” Laing says. “There are people in Bahia that aren’t involved in Capoeira, but involved in the spiritual tradition, and vice versa. And some are neither.”
And the Saturday show is just that – a show, he says. It’s more about the culture than the martial art itself.
“We’re going to change a little bit of what we do for (Saturday),” he says. “We’re going to make the kicks a little higher, some of the things we add to make it a performance.”
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