Capoeira is lethal -- in more ways than one. After my first class in over two years, I've got the "day after" syndrome: achey, sore and struggling down steps like someone too old for a Buckeye card.
I took my first capoeira class in Mexico. It was taught by a petite 23-year-old who got her nickname, "Aranha" (spider), from how quickly she could scuttle across the floor on her hands and feet. Her cute moniker didn't allude to her teaching style: relentless. Aranha was a tiny, cheerful slave-driver -- ironic, since this art form developed out of the slave trade.
Instructor Tuzinho, 25, gives a little of Capoeira's history: "Capoeira started in Brazil with the African slaves. Because they wanted to be free, they developed a martial art based on the movements of animals. You have the drums and clapping, which is part of African culture.
... When the masters would come, they would be more playful."
Because the slaves were not allowed to have weapons, they developed a martial art using only their bodies -- and disguised it as a dance. Most of the movements involve kicks, sweeps and acrobatic dodges. Accompanied by traditional music, the slaves trained extensively right under their captors' noses.
Trickery is also a part of the art: Quick feints and split-second changes in direction make a capoerista a wily opponent. The jinga, the quick, rhythmic shifting of weight from one foot to the other while the arms protect the face, serves as a starting point for all other movements. It's a dance that really is dangerous.
"There are fatal kicks that can kill," says Tuzinho. However, he says, today the application is more recreational. "There is no need for contact ... (it's) more to have fun." Some people come to lose weight or for the culture, he says.
In my experience, having taken other martial arts classes, it takes more precision and control to calculate exactly where to throw a kick so that it will narrowly miss than to let it land. Just like any art, capoeira requires skill and lots of practice.
Tuzinho has been practicing for a decade. He started at age 15, after his sister and cousin were already training. After six or seven years of dedicated practice, one might be ready to start teaching. In 2001 he moved to New York and started classes there. In December of 2006 he started classes for a month at the Bi-Okoto studio here, left for a couple of months and then reopened them again in February. Presently, he teaches five days a week for both children and adults.
When I went, our class began with a game of tag -- Tuzinho uses it as a warm-up. It worked: In the relatively small space, there was nowhere to hide and hang out; we were constantly running. Following that, we stretched for a good while -- important when you're going to be executing moves that mimic monkeys.
We then drilled specific movements, practicing first solo and then with a partner. Finally, we did the roda, which means "circle." It's a form of non-contact sparring where you draw upon everything you know while "playing" against another capoerista.
Tuzinho, laughing, matched me with a girl he called the most advanced student in class. Although it's slightly competitive, the roda is really all about having fun. As you sweat it out on the floor, everyone else stands around you in a circle and claps or plays an instrument while singing traditional songs. There is no "bench" in this game.
Whether you do it for the exercise, the culture or the music, Capoeira is a complete experience. Not only does it improve coordination, teach you songs in Portuguese, make you learn exotic percussion instruments and force you to improvise in the roda, it gives a full body workout -- meaning you will be hurting in places you didn't even know existed.
But it's worth it. The art of capoeira provides, beyond toned muscles, a sense of community and tradition that just doesn't exist in your standard exercise class, no matter how much you sweat.
For more information, got to www.tuzinhocapoeira.com/cin/.