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Why I Hope More Black Americans Discover the Afro-Brazilian Art of Capoeira

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I first became aware of capoeira at a young age, through Eddy Gordo in the video game Tekken, and I instantly knew it was for me. Gordo’s maneuvers were like nothing I’d ever seen before, and his movement captivated me. A Black man with locs, wasting these other martial artists with this half-dance, half-fight? Little Nigerian me was in awe.

Decades later, I finally took a capoeira class at a friend’s invitation and was instantly hooked. It felt less like a fitness class, and more like reconnecting with a way of living that I’d become lost from.

Along my capoeira journey, two major things have stuck out to me. One, I’m usually the only Black girl in a class for an explicitly African-derived art form. And two, I can’t believe capoeira has been so close to me for so long, and that I never knew.

A woman is practicing a capoeira move similar to breakdancing on a golden field in front of the bay in Berkeley, CA
Chinwe Oniah at the César Chávez Park in Berkeley, CA on May 27, 2022. (Beth LaBerge)

Often described as a dance-like fight—or a fight-like dance—capoeira is an Afro-Brazilian art form that combines several elements: dance, martial arts, music, spirituality, history and philosophy. Some elements of breakdancing are said to come from the acrobatic moves found in capoeira.

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“People have described capoeira to me as a martial art, and people have described capoeira to me as a dance. I think overall, capoeira changes on the necessity of the person,” says Ricky Lawson II, the Bay Area professor with whom I’ve trained for three years. Better known as Malandro, he’s the founder of Filhos de Bimba Escola de Capoeira, Bay Area. A notable figure with over 20 years as a professor in the local capoeira scene, Malandro is part of a long line of capoeiristas from across the country and Brazil who’ve come to the Bay Area for capoeira.

A group of men is standing on a field and is about to play capoeira.
Ricky Lawson II (pictured on the left), better known as Malandro, is the founder of Filhos de Bimba Escola de Capoeira, Bay Area. (Elie M. Khadra)

Capoeira is all over the world, and its story in the United States begins in two places. One is New York. The other is the Bay Area, which became a major hub for capoeira due to the work of Ubirajara Almeida, better known as Mestre Acordeon. From Bahia, Brazil, the birthplace of the art form, he’s widely known to be the first capoeira master to bring capoeira to the States.

“When I came here, there was a lot of people that had ideas about capoeira,” said Mestre Acordeon. “I [had] a whole bunch of friends that [were] enchanted with capoeira, because it is the one art that is not only fight—it’s a fight, it’s a dance, it’s music, all of that.”

An older man with a white beard and mustache is looking into the camera while playing the berimbau.
Ubirajara Almeida, better known as Mestre Acordeon, is widely known to be the first capoeira master to bring capoeira to the United States. (Shaandiin Tome)

I was initially drawn to capoeira’s martial arts and self-defense elements, but it quickly developed into something greater. It was a return to form, a return to self. It surprises me that more Black people haven’t found interest in capoeira. To be clear, it’s a beautiful art form for everyone, no matter one’s age or walk of life. But capoeira is firmly part of Black people’s cultural legacy, and one that continues to thrive centuries after its beginnings.

As a producer for If Cities Could Dance, I help others tell their stories. But for this episode, I’ve stepped in front of the camera to share my journey in capoeira. Along with Malandro, and featuring music from Mestre Acordeon, we hit some popular places around the East Bay to play capoeira, like Lake Merritt and Linden Park. You’ll even see some of the next generation of young Bay Area capoeira practitioners.

Be sure to tune back in for a follow-up episode on Wednesday, Sept. 7, when Malandro and I travel to Bahia to meet one of the original tradition-bearing Bahian families of capoeira.

Join our YouTube Live, Sept. 14, 2022, 6pm, with Chinwe Oniah, capoeira student and filmmaker, who will answer your questions and share what it was like to direct and produce two If Cities Could Dance episodes on the art form she loves so much.

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