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Capoeira and Break-Dancing: At the Roots of Resistance
"A community that doesn't have a ritual cannot exist." -- Malidoma Patrice Some
Hollow back to a head spin into a leg sweep, followed by some old, next-type floor work. Slick's fast moves all seem like a routine he choreographed with his boy who moves in perfect sync with him. The music that accompanies what seems like an impromptu battle isn't Hip Hop, and despite a few recognizable moves, these guys definitely aren't breaking -- they're playing capoeira. If you've ever followed breaking, been to a house club or to Brazil, chances are you've heard of or seen the dance-fight-looking art that many believe to be either the cousin, once removed or father of breaking's movement and flow.
Many art voyeurs agree that the similarities in movement and energy between capoeira and breaking seem endless -- whether this is coincidence or continuity remains disputed. While breaking has been at the forefront of Hip Hop culture for close to 30 years, the last five years or so have put capoeira, an age-old Brazilian martial art form, on the tip of everyone's tongue.
For a seasoned perspective in my quest for answers, I went to reps from both camps: Furacao of Abada-Capoeira and Ken Swift of Rock Steady Crew. Furacao a.k.a. Freddy Correa of Washington Heights, lived in Brazil for three years studying intensively at Mestre Camisa's Academy. He now teaches in New York City at Martin Luther King, Jr. High School, Hunter College and Manhattan Center High School of Science and Mathematics. Recently, he won the title of Best Foreign Player at the Second World Games in Rio de Janeiro in 1999. Ken Swift a.k.a. Kenny Gabbert is a veteran breaker and international performer who some say reintroduced footwork into the '90s breaking scene. He has judged international breaking competitions and now teaches at Multicultural Dance Ensemble in Spanish Harlem. What I found in these conversations, despite the technical differences and separation in the time-space continuum, is that both grew from a need in oppressed peoples to use creativity to react to life as they knew it. Both forms were created among people with their minds in the same place in their respective worlds: locked down, hemmed up and assed out.
"Capoeira e defesa ataque, e ginga de corpo e malandragem." Loosely translated, this song warns us that capoeira is a game of defense and attack; rocking of the body and trickery. It seems only right that this would be a mantra for a game that originated in slavery. When Brazil was founded in the 1500s, capoeira as we know it began to take shape. There are many theories as to how capoeira came to be and was able to survive in the face of slavery, although no one knows for sure due to the secrecy imposed on its practice. Many accounts propose that slaves disguised their fighting games as a dance so slave masters would not see that in actuality, they were cleverly training themselves in an art that could disarm, confuse and defeat an opponent of any size-without weapons. Others suggest that this was impossible because not all slaves were free to practice their arts, coupled with the fact that slave traders separated Africans from the same region to minimize the chances of a rebellion. In spite of this, it established for slaves a symbol of and weapon for their freedom. Capoeira, like many cultures of subversion, owes its existence and increasing popularity to its ability to morph throughout the years while keeping the integrity of its philosophy intact. As Furacao recounts, "There is a saying in capoeira, 'Capoeira is like a chameleon -- you change only to preserve your essence.'"
Over the course of time, instruments were added to the game to complete the camouflage of this lethal martial art: the berimbau (a stringed instrument made of a gourd, a piece of wire, string and a bow), the atabaque (drum), the pandeiro (tambourine) and sometimes, the reco-reco, the caxixi and the agogo (a two tone bell.)
With the abolition of slavery in Brazil in 1888, many slaves went on to live in slums and established shantytowns. Since the planters no longer required the services of ex-slaves as workers, many organized into criminal gangs for survival. In time, due to the threat that capoeiristas posed to the government, laws were passed attempting to extinguish capoeira and expatriate its practitioners. These laws were still in effect as recently as 1920.
As outlaws, it was common for capoeiristas to have various monikers to highlight their individual skills and characteristics while ingeniously concealing their true identity. Capoeira finally received approval from the Brazilian government when Manoel Dos Reis Machado, a.k.a. Mestre Bimba, (founder of Regional style) was invited to do a presentation for government officials in 1932.
Today, capoeira has evolved into various societies. The two forms that have spread the world over are Regional and Angola. In the interest of brevity, I will skim the seemingly bottomless pot of their main distinguishing factors. Angola is a very slow game -- the players play very close to the ground and to each other. Some societies are known to wear yellow and black. Regional is a faster game with flashier movements. Regional schools often practice both styles and the players traditionally wear white and play with bare feet, keeping with Yoruba tradition. Maintaining a clean white uniform also serves to reflect a player's skill, since they avoid being knocked to the ground. The Regional system has incorporated awarding belts, as in other martial arts, according to a player's level of skill.
When the players begin a roda, the circle in which the game is played, the Mestre (master), sets the rhythm, or pace of the game, with the berimbau, which is considered the heart of capoeira and indispensible to all societies. The capoeiristas in the circle begin to clap and everyone sings the song, following in the African tradition of call and response. The two players pay respect to the berimbau, then crouch underneath it waiting for their cue to play. They shake hands and move into the center of the roda. There, the players combat in an intricate dialogue of kicks, fakes and esquivas (dodges -- there are few blocks in capoeira), each taunting and attempting to confuse the other player. The game is fueled by the energy of the roda's players and the rhythm and mood of the song that the berimbau player has set. Furacao explains, "the roda is a traditional manifestation found in a lot of other African rituals. The roda's where you close in the energy ... it's where people pay respect to the musicians ... that's how you circle in the vibe. Ciphers, for people doin they Hip Hop, when people are dancing in a club, when they rhyming -- that's how you get that human energy." Here, we begin to see one of several parallels between breaking and capoeira.
Capoeira made its debut in NYC in the early 1970s with Jelon Viera and Loremil Machado, so the probability of their knowledge of each other is pretty substantial. Furacao talks about the early days of capoeira in New York City: "They didn't have instruments, so they would do capoeira presentations for money ... and that was in 1975 and breakdancing evolved around 1979/1980 ... They would first come out, do their solos, so you could see where maybe the uprock came from, probably from the ginga [the basic upright movement of capoeira]. Right there you could go into a floor movement ... queda de rins [the baby], where they freeze on the floor. Head spins [piao de cabeca] -- these movements in capoeira, they go back ... They're both beautiful art forms."
Ken, however, never witnessed it: "In '78 I started and I didn't see it [capoeira] til '92 ... I was around, too -- I was in Brooklyn, Bronx, Queens, I went around and I didn't see it. What we saw was Kung Fu-we saw Kung Fu from the 42nd Street theaters. So those were our inspirations... when we did the Kung Fu shit we switched it up and we put this B-boy flavor into it, this stick-up kid flavor into it... That was a rule: make it yours, don't just do it ... Now a lot of people are doing exactly what a capoeira person would do, they're just doing it different ... I respect capoeira to the fullest, man ... I think it goes back to all the African stuff ... people will argue me to death about it ... it's a part of breaking now and I can't deny that ... similar moves like the leg sweep [corta capim] and the babies [queda de rins] are similar."
Capoeira's influence on modern day breaking is undeniable, but Ken feels it has posed a problem for breaking. Many so-called breakers today aren't dancing, but just going into a circle and doing power moves they've learned- many resembling certain moves in capoeira-with no footwork, freezes or flow, which are essential to the art (you know who you are). In Ken's experience, moves in early breaking developed without any knowledge of capoeira, although both sides pay respect where it's due to the African-rooted traditions in both forms. Capoeira survived for hundreds of years through community and innovation until Mestre Bimba, set up the first formal academy in 1927. In the same vein, breakers learned and created with what they had, drawing inspiration from their world and each other.
Innovative early breakers like Ken Swift also created a dance vocabulary of their own in a time and place that didn't provide inner-city kids with other outlets for expression and a sense of accomplishment. Ken said at one point, "This is our world -- this is what made me so interested in being a part of it. There was nothing my mother, my teacher, the governor, the president- anybody could say about what I did on that floor at that time." In the tradition of both forms, we see that innovation comes from being forced to look within when circumstances offer no alternative. But due to a lack of understanding among some newbies, the creative values are being lost.
For early breakers, there were very few outreach programs, and the few that did exist didn't necessarily appeal to most kids. We all know about the socioeconomic situation of early breakers. As Ken says, "It was crews, but there were some violent kids on these crews. The kids I met were notorious, I mean they stuck stores up ... that's what I was into too." Althoughbreakers were never systematically outlawed or physically enslaved as were capoeiristas, early breakers were heavily policed and mentally enslaved. If capoeira provided its founding players with a symbol of freedom, what did breaking do for its innovators? "Deep inside I really feel like it was part of being tough. I think it was part of being in the street and being hard ... You remember the old MC traditions? The MCs was about fantasizing about having the money and the cars. It was an important thing to do-it got you by dreaming of those things ... If I wasn't doing a lot of that shit man, I would be in big trouble ... It was so important just to be occupying time buggin out like that and believing in myself in that fashion ... Seeing these kids, man, it's like I know what they feel. They're standing up for theirs -- and there's more things involved than just the opponent and music. There's girls, there's prestige, there's that rumor -- that great street rumor: 'Yo, dis nigga blazed'-that notoriety."
Early breakers created a world where they could be rich and GQ smooth, if only for a minute, in a city that squelched any hopes of actually attaining these dreams. Within a culture of their own making that encompassed music, dance and lyrics reflecting life as they lived it, they made a name for themselves and got the fame they sought among their people. As in capoeira, where players are baptized with a nickname for use among their peers, breakers got their own nicknames. Swift's given name of Kenny Gabbert does him no justice among those who know who he really is: Ken Swift, the rocker with fast feet and fly moves. These aliases often reflect the esteemed traits that keep the oppressed going in their own communities; those traits that aren't openly praised by the world outside. Just like malandro, or trickster in Portuguese, words like "trouble" and "crazy" have good connotations in a culture that subverts the plans their world has for them.
Ken remembers that, "The earliest breakers heard songs, memorized the lyrics to them -- the earliest rockers, I should say -- and sung those songs as they rocked. They acted out those lyrics and sung and did the same emotion as the vocalist along with the music ... and the vocalist stopped and the drum came on strong -- this is the essence [of breaking]." By acting out lyrics that speak of the life they lived breakers worked out the tension between their reality and their aspirations, along with capoeiristas who have been doing the same for hundreds of years.
Each culture's existence has depended on its ability to transform and adapt; both incomprehensible to the mind's eye of outsiders who had no need for such outlets, they kept tradition alive within. While capoeira's lethal qualities were camouflaged with instrumentation for survival in the times of the slave trade, breaking faced culture's modern day nemesis: capitalism. As Ken recounts, "I think the institutions, they try to get a grasp on it ... We grew up like this and they tryin to put a tag on what we do-boom- then market it, and then when its finished, throw it out the window ... 'Let's not watch someone dance to the beat, let's show them on their head, upside-down'. That's the part that all directors, producers and filmmakers wanted to see. "In spite of the media's distortion of breaking's true nature, presenting it as a series of stunts, true breakers managed to keep the dance innovative and fresh.
To excel in each art, it is important to keep each art in the context of history and tradition, the very traditions and values which have kept them alive. "When you do capoeira, you have to learn the music, the art, where it comes from and you understand more of the art when you understand the culture ... [Capoeira] is something that exercises the mind, your mental, your coordination," says Furacao, "In life sometimes, you have to make decisions fast, you don't have time to procrastinate." As for breaking, "You've gotta have an understanding of music and you gotta understand the context ... You gotta know your music-this is the way you learn about what moves you ... and you'll see in your dance how you react to the beats ... You gotta know the history of the dance to be a good breaker ... You gotta dress like a B-boy and you gotta dress like a B-girl." Ken adds the point of fashion consciousness not to undermine the dancing, however. Some are fashion conscious and don't know how to break, so don't try it. In other words, Ken's added emphasis on fashion is important in that it should be functional and compliment the dance.
On a personal level, both art forms seem to play the role of a protective big brother who beats on and taunts you to toughen you up for struggles he knows you'll have to face, but bigs you up when you start coming into your own. "I found that breaking ... [has] always been a place for me to get it [any hardship] off my chest, a place for me to challenge myself. It's taught me how to look at the bigger picture rather than winning and losing. It's taught me how to look at what the real important things are ... It taught me about getting up off the ground, it taught me about perseverance ... I've had the ability to adapt. That has been the key to my success 21 years down the line. When I really enjoy music I feel unstoppable," says Ken.
For Furacao, "It showed me that my boundaries are infinite; if I think it I can do it ... It's taught me about myself: about my fears. Sometimes you're thrown in a situation and you can't go back and then you challenge yourself."
Through the music and foundation from which the movement of each form was born, each player gains perspective on themselves and the worlds they live in: regardless of the size or skill of the opponent either in the roda or on the dance floor, or the obstacle in life, if he or she is prepared and puts aside their fears, they can accomplish anything; support they didn't find in the world around them.
Furacao affirms that "These art forms are African-rooted, so it's all one love- we all come from the same roots no matter what. It's not a thing of class or conflict or battle ... it just shows the beauty and the power of African tradition and how it has evolved over the years." Ken recalls one time:
"While I was breaking there [in front of the Graffiti Hall of Fame] early in the afternoon, some built Spanish kid came to me and was like 'Yo, wassup?' He ... started doin capoeira ... and I was like 'Yo, that shit is phat and we started bugging out, no premeditated shit ... Music's playing, he starts showing me this flip, I started showing him this thing I do and it was just so real. I mean, I'm standing on a concrete park with projects surrounding me and this tradeoff of culture, this tradeoff of energy ... It was so raw, but it was love, you know-ain't no beef. A capoeira nigga'd probably beat the shit out of a breaker when it came down to it, but a breaker'd probably outdance the shit of a capoeira person in their realm. So there's two different purposes, you know?"
Whether the relationship of the two forms is that of distant cousins or of father and son, it seems we can only speculate. Though they came to be hundreds of years and thousands of miles apart, both cultures maintain the traditions of the African Diaspora: movement as a vehicle for mental transcendence, oral history, respect to musicians and transgression of oppressive circumstances. Although about 500 years have passed since the advent of capoeira, and although the face of the world has changed tremendously, the predicaments that people continue face haven't. People continue to struggle with inequality, ignorance and the circumstances in the world around them. Issues of trickery/trust, egotism/humility and overconfidence/foresight still remain in everyone's personal cipher. Capoeira and breaking created a space to play out these basic issues that are often the focal points of people in a systematic, mental lockdown, both teaching their artists the ability to transform and adapt to any situation with their own personal style.
For more information on Abada-Capoeira, you can visit their official website at: www.abadacapoeira.com.br or Email Furacao at:email@example.com For info on Capoeira Angola, you can contact the Capoeira Angola Center of Mestre Joao Grande at 212.989.6975.