MEXICO CITY — The sounds of Africa, Brazil and Arabia echoed through the tiny studio, bringing 25 students together in a circle to sing what sounded like an African-American spiritual.
Two fighters jumped into the middle of the circle, their movements so fluid and connected to the music that, at first glance, it looked like a choreographed dance. Yet the movements mimicked the martial arts in the blend of dancing, fighting, music and acrobatics that is capoeira.
"There are many dimensions to capoeira," said Adolfo Flores, a capoeira (pronounced cah-poh-AY-rah) master who teaches at a studio in Mexico City's Roma neighborhood. "A person needs to be a musician to learn capoeira; a person needs to be a dancer to practice capoeira; a person needs to be involved with martial arts, because at the very end, capoeira is martial arts."
The look and sound of the mysterious art form have become increasingly popular in Mexico in the last five years.
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Every Saturday at around 4 p.m., the streets in one of Mexico City's southern neighborhoods transform into a stage for the Roda de Capoeira, the Circle of Capoeira, where the performances take place.
Jingling tambourines offset the low beat of the atabaque, a conga-like drum from Africa. Flores directs the capoeira ceremony with the berimbaus, a bow-shaped instrument with metal strings, as he glides a wooden stick across it while shaking a rattle in his other hand.
"Capoeira is exactly what you see," said Flores, who's been a teacher for the past seven years. Putting it into words is difficult, even for a capoeira master such as Flores.
Though it may look like a choreographed dance to the uninformed, it's much more than that, he said. Capoeira enables a follower to become a fighter and a singer, he said.
Its traditions are deeply rooted in African and Brazilian culture, and it has some Arabian musical influences, as well.
Its origins and even its name are widely disputed. Is it strictly a Brazilian form of dance integrated with African fighting techniques, or an African form of fighting with influences of Brazilian dance?
The most accepted explanation is that capoeira was born in the 16th century when slaves from Angola were taken to Brazil.
"In Brazil, particularly, the black people survived through capoeira," said Angel Rivero, a 25-year-old Venezuelan who moved to Mexico City to get his master's degree. "It was just a way of rebelling against the oppression, the slavery."
Capoeira became a way for the African slaves to defend themselves against their Brazilian masters. The movements within capoeira are acrobatic, mixing back flips and cartwheels with kicks and karate chops.
According to Princeton University's capoeira Web site, the dancelike appearance of capoeira was a way for Africans to disguise its practice from their Brazilian masters. Its lack of physical, direct contact and aggression was yet another way to disguise its purpose as a form of self-defense.
Although it once was banned in Brazil, capoeira has continued to grow since the 16th century, and it's become popular all over the world. It's played throughout Mexico, Australia, Brazil, Venezuela, Europe and the United States.
In Mexico City, the Roda de Capoeira is played as street fighting among teams like the one at Flores' studio.
"You know, being inside a circle of capoeira in which every single person is involved, something happens during that time that every single person is so committed to what is happening at that moment. That's wonderful," Flores said.
Capoeira's recognition in Mexico has grown over the last five years because of its portrayal in posters, magazines and TV, Flores said. It's most popular with youths ages 15 to 25, but it's practiced among people from ages 3 to 55.
"We believe there are no physical limits for capoeira. I truly believe that anybody can learn it," he said. "I have a person that weighs over 120 kilos" — 264 pounds — "and also I have seen people with Down's syndrome who practice capoeira. There was one guy who was armless, a couple of deaf people."
It's not limited to men, either, said 33-year-old Nora Flores, who's been practicing for a few years and who's no relation to Adolfo Flores.
"You know, women have to look for a place in whatever they like to do," she said. "Though the number of men is (larger) than the women, women are involved in the same way men are involved in capoeira."
The master and the students said that capoeira tested and strengthened them physically and mentally. The changes and challenges that each player faces are different, and the experience of capoeira is unique to each person.
"First of all, capoeira is life," Rivero said of his own experience. "Second, it is energy, it is humble, it is friendship and it is strength."
(Petri graduated this month from Penn State University. This story was reported from Mexico City for a class in international journalism.)
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