by Jeela Ongley
photos by Elea Dumas
Surrounded by chanted songs and percussion rhythms that set the pace of their movements, two capoeira combatants begin their game with locked gazes. Inside the roda, or circle, they gracefully lunge back and forth, using low, sweeping maneuvers occasionally punctuated by spinning handstands and high kicks.
Capoeira Hawaii's Paul Kolbe
and Richard Ramos demonstrate
the form's fusion of dance and martial art.
A hypnotically beautiful combination of gymnastics, dance and fighting technique, capoeira (cap-oh-AIR-ah) is essentially an African martial art that evolved into its current form in Brazil. First introduced to Hawaii in 1994 by teacher Rod Ussing, who learned the art at a school in Palo Alto, Calif., capoeira has been attracting an increasingly dedicated following here, bolstered by enthusiastic young athletes, dancers and the growing local Brazilian community. There are now several schools practicing on Oahu and Maui, and the toney Honolulu Club is even offering "capoé," a workout based on the dance aspect of capoeira.
The traditional technique is mentally as well as physically demanding, requiring adherents to learn movements and several musical instruments, as well as Brazilian culture, history and language in order to advance. "You’ll find some people who can become proficient in an amazingly short period of time, while others have to work very hard," says the 44-year-old Ussing, who heads Capoeira Hawaii.
While each acrobatic bout has the look of artistic combat practice, there is no technical winner, says Leonardo "Japa" Naito, a Brazilian instructor who teaches a style called senzala. "But the more you play, you get to know when you ‘got’ them. And they know, too!"
Senzala with Japa