Playing the games of a nation

People in Minneapolis are learning the physically and mentally demanding art of capoeira

LOWRY HILL EAST — It is a martial art, a mental workout, a social activity, a culture unto itself; the Brazilian practice of capoeira can be found all over the world, including a dance studio at 26th & Aldrich.

Mestre Yoji Senna started the Afro-Brazilian Capoeira Association (ABCA) there in 1992. He teaches students how to train their bodies and their minds to balance their lives.

“Capoeira is a game that reflects a philosophy of life that’s of no resistance, of looking to survival,” Senna said.

African slaves created capoeira centuries ago when they were brought to Brazil, he said. At its center are the games, where two opponents face off in a series of tight movements set to music. The games begin with the ginga, a small series of steps that is the basic move in capoeira. From there, opponents start to play.

The Brazilian government saw capoeira as criminal and outlawed the art for many years until a demonstration in 1953 lifted the ban.

One of the demonstrators was Senna’s father, who later worked to spread capoeira around the country. Thanks to his work, capoeira became Brazil’s national sport in 1972, according to the ABCA website.

His work lived on through his son, whose capoeira school was the first in the Twin Cities. Senna said the number of students fluctuates, but many of them joined after friends recommended it.

Tuesday and Thursday nights, students of all levels meet to practice. Some have been with the studio for years, others for a few months or weeks.

At 7:15 p.m. on a recent Thursday, “Lady Marmalade” blasted over a stereo. The students moved in front of mirrors and started stretching.

The mirrors make up an entire wall of the studio. Drawings of faces and a “Christ the Redeemer” statue line the others.

Students continued streaming into the room as the music played. By the night’s end, 15 students gathered on the floor.

The warm-ups transitioned into several across-the-floor exercises. Senna watched as the students repeated complex combinations again and again. He smiled, gave his students thumbs up and blew kisses. By the end of the exercises, everyone was covered in sweat and heaved for air.

“You wanna do it again?” he asked.

Capoeira is just as much a mental exercise as a physical exercise. Senna said he valued tolerance as well as skill.

“What I try to see my students is to try to become critical thinkers, open-minded, you know, and certainly understanding (and) help where they came (from) by doing their part to make a better world,” he said.

The ABCA has performed around the area for fundraisers and local causes. They go to Brazil every year to volunteer and donate items for children.

Kenna Sarge, a West African dancer and student since the summer, said she studied capoeira to learn about her roots.

“Because I can’t, just, do some kicks, you know, I gotta … the ginga, that’s what makes it. The ginga,” she said.

Alex Rand studied capoeira since 1997 while at the University of Minnesota. He now teaches a student group at the university.

“I really want to be able to have those students advance; they already have the strong foundation and knowledge of all the movements that they’re responsible for,” he said.

Senna said capoeira is made up of many parts, so all kinds of people can participate.

“You’re going to find people blind, with one eye, limping, paraplegic,” Senna said. “…There’s a part of Capoeira that everybody can fit, or where everybody can excel.”

Just after 8:30 p.m., the students grabbed instruments. They joined Senna in a circle on the floor. Senna held a berimbau — a bowed instrument with an open gourd at the end.

He plucked a few stray notes before launching into a steady rhythm. The sound grew as other students played the pandeiros (tambourines) and the agogô (bells).

And then the games began.

The advanced students started first. They maneuvered around each other in time to the music. They kicked and crouched and spun on the floor, dodging each other skillfully. Some of the combinations are ones practiced earlier in the night, but many students elaborated on them.

Two more students took their place in front of Senna. They reached out and tagged the spinning students. It was their turn to play.  

The students switched in and out, one or two at a time. The rhythm of the instruments intensified as the students moved faster and the combinations grew more complex.

Pounding rhythms and clapping hands filled the air.

The bodies came close but never touched.

The tempo reached a breaking point, and Senna ended the game with a bellowing call. The students answered the call, and the class was over.

“The majority of the people here tonight … really have made this thing part of their lives,” Rand said. “… At some point, they decided that this was something that they were going to do until they can’t anymore because of one reason or another.”

The school offers a children’s class, and an open house every Saturday. For more information, visit www.abcapoeira.com.