Capoeira is a Brazilian form of martial arts, which flourished during the slavery era. Initially frowned upon, it has now found favour around the world, and that includes Bali. Is it ever too late to get started?
Capoeira Bali offers classes targeted at children, teenagers, and adults at all skill levels. The atmosphere is fun, challenging, and supportive.
Capoeira is a form of Brazilian martial arts that combines fighting with rhythm, acrobatics, and dance. Capoeira is a dialog between 2 players, a conversation through movement, which is played against a backdrop of drumming and chanting.
The origins of capoeira are unclear, but it flourished during the dark era of slavery, when an estimated 12 million West African slaves were transported in dismal conditions to the New World, where they were considered a commodity and lived and worked in harsh conditions.
Theories vary, and there is no conclusive evidence to prove (or disprove) any of them.
One theory is that capoeira was a form of martial arts that was brought from West Africa to Brazil by slaves. Another theory is that capoeira was developed as a survival skill by escaped slaves, who were living in the wilds of the Brazilian interior.
The theory that I have heard most often is that slaves wanting to practise martial arts camouflaged their training by incorporating dance steps into their movements and doing them to music so that their masters would think they were engaging in a harmless activity rather than practising self-defense.
I had my introduction to capoeira at Capoeira Bali, which offers classes in the Balinese cities of Jimbaran, Sanur, Seminyak, and Ubud.
As a guest, I attended a total of 5 classes at The Motion Fitness at Jalan Petitenget 12B, which is located across the street from the L Hotel Seminyak Bali, a boutique hotel in Seminyak, Bali.
The focus on Monday nights was on physical conditioning based on practice, and all levels were welcome.
The focus on Wednesday nights was on basic techniques and movements, and beginners were encouraged to participate.
The focus on Friday nights was on intermediate and advanced training. Children’s and teenage classes are also offered.
Classes began with an introduction by Capoeira Instructor Kenoko Hermiaji, a.k.a. Noko Nokinho, a native of Central Java, who started to learn capoeira while he was at university in the year 2000. He moved to Bali in 2006.
Following the introduction, Noko demonstrated the steps and moves we were supposed to practice. They got progressively more difficult.
As a total beginner, I was quickly taken under the wings of 2 more advanced capoeiristas, who patiently tried to help me distinguish my left foot from my right foot.
Classes ended with a roda, in which a circle was formed. While musicians beat drums, played musical instruments, and chanted in Portuguese, 2 players would cartwheel their ways into the middle of the ring and engage in rhythmic mock combat.
There were elements of ballet, dialogue, acrobatics, and self-defense.
I was totally blown away by what I saw. I couldn’t believe that some of the “players”, as capoeiristas are so awkwardly called in English, had been at the sport for only a few months.
Primeira Licao de Portugues
Since capoeira is native to Brazil, and the chanting and singing are done in Portuguese, a weekly Portuguese class was launched during my stay. It was held before the capoeira class began.
This was the perfect opportunity for me to brush up on my Portuguese, which had gone rusty through years of dis-use.
The last time I had a chance to have an extended conversation in Portuguese was during my “Portuguese Summer” 7 years ago.
The first class began with an ice breaking activity. Then we were put into pairs and asked to interview our partners about our knowledge of the Portuguese language and Brazilian culture.
Then we reported back to the class. The purpose, I assume, was to get things off to a relaxed start – and also to give the teacher, Gabriela Marques, an idea of who we were and how much we knew about the language and culture she was going to teach.
Gabriela went on to teach us Palavras Magicas, or Magic Words, such as Por Favour, Obrigado/Obrigada, and Desculpa – please, thank you (male and female), and excuse me.
Then she taught us how to introduce ourselves in Portuguese.
It was a pleasant surprise when Gabriela decided to stay on for our capoeira class. She told me later that she had always wanted to practice capoeira, but the opportunity had never presented itself in her native Brazil.
Since Noko would be out of town on the 2nd Friday class I attended, Caiman Bali was asked to teach an introductory class in atabaque, an Afro-Brazilian style of drumming using tall wooden drums.
It was Caiman that had got me interested in capoeira in the first place. I had met him on 2 previous trips to Bali.
Caiman proved the perfect teacher. He started class with the basics, teaching us how to maintain the rhythm by tapping our left foot (easier said than done).
He moved on from there to syncopation, a difficult concept to understand. If you don’t know what the word means, don’t waste your time looking it up in the dictionary.
The dictionary definition doesn’t help. It’s something that has to be demonstrated, not explained. It has to be felt. And if you can’t feel it, not to worry. Not all God’s children got rhythm.
Here’s my definition of syncopation: it’s a slight hesitation in the beat.
As we sat in a circle drumming our objects and tapping our left feet, Caiman picked us off one by one, assigning us to one of 3 groups.
I’m not sure what the criteria were. If you got selected, did that mean you did something wrong or something right? Or were we chosen at random? Maybe he wanted to create the right “mix”.
Practice Makes Perfect
In groups we continued to practice, practice, practice. By the end of the class both of my hands were sore.
As always, class ended with a roda, but the mood got much more enthusiastic – and emotional – than on previous nights. Was it because of the drumming and the chanting?
The drumming and chanting grew increasingly loud and passionate, slowly reaching a fever pitch – and then a crescendo.
I couldn’t help but wonder what the guests staying at the L Hotel Seminyak Bali, which is located across the street, were making of this.
I had, in fact, stayed at the hotel on 3 previous occasions, spending a total of 9 nights there, and I remember hearing drumming and chanting in the distance once or twice during my 3 stays at the hotel.
I remember assuming that it was some kind of Balinese ceremony taking place nearby. Little did I suspect that it was actually a group of self-defense enthusiasts practicing Brazilian martial arts.
Where to practise Capoeira in Bali: Capoeira Bali.
Where to stay if you want to take Capoeira classes in Seminyak: L Hotel Seminyak Bali.