By Alex Linder
Carrboro Commons Staff Writer
In Portuguese, bencao means “blessing.” In capoeira, a Brazilian art form that is often called dance fighting, bencao means “a front kick.”
In Carrboro from March 18 to 20, numerous bencaos of both definitions were given out in a workshop directed by The American Society of Capoeira and Arts from Brazil (ASCAB).
“The whole weekend is just such an experience for everyone involved,” said Chris Geddings, 36, a systems administrator at Duke University from Durham, who is also the Carrboro capoeira instructor using the name Cebola. “It’s a lot of hard work, but in the in end it really brings everybody together.”
Carrboro may seem like an unusual place for a capoeira meeting, but the art form has been gaining popularity throughout the East Coast. There are other North Carolina-based capoeira groups in Boone and Charlotte.
The workshop, featuring ASCAB members from across North Carolina, was under the direction of Mestre Doutor, a master of capoeira and the founder and artistic director of the ASCAB based in Philadelphia.
Geddings explained that capoeira involves much more than just dance moves by incorporating elements of history, sports, acrobatics, music and philosophy.
He said that capoeira originated in Brazil more than 400 years ago, when slaves began disguising their self-defense training with dance. The name comes from the Portuguese word for “brush covered field,” which was where the Portuguese first saw slaves practicing the martial art.
While the culture and history of capoeira have been preserved, its meaning and practice have shifted through the centuries. Saturday’s performance, the highlight of the weekend’s training sessions, found the brush fields of Brazil replaced by the wooden floor of the Carrboro Century Center.
A capoeira performance is called a roda. In a roda, members gather in a circle. Two members meet in the center of the circle, crouch down and shake hands. Geddings said that what follows is something between sparring and dancing that is best described as play.
The players flip and dive to avoid each other’s kicks. Sometimes the tempo of the match is sped up, while other times it appears as though they are moving in slow motion.
“The rodas are what it is all about for us,” said Geddings. “Playing is serious, but also just awesome.”
The other 25 members who formed the circle played and chanted music. The music consisted of the twanging of traditional berimbaus, the rhythmic beating of drums and the jangling of tambourines. The songs were traditional Brazilian call-and-response songs or chants.
Geddings said the music is supposed to follow the action and rhythm of the players in the center. The chants can be directed at the players themselves and are often teasing.
“Most of it is just mocking each other, but in a good-natured way,” Geddings said.
For instance, during one bout Doutor tripped an unwitting student, which drew a taunting reaction from the chanters.
Apart from the ridicule, the students said they found themselves attracted to capoeira for a wide variety of reasons.
Geddings started practicing capoeira in 2002 and said that it is a great exercise and stress reliever.
Geddings suffered from a herniated disc less than a year ago. He said that even now it can be very painful, but practicing capoeira has helped ease that pain.
“If someone sees the kind of stuff I’m doing out there, I bet they wouldn’t think I would be someone with back problems,” he said.
Other members said that the were attracted to the different features of capoeira that have made it more than just an exercise, but a cultural experience.
Molly Hayes, 33, a therapist from Chapel Hill, used to take classes in Portuguese. She said she saw capoeira as a way of keeping up with the language and also its history.
“It’s a really excellent activity,” she said. “There are so many different aspects of capoeira.”
Gabrielle Motta-Passajon, a Brazilian native, instructs the capoeira group in Boone and is another student of Doutor. She too was drawn to capoeira because of the musicality of it, but she ended up staying because of the multiple layers that make up the art.
“Art, philosophy, history, life lessons — these are all part of what you can learn when practicing capoeira,” she said. “Once you’ve practiced capoeira for 30 years, you become a wise person.”
Doutor believes a great sense of community is one of the best features of capoeira. There is no higher rank he can achieve in the art. Instead, he has devoted himself to teaching young people why he loves capoeira.
He said he has watched the Carrboro group as it has grown steadily and is very proud of what they are doing.
“It’s such a nice, tight-knit group,” he said. “And it should only get stronger.”
ASCAB Capoeira has all level classes on Sundays and Wednesdays from 6:30 to 8:30 at the Balanced Movement Studio. Beginner classes are on Sundays from 5:30 to 6:30.
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