Capoeira in Dubai

Brazilians made football look cool, but long before that they also injected swagger into martial arts

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I admit that I find very few exercise-related matters infectious. I usually leave the gym feeling good, thinking, ‘wow, I should do that again’, but as soon as I hit the couch the sentiment is out the window.

Not with Capoeira. I had my first taste two days ago, and I still want more. Why? There’s something about the movements and the music (which is sung and played on live instruments during the lessons) that makes the experience completely encompassing, and this has a lot to do with the passion behind the discipline’s history.

The exact origins of the martial art are widely debated, but it is known that it evolved in the 1500s when the Portuguese brought slaves to Brazil from all over Africa. The men were separated from their families and forced to work in a strange land, and the martial art developed as a form of resistance. At first glance, Capoeira looks like more of a dance than a martial art – this is probably because the slaves aimed to disguise the fighting as a game to prevent it being banned.

After the abolition of slavery, many slaves could find neither livelihoods nor ways of returning home, so they formed gangs: Capoeira then became associated with violence. The art was eventually banned in 1890. Yet the swaying fighting style was still practised underground, and was disguised as a ‘folk art’ until the ban was officially lifted in 1920.

My first lesson begins with a brief history lesson from teacher Nina Stone (who originates from the UK, but has a distinctly Brazilian sway in her step). We try some warm-up exercises and start to learn the classic Capoeira move, the ‘jinga’, which involves stepping and rocking back and forth.

The next thing to learn is the ‘aú’, which looks very similar to a cartwheel. I’m pretty bad at this (bear in mind that at primary school I was the kid who needed the help of a special ramp to do a forward roll). I am, however, assured that my strength and bravery will increase quickly if I continue training.

We then form a ‘roda’, a circle within which the fighting is performed – and a performance it certainly is. One by one we feed into the circle, and at all times there are two people in the middle ‘sparring’. Yet it feels more like a playful game than a duel, and the aim isn’t to hurt (at least I don’t think it is). The occasional kick or flick makes contact – I take a small hit on the shin – but it isn’t bruise-inducing.

The best part of the lesson is towards the end, when we get to bang on some instruments. Nina leads the chorus with a berimbau, which looks like a bow (as in bow and arrow). The key instrument in Capoeira, this is plucked to make an unusual but pleasant sound. As a beginner I’m on a tambourine, and some of the more advanced students are tasked to beat drums. Nina leads us in song and teaches us a basic beat: at first we sound a bit off-tune, but we become a little more harmonious by the end: either way, there’s something undeniably joy-inducing about a singalong.

While the others continue singing we fight in the circle two at a time, the music dictating the rhythm, pace and style of our fight (well, I’m still working on rocking back and forth and clapping in time). At this point
I realise why Capoeira is addictive – its history has turned it into much more than a fighting style. It’s a martial art, a form of exercise, a group performance and a celebration of music, and I like it.
Nacao Capoeira classes are held at the World Black Belt Centre on Sheikh Zayed Road (next to Business Bay metro station) on Sundays and Thursdays at 9.30pm and Tuesdays at 7pm. Dhs80 per class, or Dhs600
for 10; the first trial class is free. See www.nacaocapoeiradubai.com.


The essentials

Origins: Capoeira was created by African slaves in the 16th century.
Muscles used: All of them! Particularly the hamstrings, abs and triceps.
Best bits: It has the fire of a martial art and the fun of dance.
Downsides: If you’re one of those people who’s never been able to do a cartwheel, you may find the class a bit of a struggle.

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