Capoeira: martial arts becomes art


JELON VIEIRA -- dancer, master teacher -- finds that most people are ignorant when it comes to his native country.

"The only thing people know about Brazil is the bossa nova and the ladies and the bikinis," said Vieira. "Now I have to change the image."

He's no missionary with boring books and dull lectures, but a choreographer who brings to life capoeira -- a dance full of spins, cartwheels, handstands and back flips. It looks like gymnastics until you see the artful dodges, the flying kicks and the quick footwork.

Capoeira, in fact, is a blend of martial arts, Afro-Brazilian music and dance, an art form with roots in the Brazilian slave trade. It's performed by muscled, bare-chested, bare-footed men wearing white nylon pants (called "abadas") who leap high in the air, flipping upside down, spinning and jackknifing to the beat of tambourines, congas, bass drums and a "berim-bau," a percussion instrument shaped like a bow and arrow.

With his New York-based, 15-member DanceBrazil dance troupe, Vieira tours the country and performs around the world 30 weeks a year to teach people about Brazil's rich culture and its African roots through music and dance. He and his troupe will perform at Howard Community College's Smith Theatre today through Sunday, demonstrating capoeira and four other Afro-Brazilian dances.

Vieira teaches capoeira at his studio in New York City but has also taught at Yale University, the Dance Theater of Harlem and the Alvin Ailey American Dance Center. He's performed at Washington's Kennedy Center and the San Francisco Opera as well as in London and Vienna.

He's also helped choreograph fight scenes in movies, "Lethal Weapon" and "Rooftops" among them.

Capoeira's not the kung-fu style that martial arts expert and movie star Bruce Lee made famous. "It's music and dance from " our land," said Vieira, 37, reached by telephone. "It's about the African influence in Brazil. We're showing everything that Africa has given to us. It's our language, the music, the culture."

The start of capoeira can be traced to the 18th and 19th centuries, when at least 1 million slaves from Angola and the Congo were traded to Brazil to work on farms. Under their masters' noses, the slaves practiced defense techniques by putting martial arts to music and calling it a ritual dance.

Later on, especially in the early 20th century, capoeira became a street dance associated with the underworld, with thugs, thieves and vagabonds who reportedly used the form to commit crimes.

Then in the early 1930s, a young black man named Manoel dos Reis Machado -- popularly known as Mestre Bimba -- took the fighting form and made it into a bona fide art form. He set up a school in a town called Bahia (Salvador in Brazil, Vieira's hometown), finally giving capoeira respect.

"Capoeira is a way of life," Vieira said. "Capoeira is related to what they say: Do the right things, get the body and mind in touch with the spirit."

DanceBrazil appears at Howard Community College's Smith Theater at 8 p.m. tomorrow and Saturday. Tickets are $10 for orchestra seats, $7 for mezzanine seats; 25 percent discount for students and senior citizens. A shortened performance is scheduled for 3:30 p.m. Sunday for families and children. Tickets for Sunday's show are $5. Call 964-4900.

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