Initially, it appeared Jason Harris had suddenly lost his balance and was on his way to a terrible fall. But then, the Baltimore resident extended his arms and not only broke his fall but continued moving, contorting his nimble body like a break dancer, yoga specialist or martial-arts expert.
Harris was practicing capoeira, a Brazilian martial art created by African slaves that subsequently blossomed into a form of artistic expression. In 2002, Harris helped form the Baltimore chapter of the International Capoeira Angola Foundation. Its members are capoeira enthusiasts who initially invited Brazilian masters to come to the United States and teach the art.
The group began as an offshoot of the Washington, D.C.-based ICAF, a global network of capoeira enthusiasts founded in 1993.
Three times a week, the Baltimore group holds 90-minute practice sessions, staging moves that include handstands, sweep kicks, somersaults and gyrations. The members also stage demonstrations throughout the city. They perform capoeira for its artistic element, its energy, its link to African history and cultural norms.
The fact that they're getting a stress-relieving, cardiovascular workout is mostly coincidental.
"No matter where you came from - running, gymnastics, strength training or nothing - capoeira will meet you there," said Ama Brown, an ICAF-Baltimore member.
"Imagine if you can do one thing which would give you all the things you need for a workout - strength, cardio and flexibility. Capoeira is all those things," said Brown, whose husband, Skher Brown, is the ICAF-Baltimore treinel, or instructor, and administrator.
There are two primary types of capoeira: Angola, derived from the region of Africa from which many Brazilian slaves originated. It more resembles the art form practiced centuries ago, with varied speeds, and acrobatic movements close to the ground. It is always played with music. Regional capoeira is contemporary, fast-paced, more acrobatic, and involves more technique.
Those who practice the art are called capoeiristas. They say they "play" capoeira, because that is how it was described by slaves who didn't want their masters to know they were practicing a form of self-defense.
"It's a full-body workout," said Skher Brown. "It's excellent for cardiovascular fitness. It's an art form where you're constantly in motion, and it really calls on you to use all your aerobic ability. At the same time, it's good for strength and conditioning because you're always holding your body up against the ground, using your own resistance."
In addition to learning the movements, those who study at ICAF-Baltimore become immersed in all aspects of the art. Capoeira has its own music, thousands of folk songs with roots in Afro-Brazilian music.
Every participant at ICAF-Baltimore must learn to play the instruments used in capoeira music, including a berimbau, a percussion instrument that consists of a bow and wire attached to a gourd.
ICAF-Baltimore members come from all walks of life, from chefs to surgeons to special-education teachers. Classes usually consist of about 15 people, though the group has a total of about twice that. Everyone wears loose clothing because of the various moves the martial art requires.
Some, like Harris and Brown, are quite dexterous and appear to have been doing capoeira for quite a while. Others need a little help performing some of the more advanced moves.
But Harris, who helped found ICAF in Washington, said that while some of the moves may seem intimidating, capoeira is not difficult to learn.
"The rudimentary movements of capoeira, you can get in a few months," said Harris. "Capoeira is like chess. You know, 'I can move my bishop this way, I can move my rook that way.' You learn the movements, then you spend the rest of your life trying to figure out how these things fit with your body and whatever particular situation you're in."
Harris said he took up the art while living in the San Francisco area, when a cousin returned from a visit to Brazil and told him about it. "And then we got a video of this movie called Only the Strong, and he said, 'This is what they do in Brazil.' "
Once he learned capoeira, Harris was hooked. The art gives him a solid workout and helps keep his body toned. And he said that if he had to do so, he could defend himself using capoeira.
"If I'm defending myself, I'm not going to do a handstand," he said. "But my body is trained in a way that I am aware of my surroundings. I know my balance. If I throw a strike or try to kick somebody, I know how far I can be from the person."
Harris demonstrated with a move called tesoura (Portuguese for scissors). Bending down in a crouch, he leaned to his left and placed his left hand on the floor. Then he extended his left leg diagonally and placed his right hand next to his left. He then turned his body to where his stomach faced the floor and formed a "V" with his legs. Then he walked backward on his hands, sliding his legs across the floor. He did all this in a swift, fluid motion.
Often, capoeira Angola is performed in head-to-head competitions. In the early years, such competitions were confrontations, but now they are similar to break-dance battles, where one capoeirista tries to perform moves that outdo another's.
"It's not choreographed; it's more like a physical jazz," said Skher Brown. "There's a lot of improvisation. The different combinations you can put together are infinite."
While many members joined the ICAF-Baltimore class to learn the art, they become part of a network of people who not only demonstrate the art throughout the city but also engage in other social activities. Often after classes, the capoeiristas go to parties or dine together.
"You have an opportunity to interact with an incredibly diverse group of people," said Ama Brown, "and have dialogue on topics that matter to you, from race and politics to spirit and culture. You can release a lot of stress and a lot of depression. People who come to the classes are moving, sweating, singing these songs; it's a way to let go of a lot of the heaviness."
If you're interesting in learning more about capoeira, here are some places to check out:
ICAF-Baltimore. The group meets Monday and Wednesday evenings in Baltimore at Sankofa Dance Theatre (2901 Druid Park Drive) and Saturday afternoons at Sojourner- Douglass College (200 N. Central Ave.). Because the workouts can be quite exhaustive, the instructors recommend that participants refrain from eating at least three hours before the class. Contact: 410-669-6047 or baltimorecapoeira.org.
The Johns Hopkins University Capoeira Group. During the summer, the class meets Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday in the martial-arts room of the Ralph S. O'Connor Recreation Center (3400 N. Charles St., Homewood campus). On Wednesday, it meets at the Mattin Center (210 Mattin Center, Homewood campus). Contact: www.jhu.edu/capoeira.
Oficina da Capoeira Cultural Center. This Baltimore-based group specializes in "all things Brazilian" and holds capoeira classes Friday and Saturday at the University of Maryland, Baltimore Athletic Center (646 W. Pratt St.; Pratt Garage, 10th floor), and Tuesday and Wednesday at Bolton Hill Memorial Church (1407 Bolton St). Contact: oficinadacapoeira. tripod.com.
Docksiders Gymnastics (216 Najoles Road) in Millersville holds classes for kids 5 and older and adults Wednesdays and Sundays. Contact: 410-987-8780 or docksidersgymnastics.com.