Usually, when two people face off in a circle surrounded by a group of chanting onlookers, something ugly and violent is about to happen. But three days a week, when the still-unofficial Capoeira Club comes together in the Walker Fit Center MPR, it’s the exact opposite. “Capoeira, most simply, is an Afro-Brazilian martial art and dance style,” said Gabe Back-Gaal ’14, the founding member of the group. And for a martial art, it is remarkably non-violent. “Capoeira is mostly non-contact, especially the style that we practice here at the College,” he explained.
Capoeira has been a staple in club leader Back-Gaal’s life since 2008 when he began attending a studio named Raízes Do Brasil near his home in Brooklyn. He is very conscious of the importance of instructors in helping him grow in the art. “My teachers are a hugely important part of my experience,” he said.
Back-Gaal fondly refers to them by their traditional nicknames, Mestre Foca (seal) and Instrutora Rouxinol (nightingale). “I don’t get to see them as frequently but they’re still absolutely and integral part of my practice and of helping me set up this practice here,” he said. Mestre Foca has even done a workshop on campus for the group.
Now, Back-Gaal has an opportunity to pass on his skills to others at Vassar, and he appreciates the opportunity to grow a closely-knit group. “For me, the joy of teaching capoeira here at Vassar comes in large part from the work of developing a community,” he said.
Still seeking their official VSA certification as a club on campus, the group regularly draws 6-10 people to every meeting. The gatherings have brought in students with no previous knowledge of capoeira, such as Victoria Youngblood ’16. “I started Capoeira at the beginning of this semester, and have learned a ton since, solely from my experience in the club,” she said.
And each member is an integral part of the experience. “Everyone plays a part in a roda [circle] de capoeira: not just the players in the roda, but the people clapping, singing, and playing the instruments as well,” he noted in an emailed statement. And as the group grows, it becomes even more of an event. “A roda of 20 people is a very different experience than a roda of five people,” he wrote. “The energy is exponentially greater, and the high that people tend to get from the experience comes as much from the social aspect as the physical aspect.”
Capoeira is a cross-cultural amalgamation. “The metaphor that’s most commonly used is that Capoeira is a child conceived in Africa and born in Brazil,” said Back-Gaal. The focus of capoeira is not to physically hurt an opponent, unlike other marital arts. “It’s martial in the sense that it’s teaching you the instincts of combat and the give and take of a fight,” said Back-Gaal.
However, many of the moves are akin to other forms of fighting. “It incorporates kicks and dodges as well as more gymnastic movements: cartwheels and flips,” he said. “For the most part, the skills that we’re learning aren’t pointed towards combat, they’re pointed towards learning an art form and a philosophy of life, and a fun way to spend time.”
The philosophy of capoeira is evident foremost in the fact that two people engaged in the roda is not called a match, or anything so confrontational, but a game. “The idea of play is central to Capoeira so when you have two people engaged in a game together what they’re doing is playing,” said Back-Gaal. “Just the language evokes the spirit of it. There is a certain exuberance and a freedom to it.”
The blending of martial art and dance is quite evident in the art’s musical accompaniment. Always practiced with live music around the roda, it is a lively affair. “The main instrument in the roda is the berimbau,” said Back-Gaal, explaining the bow-like contraption. Other instruments include an atabacque (drum), pandeiro (tambourine), even an agogo (cowbell).
Meetings encompass a variety of activities. Generally, Back-Gaal leads the group first in warming up, based on what he senses the dynamic of the day to be. Youngblood appreciates the nature of the meetings. “The club meetings are designed so that players who are really passionate about capoeira can always learn new things and continue being challenged every week, while those who cannot make as much of a commitment, can always stay in a comfort zone,” she said.
“What is so fun and interesting about capoeira, is that all the members who come to the club, beginners and more advanced players, can all interact and play capoeira with each other and still have a fun time, not to mention getting a good workout!”