Capoeira Na Roda, Capoera Na Vida Part II: Inferno Suado e Condicionando de Angola

Capoeira dominated much of my summer after the Batizado and the bulk of my research stuff was finished. Because the weather had turned upward (as it does in New York, and NOT here in Seattle) and because Columbia’s Dodge Fitness Center was no longer available to us, every Tuesday and Thursday we’d find ourselves outside on the grass to hold class. The main instructor for these sessions was Papito, who in my opinion was nothing short of a capoeira beast

He would consistently test the limits of my endurance, and even took it one step forward from there (providing the inspiration for today’s title). Let’s set the stage. At times, the weather outside wouldn’t be conducive to practicing, or our spot on the lawn would be taken (couldn’t access the gym over the summer). Perhaps it was raining that day or had rained heavily the night before. Regardless, for whatever reason we’d have to find somewhere else to practice. If we still decided to have practice, we’d typically end up in a building east of the Teacher’s College on Columbia’s campus. In the lounge room of this building we’d gather up and start practice, right in the dead of summer. Thus began the (in my opinion) Sweaty Hell that was our practice in that room.

I have in my capoeira career had the fortune to practice with a few different instructors and see how they handle their classes differently with regards to students getting water. Some will recognize that different people need water at different times and let them have it as needed, while others will have set intervals for breaks where people can get water. In Sweaty Hell, there were maybe 2 water breaks available. Maybe. On top of that, there was an air conditioner in the room that could’ve alleviated some of the heated punishment, but Papito did not allow such things. As such, every time we would have class there, I would damn near melt. It was, to put it shortly, a somewhat harrowing experience for me, especially knowing how terrible my endurance is in capoeira.

That Spring and Summer were also the first times that I visited the main Guerreiros academy out in Newark. It’s amazing how I had been through Newark so many times in my life, going to and from my uncle’s house(s), and yet never once did I notice that there’s an entire Brazilian community sitting right next to the train station. The school was located in what appeared to be a small old warehouse, embedded firmly within that neighborhood. The first time that I had seen the students that practiced here was at my own batizado at Columbia. Curious as to what their place was like, I ventured out there with a couple of other classmates. It was…awkward for me. Like that first day of class awkward. You don’t really know anyone, and you don’t quite know how to fit in awkward. My protocol was just to change into my whites and follow instructions.

Looking back on it now, I don’t really remember what it was like. Granted, it was….2.5 years ago, and I had only been out there a handful of times. There were a few distinct things, however, that stand out in my mind. For one, there was a padded floor. This meant that we were freer to practice acrobatics if we wanted to, seeing as how if we fell, that hit to the ground would be far softer than straight wood or linoleum. Next was the feeling of community that was there, at least amongst those that were regulars to the school. There seemed to just be a lot more comraderie than I had experienced at Columbia. Not that there wasn’t a fair bit of it there; that’s not what I’m saying at all. It’s just that the atmosphere of friendliness and community at the Newark Guerreiros academy was tangible. I almost wished that I could afford to make more trips out there to visit.

On one occasion, a couple of us Columbia folk stayed after class at the Newark academy and went to the bar across the street with George Palmares. I guess that he was a regular there? Either way, we got a grand welcome when we went in with a few of the other students, and we took over the dance floor after a bit of time. It was definitely fun, and the brazilians there were very welcoming. It was still awkward as all hell though.

Toward the middle of August 2010, I moved to Seattle in order to settle in before the start of my first year of graduate school. Back in March 2010 when I had visited campus as a prospective student, I was taken on a tour of the campus by this dude representing the GO-MAP program. During our walk, we struck up some conversation and I had told him that I had just started capoeira at Columbia. In response, he had mentioned to me that he knew a dude on campus who practiced capoeira. When I moved to Seattle in August, I kept that fact in mind and contacted him. He forwarded me the info of his acquaintance Santiago, and I contacted Santiago to find out when he taught. It was Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays on campus at 5:30 (I think?). So, on some weekday in August, I went to their spot on the grass on the UW campus and waited for his class to start up. His was my first introduction to the world of the angoleiro.

Capoeira Angola is distinctly different from the Regional-ish, Senzala-ish capoeira that I had been trained in since that February. For one, it was slower. Significantly slower, with much more of an emphasis on deliberate, well-formed movements, as well as bursts of trickiness (malandragem). On top of that, the songs were a little bit different (and also much slower) than the ones that I had learned via Guerreiros. The words were the same, but the rhythm of the berimbau, the melodies of the songs, and the pacing of the words were way different than what I had learned. I distinctly remember being lightly scolded by Santiago for breaking out with “Da Da Da no Negro” (Get Get Get the Negro), since Santiago’s black and it can be construed as an offensive song. The third main bit that pops out in my mind was the way in which Santiago structured his class. The lion’s share of it was based in body conditioning. This makes sense, as all of those slow, drawn out, deliberate movements that are inherent to Angola require a lot of endurance-trained muscle.

Me helping Toby with handstand pushups at Santi’s practice

So the warmup would consist of jogging, duck-walking, frog leaps, squats, crab-walking, walking on all fours, and other such exercises. There was also “trinta” which translates to “thirty”, but translates in MY mind to “thirty headstand attempts, and perhaps another 30 handstand attempts.” Talk about tests of endurance! My arms would be SCREAMING at me after that, not to mention the profound fatigue in my legs after the warmup. The warmup! My start and consistent training in capoeira at Columbia had reforged my body to show, quite frankly, a fair bit of muscle that I’m still not quite used to seeing, and yet I would be winded halfway through practice! This was the basis for my first capoeira apelido: Modelo (model). The reasoning behind it, according to Santi, was that my body made me look like I could do a lot with it and last through training. But, it’s only for show, like a model’s. Yeah. I’m not gonna lie, that one hurt for a long while. It was a solid 7-8 months before I would be comfortable enough with myself to embrace the name, and introspective enough to use its meaning as constructive criticism and motivation.

More practice on the “magic grass”

I practiced with Santi’s group for about a month, and through it met a handful of pretty cool people. During that summer, I rarely saw Santi play himself, as he was at the time recovering from an accident. I also met Barok (pronounced bah-rOOk), this Ethiopian dude with some crazy hair that had a pretty fun playing style. I thought he was pretty cool because he was black, had a pretty nice capoeira game, AND was a physics major at the university, much like myself! Then there was Henry, a history major I think. While his technique wasn’t as good as mine, he had (and still has) WAY more endurance than I’ve ever had. When we’ve been at the same rodas since then, we tend to play each other because our levels kind of equal out. And I always try to trip him. Angie had a great love for capoeira, and seemed to be the organizational head for the group. She had a very strong personality, but not so much that she couldn’t appreciate the game. I’m still pretty cool with Toby, though I haven’t had the fortune to see much of him over the last couple years. Then there was Joji, who was at that point one of the best non-ranked capoeiristas that I had seen to date. He seemed to have everything: personal confidence (and thus a confident capoeira game), a unique and flowing, yet effective style, awesome technique and endurance, and a distinct talent for being able to read his opponents and play at their level. I still admire his style today (and hope that one day I’ll be able to whup his ass).

Santiago had an angoleiro friend over in Port Orchard, Washington that was having a party (for Joji, I think) and wanted to know who would come with him. I, not having anything else to do during that time, and curious about the greater capoeira community in the area, went along for the ride. This was when I first met Gabriel Emeka (and family), and saw for my first time an entire half-day filled with food, friendship, and capoeira. I’ve met a fair number of people in my life, yet few have been have welcoming as the Emekas. From what I understand, Gabe is an architect and built his own house. Because he’s also an avid angoleiro, he built a floor roda space into his house. So cool. Here’s a shot of his floor from above (not from the same event, but here for illustration purposes):

Cork floor, and you can’t see it, but he has dozens of instruments on the side

I’ll say more about his spot itself at a later date (I’ve been back several times, and it’s truly magnificent), but for now I want to focus on the capoeira. It was here that I got my first chance to actually pick up and hold a berimbau. With Guerreiros, I had never gotten a chance to handle the instruments, so I had no real impression of what it entailed. Despite my many years as a cellist in high school and college, I was embarrassingly bad at playing music. Holding the berimbau itself was a herculean feat. Then there was being able to play a rhythm without dropping the damn thing. It was interesting, though I wouldn’t play again for about 7-8 more months.

Probably laughing because there’s photographic evidence of me sucking. Man, I miss that necklace…
A nice shot of Joji vs. Gabe

This was also the first time that I had seen long angola games. I mean long games too, with some lasting longer than 10 minutes! Jesus! It was Joji’s going-away roda, so they had him play a lot. By the end of it, that green shirt he had was drenched in sweat. It was also the first time I saw Gabe’s remarkable style. I had never seen such control while upside down. Little did I know that in the future I’d be at the receiving end of his foot control, but I digress. They played a nice game, with Gabe being his fun-loving tricky self, and Joji showing off some decent skill. I sat on the sidelines (I may have been playing an instrument at the time) and just drank it all in. These were two people who knew each other’s games well, and were just having fun.

I also got my chance to play my first few angola games. I had never known fatigue like this. It was something between 5 and 10 minutes of constant movement. Constant kicking, dodging, and acute alertness, all while lactic acid built up in my muscles making me slower and less efficient. It was also somewhat odd trying to mesh my high-game training with the distinctly low game of angola. I got hit a few times, and I also managed to get in a few good hits myself. I don’t remember well who I played against, but it was fun regardless.

Once the school year started up in late September 2010, Santiago’s group moved off campus, and didn’t come back until the next summer. I didn’t join them, mostly due to admitted laziness. So it was that I started my 5-month break from capoeira. I did other things in the meantime of course, but nothing could quite fill the hole that was left behind by the lack of capoeira in my life. I developed a real, solid hunger for it; a real need in my life to be upside down! When I finally did come back to it, it was as if I was being reacquainted with an old friend, and I was so ready to make that connection again.