Anyone who has seen the ultra-sleek heist sequel “Ocean’s Twelve” will no doubt remember the flamboyant scene when Vincent Cassel’s character, the Night Fox, dances his way through a blue-laser security grid—as if the standard red laser just wasn’t hip enough for the Ocean’s palette. What you might not know, however, is that Cassel’s moves weren’t gleaned from watching the “Step Up” series like a Billy Blanks training video, but that the performance was actually an exhibition of the actor’s own training in Capoeira, a centuries-old Brazilian martial arts style. And while Capoeira might not be able to teach you how to dodge lasers (then again, maybe it could), the practice carries the potential to enrich your life in many ways.
But before you start googling “Capoeira gym,” you should understand that Capoeira is not like any other martial art form, in fact, calling it a martial art is kind of like saying that Chinese culture is fried rice and dim sum. Instructor Bambu, whose real name is Steven Kolhouse, of Grupo Axé Capoeira explains that Capoeira includes certain martial elements, but that this aspect is part of a much larger cultural fabric which also comprises acrobatics, music and dance. As Kolhouse points out, “we teach a full art form, a full culture,” which is echoed by the saying of one great mestre (master) of the art, that “Capoeira is everything the mouth eats.”
What’s more, in Capoeira, all of these separate disciplines come together as they depend on one another. For example, when capoeiristas face off in the ring, called the roda (pronounced “hoda”), they are surrounded by a circle of singers who supply a chorus as the vocal leader calls them out. The positive energy, or axé (ah-shay), provided by this choral accompaniment determines the vigor with which the capoeiristas play. “If the energy of the singers is low, the energy in the roda is low, which means the motivation to do anything is very miniscule. If you have good music, you have a good roda. You have to teach the music,” observes Kolhouse.
While official Capoeira schools have only been organized since the 1960s, the history of the art stretches back hundreds of years in in its home country. Capoeira came together originally in the Portuguese colonial culture of Brazil, as a way for African slaves to learn self-defense techniques, under the guise of dance—hence the playful, acrobatic appearance of modern Capoeira. Some of the first practitioners of Capoeira were slaves who had escaped into the Brazilian hinterland to form their own fugitive communities, or quilombos; some would even allow themselves to be recaptured in order to train those still enslaved in Capoeira and assist in their eventual escape.
Capoeira first came to the United States in the mid-1970s as part of a general internationalization of the art form that would reverse its stigma in Brazil as being low-class, the pastime of malandros (street toughs, riff-raff). For the first time Capoeira was seen as a legitimate facet of Brazilian culture.
Kolhouse began practicing in 1998 in Bloomington, Indiana, after having dropped out of Indiana University. That year, he attended a workshop in Chicago taught by Grupo Axé founder Mestre Barrao and was welcomed into the school. Over the next six years, Kolhouse, or Bambu as he was now called in the community, taught Capoeira in various cities in Indiana with sporadic success.
In 2004, Kolhouse decided to establish his own Grupo Axé school in Chicago. At the time, Chicago was a city with very little exposure to Capoeira despite its size and cultural diversity, a circumstance that Kolhouse jokingly ascribes to Brazilians’ antipathy for cold weather. Even today, Grupo Axé is one of only three accredited Capoeira schools that have academies in Chicago.
After five years of hopscotching between yoga and martial arts studios, Kolhouse found a dedicated location for his school in the fall of 2009. He hopes that the East Ukrainian Village location will be a focal point for the formation of a traditional Capoeira community. Kolhouse criticizes individual instructors who teach Capoeira simply as aerobic exercise to Americans who are attracted by the aesthetic component of the practice, want to get in shape, but don’t necessarily want to get involved in the broader culture. “It’s like Tae-Bo, martial arts watered down to be aerobic.”
Moreover, Kolhouse acknowledges that this “watering down” of Capoeira occurs even in proper schools, where different elements of Capoeira are often taught separate of one another. These schools try to make Capoeira “everything for everyone,” by letting the consumer pick and choose what aspect(s) to take part in. “I feel it happens a lot,” Kolhouse reproaches, “and it makes Capoeira a little bit weak. Just like American Thai food is not as spicy as actual Thai food… it becomes American, Capoeira becomes not Brazilian, and it’s not pure anymore. That’s our goal, to keep that purity involved.”
As someone whose life took shape through Capoeira, there are few as well qualified as Kolhouse to list the many benefits of the practice. So what does Kolhouse view as reasons to get involved in Capoeira? The most tangible is probably the health benefits. More than just making the body more fit and the training balance, Capoeira demands a healthy lifestyle. “You can’t smoke and drink and do drugs and then come to the roda to try and train; if you try to your body will feel weak. You’ll be able to feel the alcohol coming out of you. If you smoke you will be tired. So many people who do Capoeira quit smoking, quit drinking, or do Capoeira to do those things.”
Also, Capoeira gives the practitioner a worldwide view. As Kolhouse explains, once a practitioner reaches a certain level, they must travel to Brazil and other locations around the world in order to make themselves known to the international community. And in order to graduate Capoeira, an individual must be fluent in Portuguese. In general, capoeiristas travel to meet and play and live with their counterparts around the world. “You travel the world and you have a better understanding of the world in general because how many people have been to Brazil, Mexico, Canada, Europe, Asia and not just seen the tourist sites, but actually seen how people live there and live with the people… As a result I feel like I have a better understanding of what’s going on in the world than someone who watches CNN.”
Finally, Capoeira teaches a person an overall perception. Beyond just learning how to see and block attacks, Capoeira teaches the individual how to read intent from body language and how to forecast situations developing. In Capoeira, the best self-defense is awareness as Kolhouse concedes, “Since I started Capoeira I’ve never had to use it because I’ve learned how to avoid bad situations.”