ADRENALIN / Liberty cap: Capoeira's blend of African rhythms and teasing manoeuvres is rooted in 15th-century slavery. Emma Cook reports

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We know we could kick each other's brains out but that's not the point', Anthony Eaily says, explaining the philosophy behind Capoeira, a deadly fusion of martial art, dance, music and acrobatics. Originally devised in 15th-century Brazil by African slaves and used to overthrow their Portuguese slave-masters, it is now practised by urban pacifists as a non- combative form of recreation. 'We don't compete with each other - it's not in the spirit,' says Eaily, an advanced pupil at the London School of Capoeira in Islington, north London.

The Brazilian authorities would disagree. When armies of Portuguese soldiers were sent into the rainforest to recapture the slaves, they were crushed by the force of the Capoeiran fighting technique. Even when slavery was abolished in the 19th century, those caught practising the rhythmic style of self-defence were severely punished. Only in recent years has it been recognised by Brazilian officials as a national sport.

Capoeira teacher Paul Sadot believes that it is the only truly improvised defence and dance form in existence. 'Whereas ballet is choreographed this is completely spontaneous and expressive.' Expecting a combination of Swan Lake and Kung Fu, I attend his Sunday morning workshop. After a 30-minute warm-up session Sadot shows us the basic movements: Ginga, moving your weight backwards and forwards from one foot to another; Benca, pushing one leg out to kick away the assailant and Negativa, crouching backwards or to the side to escape a blow. These are combined with a vigorous routine of complex floor rolls, tumbles and spins designed to confuse the opponent.

I am told to pair off with my neighbour. 'I just can't grasp these concepts,' says my American partner apologetically. To the beat of Afro- Brazilian chants, she attempts to Benca while I fall backwards onto my bottom to avoid the brunt of her heel. Learning the steps is one thing but trying to be graceful is another.

Our next task is to master the Au Compasso, commonly known as a cartwheel and the Au Normal, a less conspicuous version with legs tucked in close to the chest. Both were used by slaves to escape swiftly from physical confrontation. Hardly an ideal means of self-defence in a city environment, they apparently work well in the rainforest.

The movements, like the lyrical content of the music that accompanies them, are based on deception. To outwit overseers, the slaves would disguise their defences as a mixture of dance and religious ritual. Judging by the amount of professional ballet dancers Sadot trains, agility and grace are vital. Yet despite its influence on ballet and other martial arts, Capoeira is still a relatively underground leisure pursuit. 'Millions of people died to make this art form,' says Sadot. 'I just feel that should be acknowledged in some way.'

The London School of Capoeira, London N5. Demonstrations every Saturday 3.30pm-4.30pm. Fees: pounds 7 per regular class. 10 classes for pounds 60. One week workshop pounds 90. Four Sunday workshops pounds 80. For details call 071-354 2084

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