Twice a week at the London School of Capoeira, ordinary folk transform into Capoeiristas. Dressed in the obligatory white uniform, 20 students crouch in a circle, or roda. Some keep time with traditional Brazilian songs and instruments, including the bow-like berimbau and tambourine, while two players spar in the centre.
Whirling and spiralling around each other with a series of leg swoops, back bends and cartwheels, the players rarely make contact, since the idea is to outwit your opponent rather than defeat them physically. They seem to be able to read each other's moves intuitively, leading each other on and then spinning out of the way before the other can take the lead. Their graceful, circular movements are hypnotic.
Capoeira was originally a style of defensive combat, developed by African slaves in Brazil, nearly 300 years ago. Disguised as a dance to deter suspicion, music and song would signal the approach of the enemy. In Brazil today, Capoeira is massive, both as a competitive sport and performance art. It is already a big hit in the States, and Europe is quickly catching on.
Sylvia Bazzarelli, 33, is the inspiration behind both the classes and shows in London. She became a master of Capoeira in Brazil, emigrated in 1986 and set up the school a year later with her husband. Since then, she has seen about 5,000 people take up the game.
When I ask her to define Capoeira, she hesitates. "Because it grew out of oppression and secrecy, it is infused with hidden meanings. This elusive quality is reflected in the game - it cannot be simply defined or categorised. To me it is an art form, a space where you can express yourself."
Despite employing similar moves, each Capoeirista, has his or her own approach. Some have an assertive style, others are more passive. "The point is that you bring yourself into it and have fun," says Bazzarelli. "Some see the fighting style of Capoeira as an interesting way of keeping fit, others enjoy the theatrical and spiritual aspects or simply prefer to watch. It appeals to all sorts."
One of the more adept students, Rachel Lewsley, 27, has been practising Capoeira for two years. She wears a blue belt, which grades experience in a similar way to martial arts. "Capoeira is a joyous and holistic experience," she says. "You're always learning."
Capoeira is a social affair with a strong community feel to the classes, which are always followed by last orders at the pub across the road. Jacob Rety, 24, a trainee chef, likes the closeness of the group where playing in the roda means that you have to break down your inhibitions. "It's a good way of getting confidence in yourself and meeting people you normally wouldn't," he says.
So, if you find yoga too mellow, kung fu too hardcore, and aerobics too silly, Capoeira might just be the game for you this year.
Capoeira workshops are held at The Place, Studio 8, 17 Dukes Road, London WC1H 9AB, Tuesday and Friday, 8pm-10pm. Beginners classes start 19 January. For information, call 0171 281 2020.Reuse content