Posted by: Nick Voss | November 19, 2013

Capoeira in the Northwoods: A Weekend with Mestre Yoji Senna

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LOWENWOOD RECREATION CENTER—On a recent wet, damp and dreary Saturday night, the Lowen Wood Recreation Center was bursting with a bright, playful energy. It was the energy of music, dance, language, and kicks. The energy was that of the Afro-Brazilian martial art called Capoeira. Thanks to Conserve’s guests, the Afro-Brazilian Capoeira Association of Minneapolis, students, and staff learned the basics of Capoeira movements, song, culture, and history. To top it off, it was a whole lot of fun!

So what is Capoeira? Put simply, it is a martial art of African origins that was developed in Brazil. During Brazil’s 500-year period of slavery, the game of Capoeira became an outlet for physical training, self-defense, and social support in the Afro-Brazilian population. Among many theories and story lines in Capoeira’s history, the most common narrative is that the self-defense maneuvers (kicks, grapples, and escapes) were disguised as a dance in an effort to elude the control of the Portuguese colonists. Escaped slaves started new communities far into the rainforest called quilombos, in which the art developed alongside communities, agriculture learned from indigenous peoples, and in essence, a sense of place. Throughout the struggle for freedom for Black people in Brazil, Capoeira was and is a source of strength, inspiration, and community. Today, this freedom takes on a slightly different role, and is applied broadly throughout the world, breaking Capoeiristas (those who practice Capoeira) away from the pressures of media, consumerism, injustice, and whatever holds them back from their full potential.

The Afro-Brazilian Capoeira Association is led by Mestre (Master) Yoji Senna, son of Mestre Carlos Senna. Hailing from the state of Bahia, Brazil, the Senna family is rooted in the source of what we know today as the art of Capoeira. Mestre Carlos Senna was a leader that helped improve the perception of Capoeira, presenting it with others (the famous Mestre Bimba) to the Brazilian government with class, passion, discipline, and skill in 1953. This presentation was in turn the pinnacle event that allowed the government to go from a prohibition on Capoeira as something “dangerous” or trouble-inducing, to supporting it as a means for self-discipline, social support, and a cultural staple of Brazil. It was exciting to experience this rich culture here at Conserve, in person!

The evening started off right away with movement: a warm-up that mixed Samba, African dance, and aerobics that led to the basic movements of Capoeira. Students and staff learned the ginga, the key swing-step motion that creates a persona of unpredictability and cunningness. This step along with the au (cart-wheel) was the source of all other movements to come. Once students and staff were comfortable with ginga and au, the instructors explained kicks like the meia lua (half-moon) kick and the kokarina (coconut) defense, in which one becomes a small ball, like a coconut. The Capoeiristas showed students how to practice in pairs, retaining eye contact the whole time, even when upside down in an au. Students soon found that the game of Capoeira demanded a careful, holistic level of attention, so as to remain safe and to know just when to playfully encroach upon an opponent. Throughout the event, the goal was never to intend harm on anyone, but to create an atmosphere of excitement and fun.

After a full training session, students and staff were ready to take what they’d learned and apply it to the roda (pronounced hoda), the main event of Capoeira. The roda is where music, dance, fight, and community collide. After learning a few traditional Capoeira songs (sung in Portuguese), the professional Capoeirsatas demonstrated their action-packed skill. Awestruck, the students were invited to join in, taking turns playing with the experienced Capoeiristas. Any students not playing the game at a given moment would still contribute to the atmosphere, singing and clapping in support. The game seemed like it would never end, with a continual line-up of students excited to give it a try.

As the night ended with a pick-up game of basketball, students peppered the Capoeristas with questions, in an effort to gain a better grasp on the new mindset that the game provides. The next day, however, many students and staff were a bit sore, and were spotted stretching around campus! Whether or not students were inspired to continue their Capoeira training, the event provided a fun, cross-cultural, and expressive evening that lit up the damp, dark, and rainy night. As Capoeira has spread throughout the world, it has been rooted in the original tropical sense of place of the quilombos, but is also applied to new habitats and regions. After a two and a half hour event, it’s safe to say that the Northwoods of Wisconsin is one of those very places, adding to the global conversation of Capoeira!

-Nick Voss, Academic Coodinator Grad Fellow

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