Capoeira: A Dance, a Play or a Fight?

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Ren Powell, the director of Capoeira Males, will join members of his Washington, D.C., based studio at the National Museum of the American Indian as part of the city-wide D.C. Dance Festival this Saturday. I spoke with Powell about this unique dance form and where it comes from.

So, what is Capoeira?

It is a game, it is a dance, it is play, it is fight. It is all those things.

Where did it come from?

It was just a resistance to colonialism, just like how reggae was created in Jamaica, and over here in the United States, in New Orleans, there was jazz. Eventually different forms of manifestations of inherent movement turn into stuff like break dancing. So that’s how Capoeira really came about. It’s just a combination of the different arts that the enslaved Africans brought with them. After colonialism and slavery was outlawed, a lot of people who had escaped into the mountains with their different techniques came into the inner cities and started developing schools in the northeast of Brazil. That’s where a lot of the contemporary Capoeira that you see today developed.

Tell me about your studio, Capoeira Males.

The group’s not just run by a hierarchy system, but it’s run by people strengths. One of my main students, she’s an economist so naturally managing money and the non-profit is her role. It just works like clockwork.

Your Web site says that Capoeira is a "means of liberation from the barriers people impose on themselves." Can you elaborate on that?

It is a means of self discovery in terms of you learning about yourself. Whenever someone puts themselves through the ringer, whether it be like boot camp, joining the army, going to four years of university, one develops the ability to stick to something and to become calloused to failure. Those things help you to learn about yourself because you learn where your weak points are, you learn what your strengths are. You capitalize on your strengths and learn to develop your weaknesses in order to become a more balanced person.

Even though Capoeira is a form of martial arts, you say "to play" Capoeira. Why?

The word "play" Capoeira came about because during the colonial period when the enslaved Africans were on those plantations, there were head men walking around, guys that were in charge of the enslaved Africans. I don’t think you’d want to go back to the big guy in the big house and say, "A couple of your subjects are down there fighting and practicing with these machetes and all this other stuff." They developed the terminology to kind of disguise the intention of the game as well as the development of what was being developed. You will notice that most of the words in Capoeira are non-violent terminology. We play the game of Capoeira as opposed to the war and the fights. That kind of terminology isn’t used. It has become part of the trickery, the word we use is called malicia. Part of the malicia of Capoeira is to sell someone a six for a nine, literally.

Capoeria reminds me a little of break dancing. Am I way off with that comparison?

The thing about a lot of African-based dance, performance or community events, is they’re usually done in circles. Some break dancers come to our Capoeira classes to learn a lot of new movements. There are a lot of similarities. What happened is that break dancing is just a manifestation of an inherent movement of a people in one area versus another area.

Everyone gets a Capoeira nickname. What’s yours?

My Capoeira nickname is Morego. And it means bat. It’s because I am a night person. I love the night. I come alive at night. My Capoeira master came out here to D.C. from Seattle and hung out with us and trained us for awhile, and he noticed that I was always exuberant at night. So he’s like, "You’re like a bat." He’s very fast. He executes everything really fast. So his name is Corisco, which means lightning. When you see him play, you’re like, "That is lightning fast."

When do people generally get their nicknames?

If your personality is exuberant and your personality is brilliant and you shine a lot, you can get your name the first day. That’s the things about Capoeira, you cannot hide who you are. Eventually people will get to know you based on the way you play. It’s just like when you work with someone in the office, and you get to know them from their habits. Some people disguise it longer and some people show you immediately. It just depends on the individual.

What about the future?

I can talk about Capoeira forever and ever and ever and ever. I’m completely an addict. It is just one of the most amazing things on this planet. I’m surprised that more people aren’t involved in it.

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