Dancing to a Different Beat

As you approach you are first struck by the grandeur of the building; the sheer size of the yellow roofed structure and the spacious, well laid out gardens surrounding the monument.

Having walked from the MRT station, you round the corner with the intention of seeing Sun Yat Sen himself before you notice Taipei 101’s neon magnificence looming up before you.

It’s quiet, peaceful even, the stillness only occasionally broken by a distant siren here and giggle-laced conversation there.

And it’s then that your ear picks up on a strange sound. There is some form of chanting not too far away, accompanied by a rhythmic, almost tribal drum beat.

As you move closer you can begin to discern that the chanting is repetitive, with what might be described as a single “caller” being answered by an array of voices.

Your curiosity now having been thoroughly tickled, you finally get close enough to glimpse white clothed bodies conducting what looks like a bizarre dance while their compadres encircle them and clap.

Bewildered, surprised, but also strangely enthralled, you reach for the camera while thinking to yourself, “what in the world is going on…?”

This, at least, is what I imagine a typical Taiwanese first encounter with Capoeira to be like.

But what might perhaps be even stanger still is the sight of this greatly unusual but entirely foreign martial art being conducted chiefly by Taiwanese in the very heart of these symbolic testaments to Taiwan’s identity.

Right there, amongst such definitions of Taiwanese-ness as the Sun Yat Sen Memorial and Taipei 101, is where you’ll find Taiwan’s branch of the Grupo Axe Capoeira training hard five times a week.

The foreignness of this artform could not possibly be greater if it tried.

Its roots lie in a history entirely devoid of even the remotest whiff of Asian influence.

Largely attributed to the need of the African slaves taken to Brazil to hide their martial prowess from white masters, it embodies a pseudo-European, African and now South American culture and history all of its own.

All singing is done in the original Portuguese and focuses to a large extent on the plight of black Brazilians struggling with poverty and racism.

It is a martial art, yes, but one that is nearly unrecognisable to Asian folk who are more probably than not used to fighting forms complete with forms (also known as kata) and set moves that to some more modern practioners (such as Bruce Lee) might seem somewhat rigid.

Capoeira has its fair share of kicks, many of which are similar to those of Tae Kwon Do, for instance, but is so very much more than this.

While incorporating relatively little in the way of punches, a good Capoeirista will surprise and confuse an opponent with a variety of flips, hand stands, feints, tricks, grapples and a constant transferal from an upright position to extremely low ground movements and back again.

And, for those proficient enough, this will all be done in a state of complete fluidity where one move flows invisibly into the next and the player is never, ever stationary.

The results can be simply breathtaking, especially if performed by a professional or, if you’re truly lucky by two professionals playing together.

Added to that is the music, a deep, rhythmic music that both rouses and controls the players, who should play to the tempo it sets.

A roda – meaning “circle” in Portuguese – typically begins at a slower pace so that the players can warm up and demonstrate the cleanliness of their moves while also getting some practice but soon the drum will speed up to the time of the birembau (the one-stringed instrument which the other instruments follow) and “the gloves come off”, as it were.

It is at this higher speed that the real playing occurs, when the kicks begin to fly and the jumps and kicks become more elaborate.

And, if the players are in the mood, it is at this point that contact begins to enter the proceedings. There are no “rules” at this point, meaning the game can go in any direction that the players take it.

Each contender is forced to react to the opponent’s moves while hopefully trying to control the game.

If the game gets too rough you can step out, but if you want to take it to the next level that option always remains available, too.

The art also differs from Asian arts in the type of training that is received.

From day one, each person is encouraged to learn the songs and instruments so that they are later able to participate fully in making the roda a success.

Many soon become hooked and go beyond the simple training to try to discover something of the meaning behind the songs and the context in which they were written, bearing in mind that Capoeira was illegal for much of its history because of its association with the black underclass and their resistance.

Beyond that, Capoeira is also very much a “practical” artform. From day one, actually practising what you have learned against people of all levels is an integral part of the training process.

It is often something of a shock to new students but most soon come to love it.

It is unpredictable, often challenging and takes a good deal of commitment and time to learn but for these very reasons it’s attracting increasing numbers of Taiwanese.

Because it’s unpredictable it can never become dull. Because each player is free, there’s always something more to learn from those you play against.

Iena (this Capoeira name means “Hiena” in Portuguese, given him because of his propensity to laugh insanely at any given moment) has been studying Capoeira for five years and teaching it for three.

When he and his sister were asked why they’d begun studying Capoeira they told a story of reading a Japanese comic book as a kid in which Capoeira featured.

At the time they’d assumed that it was only a fairy tale, a product of the author’s imagination, and had dismissed it as a fantasy.

It was only once they’d gone to study in Australia that Iena’s sister, Mei Mei, came across Capoeira by chance at college.

She immediately told her brother that she’d discovered the magical sport that they’d read of as kids. She joined almost the same week and her brother soon followed.

And now, six years later, they are still to be found there under the yellow roof most evenings of the week. It was interesting to ask them why they loved Capoeira.

It was because of its complete difference from anything they’d ever seen before that they became so addicted. “Capoeira is more like freestyle. We use all the space there is.”

Many of the members had tried or still did other martial arts but were drawn to Capoeira because it filled in the gaps that the others left open.

Whereas other martial arts are often one-directional, Capoeiristas will move in a way that is far more unpredictable.

Whereas other martial arts are practiced in a simulated environment, students of Capoeira are taught to get used to being face-to-face with opponents from the very beginning.

Oh, and of course Capoeira looks quite simply incredible when done with any level of skill, whereas other martial arts just don’t catch the eye.

Capoeira is now set to grow exponentially, especially as groups such as Axe Capoeira Taiwan move beyond the beginners stage and public recognition of the sport increases.

Pure Fitness, one of the best gyms currently in Hong Kong is already holding regular Real Capoeira classes (as opposed to the watered down version sometimes found in fitness centres) and will be opening a new fitness centre in the Taipei 101 building in the earlier part of 2007.

They plan to include Capoeira as part of the core of their fitness activities under the instruction of Indio, one of the best practitioners in Asia, who will then return here to teach full-time.

It seems that the influence of this wholly Brazilian art form is growing.

The future is certainly bright.

The future’s Brazilian.

- by Nathan Haslewood, Taiwanease magazine, 2007

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