It’s hard to accept a martial art that’s more about music and dance than a fight sequence, isn’t it? Let’s give this a go—here’s an exercise: Think of the scene in the Tom Cruise-starrer The Last Samurai, where ninjas attack the brave and almighty samurai leader Katsumoto. And now, imagine the samurai defeating the opposition by an improv dance routine. Doesn’t work, right? I agree. Why is why I first scoffed at the idea of capoeira, a 500-year-old martial art that’s disguised as a dance. Even when I attended a session, I was entranced by the rataplan of the drums, the Portuguese songs and the many cartwheels, handstands, kicks, rolls and flips demonstrated by the “capoeira community”. But, I’ll be honest, I didn’t feel the need to go back for more. It seemed difficult, and it required far more agility and flexibility than I felt capable of. Until recently, when I came across Dina Ginwalla, a student at and exponent of Capoeira Mumbai, who engaged me in a conversation about this martial art’s history and significance.
Capoeira emerged when African slaves in Brazil were strictly forbidden from practicing any martial arts.
To ensure that policing authorities wouldn’t catch on, the Africans practiced it low, closer to the ground, around the tall grass—ensuring they were comfortably concealed—and made it look like a cultural music and dance programme, practicing it as if it were a game.
Ah, light bulb moment! It all comes together now. Plus, Ginwalla says, “It’s a powerful and intense workout that helps improve strength, flexibility and general fitness.” The result: she can do handstands, cartwheels and high kicks; she’s even learned musicality since singing Portuguese songs is part of the experience. “I chose capoeira because there’s no monotony. Each class is different because you learn songs, you learn to play musical instruments, you learn a variety of movements—it’s a high energy zone.” An intriguing capoeira practice is that of giving participants Portuguese or Brazilian names i.e. if you last at least three months. And they’re given basis the participant’s personality type. Ginwalla was christened ‘Tiririca’ (pronounced chiririca), which is a tall grass unique to Brazil that’s genteel on one side and has spikes on the other—to match her ‘nice until you mess with me’ approach. She says that names that translate to clown, Mother Earth and snake are all too common. Her enthusiasm, infectious as it was, is making me want to go back for more. And I *really* wonder what name they’ll give me!