As the crowd sang “Happy Birthday” to James Muwonge, he was trying not to get kicked in the head. They sang in Portuguese, clapping in time:
“Parabéns pra você . . .” Muwonge squatted to his right to avoid a crescent kick aimed at his temple.
“Nesta data querida . . .” Next he did a cartwheel, to his left.
“Muita felicidade . . .” Then he avoided a kick with a rocking movement back to the right.
“Muitos anos de vida!”
Muwonge shook hands with his opponent and watched as he reentered the circle, or “roda,” of 20 onlookers. Sweat ran from Muwonge’s brow to his abdomen. Ten down, 10 to go.
In capoeira, an Afro-Brazilian martial art that combines dancing and self-defense, all capoeiristas must spar — or “play” — on their birthdays. The group sang Portuguese songs outside the roda, the capoeira term for both the circle and the contest within it, as Muwonge and his next opponent attacked and evaded each other with cartwheels, kicks and back flips. Berimbaus, long Brazilian string instruments that look like fishing poles, were plucked and tambourines struck as the capoeiristas played.
Muwonge’s roda is underway at CapoeiraDC’s studio in the District. If the gray hairs in his beard didn’t betray him, the limber 41-year-old could pass for a man in his late 20s. “You find out who and what you are,” he says of practicing capoeira, “what you are made of.”
Capoeira was created by the West African slaves taken to Brazil by the Portuguese in the 16th century. It is an amalgam of African and Brazilian rhythm and movement, devised to fool Portuguese colonists with a fighting style disguised as dance. Renford Powell, founder and executive director of CapoeiraDC, describes it as a “physical conversation” between two people. “It opens you up to the world,” Powell said. “You have to expose yourself in order to learn.”
Capoeira requires more flexibility than kickboxing or jiu-jitsu, and involves “a lot more soul than most martial arts,” says Jennifer Lee, 31, of Brookland. “That’s why I love capoeira, the energy that it brings.” Coral De Jesus, 29, of Columbia Heights says capoeira is part of her weight-loss regimen. It “makes me feel like a superhero,” she said. “I didn’t know I could do these moves before.”
Capoeristas can look like superheroes, too. The ginga, capoeira’s basic movement, is a fluid shuffle from side to side; players use combinations of flips, spins and whirls to revolve toward and away from each other. Skilled practitioners can twirl their legs in a flurry like helicopter propellers. Capoeira is the distant, deadly cousin of B-boying.
And like B-boying, capoeria is reliant on music for its pacing and momentum. Powell or one of the senior capoeristas will incline their heads toward a player who is not clapping or singing attentively. Some capoeiristas lead call-and-response songs about history and spirituality during rodas.
CapoeiraDC was founded in 2002, the Seattle-based Capoeira Malês organization’s second American school. (Capoeira Malês, an organization created to share the culture and art of capoeira, has five schools in the United States and three internationally.) The school moved to a new space on Rhode Island Avenue in Brookland last month, its fourth relocation since setting up shop at its original U Street location. “D.C. is a tough city!” Powell says.
Capoeira was outlawed in Brazil in 1890, so its practitioners met in secret and used nicknames to hide their identities. The tradition of aliases still exists: If a student practices long enough, he or she earns a nickname. Everyone at CapoeiraDC calls Powell by his nickname, Morcego (“bat” in Portuguese), which he earned by studying night and day. “No one gets worse from practice,” said Powell, a 39-year-old Jamaica native who came to the United States in 1987. “When I say we studied capoeira a lot, we studied a lot.”
Another roda is underway. As the berimbaus play, John Oduroe’s crescent kick sails over his opponent’s head, his heel grazing the other man’s scalp. Oduroe charges with an aggressive yet agile style suited to his capoeira nickname, Touro, or bull. He says he came to capoeira looking for an adrenaline rush — and found it. “I think the hardest part of doing capoeira is getting in the door,” said the 33-year-old architect.