Two men crouch on the tiled floor. They make eye contact. They shake hands. They begin their dance.
One crawls like a crab into the center of the space. The other follows, head down, on all fours, his back arched like a camel. While rhythmic music plays from a speaker in the corner, the men circle each other, teasing almost, moving to the beat of an unspoken yin and yang.
The men are friends, but the game they play is much older than their friendship. It’s called capoeira, and it is a major part of Brazil’s cultural heritage.
“We are here to preserve nature, to get back in touch with our ancestry. Capoeira tries to bring people to a higher state of mind,” says José Geraldo Santos Souza, an expert in capoeira and one of the men practicing it in the upper floor of Sao Paolo’s Casa Jaya on July 22.
Originally practiced by African slaves on sugarcane and coffee plantations in colonial Brazil, capoeira consisted of a series of movements developed by slaves who sought to rebel against their masters. Santos said the movements often mimicked everyday activities like plating planting seeds or cutting with a machete, since they could be practiced without suspicion.
According to Santos and Capoeria-World.com, capoeira was outlawed for 50 years at the turn of the 20th century because of its widespread use in rebellions and uprisings. It became legal again in the 1940s, when individuals on the western coast of Brazil began teaching the movements in schools for self-defense, exercise and the preservation of traditions.
Today, capoeira is taught to children and adults of all races. It’s practiced in schools and community centers and places like Sao Paolo’s Casa Jaya restaurant, which Santos frequents as an instructor. The United Nations considers the game an intangible part of Brazil’s cultural heritage. “In this place, we merge people on the fringes of society with people in the center of society,” Santos says. “It used to be about love and fighting, but now it’s about love, understanding and friendship.” At the end of a morning of practice, Santos hugs his competitors, some of whom don’t speak his language. Sweat speckles his yellow t-shirt, and a smile radiates from his eyes. “Capoeira is not only made out of movement,” he says, “but also of love.”
Victoria Ison is a Ball State University student and writer for Ball State at the Games, a group of 50 journalism students traveling from Muncie, Indiana, to Rio for the Olympic Games. Follow them at bsuatthegames.com, @bsuatthegames on Twitter and Instagram, and facebook.com/bsuatthegames on Facebook.