Smile Politely

Capoeiristas Invade Champaign-Urbana

This past weekend saw capoeiristas from around the world gather in Champaign-Urbana for the 6th Annual International Capoeira Conference. Over 15 capoeira masters from Brazil, Mexico, France and all points in between spent four days teaching capoeiristas new skills and techniques for this growing discipline.

If the previous paragraph does not make much sense to you, it is probably easier to see than to describe. Capoeira is a Brazilian dance-like, martial-artsy, game-like, cooperative interplay of two people set in a circle of drums and other percussion instruments, plus Portuguese chants. People who enjoy this kind of thing are called, appropriately enough, capoeiristas.

Capoeira originated in Brazil in the 16th century. The ever-helpful Wikipedia explains that it was “a way to conceal the fact that slaves were practicing to fight (against their owners), concealing it with a seemingly happy dance routine. This explains why today’s capoeira appears to be a mix of both fighting techniques and flowing artful dance.”

Capoeira is a culture as much as an exercise, and it draws people in who like cooperation and engagement in their athletics. To the befuddlement of good red-blooded Americans, there are no points to be scored or competitions to be won. Men, women and children of all ages come together and dance in the same circle, and the more skilled players are expected to help their partners along in understanding, technique and respect. It’s a martial arts form that even near-pacifists can feel good about.

Local percussionist Chad Dunn has been a capoeirista for a few years and was initially draw to it because of the berimbau, the stringed percussion instrument used during capoeira play. He was introduced to the instrument by a capoeira master, and wanted to learn how to play it, in part, because he sensed a physical connection to the berimbau’s sounds. “I started training because I wanted to feel what the body is supposed to be listening to when the berimbau is being played,” he says.

The weekend’s conference was organized by local mestre (master) Denis Chiaramonte and his wife Aisha. The conference offered workshops for capoeiristas eager to learn different styles and moves from respected mestres, and provided endless opportunity for rodas, where people gather in a circle and participate in capoeira play.

The Chiaramontes run the Cordao do Ouro Capoeira Academy in Champaign. They started out about five years ago, originally giving free demonstrations at the Armory on the University of Illinois campus, then moved up to a University YMCA class. The program has been successful enough that they now have their own academy, at 24 E. Green St, Unit 11 (behind Rock’s on Springfield).

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