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Students mix martial arts, tribal dance in new club

Nov. 15, 2006

Melea Burke/Lariat staff
Irving junior Carl Young, left, and Chris Jefferson, a Jasper senior, practice moves for an upcoming show Wednesday while other members of Capoeira play music in Russell Gymnasium.


Baylor has a new martial art to go along with karate, tai chi and jiu-jitsu. Capoeira, the latest addition, has a past as a secret weapon during 19th-century slave rebellion.

Capoeira, pronounced cap-WHERE-a, is an old Brazilian martial art which has spread today to the United Kingdom, Russia and the U.S.

Baylor Capoeira Club president Chris Crowther, a Dallas junior, said the martial art used to be disguised as tribal dance by African slaves in Brazil in the 1800s.

"They pretended to do tribal dance but were practicing fighting to take over their masters," he said.

When slavery was outlawed in that country around 1880, the practice of capoeira became illegal. Slave owners realized the real reason the slaves were dancing, and they put a stop to it, Crowther said.

Freed slaves caught practicing it were punished and sometimes even executed.

Crowther told the short version of a story in which one slave caught practicing capoeira had his arms tied to two horses, one for each arm, as punishment. Each horse was led in opposing directions, breaking his arms and preventing him from further practice of capoeira.

That much is known for sure about Capoeira, and other aspects of it are fuzzy. It's thought to have come from Angola, and one name translation could be "bird-catcher," although the significance is lost, Crowther said.

In the early 1930s, a man named Maestro Bimba worked with the Brazilian government to make Capoeira legal again and in doing so he modified it, combining Asian martial art techniques with traditional Capoeira moves.

The Baylor Capoeira club started last spring in April.

"I couldn't believe that there was nobody in all of Waco that played capoeira," said Shama Blaney, a Denver, Colo. graduate student.

Blaney started all the paperwork and wrote the constitution for the charter process and met undergraduates who had played and were also interested in the club.

"The first time we met there were about six people and most of them had played capoeira before," Blaney said.

Now, she said, they want the club to be open to all people with, or without, a background in martial arts because all of the club's members started from the ground up at some time.

During their demonstration the "capoeiristas," as they are called in Brazil, balanced on their hands on the ground and quickly came up to fend off their opponents in agile moves.

Men and women who practice Capoeira call themselves "players" because they are play fighting, Crowther said.

"Somebody kicks you, you do countermoves. It's like chess -- back and forth, with an infinite number of moves. You make (the move) up as you go. You end up having your own style," Crowther said.

The fact that they were only pretending to fight was emphasized. Capoeira performed in the streets of Brazil was designed to be aggressive, while at schools it is noncombative, James Aaron, a Dallas junior, said.

When players get into semicircle or circle formation, "whichever player feels ready to challenge the other player will jump in," for a two- to three- minute "fight," Crowther said.Tripping another player and knocking him or her to the ground constitutes a win.

The club's instructor is a native Brazilian who was practicing capoeira in Chicago when he was contacted by the club, Crowther said.

"One of my goals being president is just having everybody learning the basics. So when he (the instructor) comes they'll be prepared to go to the next level," Crowther said.

He was invited as a special teacher at the end of April when the club was still young.

"We all got his plane ticket," Crowther said, "He came to one class and he loved Waco so much that he moved down here."

Right now Ulisses Olivera is teaching African dance in Philadelphia and Pittsburg but Crowther said he plans on opening a capoeira school when he returns.

Baylor Capoeira Club meets Wednesdays from 5 to 7 p.m. and Sundays from 4 to 6 p.m. in Russell Gymnasium.