Fighting Spirit

W hether he’s tapping a twanging rhythm on the wire string of a berimbau, landing gymnastic poses with his feet high in the air or simply sitting on a chair and gesturing as he tells his story, Efraim Silva’s enthusiasm is infectious. His Brazilian martial arts studio, Brazilian Fitness Center, is about to be inundated with five high-energy little boys for an afterschool class in capoeira, a form that combines martial arts with dance, but Silva, himself the father of teenagers, has more than enough energy of his own to take them on.

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At four and five years old, the students are getting a much earlier start than the mestre, their teacher. Silva began learning capoeira at the age of 13 in his native Brazil. One of the youngest in a family of 13 children, his initial motivation was self-defense against an older brother who was “always on my case, and he wanted to pick fights with me. I dedicated myself and I started to learn very seriously, and he always said, ‘Don’t think I’m afraid of your capoeira.’ But he never tried anything with me anymore,” Silva says. By then, capoeira had a hold on him. “I fell in love with the music, with everything, and at 17 I became an instructor.”

More than a straightforward course of self-defense moves, capoeira—which means “grassy area” in Portuguese—involves music and graceful, dancelike moves originally intended to disguise the underlying martial art, which was created by African slaves on the 16th-century Portuguese sugar cane plantations of Brazil. “There are stories that say that one person would be in the lookout. When the Portuguese came, the masters, to see where the slaves were, they would say, ‘The slaves are in the capoeiras,’” Silva explains. “And then when [the slaves] saw someone coming, the rhythm—the sound—would [alert] them… and the same time they would shift the martial arts [into] some kind of native dance.”

Today the practice of capoeira is less about survival and more about fun. Silva’s class of young learners shows up in their white trousers and studio t-shirts and begins their lesson at the drums—tall conga drums which resemble the traditional atabaque. They beat their hands in a set rhythmic pattern, ending with a dablike flourish. Then it’s time to run an obstacle course for fitness, weaving around orange cones, jumping over gym pads and turning cartwheels. Parents linger in the corner, relaxing or watching with amusement. Kara Straun’s four-year-old son just started taking classes in October. “At home, he’s saying the words and clapping the rhythms, so he really loves it,” she reports.

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“Everything I do with them is through play,” Silva says. “It is a very playful art form. So even with two very tough guys, they get in the hall and they’re trying to challenge each other and kick, when they finish they go and they hug.” That doesn’t mean, however, that it’s all fun and games. Within that playful structure there are rules. “The only way to learn anything in life is if you have discipline,” Silva says.

He speaks from experience. As a 25-year-old immigrant to America with limited English, he took on whatever jobs he could find. But always he was working on his capoeira. His sister encouraged him to build a stable career, perhaps getting licensed for massage therapy, which he’d been doing on the side for fellow Brazilian immigrants. “I am capoeira,” he says he told her. “It’s beyond me. It’s not just what I do for a living.” He kept on performing and teaching and eventually earned his green card as an “alien of extraordinary ability,” one of the nation’s premier capoeiristas. He’s taught in the physical education programs at Yale University and the University of New Haven as well as several other Connecticut colleges. A Connecticut Commission on the Arts training program taught him how to bring his art into the schools and work with children. Since then, he’s toured not only the state but also the country and the world, bringing a program about capoeira to school children as well as performing with the Afro-Brazilian dance company Ginga Brasileira with fellow artists Thelma Ladeira and Jeff Escritor Herdle.

Silva also showed his moxie by finally earning his high school diploma from West Haven High School at the age of 51. A cadre of 30 family members and friends came to graduation to cheer him on. “I got an award. I think they gave it to me because I was the oldest, [most] shameless man over there,” he jokes. The award was for bringing extraordinary focus to his studies. “I cried like a baby,” he says. Then he went out and told other adults his story, inspiring them to complete their own studies. He also did what his sister had urged: he earned his massage therapy license, running that business along with his teaching.

This particular week, Silva’s youngest students were about to earn their own first credential at a batizado (Portuguese for “baptism”). The light green and gray flag they’ll wear will indicate they’ve reached the first level of instruction in capoeira. Though this group happens to be all boys and capoeira was originally created for men only, today half of its practitioners are girls and women, Silva says.

Silva has been teaching capoeira in New Haven for 16 years in Wooster Square, Erector Square and on State Street. Now he’s in a new studio at the south end of Ella T. Grasso Boulevard, a roomy space with floor-to-ceiling mirrors and no neighbors to disturb with loud drumming. In addition to capoeira for adults and kids, Brazilian Fitness Center offers samba dance lessons for older teens and adults, taught by Ladeira.

But, as Silva’s story suggests, there’s more to be learned from him than capoeira. He’s a model of persistence and grit. Whenever he goes back to Brazil, he tries to pass along what he’s learned: “If you believe, there is always a possibility. This was not in my horizon at all.” He gestures around his studio, as if to gesture at all his accomplishments since he landed here decades ago. “Here I am.”

Brazilian Fitness Center
222 Ella T Grasso Blvd, New Haven (map)
(203) 691-7340 or (203) 982-4147
Website | Facebook Page

Written and photographed by Kathy Leonard Czepiel.

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About Kathy Leonard Czepiel

View all posts by Kathy Leonard Czepiel
Kathy Leonard Czepiel is Daily Nutmeg's associate editor. She's also a fiction writer, writing teacher and book club troubleshooter. Her perfect New Haven day would involve lots of sunshine, a West Rock hike, a concert on the green and a coffee milkshake.

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