Beat Fighters

Beat Fighters

Kevin “Guerreiro” DeShields is a fighter. For years he practiced Western boxing and, later, Chinese martial arts.

Of African descent, DeShields became curious about whether there were any martial arts with African roots. His search brought him to capoeira, the Brazilian fight-dance, and nine years later, he’s still “playing,” as the form’s practitioners say.

DeShields plays at the Connecticut Capoeira & Dance Center at 1175 State Street under mestre (“master”) Efraim Silva. According to Silva, there’s no definitive history of capoeira. “All the history is by word of mouth,” he says. With so many versions, “you’ll go crazy to really understand.”

sponsored by

Fleeing Famine at Knights of Columbus Museum

The story that’s commonly told goes like something like this: In the 16th century, West African slaves brought to Brazil’s plantations were forbidden from practicing either their native customs or any form of combat. Capoeira developed as a way to hide their martial art in the form of a dance. Some black slaves managed to use their clandestine combat training to escape their masters. Entire cities of runaways—quilombos—formed, and from these strongholds they attacked the Portuguese, hoping to abolish Brazilian slavery altogether.

The dance has since become a cultural treasure of Brazil and is becoming increasingly popular outside the country. DeShields tells me that Eddy Gordo, a character from the popular Tekken video game series, was modeled after the capoeira of Marcelo Pereira, a mestre Silva calls a good personal friend.

In the early 20th century, the art form split into two major styles. One was the folkloric, closer-to-Africa Capoeira Angola, popularized by Mestre Pastinha (Vicente Ferreira Pastinha). The other was the faster, more combative style called Capoeira Regional, developed and popularized by Mestre Bimba (Manoel dos Reis Machado). Today most capoeira studios teach both styles, though things seem to be trending towards the dance rather than the fight.

When Silva competed in Brazil in the 1970s and ’80s, capoeira competitions were still full-contact. “People had broken arms,” he remembers. “It was ugly.” Today, Silva finds himself thinking, “I didn’t get anything out of it. They pay any money. It was just for the pleasure of beating each other up. I’m so glad I don’t do that .”

Today, the rules of the International Capoeira Federation reward technique, not force. Points are awarded only if it’s clear there was no attempt to harm the other person. Kicks still connect and people still wind up on the floor, but at least on the international level, efforts have been made to make capoeira’s combat more artful than martial.

Executing capoeira’s graceful, well-timed kicks, dodges, cartwheels and handstands requires acute bodily control. The roda (“hoda”)—the environment during a bout, including the musicians, the capoeiristas, the spectators and the energy that binds them all—is in turn controlled mostly by the berimbou, a percussive instrument that looks like a tensed fishing rod and sounds like a feisty, three-note banjo. The intensity of the soundtrack, which includes drums, controls the intensity of the roda, and the person playing the berimbou, usually the mestre, has the power to stop or start a contest as well as select the contestants.

“The music brings out the best and worst in people,” Silva says. “If the music is too exciting … if someone’s not there to control the energy, it transforms into a negative thing, it becomes a fight.” But that’s not the capoeira culture Silva seeks to cultivate.

His goal is to create a supportive community of capoeiristas from all walks of life. He wants anyone to feel welcome even if they’ve never done it before or believe they can’t. Judging from the constituency of his classes, Silva’s inclusive sentiment is genuine. There’s the guerreiro, or “warrior,” DeShields, the Young Communist (and capoeira instructor) Lisa “Fominha” Bergmann and the theoretical condensed matter physicist Dr. Matthew Enjalran, who chairs the physics department at Southern Connecticut State University.

Perhaps no one reflects this inclusive ideal better than Ian Ninomiya, a boy with Down syndrome who’s been playing capoeira for nearly seven years. “It helps with language skills and he thinks it’s exciting,” says his mother, Janice Ninomiya. “It’s been great for him.”

From inside his office, Silva looks out with an air of pride at the diverse roda in progress on the floor of his studio. “I’m in love with this shit.”

Connecticut Capoeira & Dance Center
1175 State St, Rm 207, New Haven (map)
(203) 982-4147
Website | Schedule

Written and photographed by Daniel Shkolnik.

More Stories