Smile When You Say That 

The traditional Brazilian martial art of capoeira blossoms in Berkeley.

The Brazilian martial art of capoeira is a marvelous mix of music, dance, and acrobatics combining skill, grace, and playfulness -- a dance of life. The creative force behind the Capoeira Arts Cafe in Berkeley, Mestre Acordeon, aka Bira Almeida, describes it as "an art to fight smiling," because of the humor so prevalent in capoeira. Bits of joking and clowning go hand in hand with the sparring, jumping, and kicking. Yet the movements are so subtle that to the uninitiated it appears to be a dance rather than a fight. The deceptiveness is no accident -- capoeiristas were once very careful to keep this remarkable martial art a secret.

Capoeira has its roots in the tough streets of Brazil. Acordeon says the old, poor section of Salvador, Bahia, where he first learned capoeira as a young boy, was filled with drunks, outlaws, and half-naked prostitutes -- quite a contrast to his home in the middle-class part of town. "It was a rich and live ambience that I later came to love strongly," he remembers.

Acordeon began his studies in the rundown quarter at the small school of Mestre Bimba, who he claims was his only teacher. "He was born in 1889, and was one of the most respected African-Brazilian personalities of his time -- the first capoeira master to open a school and successfully teach thousands of students. Bimba was always sharp and straightforward, a man who faced the storms of life firm and solid as an oak tree," he explains.

When asked about his own students, Acordeon says they are wonderful, open-minded people who embrace a complex and sophisticated art form from another culture. "Like other capoeiristas in the world," he declares, "they find in capoeira an answer for deep questions in terms of their personal growth."

On Saturday, July 5, at 2 p.m., Capoeira Arts is holding its sixth Batizado, a traditional celebration for welcoming new students. "They will play capoeira with and in front of guest masters," Acordeon says. The event is also a time when older students are initiated to a higher level. But more importantly, Acordeon says, "It is an encounter in which students from different schools have the opportunity to interact and to play capoeira together." He describes capoeira as a "spectacle without an attempt to be so -- a dynamic art form that is enticing to watch." He adds that anyone who shows up is invited to attend classes free of charge for a week. The offer is valid for two weeks after the event.

Although there will not be a street festival this year, the event includes more than just Saturday's Batizado, and for those who love samba, Almeida promises that a roda de samba -- an early circle-dance form of Brazil's national music -- is always part of capoeira. Beginning Tuesday, July 1, through Sunday afternoon, July 6, Capoeira Arts is hosting a gathering of capoeira masters from Brazil and the United States, with a wide variety of classes and workshops. The event will come to a close Sunday afternoon with a barbecue and party. The Capoeira Arts Cafe is at 2020 Addison Street, Berkeley. Admission to the Batizado is $10. For more information call 510-666-1255.


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