Isabella Benitez and Mario Naranjo met a year ago through salsa and, this past Wednesday evening, the couple danced the night away.
Instead of a dance floor, though, Benitez and Naranjo were practicing cartwheels and flips at Legacy Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu and Mixed Martial Arts on North Victory Boulevard in Burbank.
The couple was doing capoeira, an Afro-Brazilian martial art that fuses dance, martial arts and acrobatic movements created in 16th-century Brazil by African slaves who practiced the dance that was disguised as self-defense.
Those taking part, called Capoeiristas, dodge, flip, kick and spin around one another while others sing Portuguese songs at the top of their lungs. His first experience in the roda, the Portuguese word for “circle,” was “completely mind-blowing,” Naranjo said.
“It’s about the music, the culture, the language. It’s not only this one hour you’re doing capoeira, it’s a part of life,” the 36-year-old Highland Park resident added.
In the beginning, capoeira was used to fool and evade enemies. Today, capoeira is used by people for competitions, fellowship and to have a melodic conversation with their bodies.
Every Monday and Wednesday evening since Jan. 15, Anthony Kouyoumdjian has taught capoeira to students of all experience levels. His school, Capoeira Brasil Burbank, is an extension of the larger capoeira organization, Capoeira Brasil Los Angeles.
One takeaway everyone should know about capoeira is that all participants win because they are learning and having fun.
“There’s no winner or loser in capoeira,” said Kouyoumdjian, 29, of Burbank. “It’s about my technique against your technique.”
Like Benitez and Naranjo, Kouyoumdjian discovered capoeira through his love of dancing. Kouyoumdjian, who spent years break-dancing, was attracted to the fluidity and movements of capoeira.
“I am from Armenian Lebanese descent, but I fell in love in with Brazilian culture and wanted to study the history of capoeira,” Kouyoumdjian said.
Kouyoumdjian has traveled the world, studying and teaching capoeira.
“It’s nice that our instructor focuses on the music and etiquette,” Benitez, 25, of Sherman Oaks, said of Kouyoumdjian. “Not just the martial art itself, but respecting other people who do it.”
“I loved it,” said Ben Stream, 33, after doing capoeira for the first time in January. Coming from a jiu jitsu background, Stream found learning the capoeira movements tough, but he remained committed.
“It’s pretty challenging. I couldn’t get the hand [movements] right at first,” he said.
Stream’s side-to-side movements during warm-ups earned him the nickname “crab.” All capoeiristas are given a nickname for different reasons — such as their personality or movements.
To his students, Kouyoumdjian is Instructor Quebrado, which means “broken” — a reference to his break-dancing background.
Capoeira is a marriage of African and Brazilian cultures. Enslaved Africans brought to Brazil continued the dance-fighting style they created, blending it with Brazilian music.
“I always loved Brazilian music, especially the samba, when I was growing up. I never learned so much about their culture until now,” Benitez said.
The instruments used in capoeira originated in Africa. “I like playing the atabaque,” Stream said, which is a tall hand drum. “That’s my favorite.”
The berimbau, a single-string percussion instrument, the pandeiro, which is a small hand drum that looks like a tambourine, and the atabaque drum are essential to capoeira. The music paces the Capoeiristas’ movements — a fast beat makes the capoeiristas move faster, while a slower tempo gives the roda a more relaxed vibe.
“The berimbau leads the roda,” Kouyoumdjian said, which is why the instructor uses it during class.
Benitez, Naranjo and Stream all started classes in January, and still stick with it.
“It’s something I did at a different location, but there was a conflict with the schedule. When they brought it here, I was all for it,” Naranjo said.
Naranjo said capoeira does give people life lessons.
“You may get it today, you may not get it tomorrow. But as long as you keep trying and doing it, eventually it becomes a flow,” Naranjo said.