Play-fighting to the music

Times Staff Writer

From inside a small studio called Capoeira Brasil, located on an unremarkable stretch of Washington Boulevard in L.A., spirited voices singing in Portuguese pierce the nighttime quiet of the neighborhood. But this is not a group of expatriates homesick for their native country -- this is capoeira, and it could be the next big thing on the fitness circuit.

Capoeira (pronounced "cap-wear-ah") is a Brazilian form of martial arts, combining fighting techniques, dance, music and acrobatics, and has its roots from the Africans who brought it to Brazil as slaves more than 400 years ago.

Participants "play" capoeira standing in a circle called a roda, with musicians at the head. Two people enter the roda, doing flips, throwing kicks -- seldom making contact, but always aware of each other's movements. There is no choreography, but rather a physical dialogue.

Old play with young, tall with short, neophytes with experts, and when they finish their round, they shake hands or hug. Uniforms are simple -- white pants and white T-shirts, with varying colors of cords signifying levels of ability. Music is an essential component, as the Portuguese songs and the drum rhythms serve not only to keep the energy level high, but also to carry on centuries-old stories through the lyrics.

In this country, capoeira has been slowly catching on among children and adults seeking more than just a workout. Besides studios such as Capoeira Brasil, classes are offered in several area gyms, including the Sports Club/LA, Bodies in Motion and the Hollywood Wilshire YMCA. Its growing popularity isn't surprising, considering Southern California's passion for Latin dance-based cardio classes and our insatiable appetite for the latest fitness trends. There's also the fact that L.A. has an estimated population of 10,000 Brazilians.

Although the advanced flips and kicks of capoeira demand training, agility and skills, anyone can play.

While students are encouraged to improve, the emphasis in class is not on fighting to win, or besting your opponent, or being the finest athlete.

Rather, it's on building and being part of a community, gaining confidence and becoming a better person -- something the typical Spinning class doesn't offer.

At Capoeira Brasil the adult classes reflect a varied demographic and a fairly even mix of men and women, but most students are under 30. Although some people play capoeira into their 60s and even 70s, the physical demands make this primarily a young person's game. Those who embrace it love to talk about it, sometimes going a little heavy on the hyperbole.

"Capoeira has the source for a better world," says Mestre (master) Boneco, the Brazilian co-founder of the 14-year-old Grupo Capoeira Brasil, a group of capoeira academies in the U.S. and abroad (he began the L.A. branch in 1998). "Everybody is together and we hug, no matter what type of person you are. You don't have to look a certain way. We have all kinds of people here, and except for this they would never interact. But here they do, and they go out to dinner and have fun."

Boneco, whose real name is Beto Simas (every capoeirista is given a Portuguese nickname) is well-known as a model and actor in Brazil. While he still dreams of stardom stateside, teaching capoeira is "part of my mission, I believe. I need to pass on my knowledge to people, my energy."

His new studio opened about two weeks ago and is already straining at the seams -- students number about 120. During warmups men and women doing stretching, jumping jacks and sit-ups spill out beyond the dance floor to the studio's open door.

"Keep smiling!" Boneco bellows. "Keep smiling!"

During the roda everyone participates, but the more accomplished students show off the true beauty of capoeira's dance-like acrobatics. Axe Vita, 24, flips and kicks as if held by strings, defying gravity.

Vita, a Los Angeles rap artist who discovered the dance form while dating a Brazilian woman several years ago, says his gymnastics and acrobatic training has helped him advance in capoeira, but adds "this is one exercise where you get to use every single part of your body. I even have really quick reflexes now. But it's like my spirit is free when I'm in here. No worries, no stress. It's like church to me."

Cathy Warfield, 22, describes being "bitten" by capoeira the first time she observed it about a year ago: "The music, the energy -- it was very playful," says the community service specialist from L.A. "I started training about every day, and I've lost 40 pounds. I wasn't even trying to lose weight. Everybody's been so supportive, it's made me want to keep coming. This is like my second home."

Grupo Capoeira Brasil plans to hold workshops today through Friday during its International Capoeira Festival (for information, call [323] 935-2224 or go to www.capoeirabrasil .com).

Health professionals searching for ways to encourage people to develop a lifelong love of exercise might learn something from capoeira. Combining elements such as lively classes, the ability to see results and a friendly, supportive atmosphere, capoeira may hold the secrets to a successful program.

But as capoeira becomes more popular -- and is exposed to that seemingly inevitable L.A. overexposure and ultra-trendiness -- some fear that it may lose its substantial heritage.

"I try to keep the roots as much as I can," Boneco says, "but I did a CD, and at the end I have a little dance I do with capoeira. Sometimes we have to change a little bit just to get more people involved, and then we show them the roots. I do worry about people teaching who don't have the knowledge. Some of them don't know the traditions, and that's dangerous. But if you have the foundation, it doesn't matter where you teach."

About 20 people showed up for the first capoeira class at the Hollywood Wilshire YMCA in early January, says Jennifer Haas, the Y's group health and fitness director.

"People just saw it on the schedule and their interest was piqued," Haas says. "They were throwing themselves into it, people of all ages. The instructor had them crawling on the ground. I took the class, and I felt like I was 5 years old again."

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