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As capoeira gains popularity in the District, more and more women are stepping into the ring.

Inside the International Capoeira Angola Foundation’s school a few blocks from the Takoma Metro station, group founder and master instructor Cinezio Pecanha leads a rigorous practice session. Nicknamed “Cobra Mansa” (“Tame Snake”) for his ability to uncoil suddenly into a surprise attack, the man is also affectionately called “Mestre Cobrinha” by his students.

“Don’t look at me,” he urges. “Let’s go.” The young woman he hovers over does a monkeylike jump, followed by a slow, fluid advance-then-retreat movement called the ginga, the basic move of the African-Brazilian martial and musical art capoeira. Twenty-four-year-old Lucia Duncan, in a cream sweater, struggles to sing and play the rhythm in time.

“Nope! Again,” Mestre Cobrinha directs, as Duncan’s voice rises slightly under the deeper tones of Sheryll Aldred, the student sitting next to her. They strike the steel strings of their bow-shaped berimbaus with sticks held in their right hands. Next, Mestre Cobrinha goes after the guy playing the atabaque, a long cylindrical drum, discouraging him from showing off with fancy rhythms. When the singers begin to falter, Mestre Cobrinha directs his squeaky marker to a white-board, pointing to the words he wants the class to sing in unison.

“[Capoeira] is a fun physical exchange with the opposite sex,” says D.C. resident Duncan, who was first exposed to capoeira two years ago, when she took part in an exchange program at Brazil’s University of Rio de Janeiro. Then she stops and clarifies, laughing: “[It’s] not sexual in any way, just playful and friendly.”

It’s also an increasingly popular form of ritualized combat played out to the strains of a polyrhythmic orchestra: In the middle of a circular area called the roda, players improvise a game of strike and defense, interlocking movements of headstands, spins, and kicks surrounded by musicians and spectators.

The session begins with three berimbaus playing a slow rhythm; then the atabaque, pandeiro (tambourine), agogô (double-headed bell), and reco-reco (a grooved percussion instrument) join in. Then a capoeirista delivers the ladainha, a solo litany initiating a new round of play. This is followed by a song of praise to God, the louvação, which leads to the corrido, a call-and-response that offers commentary on the action and beckons everyone to sing. The jogo, or game, can go on for several minutes, until the players shake hands, exit, and are replaced. There is no explicit winner or loser, and the game can be fast or slow, depending on the spirit of the music and the relationship between the players.

There are two distinct styles of capoeira—capoeira regional, which incorporates European influences, and capoeira angola, which emphasizes the old traditions of the art form—but the basic format is the same for both.

“Flow with the movement—never go against it. Trust everybody, but trust no one. Keep your eyes open. Pay attention to everything around you. Don’t lose your ginga,” says Mestre Cobrinha, who teaches capoeira angola. “It’s like slavery times. Anytime you see that you can take an advantage, you can escape.”

And if you catch your opponents by surprise, you can knock them down. In colonial Brazil, enslaved Africans practiced fighting techniques said to be derived from those of their ancestors, the Bantu people of southwest and central Africa. Capoeira’s grace and guile developed as they masked the martial art with music and dance to make it look like harmless play to the Portuguese plantation owners. Those slaves who escaped to form their own free communities in the mountains, called quilombos, then used capoeira to fend off attacks.

As Brazil’s black communities grew in the late 18th century, capoeira developed a criminal reputation. It was associated with gang violence, and its practitioners were often imprisoned. In 1890, the Brazilian government outlawed capoeira. Although officials employed capoeiristas in attacks against German and Irish soldiers in 1828, during the Paraguayan War of 1865 to 1870, and to strong-arm voters after slavery was abolished in 1888, capoeiristas were still frequently persecuted.

Under the administration of President Getúlio Vargas in the ’30s, restrictions on capoeira were finally relaxed for a new government-sponsored carnaval. In 1932, Mestre Bimba (aka Manoel dos Reis Machado) opened the first Brazilian capoeira academy, where he developed the capoeira regional style, and in 1941, Mestre Pastinha (aka Vicente Ferreira Pastinha) opened the first capoeira angola school.

“It’s about social change and resistance—things that are often overlooked in history books,” says Duncan.

The blurred ballet of moves seen in movies such as Blade, Kickboxer, and Only the Strong spread from capoeira regional studios in Brazil to studios in Europe, Canada, and the United States, where it first landed when Brazilian capoeira masters opened schools in New York and California in the ’70s. The capoeira angola style gained a foothold in the United States in 1990 with Mestre João Grande, who this year became the first capoeirista to be awarded a National Endowment for the Arts National Heritage Fellowship.

Capoeira came to D.C. in the early ’90s, when capoeira angola instructor Nego Gato moved to the area from New York, leaving a few years later. In 1994, Mestre Cobrinha began teaching in the District. For years, Mestre Cobrinha was the main instructor in the area. Then, in March 2000, Professor Fabio “Abutre” Trindade arrived from Brazil to teach capoeira regional.

“Regional is faster, more aggressive, and more physically exclusive. It’s more aerobic, more upright, and has more jumps and flips,” explains Abutre through student and translator Craig Wiggins. “Angola is a slower, more malicious game—not in the sense of wanting to hurt somebody, but it’s more sneaky and strategic. It’s closer to the ground, and there are more careful movements.”

Both styles now attract a substantial following of Americans, and about half of today’s capoeira students are women—a dramatic change from the art’s early days, when women were considered bad luck or restricted to clapping in the audience.

“There are women who are really good and dedicate themselves to it. They can play well in the roda and even knock people over,” says Caroline Timbers, a 23-year-old who chose capoeira as the topic of her 200-page Georgetown University master’s thesis. “It’s very inspirational to see other people doing it, so you know that I can do it, too.”

But training with men can have its challenges. Aldred, a 44-year-old mother who lives in Maryland and balances her training with raising a 2-year-old, says that one of them is “trying not to let men feel that they are better by using their strength. If you do a good move…[some men] tend to make you feel that they are always over you, even though everybody’s equal.”

Anita Tyiska, a District resident who’s been playing capoeira for four years, says that women can even have certain advantages over their male counterparts: “the things our bodies do naturally, like splits and spins.”

“You don’t have to be aggressive—just defend whatever [your male opponent’s] attack is,” adds Aldred. “I’ve seen women who start out being very docile and submissive but [now] attack a lot. Inside the roda, you’re always there to pounce, but outside, it’s back to normal behavior. I suppose you’re tired of being pushed.”

But the women don’t seem to mind being pushed by their instructors, who encourage them just as much as the men. “[We] are not asked to do anything less,” says Aldred. “We’re not treated any differently. When [Mestre Cobrinha teaches] the movements, everybody needs to learn everything the same way.”

Mestre Cobrinha can identify with his female students’ struggle. Growing up poor in Brazil, he was attracted to capoeira after seeing it at carnaval. He and his brother discovered a group of capoeiristas close to their home town of Rio de Janeiro. “They charged, and we didn’t have any money to pay,” he says. “But the master let us stay if we cleaned up the school and put things in order.”

The more Mestre Cobrinha trained, he says, the more serious he became about his life in general. The art eventually led him to earn a physical-education degree at the Catholic University of Salvador. The 41-year-old, now hailed as one of the best instructors in the world, says that capoeira helped him experience the world.

“My whole life changed,” he says. “Some people from the neighborhood became bandits and got killed by the police. But all my friends who got involved in capoeira survived—they’re still alive.”

In 1994, while Mestre Cobrinha was performing at a workshop in New York, members of Washington’s Ausar Auset Society invited him to present a capoeira workshop in D.C. as one of their organization’s events promoting African culture. They were so impressed that they asked him to stay longer. He planned to spend six months to a year in the District, but he extended his visit as his capoeira classes grew and spread to George Washington University, Mount Rainier, Md.,’s Joe’s Movement Emporium, and the Gold’s Gym in Van Ness. Two years after his arrival in D.C., he established the International Capoeira Angola Foundation, which hosts workshops, demonstrations, and annual encounters with other capoeira groups. In 1999, the organization leased the space in Northwest that now serves as a school and cultural-resource center.

Last year, the 24-year-old Abutre, nicknamed “the Vulture” for the way he’s drawn to capoeira events like a scavenger to meat, started his own foundation, the Grupo de Capoeira Chicote Africano, filling the void of D.C. capoeira regional instruction. He now teaches classes at George Washington University and Columbia Heights’ St. Stephen’s Church, and has performed at Howard University, the Rio y Fado Portuguese Brazilian Festival in McLean, Va., and in informal sessions at 18th Street and Columbia Road in Adams Morgan.

In the future, Abutre hopes to train other capoeira professors to open their own schools in the area. It’s a goal he shares with Mestre Cobrinha, who adds that he wants his students to be recognized in Brazil as well. “D.C. is big,” Abutre says. “There’s room here for more than just me and Cobrinha. I’d like to have others come and share the space. Capoeira is for everyone, 1 to 100, male and female.”

“[Capoeira] means discipline,” says Aldred. “It lifts your self-morale, and you learn about your history as a black person through [its] African origins.”

Timbers has bus-hopped from one capoeira event to the next in Brazil, gotten black eyes, and sometimes become frustrated with herself, but believes that even bad capoeira experiences are rewarding. “[There are times when] it’s like, Uh, I can’t do it anymore. What is going on here? Why won’t my body do it?” she says, but “capoeira shows you how every obstacle can be surmounted.”

To 28-year-old D.C. resident Gege Poggi, who started learning capoeira at home in Rio de Janeiro five-and-a-half years ago, practicing the art satisfies a need to preserve her culture. “It’s a serious tradition, and [Mestre Cobrinha] has spent time to teach me,” she says. “I don’t feel that I can take that and not pass it on. It’s a responsibility.”

The photography graduate student, office manager, and wife says that capoeira now ranks No. 1 in her life. “It taught me how to be part of society, understand who I am, be more self-confident,” she says. “It’s so strong that it’s impossible to stop doing.”

Duncan says that she has noticed the way women’s involvement in capoeira is creating a difference in the art form, too: In a lot of the songs, she says, male words such as angoleiro (“angola player”) are more and more frequently alternated with their female equivalents. She hopes that additional progress will be made as women are featured in capoeira magazines as instructors serious about their craft, and as more women become professors and masters.

“In general, there are more men that are advanced students or teachers,” Duncan says. “That will change slowly, not overnight.”

Slowly, Sylvia Robinson and Emiyah Iskel slide through each other’s legs as if they were going through invisible playground chutes, then do handstands and make triangles with their feet. Their yellow T-shirts are plastered to their backs with sweat. The surrounding musicians sing a chorus invoking Catarina, a saint of the African-Brazilian religion Candomble. Tyiska starts a slow twangy beat across the berimbau, producing the deep-bellied grumble of an ancestor waking up. “Eee yay!” she sings, her mouth twisting and shaping words of Brazilian-accented Portuguese. The sound of the caxixi, a small seeded shaker, weaves through the melody. Tyiska lowers her yellow-and-black instrument over the heads of the next two players in the middle of the ring, and another jogo is anointed. CP