There's a heart-stopping moment in the capoeira section of "Oba Oba," the Brazilian music and dance revue (reopening Wednesday at the Wilshire Theatre). The barefoot capoeiristas leap and spin through the air, their cartwheeling legs slicing lightning-fast, powerful kicks at each other's heads--controlled kicks that just barely miss.
That moment assumes an added element of danger with the knowledge that 300 years ago, when this Afro-Brazilian dance and martial art form was developed, those same moves were often performed with razor blades tucked between the dancers' toes.
Now bladeless, \o7 capoeira \f7 is a hybrid in the dance spectrum: a social activity, a performance, a national sport, a strategy and, according to many devotees, an expression of freedom, a philosophy and a way of life. More specifically it is a dance contest or \o7 jogo\f7 between opponents who try to best each other with cunning, trickery and entrapment, using a combination of traditional moves that have been perfected over generations.
Transplanted to this country by Brazilians, it is increasing in popularity on both coasts and can be seen in nightclubs, exhibitions, competitions and schools, and even movies: There was a \o7 capoeira \f7 sequence shot for the coming New World Pictures production of "Brenda Starr."
But no matter how or where it is performed, it is a graceful, sensual art with intricate, fluid movements demanding quick reflexes and an almost instinctive feel for individual, on-the-spot choreography. And it is exciting to watch.
"The strongest moment in our show is \o7 capoeira,\f7 " says Franco Fontana, "Oba, Oba" producer. "Commercially speaking, samba is easy to dance, but to me it's very monotonous. \o7 Capoeira \f7 is very difficult to dance, five times more spectacular than samba and more interesting, considering its history."
The exact beginning of that history is lost in the earliest mists of Brazil's African slavery period, more than 300 years ago, when those slaves and their descendants developed a social, political and cultural system, of which \o7 capoeira \f7 was a byproduct. At the mercy of their white captors, desperate for freedom, but forbidden to carry weapons, the slaves devised a canny and lethal method of self-defense that was low to the ground for concealment, emphasized leg and foot movements, yet could also be practiced openly, disguised as a dance.
As the years went by, \o7 capoeira \f7 caught on with Brazilians and was widely practiced as a martial art, but by this century it became less aggressive and evolved into a more refined folk dance form. The first of many formal \o7 capoeira \f7 schools opened in 1932, with classes often taught these days in public schools.
It was perhaps inevitable that such a unique art would appeal to trend-conscious Californians, and, with Northern California a center for \o7 capoeira \f7 enthusiasts, the World Capoeira Assn. was founded in Oakland in 1979. Locally, there are several classes available, some taught at Westside Ballet, where a brief visit clarifies the elements of this dance, seen only as a blur of action on the "Oba Oba" stage.
Inside the studio, the tap-dance music in another room vies with the more exotic sounds of the congo drum, and the \o7 berimbau; \f7 there are several types of \o7 capoeira \f7 and it is this hypnotically insistent Brazilian percussion instrument that traditionally signals the style and accompanying movements to be used in each \o7 jogo.\f7
Basic steps include lunging, gliding, feinting, tumbling, kicking and twirling, as well as cartwheels, handstands and other acrobatic moves, which are combined by the \o7 capoeiristas \f7 and used both offensively and defensively.
To an onlooker, the action, accompanied by singing and clapping from the sidelines, is fast, unpredictable, but smooth, all movements flowing together as though pre-choreographed. Not so, according to beginning student Amy Finkel-Shimshon, health educator and bilingual teacher's aide.
"I don't know how to explain it," she said, "but once I learned the basics, I just somehow knew how to go from one move to the next." Looking around the company's studio, she added, "I used to study ballet in this very room years ago, but I feel the classical dance world is a box, a closed environment. \o7 Capoeira \f7 is beautiful, it opens up new challenges for me and I'm always pushing my limits. And I love the cultural interchange with the class."
Ex-New Yorker Wayne Byers, who teaches \o7 capoeira \f7 at Lula Washington's L.A. Contemporary Dance Theatre studio and plans to start a \o7 capoeira \f7 dance company, offers a perspective.
"In every city," he said, "the style is different. In New York, it's aggressive and you have to be more cautious, while in San Francisco, it's less physical and more flowing. Since it's new in Los Angeles, it hasn't really developed a personality yet."
Byers, a martial-arts veteran, said that \o7 "Capoeira \f7 offers more than anything else. It encompasses dance and gymnastics and it does the most for your person--musically and spiritually, as well as physically."
\o7 Capoeira \f7 is many things, but it is this spiritual aspect or philosophy that all serious \o7 capoeiristas \f7 stress. Sergio Mielniczenko, Los Angeles Brazilian Consulate cultural attache, sees black Brazilians and black Americans sharing certain cultural impulses.
\o7 "Capoeira \f7 is like early American jazz," he said. "It's a beat, a swing, a music, a pulsation, a move. And the way people move, think and behave in \o7 capoeira \f7 is the way they move, think and behave in their lives."