Capoeira photo gallery

By Berley Kerr, 19
Print This Post

Berley loves being with other people in Capoeira

For a long time I thought about taking martial arts. I figured it would give me something to talk about, but my dad wasn’t too crazy about the idea. He told me: "You’ll get hurt. It’ll interfere with your school work."

When I was 11, I saw the movie, Only the Strong, in which a bunch of bad boy, loser teens get their lives turned around by capoeira (pronounced cap-oh-air-uh). The story line was pretty cliche, but the capoeira was amazing. These guys were doing spectacular moves. I had never seen a sideward flip before. One guy put one hand on the ground and kicked his legs out to the side like an acrobat. Another guy did a corkscrew move, in which he spun in the air on his side, kicking out at his opponent in a deadly way. It looked so flashy and cool.

The other thing that surprised me was that some of the guys were black—not Asian like most martial arts movies.

I researched capoeira online. I was surprised that it is Brazilian with African roots. Capoeira started about 450 years ago, when African slaves developed a style of fighting disguised as dancing so that their slaveowners wouldn’t know they were learning to fight.

Being African American, with slaves among my ancestors, the fact that these slaves came up with such a beautiful martial art made me proud. Slaves actually used capoeira to fight, escape, stay fit and healthy and keep from being bored. I wished I could study it and be that powerful, but as far as I knew there were no capoeira schools in L.A.

Years passed and I turned 17. I was seriously considering studying tae kwon do until one day I stopped by my friend’s tae kwon do school. What a nightmare! Most of the students seemed like they were forced to be there. There was a group of 14 and 15-year-olds bragging about how many kids they beat up. They were just bullies who were using tae kwon do to be better bullies. On top of that, the instructor seemed cold and distant. He acted as though he didn’t want to be there. That was the end of tae kwon do for me.

Just before I turned 18, I finally found a capoeira school in L.A.—Capoeira-Brasil in West L.A. I was excited, but I didn’t tell my parents because they know how to kill a dream. I knew they’d find some way to suck the fun out of it and make it seem stupid. Plus I knew my dad wouldn’t sign the injury claims waiver that all martial arts schools have. I waited, saving my money to start capoeira.

I turned 18, and I had $30 in my pocket—enough for two lessons. I wanted to start capoeira right away, but I was scared. Really scared! What if it was cold and mean like the tae kwon do school? What were the people like? Would I fit in? Would I be able to learn the difficult moves? Would it be a problem that I don’t speak Portuguese?

To reassure myself I rented Only the Strong again. Watching these guys kicking at each other and doing back flips, I felt powerful. I wanted to do what they were doing. I sucked up my fear and called.

Jessica, the administrative contact, answered the phone. She was so nice. I told her I had no experience in martial arts or gymnastics. She told me not to worry, that the school would teach me everything. I should come to class and see for myself.

When I got to the school it was amazing. Everyone was friendly. Jessica answered all the questions I had. She told me about the classes, the times and everything else. As I looked around, I felt overwhelmed and breathtaken by everything.

I felt like I belonged

The school looked like any other martial arts school with its mirrored walls, waxed floor, and punching bags. And yet there was more to it. Before class the students were laughing, hugging and gossiping. The school seemed like one large group of friends. The students seemed like they were getting ready to go to a dance rather than a martial arts class. I felt that I didn’t have to worry about how I looked, unlike when I’m around teens where looks are everything. I knew deep down inside that I would be happy here.

Contra Mestre Curumim throws a back flip with extended legs—a difficult move.

The leader of the school, Mestre Boneco made my first class really fun. He is the most energetic and charismatic martial artist, period. He loves capoeira, and every aspect of him shows it. You can tell that the class just feeds off his vibes by the way they start to joke and dance around when he starts class. He’ll say, "Come on, come on! Go, go, go! Come on, 10 push ups! One, two," and he’s there on the floor doing them.

He told us that when he was growing up, a lot of street gangsters practiced capoeira in Brazil. He saw full-contact fights. He told us stories about how the slaves used capoiera to riot, to kill. They tucked blades between their toes as lethal weapons. He explained how the slaves sang certain songs to warn that the police were approaching.

Before I knew it, I was fighting and playing instruments and getting a history lesson all in one. I like the way they’ve preserved this martial art for 450 years. Capoeira today is about keeping the tradition.

I started going to class every week. I lost weight. I became stronger, and I loved it. I had so much to learn, once a week wasn’t really enough, but it was all I could afford.

But in January, after I did my Christmas shopping, my savings were tapped out. I did the only practical thing I could do—stop studying capoeira until I had the money to go back. After about a month, Jessica contacted me to find out why I hadn’t been coming. When I explained that I was broke, she said she could put me on a work study program. I would come in and mop floors and help out at the school and she would let me take unlimited classes for a certain price a week. It was one of the kindest things anyone had ever offered me. I jumped at the opportunity to take the job. I’ve been doing it ever since.

I’ve worked hard to improve myself and my condition. I read books, watch what I eat, and go jogging at the track sometimes. I’ve gotten stronger, faster and more confident.

But even more than getting stronger, I’ve loved being with the other people. We’re a team—always helping each other out. Even when I do my chores, I feel like I’m part of something bigger. One day, we had Cleaning Day—no practice at all. We took Pine-Sol and window cleaners and brooms and cleaned the whole academy from top to bottom. We joked around that if any ninjas came by, we could beat them up with our mops. It was a lot of fun.

I also love the music, that beautiful rhythmic African sound. We sing, clap, play conga drums, tamborines and other unusual instruments such as the berumbao, which is a bowlike instrument only used in capoeira.

And then there are the street rodas. I’ve only been to one but I will jump at the opportunity to go to another one. Street rodas are when the class goes to a place like Santa Monica or Santa Barbara and perform in the street. It attracts a lot of spectators and the more experienced capoeiristas do a lot of flashy moves. I also love the street rodas because visitors from other schools come and join. It’s one big celebration.

I love capoeira. Words can’t describe how it feels to finally achieve one of my dreams. All my other dreams have been shot down—being a pilot, being an astronomer. Capoiera has given me a lot and never really asked for anything in return. It’s understandable why people would dedicate their lives to it.

After practice, I’m tired and sweaty. My legs feel like rubber. Sometimes my back hurts. My head hurts from concentrating so hard to learn. But inside, I feel proud to be participating in such a beautiful martial art. I feel so happy to be around such cool people who share my passion. Capoeira is my life, my strength, my best friend.