Capoeira…in Cairo?

People looked at me funny when I said that I hoped to find a capoeira group in Cairo. To be honest, I was not quite sure that I would find a group practicing this blend martial arts, dance and live music, but it seems that I underestimated Cairo’s cosmopolitan side. Not only did I find a group practicing this Brazilian art, I found one with a French instructor, referred to me by an Egyptian!

She said she would let me know when a beginner’s section was starting and a few weeks later gave me a call saying that there was a four-hour workshop planned on Friday if I was interested. Having only heard stories of what a class could be like from a good friend in NYC, I was not quite sure what I was getting into when I set off to find the studio using the address she texted me.

This was not as simple a task as it might have been in the States. I have found that asking for directions in Cairo is its own adventure as everyone seems to “know” the exact location of the place you are going but each person will confidently give you a different set of directions from the last person. We once spent 45 minutes following different sets of conflicting directions to locate a store selling landline phones only to find upon walking back, that there was one across the street from where we started! It does not help that buildings are numbered very sporadically. You might walk 10 blocks and see just that number of marked buildings.

Luckily the studio’s address had a number and I left early to make sure I got there in time. The room slowly started to fill until about twenty people and an odd assortment of instruments cluttered the room. To my surprise, it turns out that capoeira is centered around music played and sung by the capoeiristas themselves. Although I have lots of work to do on these skills, as I can hardly clap to a rhythm and sing at the same time, it does create an incredible energy in the room with a circle of people clapping, singing, drumming, led by someone playing an instrument called a berimbau which looks as though a bored archer tied a gourd to his bow and started a band.

The workshop was organized especially for a capoeira teacher coming in from Sharm Al-Sheikh and after a short musical introduction, we started on our warm up and learning a number of moves from his specific style. The basic movement in capoeira is the ginga, which keeps you in constant movement to the beat of the music, shifting your feet and keeping your hands up for protection. The moves that I was able to learn demonstrated the incredible fusion of dance and martial arts in which both of those “playing” have to move with the other person so that their kicks, ducks and rolls flow in and out of each other.

The culmination of the workshop was the roda. Everyone in the room created a large circle with all of the instruments on one side. The berimbau would start the rhythm and would be slowly joined by the other instruments. The teacher would then begin singing a call and response song in Portuguese while all those without instruments started a steady clap. Then two people from the circle who were crouching in front of the instruments would enter the center (usually by a cartwheel or other acrobatics) and begin to “play” to the rhythm of the music. After 20 or 30 seconds, someone from the circle would enter and jog around the two in the center before cutting in and continuing the dance/sparring with one of the two.  The roda was a flow of kicks, rolls, grabs and what seemed to be break dancing moves (handstands, headstands, and cartwheels oh my!) and combined with the music and singing, the energy of the room was incredible!

After the four hours of this new martial art/sport/dance I was beat. That was not the end however, as most of the people from the workshop then went out to a rooftop to learn maculele. I tagged along and found myself with two foot-and-a-half long bamboo sticks in my hands, beating them together, on the ground and against the sticks of my partner in a rhythm and movement very similar way to the capoeira class an hour earlier. It seems that learning capoeira is about learning not just the art it self but the culture that goes with it as well.

Although my sore muscles made it hard getting out of bed and walking up stairs for the next three days, I so glad to have found the group. It is clear though that I will have lots to practice, even if it is just clapping and singing at the same time.

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