I lived in Japan for four years in my early 20s. It was one of the most intense, anxiety-provoking yet magical times in my life, and I wouldn’t trade it for anything. Oddly enough, one of the best parts of living in Japan was discovering the Brazilian martial art Capoeira.
In my final year in Japan, I was taking a bellydance class taught by an American friend once a week. Most of the students in the class also belonged to a Capoeira group in our town, and they invited me to join them for a class.
For the uninitiated, Capoeira is a Brazilian martial art invented by African slaves in the 16th century as a secret form of self-defense. It looks like a dance, or a game (Capoeira sparring is called “jogo” in Portuguese, which literally means “game.”)
At this point in my life time I was working on a novel with a character who played Capoeira, and it seemed like too much of a coincidence to say no. Besides, I was already studying Portuguese so I could communicate with with Rodrigo, my baby-faced, half-Japanese boyfriend from Sao Paulo, who spoke neither English nor Japanese.
I was simultaneously terrified yet excited by the prospect of trying Capoeira. I was nervous I was too fat and out of shape (I was about a size 14 at the time) for a game that involves acrobatic kicks and flips.
I jumped in the deep end, and endured an hour of training (situps, jumping jacks, etc.) followed by two hours of Capoeira drills. I learned the Ginga, the basic swaying movement of the game, and a barrage of kicks and defenses with lovely Portuguese names like Cocorinha, Rasteira, and Meia Lua De Compasso.
I learned how to sing in Portuguese, rhythmically clap, and play the tambourine and berimbau (a bow-like instrument) during roda (the circle where the players face off). I discovered I could still do a cartwheel.
My body hurt so bad I could barely move the next day. I wanted to die. I WANTED MORE. After 8 hours locked up in an airless Japanese office, Capoeira made me feel like I was alive again.
The coolest thing about Capoeira was the realization that my body could do all these things that I’d always considered physically impossible. Cartwheels, spins, flying leaps, walking on my hands. I was a bookish kid who feared P.E. class, I had no idea that exercise could be legitimately fun. And to be honest, my thick body isn’t truly ideal for a sport as aerodynamic as Capoeira, but I simply did not give a shit, and neither did my classmates.
I was bad -- really bad compared to the tiny, graceful Japanese people in my class -- but I was also good. I practiced the same basic moves over and over until I could do a left-handed cartwheel AND a right-handed cartwheel, even if I had to fall down about 20 times first. Capoeira taught me that the payoff was worth falling down 20 times in a row.
I rode my bike all over town, three days a week, to attend classes with our Brazilian teacher Silvio, who had a diamond implant in one tooth and a penchant for fluorescent fishnet muscle shirts. I fell in love with my group. We’d often go out for dinner and drinks after practice, and my classmates were some of the most unconventional and interesting Japanese people I’d ever met, ranging from dreadlocked Burning Man devotees to a super girly dental hygienist. Capoeira became my life.
As an aside, one major benefit of attending Capoeira classes is that the people there are incredibly beautiful, inside and out. The women have this sort of amazing toughness and power, and heaven help me when the male capoeiristas are flying around the room shirtless with every detail of their junk outlined by their skin-tight white Capoeira pants.
Players are given a nickname (a tradition dating back to the days when Capoeira was an illegal sport) when they receive their first belt, and one of my classmate’s nickname loosely translated as “giant mound” because of how his pants fit over his prodigious endowment.
The learning curve for Capoeira is very steep, and like I said, I never really got very good at it. While they were few and far between, there were days where I kept up, where I felt the rhythm and like I could hold my own playing in the Roda, and I lived for those days. Capoeira made me feel strong and beautiful in a way that almost nothing else ever has, even when it was completely kicking my ass.
I tried to continue Capoeira after returning to the US, but without my group, I was lost. I gained back a most of the weight I’d lost in Japan thanks to the American diet, and Capoeira became a lot harder. I unofficially retired after a seriously injuring my shoulder in a yoga class -- Capoeira is extraordinarily hard on your joints, and I didn’t want to risk re-injury.
It’s been about three years since I’ve done Capoeira now. I have found wonderful, challenging physical outlets in yoga and Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, but they simply can’t replace that time in my life when I discovered that my body was capable of more than I ever imagined possible. I miss Capoeira, and realistically I don’t know if it’s something I’ll ever be able to pursue again. It kills me to look at pictures of my 25-year-old self in my Capoeira whites, in the best shape of my life.
I guess what I need to take away from my time in my life is that I am capable of much more than I’m willing to give myself credit for, and that I shouldn’t get in my own way. The flip side of this coin is acepting my present physical limitations, and not being hard on myself about it. Capoeira, although we have parted ways, I will always love you.