What happens when the rhythm of dance is combined with the potential to get kicked in the face? It’s this week’s grobby (Greatist lingo for hobby): capoeira.

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Capoeira is the result of Brazilian culture intermingling with that of slaves from Africa. While working on the plantations in Brazil, slaves created an acrobatic form of martial arts, disguising it as folk dancing to hide it from their owners. Modern day capoeira has taken on a more amicable approach, where sparring is seen more as a game between two players instead of a match between opponents. The goal of the game isn’t to knock down the other player, but rather, to find openings and “show” a strike— like a checkmate in chess. Players don’t choreograph moves in advance, rather they freestyle during games, and the fun comes in reading the opponent’s movements, adapting to them, and showing where potential strikes can be made. Still, there are others who prefer to play full contact.

There are two basic types of moves: attacks and escapes. Attacks are often in the form of kicks, punches and takedowns whereas escapes can be stepping back, ducking or flipping.

Games are accompanied with a capoeira band. The music has a lively sound, which varies in rhythm, depending on how fast the game is played. Since it’s always played during sparring sessions, it’s ultimately what most drastically sets it apart from other martial arts. Games are played in a dance circle known as the roda and practitioners usually wear white clothing to bring an image of respect and discipline. Players participate by “buying into” a game, which is essentially asking permission to participate.

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Practitioners— both new and old— can expect a full-cardio workout and plenty of footwork. Generally speaking, capoeira is more of an art form than a form of self-defense (though a sequence of flips, twists, and turns would probably intimidate a potential mugger).

Don’t expect to become an acrobat overnight, but one study did find that in only 24 hours, novice subjects improved their performance of a capoeira kick Humans adapt the initial posture in learning a whole-body kicking movement. Reifel Saltzberg, J., Hondzinski, J.M., Flanders, M. Department of Neuroscience, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, MN. Neuroscience Letters, 2001 Jun 22;306(1-2):73-6. . As with any martial arts, it takes discipline and practice to master and fully appreciate capoeira. Start slowly; typical beginner classes teach the basic steps, game dynamics, and sometimes even how to play the band’s instruments, since it’s the backbone of the martial arts. At the end of class, students form a ring and play a game of capoeira.

In addition to the cardio and coordination component, other benefits include increased of flexibility, agility, and a sense of rhythm. Even yoga is finding a way to incorporate this martial arts by fusing stretching with basic capoeira movements. Not only does the body benefit, but also a study found practitioners of capoeira were able to pick up movements from other dances more quickly Action observation and acquired motor skills: an FMRI study with expert dancers. Calvo-Merino, B., Glaser, D.E., Grèzes, J., et al. Institute of Movement Neuroscience, University College London and Department of Basic Psychology, Faculty of Psychology, Universidad Complutense, Madrid, Spain.. Cerebral Cortex, 2005 Aug;15(8):1243-9. . Consider it prep for So You Think You Can Dance!

Updated October, 2011

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