Capoeira Fever

By Sarah Sekula, published in LIME magazine

Where did Dennis Eckart get those abs of steel? Perhaps nine years of practicing the sweeping kicks, spontaneous jumps and agile cartwheels of capoeira has something to do with it.

The unique martial art — marrying fluid dance movements with cunning self-defence techniques — is a fast-growing sport the 26-year-old alpha athlete has mastered through intense training in Brazil (where it was first developed in the 16th century by enslaved Africans), Germany (where he was born), Poland and Austria. Now, he brings his capoeira know-how to the Caribbean.

Picture this: A pair of capoeiristas face off inside a roda, or circle, made up of musicians and curious onlookers. Each player sways to the music dodging the opponent with high-flying flips, handstands and headspins break-dance style. The aim is simple: Trick your opponent into taking an off-guard position without any direct blows or blocks.

As the beat quickens, the faux-fight intensifies.

The exotic music — in the form of the atabaque (drum), berimbaus (a gourd with a string attached to a stick) and pandeiro (tambourine) — sets it apart from other martial arts and establishes the rhythm of the game.

“Capoeira is life,” says Eckart, who leads Jamaican-based Grupo Cativeiro Capoeira, a martial arts/dance troupe. “It has the potential to unite persons regardless of their skin colour, social status or gender.”

The adrenaline-pumping sport is so welcoming, in fact, it hosts more than 10,000 followers worldwide and groups are popping up from the Cayman Islands to Barbados. “Caribbean people are becoming more aware and proud of their African heritage and realize that capoeira is a way of expressing that,” he explains.

Pop culture is embracing it, too. If you’ve seen any Wyclef Jean and the Black Eyed Peas’ videos lately — like Hips Don’t Lie or Mas Que Nada — you’ll notice the background dancers are striking a few capoeira moves.

It’s everywhere. And Eckart says the best part is that “the art can be learned and practiced by almost everyone.”