By Shawna Leader

capoeira workshop

Design by Maddy Gordon.

On May 16 and 17, Western students will have the opportunity to try capoeira, a form of dance and martial arts dating back to the 16th century. Participants form a circle, called a “roda,” and play instruments and sing in Portuguese while two players dance in the middle. But this isn’t a waltz or the tango we’re talking about; capoeira is typically noncontact and involves elements of martial arts and gymnastics, according to Juliet Holzknecht, president of the AS Capoeira Club.

The club will be presenting a series of capoeira workshops covering two days. On Saturday, May 16, there will be a capoeira Angola lesson from 9 a.m. to noon, a capoeira music lesson from 1 to 3 p.m. and a roda from 3 to 6 p.m. All these events will take place in Viking Union 565. The following day, there will be a capoeira lesson and music from 9 a.m. to noon and a roda from 1 to 3 p.m. Both these events will take place in the VU Multipurpose Room.

The morning workshops will focus on learning the movements and practicing the different motions of capoeira, Holzknecht said. The afternoon workshops will teach the Portuguese songs and how to use the instruments for the roda. In the evening, the participants will gather for the final event.

“In the evening we’re doing a roda, which is basically a combination of all of it,” Holznecht said. “Everyone stands in a circle and two people go in and play and practice the actual martial art of it, while other people sing and play the instruments and clap. It’s a big community thing. And that’ll be happening both days.”

Contra Mestre Silvanho, a Brazilian teacher of capoeira, will be coming up from Seattle to instruct the workshops.

“The one thing about our club is that we don’t really have any people that are teachers, that are masters at it [capoeira],” Holznecht said. “We have people that know a lot, and try to teach others…but we don’t have any masters to teach. So we’re bringing up one from Seattle.”

Capoeira originated as a form of self defense in Brazil that was developed and practiced by Afro-Brazilian slaves because the slave owners wouldn’t allow them to fight, Holzknecht said. The slaves had to hide capoeira from the owners, who banned its practice in fear of slave rebellions. Because of this, the slaves disguised capoeira as a dance.

“The slave owners told them they weren’t allowed to fight. And so because of that they disguised it as a dance,” Holzknecht said.  “They added music and singing and made it into a circle. It’s all non-contact, in certain groups and…it doesn’t really look as much like a martial arts and in that regard they [the slaves] could learn how to do all these sorts of kicks and fighting and everything without the slave owners knowing.”

When capoeira was officially banned in Brazil, some slaves still practiced it in secret and used it to defend themselves, Holzknecht said.

“There was a group of slaves that… ended up going and forming their own community for seven years in the jungle and would fight off the soldiers from Brazil with capoeira,” she said.

According to Holzknecht, it was a man named Mestre Bimba who was one of the first people to coordinate and organize capoeira in Brazil. He shared the sequences, lessons and levels of capoeira with the Brazilian government. Mestre Bimba formed capoeira schools, which first spread all over the country, then internationally.
“He was the one to explain to the Brazilian government that it [capoeira] shouldn’t be outlawed anymore and that you could turn it into a school,” Holzknecht said.
Because of capoeira’s dynamic origin, it involves a lot of movement. Deceiving one’s opponent is all part of the dance, Holzknecht said.

“Trickery is a big thing in capoeira, so you fake someone out and do almost gymnastic-type move that involves cartwheels and those kinds of things,” she said.  “Because of that, you can get around any kind of weapon as well, if you’re really good.”

When she first joined the capoeira club, Holzknecht said she was in awe of the movements and creativity involved.

“I didn’t even want to participate because I was just sitting there so amazed by the improvisation if it,” she said.  “Two people are…complementing each other in the dance form of it, but then at the same time trying to work on their own motions.”

As a result of practicing capoeira for the past year, Holzknecht said she has achieved better balance and coordination. Additionally, she finds the atmosphere of the capoeira gatherings to be a very inviting one.

“Everyone I’ve met that does capoeira is very inviting. No one judges you for trying to do any of the stuff and they’re all willing to help out and teach you parts of it,” Holzknecht said.

The club meets from 6 to 8 p.m. on Tuesdays and 4 to 6 p.m. on Fridays in Viking Union 565 or in the PAC plaza if the weather is nice. For questions, e-mail

The cost of the workshops for Western students with ID is $5 for one day and $8 for both days;  for non-Western students, it is $10 for one day and $15 for both days.