One definition of instinct is the ability to get what you want using your own skills. You’re walking down the street and there’s a wall in your path, your brain will automatically indicate a solution: climb it or go around it. More than 400 years ago, in Angola, instinct dictated a man’s future wife and life. He could earn the right to choose a wife in a contest in which two men battled to see who could kick the head of the other. By dodging and jumping and stretching, and ultimately landing the kick, the bride was the prize.
The competition was called n’golo, and after it arrived in South America, brought by the slaves dragged to Brazil by its Portuguese colonisers, it was altered by the new land’s music and rhythms, dancing and fighting competition, and came to be known as the martial art of capoeira.
Today, it is widely respected in Latin America’s largest country and worldwide. Capoeira isn’t necessarily a fighting technique. Its practitioners sing and play musical instruments in the roda, capoeira’s version of boxing’s ring, so that today the sport is more a display of skill and entertainment than combat. Despite that, it is still widely known as a martial art.
“These days capoeira is practised in gyms, as if it were karate or swimming,” says 8th-degree capoeirista Michael ‘Aranha’ de Oliveira, from Sao Paolo. The 29-year-old, whose nickname means ‘spider’, executes moves that are not just beautiful to look at, but are also painfully powerful. “It’s almost inevitable that someone will make contact with someone else during a roda,” says Aranha.
“Luckily, a large portion of the moves we learn can be used to dodge.” In the same way that Asian martial arts are inspired by natural elements, capoeira’s moves are based on animal actions. The skill to dodge a strike is the purest blend of reflex and instinctive self-preservation.
By the late 1980s, the rise of video games and TV, coupled with growing urban oppression meant that many of the teenagers in the world’s biggest cities felt stifled and suffocated. David Belle, a Frenchman who had learned in his army days a roster of what he calls “natural gymnastics” techniques – physical education with moves inspired by animals – decided to break free of his apartment and began to find new ways around the high-rises and concrete jungles. His instinct broke rules and gave birth to a new sport that hasn’t stopped growing since: parkour.
Its main variation is freerunning, which differs from parkour in that it adds more acrobatics and so-called ‘inefficient’ moves to parkour’s simpler, more efficient A-to-B philosophy. Animal-inspired movements, plus on-your-feet decision-making, combined with gymnastics and breakdancing moves: freerunning has a lot in common with capoeira. Geographically and historically distant from the Brazilian martial art, it is similar in that it’s an instinct-based, game-like contest in which there are no winners, and also because it’s an expression of freedom and joy without oppression.
Brazilian freerunner Danilo Alves, 26, says his sport has developed different styles as it arrived in new countries such as Brazil, where capoeira already had a huge presence in the local culture. “The ginga of capoeira brought a new element to freerunning,” says Alves, referring to the rhythmic movement between moves, the cat-like hopping from foot to foot. “In Brazil it gained a lot of supporters because of the national identity with this type of move was already established. We have a natural swing, that smoothness of the hips, the ginga, the samba.”
“YOU GOTTA HAVE RHYTHM TO KEEP THE FLOW BETWEEN EACH MOVE”
Freerunning is urban. The uniform is sneakers, tracksuit bottoms or sweatpants, large T-shirts, beanies or baseball caps: as long as it doesn’t disturb the precision and fluidity of the moves. Capoeira demands packed earth or low grass, and its players go barefoot, wearing only comfortable slacks. Capoeira players are at the centre of the roda, a circle where everyone around them sings and plays, not unlike another Brazilian tradition, the roda of samba, in which those around the circle play and sing while those inside dance. Freerunning, like the name suggests, is free, nomadic and adventurous.
The opponent in capoeira influences a lot of one’s moves, whereas in freerunning the athlete relates with the environment only, be it natural or man-made like stairs, rails or walls. The union of capoeira and freerunning isn’t official, but certainly the practising of the Brazilian art has helped the creation of new styles within freerunning. Today’s top freerunners all know some capoeira moves.
In capoeira you must always finish your move facing your opponent, otherwise the counter-attack will be immediate,” says de Oliveira. “That makes some of freerunning’s moves unlike capoeira’s, especially during the finishing part.” The finishes may be different, but this partnership of ancient and modern has only just begun.