On the other side of the world in Angola, more than 400 years ago, courtship was a pretty violent undertaking. Two men, vying for the right to choose a woman, battled to see who could kick the other one in the head. They used feints and dodges and jumps, and the one who could land the kick first won the bride as a prize.
The competition was called n’golo, and after it arrived in South America, brought by the slaves dragged to Brazil by its Portuguese colonizers, it was altered by the new land’s music and rhythms and came to be known as the martial art capoeira. Today, it is one of the biggest sports in Latin America’s largest country and is practiced worldwide.
Capoeira isn’t necessarily a fighting technique. Its practitioners sing and play musical instruments in the roda, capoeira’s version of a boxing ring. Though it’s still known as a martial art, the sport nowadays is more a display of skill and entertainment than combat.
“These days capoeira is practiced in gyms, as if it were karate or swimming,” says 8th-degree capoeirista Michael “Aranha” de Oliveira, from São Paolo. The 29-year-old, whose nickname means “spider,” pulls off 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 movements. The skill to dodge a strike is the purest blend of reflex and instinctive self-preservation.
There is similar skill at work in a sport founded by David Belle, a Frenchman who reapplied the “natural gymnastics” techniques practiced by the French army. In the late 1990s, together with a group of friends, he navigated the urban landscape of the Parisian suburb of Lisses with gymnastics-inspired movements. Parkour, now one of the world’s fastest- growing sports, was born. Its main variation is free running, which differs from parkour in that it adds more acrobatics and so-called inefficient moves to parkour’s simpler, efficient A-to-B philosophy.
In the way it blends animal-like movements and the quick thinking required to carve a creative path through the urban landscape, free running has a lot in common with capoeira. Geographically and historically distant from the Brazilian martial art, the sport is nevertheless similarly an instinct-based gamelike contest in which there are no winners. Freedom of expression and the joy that comes with that is the true reward.
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 free running,” says Alves, referring to the rhythmic movement between moves, the catlike hopping from foot to foot. “In Brazil it gained a lot of supporters because the national identity was already established with this type of movement. We have a natural swing—that smoothness of the hips, the ginga, the samba.”
Free running 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 center 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. Free running, like the name suggests, is free, nomadic and adventurous. The opponent in capoeira influences a lot of one’s moves, whereas in free running the athlete relates with the environment only, be it natural or man-made like stairs, rails or walls.
The union of capoeira and free running isn’t official, but there is no doubt the Brazilian art has helped the creation of new styles within the freerunnning community. Today’s top freerunners all know some capoeira moves, but there remains a big difference. “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 free running’s moves unlike capoeira’s, especially during the finishing part.” The finishes are different, then, but this partnership of ancient and modern has only just begun.