All you need to know about: capoeira

What's it all about?

Capoeira (pronounced cap-wearer) is a Brazilian martial art form, combining self-defence, acrobatics, dance, music and song. It was developed by slaves who used it to disguise the fact that they were practising fight moves. Capoeira is 'played' (it's known as the 'game', or jogo) in a circle called a roda, accompanied by music and singing. Only the hands and feet touch the floor.

What the expert says ...

Master Sylvia Bazzarelli brought capoeira to the UK in 1988 with her partner, Marcos dos Santos, when they opened the London School of Capoeira. They featured in a certain mobile phone ad a few years later, which was when most people in the UK caught their first sight of it.

Don't be put off joining a capoeira class because you're not a gymnast or acrobat. Beginners are not expected to be able to do cartwheels and handstands from the outset. However, your fitness will build from day one and after a few months of training, you might be surprised what you can do.

Ginga means 'sway' in Portuguese, and originally this move was an escape or retreat. Ginga is the most basic capoeira step, and the one from which all other movements stem, so it's worth getting it right.

Watch a game and you'll see everyone has their own individual style. Allow yours to develop - bring your personality to it, rather than trying to look the same as someone else.

Even if other people in a class are more proficient than you are, don't see that as a reason not to join in. 'Helping the weaker' is a principle of capoeira, and more experienced capoeiristas will work with you at your level. It's the best opportunity to extend your skills.

It's better to get a feel for the movements, rather than watching your actions in a mirror, which can make you feel self-conscious. You can also learn a lot by mirroring a partner in training.

Capoeira isn't just a form of exercise - it's more like an art form and takes years to learn. Expect to take a year to be ready to take your first grading (and receive your first belt, or corda). As you get more advanced, it may take two to three years to progress to the next level.

Don't feel you have to rush - enjoy the journey. Although capoeira classes are more widely available now, not all are taught by trained instructors with appropriate experience. It takes seven years to train as an instructor - and it takes even longer to become a master or 'mestre'. Before committing yourself to a particular teacher, first ask what training and experience they have had.

Getting started

There is a list of schools/classes worldwide on capoeirista.com with more than 40 UK options, from Devon to Edinburgh. Alternatively, do a local web search. It's likely that as capoeira becomes more popular, gyms and health clubs will introduce capoeira-based workouts.

The London School of Capoeira was the first place to offer capoeira in the UK, and has various teaching locations throughout the capital - with open classes, workshops and courses. The eight-week beginner course runs all year and costs pounds 110. The next one starts on May 1; call 020-7281 2020 for details, or go to londonschoolofcapoeira.co.uk. Capoeira isn't just a workout - there are musical instruments involved (specifically the berimbau, a stringed instrument), there's singing in Portuguese to master, and various customs and etiquette to get to grips with. Find out more from the world's biggest capoeira-devoted website, Capoeira Online (capoeira.com).

If you get the opportunity, it's worth paying a visit to a batizado, a grading ceremony, at which people are awarded their belts and where the art is celebrated. The London School of Capoeira and capoeirista.com have event listings on their websites.

The Little Capoeira Book (pounds 12.99, North Atlantic Books) is a good introduction, with an illustrated guide to the basic moves. There are a handful of instructional and spectator-only capoeira DVDs around, but most are US format only - check out amazon.com for the best selection if your DVD player is compatible. But bear in mind, as Bazzarelli says, it's hard to learn capoeira on your own because in reality it is played with others.

The gear

You need refreshingly little to start capoeira. As a beginner, you can get away with tracksuit bottoms and a T-shirt (but not one that is too big, because you'll often be upside down and don't want it over your face). Most capoeira groups have their own uniform (basically, loose white pants and a branded top), so if you attend regularly you will probably need to invest. Alternatively, martial arts supplier Black Eagle offers capoeira uniforms (02392 200466, black-eagle.co.uk). You can go barefoot, or wear nonslip lightweight shoes, such as those designed for pilates or other low-impact indoor workouts.

The downside

It's not just a workout You may want to take up capoeira because it looks so good and gives you such a fantastic physical workout, but a true capoeirista should learn about the culture and history associated with it, learn to play the instruments and sing the songs.

An image problem Capoeira is often seen as cliquey and exclusive. It has a reputation for taking over people's lives. Injury risk Despite the lack of blows, capoeira is physically demanding, and the lack of a cushioned surface increases the risk of injury.

A long learning process Unless you are a natural athlete, it will take a long, long time to be able to play capoeira like a pro.

Benefits

Good for agility and fast reflexes

Capoeira is all about reacting quickly to evade, trick or 'attack' your opponent. Regular practice builds fast reflexes and superior agility

Enhances flexibility

Unlike many sports and activities, capoeira takes the body in all directions. It bends, twists, curls and stretches, developing mobility throughout the joints and muscles

Boosts heart

Weight-bearing movement in all directions is demanding on the cardiovascular system, increasing stamina. One hour of capoeira burns around 500 calories

Improves balance

Research from the University of Minnesota shows that the coordination of upper and lower body movements, as well as moves that require balancing on one leg or hand, enhance coordination

Strengthens upper body

Many of the moves, including handstands and cartwheels, require taking the body's full weight through the hands, so strengthening upper arms, chest, shoulders and back

Thanks to guardian.co.uk who have provided this article. View the original here.