Exclusive: DanceBrazil Makes Capoeira the Next Big Thing


Courtesy of DanceBrazil

You know a dance form has officially infiltrated the mainstream when it starts showing up in gyms as a fitness trend. We’re referring not to pole dancing but to capoeira, the Afro-Brazilian dance/martial art that arrived in the U.S. in the mid-1970s and has since spawned a devoted following of aspiring capoeiristas in gyms and studios across the country.

Capoeira’s current status as a revered art form and fitness regimen is a far cry from its roots as a survival tactic. Several centuries ago, African slaves in Brazil developed it as a way to disguise their martial arts practice as dance, and eventually used it to free themselves.

Capoeira in its traditional form is both fluid and acrobatic, often performed within a circle, or roda, of dancers, singers and musicians. New Yorkers have a chance to see the real thing this weekend at the Skirball Center for the Performing Arts at NYU, where DanceBrazil is presenting its 2009 season.

The company’s artistic director, Jelon Vieira, was one of the first capoeira masters to bring the art form to this country. After the jump, he talks about starting the company (with a little help from Alvin Ailey) and using capoeira as a way to keep kids out of trouble.

Flavorwire: How did people respond when you began teaching capoeira in the U.S.?

Jelon Vieira: I came to the United States in 1975. I was the first one to really teach capoeira here, and at the time very little was known about Brazil. People found capoeira interesting but didn’t really understand it was a martial art. Capoeira is a dance like a fight and a fight like a dance. You can’t separate them.

Capoeira is also more than a martial art… it is culture, music, poetry. Capoeira for me is a life philosophy. It’s taught me tremendous respect for life and for others. When the Vietnam War was ending, a lot of times people invited me to participate in demonstrations to do capoeira as a way of freedom, a way of peace. Nowadays I see a lot of young people doing capoeira in Union Square. I wonder if they know it’s been done there since 1975 and ’76.

Courtesy of DanceBrazil

FW: How did DanceBrazil come about?

JV: I decided in 1977 to found a dance company to educate Americans about Afro-Brazilian culture. When I formed the company, I named it Capoeiristas of Bahia. Then, in 1980, Alvin Ailey joined the board. He always took me under his wing. He told me that to get support, you must have a foundation so you can get grants, and he helped me found the Capoeira Foundation. He also said that we must change the name of the company because it should be an easy name for Americans to pronounce, but also something that says what we do.

FW: How did your relationship with Ailey begin?

JV: When I came to New York I had a scholarship with Ailey and also with Martha Graham. But I identified myself more with what Alvin was doing. His work was based in the African-American experience, and mine was based in my African-Brazilian experience. He loved Afro-Brazilian culture. I actually met him back in ’72 in Bahia, when he went to Brazil for the first time.

When I came here, he was really welcoming. He helped me a lot and gave me space to rehearse. It was also very hard to tour. Nowadays it is expensive, but back then it was even more so. You had to have your own dance floor. So he gave me a blue dance floor. It didn’t go with anything, but it was a dance floor. I still miss him a lot.

FW: You also do a lot of work with children. How did that get started?

JV: In 1993 I decided to move back to Bahia to keep a strong connection between the U.S. and Brazil, a cultural exchange. I had been out of Brazil for such a long time, so I felt the importance of getting involved, especially in the neighborhood where my nephews and nieces were growing up. I saw a lot of danger for kids … and my solution was to bring them into this art form. To stay in my program you must stay in school, and through it many of them did find their way out of trouble. A lot of them now live in the United States, and four of them work with me in DanceBrazil.