x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Battle-ready bodies

The demanding, rewarding and even musical Brazilian workout system known as capoeira comes to Abu Dhabi.

Nina Stone demonstrates a capoeira move to a class in Abu Dhabi.
Nina Stone demonstrates a capoeira move to a class in Abu Dhabi.

Capoeira - the blend of martial arts, gymnastics, dance and music that originated in Brazil more than 400 years ago - has finally come to Abu Dhabi, after a successful run of classes in Dubai. Having made my way to the age of 25 without hearing so much as a whisper about this increasingly popular sport (for want of a better word), it was with a sense of excitement and curiosity that I signed up for my first lesson at the One to One Hotel.

Easing us into the class with a brief explanation on the origins of the practice from our diminuitive capoeira "professor", Nina Stone, who has been teaching the discipline in the US, India and Iran for the past seven years. As she explains, the sport is so much more than just a way of keeping fit - it's about getting a different outlook on life. But if you think that makes it sound like it doesn't involve a lot of physical exertion, you'd be wrong. From the basic "ginga" move to learning how to protect yourself effectively, every part of capoeira requires your fullest attention - physically and mentally. Capoeira is thought to have evolved among African slaves in Brazil, and is believed to be either a Brazilian folk dance with improvised fighting movements, or a battle-ready fighting form descended from African techniques, disguised as a form of dance.

Participants form a roda, or circle, and take turns either playing musical instruments, singing, or ritually sparring in pairs in the centre of the circle. Judging from the movements involved, it seems pretty evident that capoeira is indeed about fighting, but (and this is the unique part) in a graceful and almost zen-like manner. At the heart of the discipline is ritualised combat played as a game. This is known as "jogo de capoeira" or simply "jogo". During the game, two players (capoeiristas) exchange movements of attack and defence in a constant stream, like a conversation. As you advance you will become familiar with a series of attack and defensive movements. Cartwheels (au), handstands (bananeira) and handsprings (gato) are but a few of the attacking capoeira moves that you will learn in Nacao Capoeira (which is one of several variations of the popular practice). If you are defending yourself the first move you will be taught is the "esquivas" - which literally means "escape". The move involves turning away from your opponent's kick during "genga", while still maintaining enough balance to attack them should they move towards you. Combination moves include the "au batido", in which the capoeirista does a cartwheel before landing in a position that will allow them to kick or block their opponent.

Ginga (pronounced "jenga") is the first move any beginner will learn, and is the starting stance for all other moves. It's also a lot harder than it looks or sounds. Placing one foot directly behind you, with your hands raised up to protect your face, its purpose is to teach you how to be light on your feet, as well as helping you get into the capoeira rhythm and way of thinking. As I said, it looks relatively simple, but with every single part of your body required to be in a certain position, it takes a bit of time to master. Paired up with one of the more experienced members of the class, I find it hard to keep myself balanced. I'm surprised at how physically taxing such a simple move could be. Still, after a few minutes practice with the help of my patient tutor, I am eventually able to ease myself into the correct position.

Capoeira works your entire body, and even if you don't manage to complete all the techniques as well as you would like, you certainly feel the workout in your muscles the next day. As a complete novice, there are still several moves I am yet to master which, given my complete lack of coordination, is not surprising. Handstands, walking along the floor on my hands as my partner holds my legs and trying to do a cartwheel on one hand (one hand!) are just few of the moves that have so far evaded me. But one of the great things about the class is the positive energy and feeling of group togetherness that helps you keep pushing yourself. Part of the sport is also learning how to become a more calm and focused individual. Vigilance is an integral component of the class, and having to focus on your opponent (even if your back is facing them) helps you to maintain your presence in battle.

At the end of every class, the group is instructed to form a circle, which is where the music side of the art form comes into play. Armed with tambourines and berimbau (a single-string instrument from Brazil) the class sings a traditional Brazilian song while clapping out a beat - to which two group members then practise their moves in the middle of the circle. Each participant is encouraged to take part in this last part of the lesson, and even if you have only mastered the basic moves, you'll find it still a rewarding experience. After the intense workout, the last section is a welcome one, with the group all helping one another to sing, clap out a beat and, of course, showcase their newly learnt moves. Additionally, don't worry if you think you look silly attempting the techniques - everyone is there to encourage one another - and the positive vibes are enough to get even the most hesitant of participators (ie me) to try their hand at a cartwheel. Granted, I look anything but graceful when I try it, but that won't stop me going back.

For details on the times and locations of capoeira classes in Abu Dhabi, call Rasheed Chahal on 050 972 7700. For information on Dubai classes, see www.nacaocapoeiradubai.com.