PORTO NACIONAL, Brazil – In the midst of a circle of people practicing capoeira, a boy spins in the air while the mestre (master) sings: “There you go boy/ Show them what the master has taught you/ Show them that the uprooted plant/Had seeds already sprouting.”
About 200 children and young people are taking part in the group, known as Grupo de Capoeira Raízes, in the historic city of Porto Nacional, in the northern Brazilian state of Tocantins.
The majority of them live in poor neighborhoods plagued by prostitution, crime, truancy and narco-trafficking.
“I spent my childhood in São Judas Tadeu, a neighborhood known as Buracão (Big Hole) and where almost all of my peers were caught up in drugs or crime,” says Alcione Santana Rodrigues, better known as Mestre Gamela, 41.
Sport has roots in African dance
Mestre Gamela, the son of a stonemason and laundry worker, is the youngest of 12 children. He earns his living as a locksmith. But his passion is capoeira, a sport he has practiced for 23 years, nine of them as a capoeira mestre. In 2003, Mestre Gamela created Grupo Raízes.
The music, which comes from rhythmic clapping and musical instruments such as the berimbau, tambourine and atabaque drum, provides a backdrop for the sport. Seated in a circle, the group’s members wait their turn to move to the middle, where two participants practice throwing – and evading – artful blows. According to historians, these movements come from an African dance called n’golo or the “dance of the zebra.”
The word “capoeira” first appeared in Brazil in police reports issued in the late 18th and early 19th centuries that documented fights and disturbances among slaves.
Created by African slaves, capoeira was considered dangerous and was banned in Brazil at one time. Yet, it has gained prestige and is practiced in more than 100 countries.
Social role within Brazil
A mixture of dance and combat, capoeira is known throughout the world as a Brazilian martial art and has come to play a social role within Brazil, particularly in the group run by Mestre Gamela.
“More than bringing sports into underserved communities, I created Raízes to teach these children a philosophy of life based on respect for themselves and others,” Mestre Gamela says.
In November 2011, after eight years without a place to call its own, Raízes finally found a permanent home – in the neighborhood ruled by narco-traffickers where Mestre Gamela grew up.
Every day, the capoeira group brings together students from across the city to practice the sport and discuss social problems. Classes are free for children between the ages of 5 and 14, with the rest of the students paying R$20 (US$11.75) monthly.
Video by Leilane Marinho for Infosurhoy.com
After the training sessions, the focus shifts.
The students stop clapping and singing.
They sit silently and listen to their master talk about good behavior and responsibility.
More than a capoeira master, Mestre Gamela plays the role of father figure during and after the capoeira sessions. Little by little, he wins his students over in an effort to make them better individuals.
A responsible swagger
Mestre Gamela’s focus has always been on helping children, as many of the older students in Grupo Raízes began taking capoeira classes before they were 10.
“It’s a sport that really gets young people’s attention, mainly because of the musicality and the joy. Every kid who sees a capoeira session wants to take part,” says Mestre Gamela, who points out the lyrics to the songs cover a broad range of issues, from black culture to the daily life of slaves, to religions, love and the capoeira session itself.
Every day, Grupo Raízes goes to the Pinheirópolis settlement to hold a capoeira session with about 40 children. Their families had to leave their homes due to the construction of the Luiz Eduardo Magalhães hydroelectric power plant in 2001.
Far from downtown Porto Nacional, the Pinheirópolis community has become fertile ground for capoeira. The sport is one of the few local leisure options, Mestre Gamela says.
The group’s veterans help Mestre Gamela with the exercises, which range from stretches to attack moves with names like “half-moon bar,” “jawbone” and “blessing.”
At these moments, Mestre Gamela allows students to become the teacher.
Dedication to everything in life
“I always thought that Júnior was too undisciplined, but his commitment to capoeira was so strong that he started to dedicate more of himself, not just to the sport but to everything else in his life,” says Sheila Rejane Barbosa, a teacher and mother of two who participate in the classes.
Barbosa’s children, Júnior and Jeovane, 14 and 16, respectively, are standouts in the capoeira sessions and never miss a class. For Júnior, Mestre Gamela is more than just a teacher.
He is a true friend and mentor.
“He always gives good advice,” says Júnior, recalling the times his master made him toe the line.
“I care about each of these kids,” says Mestre Gamela, pointing to the children. “When I hear that they’re getting mixed up with the wrong crowd, I make a point of giving them a good talking to because most of them don’t have a solid home life.”
Lorenço Cardoso Santana, 18, grew up in a rural area, far from the city. The first time he heard the berimbau, he knew he wanted to dedicate himself to capoeira.
“I lived far away from here, but I didn’t want to stop practicing,” Santana says.
Three years ago, he had the opportunity to come to Porto Nacional to live with his sister.
Since then, he “eats and breathes” capoeira.
“I study in the morning and I come to the gym in the afternoon,” Santana says. “Now, my job is giving classes to kids from the community. You practice capoeira by teaching it.”
Santana is also preparing to go to college to study physical education. Like Mestre Gamela, he wants to give to others what he’s received.
‘I would drop everything to train’
Civil servant Jean Carlos da Silva, 33, has been practicing capoeira since he was 9.
“I’ve been training pretty much all my life, but it was during a sad time in my life that I realized how capoeira was an excellent tool for preventing and overcoming drug use,” says Silva, referring to his days as a drug addict.
Silva said training has always been his priority, even when he was using narcotics.
“I would drop everything to train,” he says. “That was when I saw the importance of having young people get off the streets and into another social context – one that is much richer.”
A few years ago, Silva overcame his addiction.
His commitment to Mestre Gamela remains strong.
The only difference is he no longer attends classes alone, as he’s joined by his wife and two children.
While the family claps together in anticipation of their turns in the circle, Mestre Gamela finishes a song that recounts the story of Silva and so many others in attendance: “There you go boy/ Show them what the master has taught you/ Show them that the uprooted plant/Had seeds already sprouting/And if well tendered/Will yield good fruits and nice flowers.”