When I traveled to Brazil a few years ago, learning the basics of Capoeira was almost as high on my list of pre-trip priorities as learning to say hello in Portuguese.
Capoeira (cahp-oo-AIR-ah) is a martial art that looks like a hybrid of street fighting, karate and breakdancing. As an art, it's community-driven, practiced in a roda (HO-da), or circle, where a group sits chanting and clapping while two contenders engage in the middle. Skilled capoeiristas are completely mesmerizing to watch, able to leap from their toes to their fingertips and back again, attacking with sweeps that come within millimeters of their opponents, who escape just in time with a graceful one-handed backflip. Seriously.
Capoeira classes are easy to find in Chicago if you know where to look. The community of Gingarte swallowed me up for about two month's worth of weekly classes, during which I not only re-learned to do cartwheels for the first time since second grade, but also found plenty of friends to drill me on Portuguese vocab, give me the dish on places to visit, and hand me numbers of family members to call if I ever found myself in trouble. The deal: Capoeira isn't a mere sport; it's a lifestyle. And if you can approach it with a healthy willingness to keep smiling as you scrape yourself off the floor again and again, you'll find that will swallow you up just as easily.
The skinny: Capoeria was developed between the 16th-19th centuries, when Portugal shipped slaves from West Africa to South America. Facing oppression and homogenization, the slaves developed Capoeira. What appeared to be haphazard dancing or fighting to onlookers became a secret way for them to practice art and teach their culture to new generations. Capoeira was banned in Brazil until the 1930s, with strict physical punishments for offenders, but has since become a national pastime. It caught on in the U.S. around the 1970s.
The getup: Capoeiristas go barefoot and wear no protective clothing. Traditional Capoeira pants are loose-fitting, belted at the hips with elastic or rope, and worn with a T-shirt or tank. Individual capoeira schools will have their own uniforms and colors, but if you're heading to class, just wear comfy clothes you can move in, and avoid pants that are long enough to trip you. As far as gear goes, however, music is an integral part. At the very least, your instructor should have a stereo playing the lilting rhythms. Serious practitioners often own and play their own berimbau, a stringed instrument fashioned from a gourd that produces a rich twang.
The payoff: It's no exaggeration: Capoeiristas are the fittest and most beautiful people I've ever seen. The sport demands the stamina of a soccer player, the total-body strength of a gymnast and the lightness of movement of a ballroom dancer—and the constant kicks, lunges, turns and squats will sculpt legs, butts and abs to artistic extremes. The beauty of the sport transcends just physique, though: The focus on music, individual expression and community support makes a capoeira practice a seriously fun and friendly time.
Wear and tear: Due to the acrobatic nature of the sport, bruises and muscle injuries are nearly unavoidable for those who practice regularly. It's impossible to advance without a few falls on the very hard floor, but learning to fall safely is part of the practice. If you're going in with injuries, especially to the knees or spine, make sure your instructor knows and consider checking with your doctor for advice on how to keep yourself safe.
The commitment: At the end of one class, I had a handle on the foundation step, called the ginga (jeenga), and was working on a handful of basic blocks and attacks. You can have tons of fun with Capoeira in one class period, but there's so much to learn that a regular regimen is necessary if you want skills.
The cost: Classes are totally affordable, and you don't need to invest in gear to start. Expect to pay $10 at Gingarte; $10-$20 at Enso Yoga and Martial Arts (taught by Grupo Axe Capoeira); and $20 at Soulistic Studio.
Difficulty level: Capoeira is a serious workout (one hour of ginga-ing will leave untrained calves aching for days), but the real difficulty is staying patient with your progress. I'm fit, but I'm no tumbler, and it would take me a minimum six months of once-a-week practice to be competitive in the roda. Those who have prior martial arts or gymnastics training will likely advance much more quickly.
The verdict: No matter what rut you're in, Capoeira has the power to break you out of it. The full spectrum of movement means that everyone meets a challenge, but will also find an aspect that comes easily. More than likely, you'll leave class and re-enter the real world with that unbeatable feeling of having just learned a secret...that changes everything.
Want to give it a go in Chicago? Look into classes at spots like Gingarte; Enso Yoga and Martial Arts and Soulistic Studio & Spa.