Capoeiristas kicking it in Cambodia's capital

Capoeiristas kicking it in Cambodia's capital

Capoeira combatants spar. (Inset) Michel Ghigo demonstrates a side kick.

Having originated in Afro-Brazilian dance, acrobatic capoeira is one of the world’s most eye-catching forms of self-defence

The mixing of music with dance is really fun. you can really do what you want.

SOME modern martial arts, such as kickboxing in its brutal modern incarnation, emphasise clinical efficiency and economy of movement. capoeira isn’t one of them.

In fact, as its gymnastic practitioners, or capoeiristas crouch, twirl and bound, evading attacks via spectacular flips and graceful somersaults then countering at lightning speed from unanticipated angles – the cinematic fighting style seems to celebrate superior aesthetics. A triumph of elaborate form married to fierce function.

Although Cambodia has a rich history of combative sports, one would not necessarily expect to find a place to practice capoeira in Phnom Penh. After all, how could an esoteric Afro-Brazilian martial art find its way to Cambodia? Since early 2004, however, a group of capoeiristas have been meeting twice weekly to practise this tradition that combines sparring and dance to create a martial art unlike any other.

With origins in the tribal communities of pre-Colonial Africa, capoeira was developed by black slaves in the Brazil. It is heavily reliant on music, with musicians maintaining a constant beat during matches, using traditional drums and stringed instruments. The ideal result is a graceful flow of acrobatic fighting manoeuvres that sync with the beat.

“This mixing with music and dance is really fun,” said Michel Ghigo, one of the primary instructors. “You can really do what you want.”

Ghigo explained that the musical overtones of capoeira were developed out of necessity by slaves to conceal the sport’s true nature. “The slaves weren’t allowed to train in martial arts, so they hid it by making it a dance.”

The fundamental movement of capoeira is the ginga, the art form’s fundamental movement, which provides the basis for attacks and blocks. During matches, opponents will move their feet in a roughly triangular pattern, maintaining one hand for blocks and one for strikes. Attacks usually come in the form of kicks and sweeps, while defenders use acrobatic techniques to evade attacks, using cartwheels, hand stands and even head-spins.

Noble ethos
Although it’s technically a martial art, Capoeira practitioners do not aim to incapacitate an opponent – in fact, it is common for dominant attackers to not deliver the coup de grace once they’ve aptly demonstrated their technique, agility and superiority.

Ghigo said capoeiristas don’t use the word “fight”. “We call them ‘plays’,” he said. True to its roots in dance, the idea is to harmonise with the musical spirit of the play rather than to unleash raw aggression.

There are two main styles of capoeira – capoeira Angola, which is sometimes described as more “dance-like”, and capoeira regional, which is closer to the sport’s fighting origins.

Although the latter is the more common form of capoeira, capoeira Kampuchea utilises elements of both schools. The Phnom Penh club has no formal affiliation with any international capoeira federation, nor does it follow any formal ranks or hierarchies.

The classroom is in a small preschool called “Choo Choo” on Street 21, about one block east of the International School of Phnom Penh on Norodom Boulevard.

For prospective students, the first lesson is free, with each subsequent lesson costing US$3 (or $15 for one month) – a bargain compared to gym membership premiums, and a far more colourful experience to boot.

Plus, taking up any new sport offers a social dimension. “We come to lessons to be free, to play and to have fun with all this music and all these people,” said Ghigo.


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