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All you need to know: NUS Capoeira

Updated: Jan 10

Not sure which clubs to join in the upcoming semester? In this series, we put together comprehensive masterposts for all you need to know about NUS's martial arts clubs. Stay tuned for more!


Note: NUS Capoeria will be holding recreational workshops on 28/01 and 30/01, as part of the Interest Development Series. Find out more here.


Hey NUS! Welcome to the second in this series of articles about the martial arts CCAs in NUS.


Remember, here’s what we have lined up: an introduction to the martial art; the training menu of the day; interviews with club members; and a short Q&A.

Hopefully, if you’re new to martial arts, or even if you’ve done something else before, this article will help you decide if you’d like to try out NUS Capoeira.



Capoeira


Capoeira is a martial art / performance style from Brazil that focuses on kicks, flowing movements and acrobatic manoeuvres.



In the 1500s, African slaves brought over their fighting techniques when they were transported all over the world, especially Brazil. Practitioners used these skills to evade capture by slavers and even for larger military conflicts. Up to the 1900s, capoeira had developed a reputation for being used against the authorities and was outlawed, was only preserved in secret. Eventually, this reputation changed in the 1940s when schools were opened and it began being taught as a sport and performance art and it is now an important piece of Brazilian culture.


I think that the most unique aspect of capoeira is the ginga, a “rocking” kind of footwork that the practitioner must keep up throughout any movement and it is from the ginga that every offensive and defensive move is applied. The ginga makes fighting a capoeira practitioner very difficult – compared to more “normal” fighting styles, capoeira is very unpredictable since an attack can be launched at any point of the ginga and from any height, to any target. Also, it’s a nightmare trying to shoot for a tackle or punch because of the wide variety of evasive moves: ducking; cartwheels or even somersaulting away.



I’d gotten interested in capoeira when I was 14 after seeing a really trashy-but-feel-good 1993 movie called “Only the Strong” (starring Mark Dacascos, the caucasian Hollywood martial artist who’s NOT Ray Park), so I was really excited to try out NUS Capoeira this week.



NUS Capoeira


The club trainings are on Tuesdays (at MPSH 2) and Thursdays (at MPSH 6) from 7pm to 9pm.



Warm-Up


The warm-up was fairly standard: running around then doing dynamic stretches across the length of the training area. Something a bit different was the movement drills like bending over and dragging your feet across, which is supposed to warm you up for doing cartwheels later.


Actual Training

We next proceeded the bulk of our training.



First, we learnt some basic techniques. The instructor taught the class a basic combination (a left kick and a spinning reverse right kick) and we would repeat the combination while moving back and forth across the hall. Meanwhile, since I was a complete beginner, he separately showed me how to do the ginga, the basic move of capoeira. It was a little different from what I’m used to, but he got me to get it roughly right after a few minutes. He then got the class started on more special techniques, like adding a cartwheel at the end of the basic combination to roll away from an attack. Later, we did the combinations in pairs: one participant “attacks” and the other reacts to it. This is important so you learn what the attack looks like from an attack-ee’s point of view so you figure out what to look out for and how to defend against it.




Next, we started to do some strength training. We dragged out the judo mats and paired up to do assisted handstands and handstand shoulder taps. It was really hard on my core and my whole body was shaking after a while. It’s tough, but I feel a bit closer to being able to do a real handstand!



The last thing we did was practise our cartwheels. During our warm-ups and earlier practice, our cartwheels had to be done slowly since we were on hard ground and most of us weren’t able to do a proper cartwheel yet. With the mats, we got to try to do a cartwheel faster and more explosively. By thrusting our body into a cartwheel, we maintain more energy throughout the movement so we can turn the cartwheel into an attack or link it to another technique like a somersault. The senior students were especially cool to watch! I don’t get to try this training much doing other martial arts, so it was a very fresh experience.



Roda


The highlight of the training was the roda, which is a “game” where 2 participants fight against each other at a low intensity (you go slower and don’t make contact with attacks). We got into a circle while some of the senior students set up their instruments: a berimbau (a single-string instrument – like a 1-string guzheng that you play but hitting with a fiddle); an atabaque (a very tall hand drum) and a tambourine. The music is really energetic and I didn’t understand the lyrics at all buts it’s really fun where everybody is high and singing and clapping.

So everybody took turns to fight in the middle of the circle (like in Fight Club) with the music setting the pace of the matches and we’d periodically replace the participants who were fighting in the circle. Since it’s more like a “game” than a “fight”, everybody went at their comfort level. The seniors would do more impressive moves like high kicks and handstands, while the juniors would focus on the basics like evading hits. This lasted for about 20 minutes, and everybody got to play for at least 1 minute each (most got to do multiple rounds).



Q & A


1) What’s the timing like?


Trainings are on Tuesdays and Thursdays, from 7 o’clock to 9 o’clock.


2) Is there a steep learning curve?


I don’t really think so. The basic moves are pretty easy to learn, especially since the small class size means that the seniors can teach you almost 1-1 if you need it. I think I managed to get a decent handle on the basic kick and the ginga within an hour even though I’m normally quite uncoordinated and clumsy, so it shouldn’t be too difficult for you either!



However, some of the kicks require more flexibility, which naturally takes time to develop, and you’ll definitely need time to gain the confidence and balance to do the more acrobatic moves like the cartwheel or flying kicks. I wouldn’t worry about it since mastering the basics would keep you plenty occupied and there’s really no hurry to get good at it within a month.



3) How much money am I going to spend on it?


The membership fee for each semester is $80. Other than that, members can buy the abadas (pants) for $80, which come from Australia when the annual graduation ceremony comes around. However, some members wear other pants (like track pants) for weekly training.


4) Is capoeira very tough?


I didn’t find the training I attended very physically draining, and I was OK to go jogging by the next morning. If I had to compare it to some other kind of exercise, I’d say it’s like a very good aerobics session. Thus, it’s good for staying active even if you’re not the most physically adept person, or if you play another sport or have other strenuous activities during the week.

That said, it’s not like I didn’t get stronger from the training. As you probably read from the outline, we did spend time doing some strength training. While you’d think kicking trains only your legs, a lot of moves require great upper body strength to pull off, such as the cartwheels and handstand kicks. The stability training we did was really taxing on my shoulders (for keeping my body up), my back (for straightening my torso) and my core (for stabilising everything).



Therefore, I’d say that the training is tough enough to build some muscles, but not too tough that your body’s shot for the rest of the week.


5) How much of my training is conditioning? How much time do I actually get to “play”?


Most of the training I attended was spent on drilling movement and techniques that could be directly applied to “playing” capoeira. The instructor taught us a sequence of moves (left kick, reverse right kick, then a cartwheel) and we’d do several laps of it from one end of the hall to the other. We also practised doing cartwheels or other kick combinations in tandem with a partner so we got to experience trying it on a “live target” and reacting to being attacked.



We only spent about 20 minutes doing strength training like the handstand shoulder taps and static holds. I think this was just right: any less and we wouldn’t be able to progress into doing advanced moved and doing more would be counterproductive to the rest of the training.



In fact, about 20 minutes was reserved for the “roda” at the end, where we got to “fight” in a real game setting (with little to no contact, of course), which I feel was an appropriate duration.


6) Is capoeira useful for self-defence?


In my opinion, capoeira is useful for self-defence, but with an important qualification.

Capoeira originated as a fighting style for soldiers and freedom fighters to use in life-or-death situations while capoeiristas in modern MMA or kickboxing aren’t all that rare (Anderson Silva, Jose Aldo). After all, being able to dodge attacks and launch devastating combinations of kicks from unpredictable positions is an important skill for a fighter. However, the flashy high-level skills not only take time to learn but are also riskier to do in a fight – you’d have to be really good to pull any of them off!



That said, learning the basic kicks and punches and defensive moves are enough for defending yourself against an assailant. Even the basic training will improve your explosiveness (from all the jumping and spinning moves) and coordination, which are skills any martial artist would need.



7) Is capoeira safe?


Yes! I was initially quite suspicious about this because I didn’t see them set up any mats and I figured doing flying kicks and jumping around on hard floor might be dangerous, but I realise I was mistaken.

In the first place (and this should have been obvious to me), we didn’t actually do anything crazy without the mats. During the warm-up and drills, our cartwheels were done slowly and at our comfort level, so only the experienced people would do the kind where your feet leave the floor a little while beginners just went at our own pace. When we practised the cartwheels more explosively, we did them on the judo mats (set up like a fashion runway).



The only other thing that seemed remotely dangerous was the “roda”, which is a bit like sparring in other martial arts. However, it’s different because it’s played like a game or a dance since there’s loud music and chanting going on. I think that sets the frame of mind for everyone to go easy and just have fun, so nobody is going to be gunning to kick your face off or toss you onto the floor. Everybody throws their kicks slowly and nobody makes full contact, so it’s a bit like playing a musical version of tag. Also, the music sets the pace of the roda, so the people playing usually go slower when newbies are playing so they control their techniques more carefully.



Other than that, the only “dangerous” thing was getting blisters on your big toes from all the spinning and turning. Some students used gauze and micro-pore tape to pad the sensitive parts of their feet to protect them.


8) Are my capoeira days going to be over once I graduate?


Nope, lots of working adults still do capoeira. In fact, quite a few NUS Capoeira members are actually NUS alumni who’ve stayed on past their graduation. Other than that, many organisations have Singapore branches (like Grupo Senzala and Saudacao), so you should be able to keep practising even if you leave NUS Capoeira.


9) Can I take part in tournaments? Will I be able to get any fortune and glory even if I’m a newbie?


NUS Capoeira doesn’t really take part in competitions. However, they do get invited to take part in several performances, such as the NUS Exchangers’ Welcome Party and the open day performance. Additionally, since the instructor is from Xango Capoeira (an organisation), some members get to take part in bigger performances organised by them, too.


10) What’s the social life of the club like?


Although NUS Capoeira isn’t a very big club (15 members per session, on average), the lower intensity and pace of training affords more opportunities to talk to other members during the training. Having fewer members also makes for a cosier club since it’s like a smaller family.



I did notice quite a diverse range of students from many faculties, and a fair number of exchange students. In that sense, I think NUS Capoeira is quite a good place to meet all sorts of people!

Other than that, NUS Capoeira also gets together outside school for various cohesion events, like most other clubs.


Interviews

with Himesh and Fred




How long have you been doing capoeira?


Fred: I started this semester, so about a month. At my home I am gymnast or practicing gymnastic, depending on what your definition of a gymnast is. I started capoeira because I needed to move my body more than just going to the gym and I saw NUS capoeira on NUSync and a friend recommended I come and try it out.


Himesh: I started Capoeira in Year 1, so I've been doing it for just about 2 years now. I was a bit overwhelmed by the number of clubs at SLF so I decided to join one where I had a friend in already. I like how easygoing it can be. As with any other sport, there are basics and foundations to build on. But once you have those down, pretty much anything goes, as long as you can make it flow together.


Personally, I find the acrobatics the most fun aspect, so it's really rewarding for me to come back every week to practice and feel the improvement after each session.


Fred: Capoeira is a new way of moving than I am used to, and it presents an interesting challenge which I quite like. I like the feel of the group and the energy of all the people in the group.


What do you like about NUS Capoeira?


Himesh: I'd say the general vibe in the club is pretty chill. There's never too much pressure to immediately pick up whatever's being taught - some moves are definitely more complex after all. Our instructor Sanny likes to joke around a lot so that really helps to lighten the atmosphere in each training. I think one of the advantages as a club in NUS is that most other members are students (some alumni too). I feel like it makes things a lot more relatable and easier for us to share tips and tricks with each other to learn things faster. At the same time, we do have avenues to explore beyond the club, since we're very closely tied with Xango Capoeira, and we get to experience games with other capoeiristas who trained under different environments.


Fred: The people and how the training is adjusted to both fit new comers like myself and seniors who have trained longer. This is done by sometimes when newcomers do one basic exercise the seniors can do a more advanced one.

Fred: As I have not trained for so long it is hard to say, but if had to say something it is the happy sprit everyone has and how people trying to help each other and have a good time while improving.


Himesh: The most fun stories I can think of come from outside of training. Every now and then we have a day in to play some games together like Overcooked or Mario Kart, or even some board games, and it always gets so chaotic. Apart from that, we occasionally hold outings to the trampoline park so we can have a go at some of the crazier acrobatics like back flips and front flips. Tiring but fun!


Would you recommend capoeira to an incoming freshman / other student?


Himesh: If you're looking for a fun way to stay fit, Capoeira is perfect for that. The bouts of constant movement is definitely gonna improve your stamina. If you're willing to keep an open mind, capoeira is a unique way to exercise both body and mind, and you get to bust out those flashy acrobatics every once in a while too (but we won't force you to do them if you can't!).


People with knee injuries may not be so open to Capoeira since we have quite a few moves that keep us close to the ground which can stress out the knees quite a lot.


Fred: Yes if like to move and learn new things. I can pick up new movements and exercises and capoeira has a fast pace. It’s not dangerous if you are careful, but take it easy and go slowly in the beginning with thing you are not used to. I don’t think you have to be strong it is more about technic and but more endurance probably wouldn’t hurt, but that is also something you can train.


Fred: It might be a bit less fun if you are impatient. I think you should go slow in the beginning no matter what type of training you are doing and listen to people who knows more than you, something I know I have not been great of doing in the past. You should try to be patient both with yourself and others and not get frustrated when you don’t manage to do something immediately.


What advice would you give someone who just joined NUS Capoeira or is thinking about joining?


Himesh: Definitely focus on the form before anything else. Don't stress too much if you can't kick high enough or something like that - if you practice the proper form for long enough, the height will come by itself. Making sure you have the proper form will also make transitioning into other moves a lot easier, and safer too, especially on your joints.


I think one of the most important takeaways from Capoeira is that even though I said pretty much anything goes, it's important for you to observe your opponent too and to make sure what you're doing actually makes sense. It may be impressive to pull off really flashy acrobatics in the middle of the fight. But if your opponent is unable to engage and is left standing there to watch, then there's really no point in throwing all sorts of flashy moves - that's not the point of capoeira. As our instructor always says, Capoeira is all about the "question and answer".


Fred: Yeah, focus on the ginga, the basic move in Capoeira, first and listen to the advice of the instructor.


Conclusion


I had a lot of fun with NUS Capoeira this week! It’s something very new to me and I think I became a bit more confident to do more acrobatic moves. Building up the guts to pull off more daring moves is useful for all kinds of martial artists and it’s really fun to boot. I hope this helps you decide if Capoeira is your cup of tea. If it is, give NUS Capoeira a visit!



(To editor: it’s relevant because … I’m kicking … which Capoeira practitioners are good at?)


See you all next time, I’ll be heading to NUS Aikido to learn the martial art of the samurai!


Feeling pumped to try out Capoeria? Sign up for their IDS workshops coming up on 28/01 and 30/1!

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