A close circle of people is singing and chanting under Pushkinsky Most early Sunday evening. In the centre, two at a time duck, dive, feint and sway in hypnotising fashion, while enchanting vocal drones, drums and bow-like berimbaus provide the perfect musical accompaniment. It’s a weekly gathering of Moscow’s capoeira enthusiasts, disciples of the Afro-Brazilian dance that has witnessed growing international popularity in recent years.
Russia is very much part of this. In 1995, two instructors from the INBI world culture organisation were travelling the globe on a quest for knowledge; it was in San Francisco that they first encountered capoeira. Absorbed by the vibrancy of the art, they conceived a plan to invite Brazilian gurus to Moscow and returned home with instruments, information and an iron will to make it happen.
Fast-forward three years and the Capoeira Federation of Russia was officially registered. The first All-Russian seminar on capoeira took place in Moscow: masters from Santos, Sao Paulo and Guarujá were joined by eager participants from all over Russia for the four-day event. They came from St Petersburg, Bryansk, Krasnodar, Ufa and even the Ukrainian cities of Kiev and Dnipropetrovsk.
Since then, interest has blossomed. All-Russian seminars are a yearly event every May, with talented students selected to train with leading teachers in Brazil. Schools have been established in several cities.
Moscow’s Grupo Axe Capoeira centre, located in an anonymous sports hall on a police compound at the heart of the capital, has expanded to include a wide cultural programme. Wandering in there any day of the week, one is equally likely to find Portuguese language lessons, percussion workshops or rehearsing bossa nova groups – in addition to ju-jitsu classes for all ages and abilities.
Yan Yurievich Shastitko, the school’s founder and chief coach, says it is his mission to help students become “excellent capoeiristas and, most of all, good people.”
“Capoeira is an instrument people can use for personal development and self-discovery. It is my personal responsibility to help people become free. And every person must decide for themselves what they want to do; it must be a free choice.”
“Capoeira is communication between two people through body language,” he continues. “People play in the circle and get acquainted with each other – in a hard, physical, beautiful way, with a lot of emotion. They express emotions through their bodies and movement.”
And he believes study of the martial art must be partnered with full cultural engagement. “I really love music. It is the universal language that can be understood by all people, all races. In Russia, for example, there are many people who engage in physical training without music – I think this is very bad. It’s capoeira castration!”
“Without music it doesn’t have energy; when you start learning capoeira your body becomes very tired. But after six months, for example, you will feel rhythm. And when your body feels rhythm, you don’t get tired as quickly – you want to carry on, to play. The songs in capoeira have information – about art, life, love, relationships, freedom, about everything! It’s a very important part of education. People must study the Portuguese language with the music and the dancing.”
Ekaterina Beresneva, a journalist and art gallery assistant, takes capoeira classes at her local fitness club. “The sports centre offers a few different things, but I wanted to try capoeira because it sounded exotic. I think it’s popular because it’s a very dynamic dance, with the sounds of great Brazilian music. It’s a mix of movements from nature – you move like some kind of animal, like a monkey perhaps, it’s really fun. And I think it’s very good exercise.”
“In Russia we have such a culture that all others can become part of it,” she continues. “Everybody loves everything. Capoeira is popular because Russians are very open to all cultures. It’s very easy to fall in love with.” Part of the boom in popularity is attributed by Yan Yurievich to the film Only The Strong, first shown on TV around ten years ago.
Yurievich, who has been to Brazil five times, says another main aspect of his mission is to cheer people up: “There is not much sun in Russia – it is very cold. I wanted to bring some warm Brazilian life to the country.”
Published in Russia Now (Brazilian edition), June 2009.