There is one place in West Philadelphia where fighting is acceptable.
High-flying kicks and swiftly moving bodies pass back and forth across the room. The sound of sneakers hitting the floor—and sometimes skin—is drowned out by the rhythmic drum music reverberating through the room. Someone shouts out directions over the thumping bass and others listen, complying with his demands for more moves, more motion. He demonstrates.
There are too many smiles for this to be any sort of fight club. Instead, the Community Education Center on Lancaster Avenue houses a breed of martial art not found in most American communities. The art of capoeira, a combination of fighting and dance, is a tradition cultivated and cherished in Brazil and imported into cities across the world. Developed by African slaves in the 16th century, the art mainly served as self defense until the last hundred years or so, when a style of “street capoeira” gained popularity and transitioned the fight into a fusion of art and sport.
The American Society of Capoeira and Arts from Brazil (ASCAB) has its own branch in Philadelphia,
and promotes the cultural centerpiece at workshops and programs throughout the city. The Community Education Center partners with Kumquat Dance Center to offer the class alongside other unique dance styles such as salsa, hip-hop and line-dancing.
“We’re really interested in all of the movement arts and the center should be a place for the diversity of dance and movement. We think all dance forms should be made available,” said Manfred Fischbeck, Kumquat Dance Center’s director.
This evening’s capoeira class is instructed by ASCAB member Ron Wood. As a teacher, or monitor, Wood has spent over a decade perfecting the balance and strength necessary to excel in capoeira. This can be seen in his graceful trip across the long stretch of classroom floor, balancing only on his hands. He reaches the other side, pauses, and repeats the exercise backwards. His feet never touch the ground.
Wood spent several years touring the world with the professional dance company Pure Movement before creating his own company, Zen One, as an artful fusion of capoeira and break dancing. Though the group still occasionally performs demonstrations at the Mann Center and around the city, Wood has shifted his attention towards teaching.
“I feed off of other people’s energy,” said Wood. “I work my best when there’s a lot of people around.”
The dozen or so students spending their Wednesday night in the muggy classroom range from young teenagers to middle-aged adults. There are men and women; black students and white students. Looking around the room as they partner up for various activities, it is apparent that they support each other, both literally and figuratively. One slip of the chair and bruises would be inevitable. But no one does.
“You sit in a circle, you clap. You’re always involved. There’s a culture behind it that you really have to embrace,” said Wood.
His students adamantly agreed. James Ryan, who has been involved with capoeira for over a year, thinks the atmosphere adds something to the class. “I really enjoy the music associated with the martial art. It helps with the energy level,” he said. “If the music was gone there’d be, like, nothing.”
The circle is called a “roda” and takes place at the end of class. Students take their recently acquired skills and test them out on their classmates. The loud Latin American music filling the room prompts the requisite head bopping and hip shaking, and everyone jovially oohs and aahs in admiration of a winning move.
Malik Wright, a six-year veteran of the class, also loves the ritual nature associated with the martial art. “I love the workout; being able to learn about another culture. You learn about the sacred aspects as you go along. You also learn how to do really cool stuff with your body,” he said.
Indeed, the 90-minute class requires countless backbends, headstands and swift kicks over the head. Bringing a chair in the mix, Wood instructed students to stand facing the chair, bend backwards in a bridge position, and tap each toe lightly on the seat of the chair with alternating kicks into the air. “Your weight should be balanced on your hands!” he said.
“The flips you see? That’s the bedazzle of it, the beauty of it. We actually hit each other. If you get hit, it’s your fault, not ‘Oh, it’s so pretty!’”
The dance naturally falls in the grey area between self defense and art. In a community where self-defense courses could be more prevalent, Wood still insists it much more of a culture and a lifestyle.
He noted that he’s never used capoeira as actual self defense, although it does make him more aware of his surroundings. Student Gail Ferry concurred. She may not use the entire martial art as self defense but would use aspects from it. “How to use my full body when kicking? That I would use as self defense,” she said.
The community surrounding the center benefits from the different courses offered. “It gives access to the arts,” said Fischbeck. “That’s a very important part of community life and community growth. People need to have a place to practice and explore their own creative part.”
Yet Wood does not see himself as a community leader. His work at the Community Education Center is far from transformative for the neighborhood, but the bright spot it creates engages a host of students from the area and beyond. The real value of his work, however, is seen in the self-assurance instilled in his students.
“I’m rewarded by seeing someone grow in confidence. I see someone doing a handstand when they couldn’t a year ago when they walked into the class,” he said. “My goal is to make them explore themselves.”