Walking around downtown Arcata, it's impossible to miss the spacious new studio on Eighth Street that houses the Humboldt Capoeira Academy. The large storefront windows are curtain-less, inviting a full view of the dazzling wood floor and the martial arts classes that take place on it. After successfully operating for four years off the beaten path on South G, HCA founder and director Eden Sara?a says she moved a block off the Arcata Plaza to increase the school's "visibility" and its mission of "spreading cultural awareness thorough the arts." Sara?a took on this prime Arcata real estate confident that her classes will continue to fill and to offer studio rentals to arts and other cultural groups, thus helping "make people aware of cultures outside of Humboldt County."
Native to Brazil, capoeira is a lyrical rhythmic and acrobatic martial art, often mistaken as purely a dance form. The movements of capoeira tell a history of African slaves brought by the Portuguese to Brazil in the 1500s to work on the sugarcane plantations. Escaped slaves banded together with indigenous and other oppressed peoples to form hidden communities called quilombos, where capoeira was born as the escapees trained for rebellion. Sara?a explained how recaptured slaves forced to return to the plantation spread capoeira by teaching it to other enslaved Africans.
Because of capoeira's international popularity, the exciting story of slaves disguising their combat training as dancing, and doing it right under the slavers' noses is fairly well known. Despite its elements of samba and live musical accompaniment, capoeira was a dangerous martial art used for defeating trackers and soldiers. Ambushes were so deadly that the practice of capoeira was outlawed in Brazil by the ruling colonial class, spurring both the incorporation of dance and music, and secret practice locations.
The new space is no secret. Its stunning bamboo floor is probably the finest around. Sprung floors are built to absorb shock and prevent injuries and finished a certain way that works for bare feet, not slippery or sticky, which can be difficult to get just right. The school is spacious and inviting, full of natural light. It truly is a dream studio. Sara?a is happy here. "We hoped to reach more people at this location. We are definitely doing that."
A no-nonsense type, Professora Sara?a, who seems more like a New Yorker than a Californian, squeezed in our interview before teaching a class of 6- and 7-year-olds. Emanating a brisk and affectionate rapport with her young charges, she paused to send greetings from her office into the entry way as the children arrived. When a girl looked unsure about a request to warm-up the kids, Sara?a goaded good-naturedly, "You're a blue belt? You don't know how to give a warm-up?" The 12-year-old, Anastatia McCauley, who's been studying with Sara?a since she was 5, laughed at herself and went off to corral the youngsters in the studio, until the Professora took over.
Sara?a entered the studio and stretched with the kids, all counting to 10 in Portuguese, the language of capoeira. After requesting 10 push-ups, she smiled, conceding, "I was late. I'll do them with you." And down she dropped to give 10 to a crop of children.
The prowess of these kids was pretty amazing. Not so much athletic ability beyond their years, but a maturity manifested in their absorption of details and body placement. Sara?a showed an intricate movement pattern quickly and the kids had it. While one partner was on the ground, the other did a type of handstand, an aú, over her as part of a short sequence. The promise on the brochure: "helps to improve strength, flexibility, coordination, self-control and confidence," was clearly illustrated by these young disciples.
Sara?a was a gymnast before becoming one of the highest ranked females in the U.S. in this male-dominated sport. It started when her brother called to say, "You're never going to believe what I found," and took her to her first class at the Capoeira Club of HSU. "I never stopped since that first day -- I felt welcome; you feel like you're in a family. Capoeira is well rounded. I never get bored. There's always something to train, movement, language, philosophy, instruments."
When not teaching here, Sara?a is traveling to Brazil and all over the country for events like Batizados, where new students get initiated. She sees capoeira as "a source of liberation: the training, the artistic expression, the rhythms, the music. People learn a lot about themselves and other people. ... It offers another way to go, a different way toward community."