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In a Tampa Bay capoeira community, a reentry to practice together

The martial art that looks like dancing is rooted in cultural traditions.
Reba Bowens, 32, jumps high, hair flying, while playing capoeira at the Florida Center for Capoeira’s first annual belt ceremony, known in Portuguese as “Batizado,” at Kodawari Studios in Tampa on June 12, 2021.
Reba Bowens, 32, jumps high, hair flying, while playing capoeira at the Florida Center for Capoeira’s first annual belt ceremony, known in Portuguese as “Batizado,” at Kodawari Studios in Tampa on June 12, 2021. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]
Published Aug. 17
Updated Aug. 23

Standing shoulder to shoulder to form a circle called “roda” in Portuguese, they clap to the rhythm of Afro-Brazilian instruments playing traditional songs. Two participants meet in the middle and begin to play — moving their bodies in a martial arts style that looks more like they are dance partners than opponents.

“I saw a necessity of community,” Daniel “Tubarão” Levi, 30, said about founding the Tampa chapter of the Florida Center for Capoeira in 2018, located inside Kodawari Studios, a wellness center in Tampa. Levi trained in capoeira in Israel and traveled the world teaching before settling in Tampa Bay and founding the center, but as the community began to grow, the COVID-19 pandemic forced the cancellation of in-studio classes.

The global capoeira community is rooted in the history of enslaved Africans in Brazil as they masked efforts to continue cultural customs and learn self-defense skills disguised as dance. “It’s more than just the art form itself, it’s a culture,” said Mike “Palito” Blue, 37, about the history that drew him to capoeira. “The same way that hip-hop is a culture and breakdancing is a part of that culture ... there’s an oral history to it, symbolic history to it.”

Blue introduced capoeira to his girlfriend, Rikka “Dandara” Lovely, 30, and they began training virtually while the group wasn’t allowed in the studio. Lovely and Blue set up at home with laptops and cellphones in different rooms. After returning to the studio Lovely was able to experience the energy of a group training for the first time. “You get the goose bumps, the hair sticks up a little when everybody’s in unison,” Lovely said.

During the summer of 2020, the country was experiencing protests against police brutality and racism. Members of the group who descend from African diasporas like Lovely found capoeira connected them to their ancestors and provided an empowering space.

“People came because they enjoy hearing the rich history and sharing in that,” Lovely said. “We are still able to create a bond and still be able to move in these shaky times, and know that you had an ally.”

The first annual belt ceremony was held in June. Known as a “Batizado,” the three-day event included workshops led by capoeira teachers from around the world. Participants learned about the history of capoeira during “Capoeira Viva,” a cinematic experience, trained together and celebrated the Tampa group’s achievements.

Jairus “Pantera” Gainey, 27, who dreamed of being a capoeirista since he was a child, earned his first two belts. ”Capoeira was like a safe haven for me,” he said. “When we’re there all the stress of the world just goes away.”

Adev “Urubu Malandro” Aarons felt capoeira provided a smoother transition back from the confines of quarantine. “It made all of us realize we need the human touch, human connection,” Aarons said.

World-renowned capoeira teacher Timor “Mestre Cueca” Klinghofer of Russia joined the group, along with other participants who came from across Florida and out of state for the belt ceremony. He taught Levi capoeira when he was a teenager in Israel and looked around approvingly at those assembled, turning to Levi to exclaim, “You have a family here.”

Rikka “Dandara”  Lovely , 30, dances with capoeira teacher “Bundo” during the Florida Center for Capoeira’s first annual belt ceremony celebratory weekend known in Portuguese as “Batizado” at Kodawari Studios in Tampa. Lovely learned about capoeira through her boyfriend, Mike Blue, who answers to the nickname “Palito.”
Rikka “Dandara” Lovely , 30, dances with capoeira teacher “Bundo” during the Florida Center for Capoeira’s first annual belt ceremony celebratory weekend known in Portuguese as “Batizado” at Kodawari Studios in Tampa. Lovely learned about capoeira through her boyfriend, Mike Blue, who answers to the nickname “Palito.” [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]
Becky Wu, 26, and Mike “Palito” Blue clasp hands before an exercise, part of the “Capoeira Viva” cinematic portion of the first annual belt ceremony.
Becky Wu, 26, and Mike “Palito” Blue clasp hands before an exercise, part of the “Capoeira Viva” cinematic portion of the first annual belt ceremony. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]
Heidi Beth Wert dances with capoeira instructor Daniel "Tubarão" Levi.
Heidi Beth Wert dances with capoeira instructor Daniel "Tubarão" Levi. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]
Guest capoeira teachers Rafael Teixeira and Timor Klinghofer greet each other outside Mofongo Steakhouse before a Brazilian-themed event, part of the Florida Center for Capoeira's weekend events.
Guest capoeira teachers Rafael Teixeira and Timor Klinghofer greet each other outside Mofongo Steakhouse before a Brazilian-themed event, part of the Florida Center for Capoeira's weekend events. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]
Mike "Palito" Blue wears a toothpick during a social gathering at Mofongo Steakhouse. His nickname means "toothpick."
Mike "Palito" Blue wears a toothpick during a social gathering at Mofongo Steakhouse. His nickname means "toothpick." [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]
Lele Barros of Orlando sings samba music during the Brazilian party attended by members of the Florida Center for Capoeira, at Mofongo Steakhouse.
Lele Barros of Orlando sings samba music during the Brazilian party attended by members of the Florida Center for Capoeira, at Mofongo Steakhouse. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]
Jairus “Pantera” Gainey plays with capoeira teacher Timor "Cueca" Klinghofer.
Jairus “Pantera” Gainey plays with capoeira teacher Timor "Cueca" Klinghofer. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]
Rikka Lovely high-fives Alison Vieira Melgaco, 34, after earning her green belt.
Rikka Lovely high-fives Alison Vieira Melgaco, 34, after earning her green belt. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]
Capoeira instructor Daniel "Professor Tubarão" Levi receives hugs after earning his professor title and belt.
Capoeira instructor Daniel "Professor Tubarão" Levi receives hugs after earning his professor title and belt. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]

Want to try?

You can learn more about the Florida Center for Capoeira and take a free class by visiting their website.

Or try Capoeira Malês Tampa on August, 21, at 4:00 p.m., an outdoor roda for all levels at Curtis Hixon Park, taught by Professor Leandro “Carne Seca” Rabell.