DURHAM, N.C. -- A centuries-old Brazilian dance that combines martial arts with the pulse and energy of a Carnival party is sweeping U.S. fitness centers, challenging gym rats constantly looking for new trends.
It's called "capoeira" (cap-WAY-rah), and membership has tripled in North Carolina's Research Triangle. It's popping up in gyms from the trendy - Crunch in New York City - to the public - the Parks and Rec in Provo, Utah. And cities such as Nashville, San Diego, London and Vancouver brim with burgeoning capoeira communities.
Brian Donnelly, who does capoeira in New York, says it's impossible to be bored in class.
"You trim the fat. You play a cool instrument. You learn a new language. ... And that's just the first 20 minutes," Donnelly said.
Those first 20 minutes typically consist of calisthenics to raise the heart rate. The teacher, called the "mestre," then demonstrates a new skill, such as a kick-and-duck or a cartwheel. The movements have foreign names, but most teachers conduct class in English.
After a half-hour or so of practice, the class transforms the energy of the aerobics room into a vibrant and stirring pulse.
The class forms a circle, called the roda O-da), and beats drums native to Brazil. The teacher plays a stringed instrument called the berimbau and belts out songs in Portuguese that have easy-to-imitate refrains. The lyrics give verbal directions, praise and reprimands to two people who then spar inside the circle.
"That live, interactive, fluid group energy is critical," Donnelly said.
On a December day at a Beyond Fitness gym in Durham, two people lock eyes and crouch at the opening of the roda. They clasp hands and stir under the infectious music. Then they release their arm-wrestle grip and hurtle themselves toward the center of the circle.
For the next few minutes, their limbs interweave and shadow. She cocoons her body and he lunges, sways and arcs his fists toward her. They do not make contact. They do not stop sweating.
"I have to say the reason I don't look 38 is because of capoeira," instructor Lua Fabbri said after her exchange in the roda. The Italian native teaches in Brazil, New York and North Carolina. Her student Scott Bailey said three months of capoeira has cultivated muscles he never knew he had.
"It increases agility and strength, and we're having more fun than those runners on the treadmill," Bailey said.
The Duke University freshman embraces capoeira's vibrant energy.
"It's called axe (ah-SHAY), or life force, because you leave here so revitalized," Bailey said after two hours of corkscrewing his body, singing and sparring with 11 classmates.
No, not sparring, corrected Fabbri.
"We don't fight capoeira, we play capoeira," she said. "The slaves in Bahia (a region of Brazil) who created it were forbidden to fight. It's a martial art that's disguised as a dance, so to fight capoeira would be to lose its essence."
As Bailey and Fabbri are in the circle, a more advanced student, Amani Redd, cuts in, and Bailey folds himself back into the surrounding group. The teacher speeds up the tempo, and Redd and Fabbri slash into each other's spaces. A shy beginner then takes Fabbri's place. Redd slows her powerful swooshing to accommodate her new partner.
"I was a beginner once, too," Redd said. "But you catch the bug, and the others help you learn."
Fabbri teaches two classes a week here to up to 30 people. She says all age groups can play, and that people with less hardy bodies can tailor moves to suit their abilities.
"Some of our New York students are in their sixties and never exercised before," she said.
Shelby Braxton-Brooks remembers heeding the call of capoeira in Brazil's Bahia region, under beachside sunsets and above the sugar cane fields where 17th-century slaves created it.
"The energy was so infectious, the African influences so alive," the New York actress recalled. "The moves were so poetic. I loved that I couldn't tell if it was a dance or martial arts class. I just got sucked in."
On the Net:
Capoeira Online: http://www.capoeira.com/online/welcome/
Planet Capoeira: http://www.capoeira.com/planetcapoeira/
Lua Fabbri and Contra-Mestre Caxias online: http://nyccapoeira.com/