The percussion rhythm slows to a crawling beat, and two men playfully twirl their bodies, reacting to each other's moves as if dancing. The beat quickens, the percussion becomes more aggressive, and in a flash, a kick cracks the air and knocks one of the men to the ground, gasping.
This is Brazilian capoeira, in which beauty explodes into violence. This scene isn't being played out on the wharfs of Bahia or the favelas of Rio de Janeiro, though. It's happening at South Florida gymnasiums, where to the beat of the berimbau drum, a growing number of men and women are discovering the centuries-old martial art.
Fueled by a growing Brazilian population and by members of the fitness set who are finding that sparring to music is a fun way to get buff, capoeira is becoming popular across the country.
"There's a special energy in capoeira that you can't get in other places," says Joe Martine, 32, who practices at a gym in Pompano Beach, Fla. "You have the infectious beat of the instruments. It is a release. This is the only sexy martial art."
John Mancuso, 25, a mechanic, said: "I have a lot of energy, and I wanted to get it out of my system."
Although capoeira has recently become popular with non-Brazilians, the martial art has grown in Florida along with the Brazilian population. For many Brazilian immigrants, capoeira is a way to maintain a connection to home. Patty Silva, 40, of Coconut Creek, started capoeira classes two years ago, after returning from a visit to her family in Bahia, capoeira's cultural home.
"I had always been exposed to it in Brazil, and I never tried it," she says. "When I went to visit Brazil the last time, there was this whole reawakening culture thing. I wanted something that would keep me close to my roots and my culture, speaking my language."
Still, Ms. Silva, who works in a medical office, says it's the tough workout that keeps her coming back four nights a week to train.
"It's like nothing I've ever done before. I've done yoga, aerobics and jujitsu. But this is something I really stuck with," Ms. Silva said. "At my age, with two children, nothing can stimulate me more than this."
Capoeira's roots in African-Brazilian culture are deep and rich. Long practiced in Bahia, one of Brazil's poorest yet culturally important states, capoeira's specific origins are elusive.
Some historians say it was transplanted from Angola by slaves, dating back to precolonial times. Others say capoeira is a more modern creation, the product of a confluence of cultures in 18th-century Bahia.
In Brazil, popular folklore and anyone on the street will tell you that capoeira was developed by African slaves who, barred from having weapons, learned to disguise deadly kicks within the seemingly innocuous motions of dance.
"Capoeira is an expression of freedom," says Bira Almeida, a Brazilian capoeira master who lives in California and is the author of Capoeira: A Brazilian Art Form. "It has touched both runaway slaves and those who persecuted them, from unsophisticated people to intellectuals, from vagrants and those outside the mainstream society to workers, students, and politicians. It fulfills many peoples' quests."
It's the romantic version of history, which many historians say is partly true, that inspires so many to embrace the martial art.
South Beach capoeira instructor Cesar Carneiro, 34, a tall, muscular Brazilian who wears his hair in a bun above his head, says that when he opened his school 10 years ago, he had a dozen students. Today, he has 250 students and two gyms.
"It's growing like crazy," says Mr. Carneiro, a familiar face from fight movies such as The Quest, in which he threw capoeira sweeps opposite Jean-Claude Van Damme's kickboxing moves. Mr. Carneiro mixes the experts with the beginners in his classes.
During a typical lesson last week, everyone started by stretching out before they moved on to cardio and strength-building activities such as push-ups and sit-ups. Then the group practiced simple capoeira moves including somersaults, high kicks and sweeps.
"Be the best!" Mr. Carneiro shouts, correcting his students as they go through the drills, which get progressively complicated.
The movement in the class never stops, and neither does the Brazilian folk music, which is turned up full blast. An hour into the session, and most of the capoeiristas were drenched in sweat.
"You come in and have fun and work out for two hours without even realizing it," says Reyna Baquedano, 21, one of Mr. Carneiro's students. As a beginner, Ms. Baquedano's moves are still cumbersome and deliberate, and when the sparring begins, she sits out and watches the experts go at one another.
Beginners are not supposed to fight. When they do spar, they are required to display the dancelike moves they've learned without hitting one another - back flips are called macaus, roundhouse kicks are chibatas, evasive moves are esquivas.
Mr. Carneiro says he's happy to welcome the new wave of fitness buffs into his gym, allowing them to train in the same room with the black belts.
"Many of my students never fight. They don't have to," Mr. Carneiro says.
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