Kansas Citians get a kick out of capoeira, the Brazilian martial arts dance-fight

Arvonte Gayden gets into the rhythm during a capoeira performance at the City Market.
Arvonte Gayden gets into the rhythm during a capoeira performance at the City Market. Special to The Star

The crowd drawn to the City Market performance is entranced. The children and adults crouch, circle and sweep around one another, their graceful movements punctuated by acrobatic feats.

One gregarious group member invites onlookers to come closer, and while a few comply, they soon drift back, as if to give the performers space to whirl and kick freely. Among the spectators, questions are whispered.

“How can he do that?” comes a murmur from the crowd, as a sturdy athlete stands on one hand before arching back to his feet.

And to the steady beat of a drum, as two performers circle each other like cats about to fight, another question is whispered.

“Are they fighting or dancing?”

Ask the leaders of Grupo Axé Capoeira in Kansas City to answer that question, and they’ll laugh.

This is the Brazilian martial arts form known as capoeira, so the answer is both.

Answering the question is Sonia Harvey, one of the group’s instructors who participated in the City Market event known as a roda, where capoeirstas gather in a circle or half-circle to dance and playfully fight to the beat of percussion instruments.

She and her husband, Ronald Harvey, met years ago at a capoeira event in Canada. Both now teach in Kansas City, carving out hours after work and between parental duties.

“Capoeira has its roots in history,” Sonia Harvey said. “In my kids’ classes, I end on music. Music is so much a part of this. It is dance, but it is also partially a fight, and some of the words reflect that.”

Look to the history of capoeira to truly understand it, say the leaders of the art form.

It’s called “Brazilian martial arts with dancing” for good reason. It was developed in Brazil by slaves of African descent. The dodging, sweeping movements will remind many of modern dance. Sonia Harvey, who has taught for many years, seems delighted by the comparison.

“Our style is from a major city in Brazil that is very grounded: axé,” she said. “It gets more combative as you go on, but it’s not all about kicking someone.”

One must go back in time — as far as the 16th century, according to some history books — to understand why this form of martial arts looks a bit more like dancing.

Slaves disguised the martial arts form as a dance to ensure their masters did not catch on that they were attempting to protect themselves.

Ronald Harvey is pleased that even today, people see a dance in the performances.

“The slaves had to use momentum to break people’s balance,” he said. “My master once told me: ‘The Bible is a manual for life. Capoeira is the philosophy. Its essence is beauty and everything you bring to it.’”

Sonia and Ronald Harvey have two kids who are as enthusiastic about capoeira as their parents. Though they stay out of the limelight, other young students love the attention of anyone asking about their passion.

Sawyer Nevins was a standout when he performed at a Brazilian Cultural Extravaganza on June 1.

Other youngsters bounced across the stage, presenting some of the basic moves of capoeira — including the cartwheels, or aú, and other dodge-and-dart moves. All the children drew applause from the crowd of around 200 at the event, but Sawyer’s mastery nearly brought down the house.

Sawyer, 8, has been at it for only two years, but he’s already in the advanced class.

“It’s an invitation-only class,” he said, with obvious pride. “I think I got in there because I brought a lot of songs in. And I also came to every class.”

He spoke while taking a break during a practice in a busy week for the Kansas City group. A three-day workshop here had drawn some big names in the world of capoeira, including Axé Capoeira founder and President Mestre Barrão.

Imani Im, 11, also wound down after an intense workout. She’s been with the group for three years and succinctly summed up why she intends to stick with it throughout her life.

“I like it because of all the different elements,” she said. “You kick and you escape. It’s like a game. Some call it a dance-fight.”

Add to the mix an essential element, said Sonia Harvey: the music.

It’s through the rhythm of drums and other percussion instruments that many find their place in capoeira. Many also become fluent in Portuguese learning the lyrics to the music, she says.

“One assignment I give is that a student has to lead the songs she plays,” Sonia Harvey said. “They learn the language by Googling meanings and asking questions. I write the lyrics down for some.”

History is spoken through these songs, she said, translating some of the lyrics to songs the youngsters were singing.

“Some might sound sweet, and they’re singing, ‘I will kick you,’” she said with a laugh. “One song means, ‘There is sand in the ocean.’ To me, there’s something very settling about that. The history of this comes from slavery. It was a time of great stress, an unsettled time. But there is sand in the ocean, you can count on that.”

A berimbau, a musical bow percussion instrument, is the leader of the circle, she said.

“It tells you the dialogue,” Sonia Harvey said. “There are more upright kicks with the faster rhythm.”

The slow rhythm can be just as dangerous, she said, as opponents have time to plot moves. It is here where you see duos circle, artfully ducking and dodging kicks. The middle rhythm invites up and down movement.

For children and teens, lessons learned include respect and empowerment. The lessons are much the same for those who join later in life.

Elvio Dos Santos, known in capoeira as Contra-Mestre Tigrão, was 11 when he began training. The Brazilian is one of a handful of masters who visited Kansas City for the workshop, which culminated in the extravaganza event on June 1.

“Capoeira is good for everyone,” he said, beads of sweat pouring from his face on a break during a workshop. “I came from a small neighborhood where it’s very popular. It’s taught in schools and universities.”

His passion for the sport is obvious in the care he takes to help students during the workshop. He holds great respect for it as a form of martial arts.

“But it is also a conversation,” he said. “Sometimes the dialogue requires you to attack. Sometimes it’s more playful.”

That dialogue drew Robynn Nevins to capoeira. The mother of young Sawyer and 6-year-old Scarlett says her son was her inspiration to check out the group. After battling cancer in her 20s, she spent years trying out various types of dance, and her grace in movement reflects training in modern dance and ballet.

“It’s a whole new movement and language,” she said. “But after a while, what you realize is that it becomes something far more.”

She paused and gestured to a hallway at Elements Wellness Spa Studio in Brookside, where practice is held. Children happily beat on drums and play.

“Look at our children together,” she said. “It becomes an extended family.”

It’s a sentiment the entire capoeira community shares.

MacKenzie Allen joined seven years ago, when she decided she needed something to give her life structure.

“I was going through a rough point, and I felt unsettled.”

Like Sonia Harvey, she has taught the art form, but she is happy to be a student for now.

“It can be used for self-defense, and that was part of it for me,” she said. “When I saw a roda, and two capoeirstas in a circle ‘playing’ with each other, I was in. And I loved the rhythm, and the fact that you learn a language through song.”

It wasn’t long, she says, before she was part of the community.

“It’s a complicated sport, and many drop out,” Allen said. “But the people who stick with it for awhile are in it for life. And we’re a family. Like, I’d do anything for Sonia.”

It’s the patient instructor who laughingly points out that it’s impossible to predict who will stay and who will drop out.

“I’ll look at a fit young woman, and say, ‘She’ll keep coming back,’” Sonia Harvey said. “But it’s the person I never expected to see again who returns and becomes part of this group.”

That said, sometimes it seems clear when someone is a perfect fit, she says.

During the extravaganza, held at Southwest Early College Campus, it seemed clear that the group would soon have one loyal follower. The first part of the performance put the spotlight on music, dancing and a rich culture. Women and girls garbed in grass skirts and brilliant hues entertained the crowds to the beat of a half-dozen percussion instruments.

Some movements reflected traditional harvest dances. Others seemed to pick up hints of Hawaiian dance and samba.

Although she paid little attention when acrobatic men presented warrior dances, a tiny girl in the audience could barely contain herself when the women danced. Blond curls bouncing and floral skirt swaying, she popped out into the aisles when the female dancers performed.

Her mother, wise to choose an aisle seat, eventually gave up trying to rein in her daughter, who seemed to instinctively pick up the rhythm.

Sonia Harvey will welcome the girl to the family when she is old enough, at 4, to join.

“The younger energy is drawn to it,” she said, noting the diversity in age, cultures and gender of the participants. “We welcome everyone.”

Many are surprised to find that they thrive at the dance-fight, no matter what their age, shape or size.

“I’m tall, and I move a certain way,” Sonia Harvey said. “I work with one woman who is shorter and rounder, and once I told her to move the way her body wants to, she was great.

“I gave her permission to be who she is, which is what this is all about.”

Capoeira in Kansas City

What: Grupo Axé Capoeira meets Tuesdays, Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays. Lessons are at Elements Wellness Spa Studio, 6236 Main St., in Brookside. (More classes and rodas coming soon.)

Public performances: First Fridays at 18th Street and Baltimore Avenue, usually in the parking lot of Pizza Bella.

On the Web: For more information on classes, and to find out about where to see capoeirstas in action, visit capoeirakc.com.