In the Humboldt Park studio of Gingarte Capoeira, instructor Marisa Cordeiro, five foot six and 133 pounds, squares off against a muscular male student who must outweigh her by 60 pounds. As the two rhythmically circle, weave, and feint, another six students stand close by. One man plays a berimbau, a twangy bow-shaped stringed instrument, another pounds on an atabaque, a tall congalike drum, while a woman rattles a pandiero, a Brazilian tambourine. The rest of the class sings along in Portuguese.

Cordeiro kicks with her left leg, but the student dodges the blow. She rolls into a handstand on the parquet floor. Her right leg flicks out; again her student eludes connection. After a few more minutes of vigorous sparring, the man retires to the sidelines and a woman of medium build replaces him. She and Cordeiro fight, landing several kicks. After about ten minutes they hug, and a man steps in to replace Cordeiro, who joins the music makers in singing and clapping.

A hybrid of dance, acrobatics, and martial art, capoeira blurs the boundary between combat and performance. Contestants ritually exchange head butts and sweeping kicks, but unlike karate fighters, who block each other’s blows, capoeiristas try to avoid them–with cartwheels, handstands, crouches, and ducks. The berimbau player dictates the tempo and intensity of the action, which varies from playful to violent.

The history and origins of capoeira are obscure and disputed, but legend has it that Brazilian slaves developed it some 400 years ago for self-defense and disguised it as a dance to fool their masters. In the early 19th century the slave owners moved to suppress capoeira along with a host of other African-derived slave dances and folkways, but these traditions lived on underground.

After the abolition of slavery in Brazil in the late 19th century, capoeira was associated with banditry and gang violence, and it was outlawed in 1892. But in 1937 Brazilian authorities rehabilitated it as a unique expression of the people’s culture, officially declaring it the national sport.

The Brazilian-born Cordeiro was introduced to capoeira in Sao Paulo in 1985 when two friends invited her to their class at the Associacao de Capoeira Cordao de Ouro. She was immediately hooked by its promise of physical conditioning. “The women who had been there a while looked very good,” she says. “They were in shape.”

But some of the men in the class resented the presence of women. One kicked Cordeiro in the face. “They made the environment very unfriendly to women,” she says. “They were pushy. They were very aggressive. A lot of women would stop.” The problem was solved through the organization of female-only classes on Sundays.

Cordeiro excelled in that environment and went on to join the dance troupe Oba Oba, whose repertoire included capoeira routines. In the summer of 1989 the troupe made a tour of the U.S., including a stop in Chicago. On the strength of that visit, she decided to immigrate. “I came here in summertime,” she says. “It was nice and warm. Nobody told me about the winter.”

Arriving in 1991, Cordeiro was unable to find a capoeira school. So she started her own. She taught her first lessons at the University of Chicago’s Ida Noyes Hall to a class of two. “Nobody knew what it was. It was really a process of teaching people,” she says. She gradually built up recognition for the sport by passing out flyers and giving public demonstrations. There are currently 80 students enrolled at Gingarte.

Cordeiro, who lives in Hyde Park with her husband and two daughters, has attained six of the ten belts awarded by her alma mater in Brazil, and still aims to earn the remaining four. When Brazilian and American masters travel to Chicago to determine if she merits another belt, they’ll evaluate her teaching accomplishments as well as her technique. “You are judged according to your results,” she says. “That’s going to count a lot.”

Gingarte Capoeira will perform at the Old Town School of Folk Music, 4544 N. Lincoln, on Wednesday, July 9, at 8:30 PM. DJ Red Lox will spin Brazilian and world-beat records at 10:30. It’s free; for more information, call 773-728-6000.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Joeff Davis.