NEA Arts Magazine

Presenting a Life Philosophy

DanceBrazil Brings the Art of Capoeira to U.S. Communities


Three male and one felamle dancers high-stepping left to right

DanceBrazil performs Ritmos, choreographed by NEA National Heritage Fellow Jelon Vieira. Photo by Tom Pich

It's no surprise to see renowned companies such as American Ballet Theatre and the Joffrey Ballet on the roster of those that have received support for dance projects from the Arts Endowment. But the NEA's support of dance is not limited to those companies that promote ballet or modern dance. In fact, the NEA's grantmaking history is full of organizations that advance the traditional dance arts of China, Mexico, and Africa, among others, in the United States. Among them is DanceBrazil, which for more than 20 years has received NEA support to introduce Americans to traditional Afro-Brazilian dance styles, including capoeira, a martial arts-dance fusion.

Capoeira can be traced as far back as the 16th century, when African slaves brought to Brazil learned to mask their martial arts practice under the cover of dance. In Brazil today, "playing capoeira" is second only in popularity to soccer. Described by capoeira mestre Jelon Vieira as "a dialogue between two people," players combine martial arts, dance, music, and acrobatics in contests of skill and agility.

Founded in 1977 in New York City, Vieira's company, the Capoeiras of Bahia, combined Afro-Brazilian movement, contemporary dance, and capoeira in performance. The company changed its name to DanceBrazil on the suggestion of legendary choreographer Alvin Ailey, who provided early artistic and organizational support. Ailey wasn't the only one to recognize the importance of Vieira's work. Since 1984 DanceBrazil, which operates under the Capoeira Foundation, has received NEA funding for projects ranging from artist residencies to youth arts dance programs to the creation of new works.

In 2008, Vieira received an NEA National Heritage Fellowship, the nation's highest honor in the folk and traditional arts. In an NEA interview, Vieira described his difficulties in introducing capoeira to U.S. audiences: "It was hard to convince people that it was a martial art, because the martial arts for Americans at that time was what Bruce Lee was doing. But capoeira had music, in capoeira you didn't wear what they did in karate or kung fu -- we wore t-shirts and white pants. People just didn't take it seriously."

In order to change these preconceptions, DanceBrazil performs for more than 25,000 people each year nationwide, engaging each host community through education and outreach activities. "When we go to a city and just perform and leave I don't feel complete," said Vieira. "But when we teach and interact with the community, then it feels like an exchange -- we left something, we learned something."

three dancers in white are directed by a man in black

ADanceBrazil Founder and Artistic Director Jelon Vieira rehearses with his company. Photo by Tom Pich

Vieira emphasizes that studying capoeira means respecting its history, a goal the company maintains by spending half of each year in Brazil. "When teaching capoeira to someone, I want to make sure that person is there to learn capoeira as a traditional art and that he or she will have an open mind to learn the art just the way it is and take it to another level without hurting the fundamentals and the tradition…. When you evolve in capoeira, you have a responsibility to your ancestors…. We can add things, but it can't change."

In FY 2008 DanceBrazil received an NEA grant to support the creation of Ritmos, a work inspired by the Afro-Brazilian religion Candomblé. "I don't know what we would do without NEA help," said Vieira. "Their support enabled me to put my work together, put my work on the stage and communicate to the community who are my audience."

When Vieira choreographs a new piece for Dance- Brazil, he first conducts thorough research of the subject's origins in Brazil and West Africa. When creating Ritmos, Vieira recognized the necessity of balancing his artistic ideas with respect to the religion, which currently has as many as two million followers. "You have to make everything theatrical … [but] I'm very respectful to the religion. I like to talk to an expert on the religion [to discuss] what can I do on the stage, what can I reveal, what can I not reveal." Ultimately, Vieira focused his work on the dance and rhythms that are an integral part of Candomblé.

After his initial research, Vieira collaborates with a composer, which for this piece was DanceBrazil Music Director Tote Gira, also a native of Bahia. DanceBrazil always performs to live music, and Vieira's students are schooled in the musical traditions of capoeira, its songs and its instruments. Having a composer who is immersed in the Afro-Brazilian culture was especially important to Vieira for this new work since the rhythms in Candomblé rituals are very particular and different.

After months of collaboration with not only the composer but the dancers, costume designer, and lighting designer, Ritmos premiered in March 2008 and is now a regular part of the company's repertoire.

As Vieira continues to create works for audiences nationwide, he is mindful not only of introducing traditional Afro-Brazilian dance styles to new eyes, but also to what he himself has gained from his many years of playing and teaching capoeira: "Capoeira for me is very much a life philosophy. Capoeira taught me respect for life at a very early age. Capoeira gave me discipline. Capoeira gave me a good sense of being respectful, being responsible, and disciplined. And the spirituality I very much believe comes from the music that makes you feel capoeira. I believe I was meant to learn capoeira, that it was my mission in life to do capoeira, teach capoeira, and pass on capoeira to others."