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Capoeira introduced to Mills College this semester

Capoeira, an Afro-Brazilian martial art, was the newest addition to Mills’ physical education course selection this fall 2007.

The art of capoeira, originally created during the 17th century by enslaved Africans in Brazil, is a modernly practiced martial art dance, sport and culture around the world that uses various acrobatic techniques.

Although capoeira is a martial art and may be used as a defense mechanism, the purpose of it is not for the harm of others. It is essentially meant as a kind of dance, or game, between opponents.

Capoeira is usually practiced in a rather large group, but can also be done individually or in smaller groups. In the beginning of the capoeira ritual, everyone participating gets in a circle, called a “roda.” Among the circle, people take turns playing instruments, such as the “berimbau,” and singing traditional songs in Portuguese.

The music that is played during capoeira is just as important as the physical movements because it is such a rhythmic sport. The berimbau, which looks like a bow with a gourd on one end, is played with a stick and is traditionally present during capoeira sessions.

The songs that are typically sung during capoeira vary in content. Sometimes they are ancient stories or histories, other times they are about what’s actually taking place in the center of the roda or the function to encourage the players in the middle. Other instruments played include tambourines, conga drums and other percussion instruments.

The actual capoeira movements take place in the center of the roda. People usually battle in pairs, taking on as many opponents as they desire at once. However, instead of kicking and injuring their opponents, you play a game with their challenger, dodging their attacks.

The players in the center of the circle follow the rhythm played by the roda as they practice various techniques of kicks, foot sweeps and other attacks. Players rock back and forth, a basic movement called ginga, keeping the rhythm and at the same time interacting with their challenger. The same purpose is to play only at the speed and skill level as your opponent, allowing them and yourself to practice different movements without injuring one another.

The new capoeira instructor at Mills, Suellen Einarsen, 51, is originally from Denver, Colorado, but has lived in the Bay Area for 25 plus years.

With a background in and a love for dance, Einarsen had lived in New York for some time, where she was first introduced to capoeira. Einarsen only seen glimpses of capoeira practiced in Central Park, and had once seen a class. However, her first impression of capoeira was not as she sees it today.

“The first capoeira class I ever saw was dominantly males dressed in all white,” explained Einarsen. “They were practicing martelo, which is a more violent type of capoeira. I was pretty intimidated.”

Although Einarsen had been somewhat turned off by the martial art in her initial impression, when she moved to the Bay Area a couple years later, someone told her about a local dance studio in San Francisco called Mission Cultural Center, where they practiced capoeira. Einarsen ended up taking the class under the instruction of Mestre Acordeon, who was the first person to ever teach capoeira in the Bay Area.

Since Einarsen started learning capoeira 25 years ago, she became deeply interested and involved in the art of it.

“Capoeira has become an attitude of life for me,” said Einarsen. “It gives me an outlook on how to approach situations and taught me to look more cunningly at life.”

People learn attitudes and approaches to life through lessons that capoeira teaches. “It has shown me that it is important in life to go with the flow and not to trust anything because things can be deceiving,” said Einarsen.

Einarsen has noticed that capoeira brings up different issues for most all individuals. “A lot comes up for people,” said Einarsen. “Some face their bad tempers, while others, including myself, face different fears: fears of failure, opponents, singing, being injured, etc.”

Over the many years that Einarsen has studied capoeira, she has seen people completely transform from participating in capoeira. People constantly are facing different issues that it brings to the surface of attention, which forces them to have realizations, and often, to change their ways.

“I’ve seen the arrogant get humbled, the confident lose all confidence and people overcome their greatest fears,” said Einarsen. “Being around capoeira for so long, I constantly see people blossom and become changed from their original attitudes.”

At Mills, Einarsen has seen the same sorts of transformations in students. A couple students were painfully shy at first. However, over time she has seen only beautiful things come out of the students at Mills. “I really enjoy the students,” said Einarsen. “They seem very open-minded and into it.”

After applying for teaching positions at various community colleges, Einarsen got a call from Mills looking for a capoeira teacher. “Honestly, I didn’t think I was going to get the job,” said Einarsen. “I am very thankful for this great opportunity. I think capoeira is a great alternative to traditional physical education classes.”

Students also seem to love the opportunity to have capoeira offered at Mills. “I love this class!” said Freshman Margaret Pixley. “I’m actually taking it again next semester.”

The capoeira class, held in Haas, started with a bunch of warm-ups that had students moving across the floor in different capoeira movements.

“Einarsen is a really great and inspiring teacher,” said senior Natascia Tornetta Mallin. “She makes you work hard and really engages the class.”

Einarsen, as well as a few of her students, enjoy having a capoeira class so much that they agree that fifty minutes for a class is not long enough. According to Einarsen, the briefness of the class hardly gets people even warmed up. “It kind of feels like an artificial capoeira class, but is still a good way to pass the time we have,” said Einarsen.

“We want to have more time to work on [capoeira],” said Pixley. “But there might be some people who wouldn’t take the class if it was longer.”

For those interested, Pixley and Mallin will be starting their own capoeira groups and the class will be offered again with Einarsen spring semester.