Back when capoeira mestre Paulo “Paulão Ceará” Sales Neto fell in love with the sport in the early ’70’s, his fellow Brazilians didn’t have much respect for the art: “It’s for [low lives] who don’t want to get a job,” he remembers his parents saying.
The martial art, started by slaves from Central Africa on plantations in Brazil, once faced so much prejudice that it was actually illegal to practice. Today, of course, capoeira has won worldwide esteem and it’s even the second most popular sport in Brazil–thanks in great part to the mestre’s generation, which fought hard for recognition.
Capoeira Brasil, co-founded by Mestre Paulão, now has centers all over the world, and the New York branch has been led by Contra-Mestre Caxias, Instrutora Joy and Instrutor Tuzinho for over three years, with classes in Manhattan and Astoria.
Mestre Paulão is in town this week for Capoeira Brasil’s annual batizado—a giant capoeira-fest during which novices get “baptized” and experienced students are “graduated”, by mestres who come to New York from all over the world for this event.
Remezcla: What first drew you to capoeira?
Mestre Paulão: I used to do futbol, karate, and samba. Then once I saw a guy doing capoeira, and I thought it was wonderful movement. There was no capoeira at the time in my city, Fortaleza, in the Northeast. There were just a few guys–maybe 3 or 4 places for capoeira only, and very, very beginners.
Remezcla: What was hardest for you to master at first in capoeira?
Mestre: My family! At that time in Brazil, capoeira faced discrimination. My parents said, capoeira is for [lowlives or hustlers] who don’t want to get a job. They said, you can’t make money or get respect from capoeira. They wanted me to go to the university instead.
Remezcla: How did you convince them otherwise?
Mestre: I faced them. In a nice way, I faced them….they just wanted to give me advice, for me to go to university. But my university has been the world. Now they are very proud of me.
Remezcla: How has capoeira changed in the 35 years you’ve been involved?
Mestre: Now there is more methodology. There are new movements, and the movements are very organized. Before it was more instinctive, the movements.
Remezcla: Is that good?
Mestre: Yes, I think it is positive. The movements go and come. Like the roda. A movement becomes [fashionable], and then it changes, and then it comes back.
Remezcla: What else has changed?
Mestre: Before, we in general played capoeira for love. There was no money at that time, only the passion for capoeira. Now capoeira is all over the world and some can make money from it. I’m not saying that’s negative but it’s [different]. Some teachers still play with love but now capoeira is also a profession. We lose the love a little sometimes.
Remezcla: You now live all the way in Holland. What’s the first thing you teach your students about capoeira’s roots?
Mestre: The history, what the slaves passed through. Because capoeira is like this with the history of the African people in Brazil [he interlocked his fingers to show how the two are intertwined.] The African people developed capoeira inside Brazil. It’s very important to make students conscious of that.
Remezcla: What’s the biggest challenge you’ve faced?
Mestre: Changing people’s minds. And I did it! Now in my city they think about capoeira with respect. Capoeira is something so amazing—and not just the movements, also the family, the friendship. It gets people together and it doesn’t matter what race and what color. That’s the magic thing.
To attend Capoeira Brasil’s batizado Sunday, check out more info in our event listings.