A mural-covered building hums with frenetic energy on a corner of San Pablo Avenue, doing its best to contain a daily ambush of thunderous kicks, flips, music and emotion at the United Capoeira Association.
The 40-year-old Afro-Brazilian culture institution has brought thousands to Berkeley to learn capoeira, a coded dance created by slaves in Brazil in the late 19th century to hide martial practices. Its modern iteration is a school that prides itself on never turning down a student, helping young people develop their strengths, and creating a home for people who are marginalized in the outside world.
The Capoeira Arts Foundation (CAF), the non-profit umbrella organization of the Capoeira School, began renting the Casa de Cultura on San Pablo Ave Addison Street about 10 years ago, now freight and salvage. The San Pablo Avenue lease expires this December, and the school’s future hangs in the balance, coupled with the impending retirement of its main founder and instructor.
On November 19th, capoeiristas and dancers appeared by the dozen to fight for Casa De Cultura in front of the city council. Speaker after speaker cleared their time for the capoeiristas who jumped in the air and pretended to sweep their partners with roundhouse kicks to the beat of an atabaque drum, followed by infectious samba dancers from BrasArte, which rents space from CAF.
Councilor Susan Wengraf described it as “by far the most pleasant public comment” she has seen in eleven years. The city eventually granted CAF $ 150,000 forgivable loan from his surplus property tax fund towards a down payment for the purchase of the building where Casa de Cultura is located.
“Capoeira itself was a coded dance … that’s educational because it’s a nice fight if you will, isn’t it?” That was what Alderman Ben Bartlett said before the unanimous “yes”. “So you came here tonight – quite entertaining, very nice, but in reality you are communicating and articulating to this body the struggle to find a place to live in times of rising real estate prices … and also the lack of support for the arts that exist in our country . “
Capoeira can theoretically happen anywhere. All you need is the roda, or a circle where capoeira is practiced. But securing the Casa de Cultura space as “home” was both a symbolic and a literal push. Public speakers included those who met their partners at Casa de Cultura, celebrated weddings, baby showers, birthdays and milestones at the center. Others said teaching in the building kept them off the street and connected them to a community of people who opened their own homes or shared meals during a crisis.
“The heart is really big here,” says Laura Margulius, board member of CAF, who moved to Berkeley about 30 years ago to practice Capoeira at the Foundation. “At the same time you can come in and kick people if you had one of those days, you can also come in and cry if you had one of those days. Strangely enough, we are all these fierce fighters, but then we also have our vulnerable sides, and you get to know that. “
The Berkeley School is the “mother ship” of around 20 independent Capoeira schools across the country and known worldwide through the work of 76-year-old Bira Almeida, better known as Mestre acordeonwho founded the school in Berkeley in 1997 and who introduced capoeira to the west coast 40 years ago. He and his wife Suellen Einarsen, known as Mestra Suelly, prepare to withdraw from their day-to-day business, which board member Vivian Dai described as “not like the children who leave the nest, but the parents who leave the nest” children . “
CAF is now to collect money through an investment offer to complete the down payment, which was reduced through a “bargain sale” partnership with the owners of the building. Although the building was originally valued at about $ 2.1 million, CAF will be able to purchase Casa de Cultura for about $ 1.8 million, and the owners’ discount will be considered a tax-deductible donation to the nonprofit.
With the support of the city’s $ 150,000, CAF is still missing its target by $ 100,000 and is looking for additional investors. If CAF can’t buy the building it will return the city’s funds, Margulius said, but staying in Berkeley is central to the school’s identity. Organizations like CAF are also at risk of disappearing if they can’t stay in their community, said Ernesto Vilchis, real estate advisor at Community Vision, who advises on sales.
“I wouldn’t be in Berkeley if it wasn’t in Berkeley. I came here especially for this, ”said Margulius. “If you stop people at school and ask them where they are from and why they came here, they will tell you they ended up in Berkeley to be at this school.”
For the time being, the school is in a party mood. Its members are preparing for the “batizado,” a promotion ceremony starting December 5th that will attract hundreds of capoeiristas from across the country. It will also serve as a retirement celebration for Mestre Acordeon and Mestra Suelly as the school moves from one generation to the next and has a battle behind it.
Children at school blast corridos with encouragement from their mestres, kick kicks with gentle spontaneity, and scurry through the air with excess energy as they leave the classroom. An exchange between students and a teacher on a Wednesday afternoon illustrates the school’s mission.
“Are we here to improve ourselves or are we here to do everyone better,” Chris Montiel, known as Mestre Recruta, challenged his students.
“Anyone!” the assembled group of elementary school students cheered back without skipping a beat.
If you would like to contribute to the program or help with the purchase of the building, Click here.