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Capoeira Center Brings Brazilian Fighting Dance to Lower East Side Kids

By Serena Solomon | January 30, 2013 9:04am

LOWER EAST SIDE — As 9-year-old Lino Eisenberg gracefully makes a roundhouse kick, his opponent ducks away, missing Lino's flinging foot by a few hairs.

Lino prepares for the inevitable counter attack, a move that lands the two participants on the ground as other students surround them with a chant.

This is no school playground fight. It's a capoeira (pronounced Cap-o-ehr-a) class, a centuries-old Brazilian martial art founded by 16th century slaves who cloaked it as dance to prevent it from being outlawed.

"It is not as serious as other martial arts," said Lino, who is one of the dozens of kids and adults who study at the New York City Capoeira Center on the Lower East Side. "It makes it more fun, but still a little bit exciting and you can do flips."

Capoeira's gravity-defying moves are set to a hypnotic song and thrumming music, and the class emphasizes balance, strength and flexibility rather than physical contact — making it safe for all ages.

"Capoeira is a self-defense martial art that is disguised as a dance with music and song, and there is whole philosophy to the practice," said Michael Goldstein, 53, the Suffolk Street center's mestre — or master in Portuguese.

He added that practitioners had to focus all their attention on making "it look like a dance while they were secretly practicing self-defense. They moved slowly and hid the kicks in fluid movements so their slave owner would not know they were practicing martial arts."

Goldstein first learned capoeira in 1981 and became the first non-Brazilian to reach the level of master in the practice.

Along with the center, which accepts regular fee-paying students and also provides some scholarship funds, Goldstein established a nonprofit, Afro Brazil Arts, in 1991.

The mission of Afro Brazil Arts is to bring the physical and emotional benefits of capoeira to school children throughout the five boroughs and around the country, he said.

"These children are learning behavior, life skills, leadership, respect that come along with the art of capoeira," said Goldstein, who has taught classes to thousands of school students, including lessons at the Satellite Academy High School and the NEST+m School on Columbia Street.

Classes for kids at New York City Capoeira Center pack plenty of fun and movement with obstacle courses, a headstand workshop to improve core strength and time to learn the chants and rhythms.

As students progress, more and more capoeira drills such as kicks and fighting stances are included in the hourlong classes. 

The pinnacle of each class is a game known as "the Roda" (pronounced HOH-dar) where the class makes a circle and two students stand in the center, sparring against one another to the beat of drums and melody of song.

Christopher Grimm, a Carroll Gardens resident enrolled his 5-year-old son Milo in capoeira classes after a hapless experience with karate.

"The problem was [karate] was much more aggressive and concerned with contact," said Grimm, describing it as "intimidating" for small children.

The coordination, rhythm and movement drew the family to capoeira, according to Grimm.

"You also learn a language and a culture," he said of capoeira, where kids are taught the words of songs and chants and get some instruction in Portuguese.

"That is the whole idea," said Goldstein, "to create that balance between this dance and a potentially dangerous martial art."