A mural-covered building hums with frenetic energy on a San Pablo Avenue corner, doing its best to contain a daily ambush of thunderous kicks, flips, music and emotion at the United Capoeira Association.
The 40-year-old institution for Afro-Brazilian culture has brought thousands to Berkeley to learn capoeira, a coded dance created by slaves in the late 19th century in Brazil to conceal fighting practice. Its modern-day iteration is a school that prides itself on never turning a student away, helping young people nurture their strengths, and creating a home for people who are marginalized in the outside world.
Capoeira Arts Foundation (CAF), the nonprofit umbrella for the capoeira school, began leasing Casa de Cultura on 1901 San Pablo Ave. about a block north of University Avenue, about 10 years ago after relocating from its original home in a renovated auto shop on Addison Street, now Freight and Salvage. Its lease on San Pablo Avenue is up this December, and the school’s future hangs in the balance, paired with the imminent retirement of its chief founder and instructor.
On Nov. 19, capoeiristas and dancers showed out in the dozens to fight for Casa De Cultura before the City Council. Speaker after speaker ceded their time to the capoeiristas, who flipped into the air and feigned sweeping out their partners with roundhouse kicks to the beat of an atabaque drum, followed by infectious samba dancers from BrasArte, which rents space from CAF.
Councilwoman Susan Wengraf described it as “by far the most enjoyable public comment” she’d witnessed in 11 years. The city ultimately granted CAF a $150,000 forgivable loan from its excess property tax fund toward a down payment to purchase the building that holds Casa de Cultura.
“Capoeira itself was a coded dance … this is instructive, because that’s a beautiful struggle, if you will, right?” Councilman Ben Bartlett said before the unanimous “yes” vote. “So tonight you’ve come here – quite entertaining, very beautiful, but in reality what you’re communicating and articulating to this body is the struggle of finding a home in a time of increased real estate prices … and also the lack of support for the arts that exists in our country.”
Capoeira can happen anywhere, in theory. All you need is the roda, or a circle where capoeira is practiced. But securing the Casa de Cultura space as “home” was as much a symbolic push as it was a literal one. Among the group of public speakers were those who met their partners at Casa de Cultura, celebrated weddings, baby showers, birthdays and milestones at the center. Others said classes at the building kept them off the streets and connected them to a community of people who would open up their own homes or share meals during a crisis.
“The heart is really big here,” said Laura Margulius, a board member for CAF who moved to Berkeley about 30 years ago to practice capoeira at the foundation. “At the same time as you can come in and kick people if you’ve had one of those days, you can come in and cry if you’ve had one of those days. Strangely we are all kind of these fierce fighters, but then we also have our vulnerable sides, and you get to know it.”
The Berkeley school is the “mothership” for about 20 independent capoeira schools throughout the country and is renowned globally due to the work of 76-year-old Bira Almeida, better known as Mestre Acordeon, who began the school in Berkeley in 1997 and is credited with introducing capoeira to the West Coast 40 years ago. He and his wife, Suellen Einarsen, known as Mestra Suelly, are preparing to retire from their role in day-to-day operations, which board member Vivian Dai described as, “not like the kids leaving the nest, but the parents leaving the kids.”
CAF is now raising money through an investment offering to complete its down payment, which came at a discount through a “bargain sale” partnership with the owners of the building. Though 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 about $100,000 short of its goal, and is looking for additional investors. If CAF is unable to purchase the building, it will return the city’s funds, Margulius said, but remaining in Berkeley is central to the school’s identity. Organizations like CAF also face the threat of disappearing if they are not able to stay in their communities, said Ernesto Vilchis, a real estate consultant with Community Vision who is advising the sale.
“I would not be in Berkeley if this was not in Berkeley. I came here specifically for this,” Margulius said. “If you were to stop people in the school and ask them where they’re from and why they came here, they will tell you they ended up in Berkeley to be at this school.”
A celebratory mood has washed over the school for the time being. Its members are preparing for the “batizado,” a promotion ceremony beginning Dec. 5 that will draw hundreds of capoeiristas from around the country. It will also function as a retirement celebration for Mestre Acordeon and Mestra Suelly, as the school transitions from one generation to the next, with one fight behind them.
Children at the school are belting out corridos with encouragement from their mestres, letting kicks fly with smooth spontaneity, and flipping through the air with excess energy as they leave the classroom. One exchange between students and a teacher on a Wednesday afternoon exemplifies the school’s mission.
“Are we here to make ourselves better, or are we here to make everyone better,” Chris Montiel, known as Mestre Recruta, challenged his students.
“Everyone!” the gathered bunch of elementary schoolers cheered back, without skipping a beat.
If you want to contribute to the program or help with the purchase of the building, click here.