"When I first arrived here in New York I did a lot of work at the public schools. I frequently went to the Bronx and before break dancing was considered a style of dancing, or was successful, there wasn’t even music involved at that time. I used to see boys break dancing their breaks at school, in the streets and on the street corners, mainly during the summer. This was in 1975 and these boys, from the public schools, sometimes participated and began to be introduced to capoeira....

It was like a show, a lecture. At that time, we did not speak English, so there was a person who translated everything for us. Loremil and I, both with our berimbau, would put a vinyl record on because there was no one to play for us while we were showing the boys capoeira. They were crazy about it. After each show, everybody wanted to talk to us and invited us to their break dancing circles. At that time, break dancing was totally different than it is today. It was more of a cultural movement than a commercial thing, and it also had identification and styles within each neighborhood."

-Jelon Vieira

Friday, February 15, 2019

The influence of capoeira on breaking in the 1970s

Estimated reading time- ten minutes.  If that's too much, go to addendum #2 near the end of the post, click on the Capoeira of Brazil video, and jump to about the five minute mark.  This film shows every important capoeirista in New York in 1980.

The case against direct influence

Sally Banes, recounting her landmark 1981 reporting on breaking for the Village Voice, said:

 Its spatial level called to mind Capoeira, the spectacular Brazilian dance cum martial art form that incorporates cartwheels, kicks, and feints low to the ground, but the two were dissimilar enough in shape and timing that Capoeira seemed at most only a distant relative, and certainly one the breakdancers weren't acquainted with at least on a conscious level. (Folklife Annual 1986, pg. 13).

Pioneering capoeria mestre Jelon Vieira, who began teaching and performing in New York in 1975, is also skeptical [IMPORTANT UPDATE: I've found a previously unreported interview with Vieira, in which he does take direct credit for influencing early bboys in the Bronx, in 1975.]  See my post: https://www.breakingandcapoeira.com/2019/06/new-claims-on-capoeira-and-breaking.html

He does not believe African-American teenagers in the South Bronx lifted their "breaking" moves after seeing him perform capoeira, but acknowledges that the two arts have eerily similar movements. Vieira noted that break-dancing is actually a revival of another dance form last seen in the United States around the turn of the last century. "Break-dancing is African and capoeira is African," Jelon said simply.  (Ford, Andrea. "African-Latin Dance Doubles as Martial Art" Los Angeles Times, April 17, 1992, B1).

The article does not mention what dance form Vieira believed was being revived.

Two of the best known b-boys emerging in the late seventies deny a direct influence, too.  Ken Swift  says:

"In '78 I started and I didn't see it [capoeira] til '92 ... I was around, too -- I was in Brooklyn, Bronx, Queens, I went around and I didn't see it. What we saw was Kung Fu-we saw Kung Fu from the 42nd Street theaters. So those were our inspirations... when we did the Kung Fu shit we switched it up and we put this B-boy flavor into it, this stick-up kid flavor into it... (Delgado, Julie. "Capoeira and Break-dancing: at the Roots of Resistance" WireTap Magazine September, 2007)

Crazy Legs is even more blunt, saying:

We didn't know what the f-ck no capoeira was, man. We were in the ghetto! There were no dance schools, nothing. If there was a dance it was tap and jazz and ballet. I only saw one dance in my life in the ghetto during that time, and it was on Van Nest Avenue in the Bronx and it was a ballet school. Our immediate influence in b-boying was James Brown, point blank. (Chang, Jeff (2005). Can't Stop Won't Stop: A History of the Hip-Hop Generation, pg. 116)

This largely sums up the case against.  It's hard to prove a negative, so perhaps it's not suprising that the argument is weak.  Sally Banes says that there are significant differences in form, which is true.  She claims that any similarities are subconscious at best, but provides no evidence.  Vieira apparently has his own theory, but again, there is no evidence presented.  Finally, Ken Swift and Crazy Legs deny any personal influence.  We can take them at their word, while still proposing the possibility of influence.  As important as they are as figures in the scene, they are late-comers, relatively speaking.

Before starting on the case for direct influence- a spoiler alert.  I do not have proof of a direct influence.  What I do have, and am continuing to develop, is a collection of evidence that the influence would have been possible, maybe even likely, for teenagers in "the ghetto" of the South Bronx in the mid-to-late 1970s.

The case for direct influence

The first generation of b-boys, dancers like Sasa, Clark Kent, James Bond, and Trixie, describe their style as a mixture of James Brown moves, and comic pantomime routines intended to "burn" the other dancer.  See the wonderful interviews conducted by Sir Norin Rad of the Intruder Crew for more on their original style.

 As breaking became less exclusively an African American style, and more popular among Puerto Rican teenage boys, what  cultural influences could have inspired the stylistic innovations of the years 1975-80?

Put another way, could a teenager living in the South Bronx in the mid-to-late 1970s learn about, be inspired by, or receive instruction in capoeira?

First, let's acknowledge that the answer might be very simple.  Some young b-boy might have traveled to Brazil, or met a capoeira player in the United States.  Is it very likely?  Maybe not.  Remember though, an exactly parallel story explains how young Lance Taylor was inspired to become Afrika Bambaataa.  He won an essay contest that earned him a trip to Africa.  We should be careful with our assumptions about how poor children of color in the South Bronx could have experienced the world.

This post will focus, however, on what can be documented.  Some of the evidence will seem less likely to have reached poor kids in "the ghetto," some will seem more likely.

What follows is a rougly chronological list of capoeira "appearances" in the culture of 1960s and 1970s New York city.

Capoeira in the media

New York Times, March 24, 1964

O Pagador de Promessas (also known as Keeper of Promises or The Given Word) is a 1962 Brazilian film directed by Anselmo Duarte. It won the Palme d'Or at the 1962 Cannes Film Festival, and in 1963 was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film.  It premiered in New York in 1964.
The film, a serious drama, features a wonderful three-minute scene of capoeira and other spectacular dance moves featuring Antonio Pitanga at the climax of the story.  In the above newspaper ad, the "Capoeira Dancers of Cangiquinha" are credited. The movie premiered on the Upper East Side, and is truly art house fare.  I don't know whether it ever played on broadcast television.

Moving on to more popular, mass-market media, consider Black Belt Magazine.  Though based in Los Angeles, it seems likely that martial-arts obsessed teens in 1960s and 1970s New York would have sought out the magazine.  Certainly, I did so in the midwest, in my martial-arts obsessed teens of the early 1980s.

Black Belt Magazine, March 1964

Its first feature on capoeira appears in the March, 1964 issue.  The article is informational, with no particular focus on American practice.

In October 1968, the magazine reports on a tour to the United States of five capoeiristas from Bahai, members of the "Olodum Group.".  The names given are Francisco Muniz, Edvaldo Carneiro, Antonio Muniz, Fernando Pallos, Edmundo Bonfim and Brazilian consulate representative Rainmundo Castro. Other than Los Angeles, the tour stops are not listed.

Black Belt Magazine, October 1964

In June 1969, capoeira made the cover.

Black Belt Magazine, June 1969

The article's photographs mostly feature lighter-skinned Brazilian capoeiristas, but author D. David Dreis explicitly praises capoeira as the art of enslaved black people.

In January 1973, capoeira earned another feature article in Black Belt, this time a mostly historical treatment by William D. Wuth. Note that the article is teased as the "secret fighting art the law failed to suppress" on a cover featuring the new TV hit "Kung-Fu," starting David Carradine.

Black Belt Magazine January 1973

This leads nicely into the fact that on April 12, 1973, during its first season, Kung Fu had an episode featuring capoeira- The Stone.  The episode's guest star was Moses Gunn, a distinguished African American Broadway actor.  IMBD describes the episode this way It's Kung Fu vs. Brazil's fighting technique of Capoeira as a man learns from Caine that to fight injustice anywhere is to fight it everywhere.  Unfortunately, the fight scenes are poor, and barely give a hint of what real capoeira looks like.  Nevertheless, Kung Fu's ratings were strong, and about 20% of households with TVs tuned in.  That means that many millions of Americans were exposed to capoeira as a concept in 1973.

Other print outlets aimed at a black audience were interested in capoeira, too.  Black Sports Magazine ran an article in April 1974.  Its author, Bill Moore, is presumably the dance critic William Moore, who offered a touring lecture on Brazilian dance and culture in 1977, and wrote an article for the October 1978 issue of Black Belt called "Capoeira: Martial Art of Brazil."

African Studies Newsletter Vol. 10, 1977

Black Sports magazine, April 1974
Black Sports magazine, April 1974

Bill Moore's photographs in the November 1978 issue of Ebony Jr., accompany an article by Yusef Abdul Salaam, another name that comes up repeatedly in the promotion of capoeira in New York during the seventies.  For instance, Salaam was the author of The African/Bilalian and the martial arts : the blackman's contributions to the fighting arts (Harlem, 1975) and  Capoeira : African Brazilian karate (Harlem, 1983).

Ebony Jr. November 1978

From 1977-79, thousands of Sportscaster cards were issued.  Similar to baseball cards, but measuring a little more than four by six inches, these collectibles included a card for capoeira, as well as one for Bruce Lee.  The back of the card contains historical background on the art.

Sportscaster card 1979

I'll give just one more example of capoeira in the media, a 1977 Brazilian film called Cordao de Ouro (Golden Cord).  I hesitate to include it, as I've found no evidence of it ever screening in the United States.  The capoeira in it is beautiful, though, and the year it was made falls right in the center of the period under investigation.  If old-school b-boys had seen it, I think they would have loved it.  It's not that different from the kung fu flicks showing at the same time on 42nd Street.  This capoeira scene is about three minutes long (start at 14:15)

Capoeira in person

Mercedes Baptista taught yearly at the Clark Center for the Performing Arts from 1972-79.  The center was at the west side YWCA at 51st and Eighth Avenue until November 1974, when it moved to 939 Eighth Avenue.  The Clark Center was founded in association with Alvin Ailey, and became the most important center of black and multi-cultural dance in New York in the 1970s.  Note that Baptista's classes in 1972 ran daily for 10 weeks!

New York Amsterdam News, March 11 1972, pg. D2

Two years later, in April 1974, Festa Brazil appeared at Madison Square Garden.  The Felt Forum, with a capacity of 2000-5600 people, was later renamed the Hulu Theater.  At eight shows per week, over a 12 day engagement,  that's a very large number of New Yorkers exposed to capoeira performed at a professional level.  Notice too, that ticket prices started at $4.50- only about twice that of a kung fu movie ticket.

Anna Kisselgoff, in her review of the show for the New York Times, mentions Katherine Dunham had presented "theatricalized versions" of capoeira in the past.  Dunham was a highly important choreographer, anthropologist and educator with a long history in the New York dance scene.  By the 1970s, she had opened a performing arts academy in East Saint Louis, specifically focused on teaching African and Afro-Caribbean dance forms to poor children of color.  Eusebio da Silva taught capoeira there.

New York Amsterdam News, April 13, 1974

Kisselgoff, Anna.  New York Times, April 10, 1974, pg. 34

In 1975, we come to the two crucial figures in 1970s capoeira in New York- Jelon Vieira and Loremil Machado.  Arriving after an eight month dance tour of Europe, Viera and Machado peformed in several off-off Broadway productions, including Parto and The Leaf Men.  They went on to form two dance companies: The Capoeiras of Bahia (later called DanceBrazil) and The Loremil Machado AfroBrazilian Dance company, which performed widely.  Just to give two examples, in 1977, they performed together in the Clark Center's summer festival and in 1979, Machado's company performed at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park.

New York Times, July 8, 1977

Historians of hip hop and breaking have acknowledged the many opportunities New Yorkers had to see performances by Vieira and Machado in traditional dance venues during the years 1975-80.  I would argue that the Clark Center festival and the Delacorte Theater were not traditional "high art" venues.  For the remainder of this investigation, though,  I'll  focus on even more accessible opportunities teenagers from "the ghetto" would have had to be exposed to capoeira.

Vieira recalls:
Also, every Saturday and Sunday through that summer [of 1975] I used to go to Central Park -- I didn't speak English at that time -- and I invited people to join my class. More and more people were getting interested in Capoeira. Then Ellen Stewart at La MaMa Theater saw me and said, "Why don't you teach this to the community, to the kids." At that time there were a lot of Dominicans and Puerto Ricans in the East Village, so I started teaching there.

Ellen Stewart took me under her wing. She gave me a place to teach. She said, You must teach this art, Capoeira, for the community. She rented me a space at 47 Great Jones Street. Today you cannot even rent a bed or share for that money in that area. I used to pay $250 a month for the whole floor. I stayed there for a couple of years. She brought me into many projects. Both Ellen Stewart and Alvin Ailey encouraged me. Then I formed a dance company in 1977.

I'm extremely interested in what those first classes in 1975 were like.  Where exactly were they held, how much did they cost, how were they advertised, who attended?  I'm working on answers to those questions.  One lead I'm tracking down seems to indicate that Vieira and Machado also may have taught classes at the Clark Center in 1975.  Vieira certainly did by 1977, when it seems he became formally affiliated with the Clark Center.

Perhaps the most interesting bit of evidence is a demonstration of capoeira given in Brooklyn in 1977. [Edit: I've since found ads for demonstrations by Vieira's company Capoeiras of Bahia at the Klitgord in April 1978 and April 1979 as well.]   A close look at the following advertisement is very instructive.

New York Amsterdam News, April 9, 1977

First, we need to note a few typos- "Jelom and Coremil" presumably means Jelon and Loremil, and the auditorium is not the "Kiltgord" but the Klitgord. What's fascinating to me is the list of class locations.

First listed is 272 West 10th Street in N.Y.C.  Assuming this means Manhattan, that's the location of the Village Community School.  I've heard anecdotally that the gym at the Village Community School was the shooting location for the video of "Beats and Rhymes" off UTFO's 1985 debut album.

Second listed is Vernon Community Center at 1060 Myrtle Avenue in Brooklyn.  This community center was either directly across the street from, or maybe part of, the Sumner Houses, a 2400 person public-housing project in Bed-Stuy.

The last location listed is N.Y. City Community College in Brooklyn, where the demonstration is taking place.

For another example of capoeira being accessible in non-high-art venues, consider the Harlem Dancemobile, described here in its first year in Jet Magazine.

Jet Magazine, August 10, 1967
The following notice from 1976 shows that the "Capoeiras Conta Voodoo" group from Brazil performed indoors at the Harlem Performance Center during the winter for the Dancemobile series.  I've not yet found specific listings for outdoor Dancemobile performances by Vieira, Machado, or other New York based capoeiristas, but it seems very likely that there were some.  Dancemobile drew heavily on black dancers and choreographers associated with the Clark Center.

New York Times, February 8, 1976 pg. D3

Finally, some evidence that Dancemobile, in 1970 at least, made it into the heart of the South Bronx.  In the below clip, notice that among other places, they were hosted on July 30 by the Bronx River Neighborhood Center.

New York Amsterdam News, August 1, 1970, pg. 19

[Edit to add that I finally found an ad for a Bronx performance!  The Capoeiras of Bahia (Vieira's company) performed on August 19, 1978 in Joyce Kilmer Park at 161st and Grand Concourse.

NY Amsterdam News Aug 20, 1978

I'll add to this already epic-length post as I find new information.

Addendum #1

Jelon Vieira taught capoeira from 1975-1979 at 47 Great Jones Street (discussed above).  What I've just discovered is that from 1974-1976, Sifu Duncan Leung taught Wing Chun kung fu at 3 Great Jones Street, just a block away.  Leung was a disciple of Yip Man, the legendary Wing Chun master, and was introduced to him by his childhood friend, Bruce Lee!  Thus, little Great Jones Street, only two blocks long, was an important center of two great martial arts traditions in America for a short time.

Addendum #2

Turns out I've buried the lede, as journalists say.  Film producer and director Warrington Hudlin made a ten minute film on capoeira in 1980, featuring Jelon Vieira, Loremil Machado, Eusebio da Silva and members of the Capoeiras of Bahia Dance Company (J.C. Andradre, Timothy Moe, Herbert Kerr, Clifton Murdock, Wilbert Murdock and Kevin Winnik).

It's worth watching the entire 10 minutes- the capoeira is beautiful and heart-stopping in its sense of danger.  Note the one member who appears to be an adolescent or teenager. He would have been an exact contemporary of b-boys in the Bronx.  I don't know his name.[update: I'm told that's Kevin Winnick].

Video courtesy of the Internet Archive:

Addendum #3

Evidence of "African Brazilian acrobatic dance" and capoeira in Queens in 1978.  A very helpful correspondent who actually attended these classes informs me that Mestre Jelon was the instructor.

New York Amsterdam News, Sept. 23, 1978