A martial art sambas into Seoul

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A martial art sambas into Seoul

Korea has martial arts. Brazil has soccer. At least that's the the way the world worked before the 2002 World Cup. Now, however, Korea, with its fourth-place finish, is among the world's soccer elite. And Brazil, still the king of soccer, of course, is going head-to-head with taekwondo, exporting its unique martial art, capoeira angola.

Take for instance the story of Choi Hyun Hwa, the co-owner and capoeira master at Han Yang Gym in Nowon-dong, northeast Seoul. He learned of capoeira through a man who studied the art from a Brazilian group, Filhos de Bahia, practicing capoeira in Australia.

"Most martial arts are very straight and hard," he explains. "Capoeira really attracted me because it was really unique, so fluid, and you can make your own moves."

And so he trained, eventually sojourning to the land down under to study with Filhos de Bahia. "There was no sightseeing," Mr. Choi says, "only capoeira."

In time he became a master, but these days he must rely on videotapes from his friends in Australia to maintain and upgrade his skills because there are not any higher-level instructors in Korea.

After becoming a certified master, Mr. Choi next set out to teach capoeira. But he ran into a bit of a problem -- only one man joined. That didn't deter Mr. Choi though. For a month and a half, he and his one student practiced together for three hours a week, sweating and moving to the Brazilian beats.

"I don't really care how many people join," he says with a smile, "just whether they enjoy it or not."

Luckily for Mr. Choi, however, more people did join. A year and a half later, he is now up to about 50 students ranging from age 16 to 38.

Mr. Choi has been teaching various martial arts for 10 years, but he hasn't lost the fire. His newfound fascination with capoeira has led him to hold demonstrations by the subway station to attract more fans. He's even trying to book a job on a cruise line, hoping to plug capoeira at sea. After all, just four Korean gyms teach the Brazilian martial art, according to Mr. Choi.

"It's a combination of dance, martial arts, music and freedom, and all kinds of fun," he says with a laugh. "I think that this will spread more."

Capoeira angola originated more than 400 years ago in what is now Brazil, as a way for African slaves to maintain their fighting skills -- skills that their Portuguese captors had banned.

At first glance, it looks like a dance, with smooth and deliberate movements, accompanied by stringed instruments and drums. But when two people shake hands and enter the capoeira circle, their cartwheels, swinging arms and kicks are not simply graceful prances. Each move stops just millimeters from impact, representing a hit or a block, cloaked in the sounds and elegance of dance.

With more than 18,000 kilometers separating Brazil's capital city, Sao Paolo, and Seoul, capoeira angola's spread to the home of taekwondo and hapkido has been long and circuitous.

But now that it's here, fun is the key word. At a recent Monday night lesson, 16 students, including a martial arts novice, a traditional Korean dancer and a late-night dance clubber, learned how to do headstands and take falls like characters out of the Mortal Kombat video games. For two hours the class practiced its techniques, sparring and sweating, occasionally pausing to laugh at themselves and their jokester teacher. At approximately 10 p.m., the students finally said good-bye and rested up to do it again the next day, keeping the Brazilian tradition alive in a fourth floor gym in Seoul.

"I like dancing and I love music, which are the components of capoeira," said Kwak Hye-Jin, a student of Mr. Choi's for the last four months. "I got attracted to the motion of the capoeira moves."

Han Yang gym offers capoeira classes at 6-7 p.m. and 8-9 p.m. Monday through Friday for 100,000 won ($83) a week. Two-hour classes are also available for 50,000 won on Saturdays beginning at 3 p.m. For more information, call 02-3392-4382.

by Daniela SantaMaria

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