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Afro-Brazilian dance, music, and martial arts at home in Inner Southeast

by: Merry MacKinnon, Patrick Kreipe, Mestre Almiro Aguilino dos Santos, and Ben Hamlin here practice playing the traditional Brazilian music that accompanies “capoeira” – a martial art originally created by slaves who disguised the forbidden activity as a dance.

When Mestre Almiro Aguilino Dos Santos moved his Afro-Brazilian martial arts, drumming, and dance classes from Northwest Portland to a refurbished industrial building at 2512 S.E. Gladstone in the Creston-Kenilworth neighborhood, he brought the whole floor with him.

The beautiful wooden floor, with circles outlined on it, has since been buffed by the bare feet of students learning a Brazilian martial arts called 'capoeira'. A type of acrobatic kickboxing, capoeira was originally created centuries ago by African slaves in Brazil. Not wanting plantation owners to know they were practicing a martial art, the slaves disguised the activity with song and dance.

Normally, capoeira participants form a circle, play musical instruments, and sing, while two in the group spar in the center; but Almiro teaches capoeira as an art discipline, without the dangerous contact.

'Capoeira is sort of a game, but it's not just play and dance. It can be brutal,' warned Patrick Kreipe, who lives nearby and has studied capoeira for 12 years. 'But we teach it strictly as an art, not as fighting.'

An old factory on a quiet street next to a printing shop at the bottom of S.E. Gladstone Street may seem an unlikely place for such a lively endeavor, focusing exclusively on Afro-Brazilian culture. But when Almiro discovered the space three years ago, he thought, 'this is perfect for neighborhood arts'.

'Most of my students live in this part of Portland,' he explained.

Cultural Awareness Foundation, the nonprofit that organizes the classes, has already gained recognition from the larger community for bringing Brazilian culture to Portland.

The nonprofit foundation, of which Almiro is President, shares the studio on S.E. Gladstone with Bahia Brazil Arts Center and offers other classes, including Samba (starting in March), modern dance, and traditional Brazilian drum and other music classes for adults and for kids.

The nonprofit also arranges group trips to Brazil (see schedule online at: www.CulturalAwarenessFoundation.com).

'We provide the drums for the music classes,' Almiro said. 'And we will soon have after school classes for kids.'

Originally from Salvador, Brazil, Almiro first visited Portland in 1986, when Portland State University invited him to teach a capoeira workshop. (His title, 'mestre,' signifies that he is a capoeira master.) Almiro received an enthusiastic response to his classes, decided to emigrate and became a naturalized US citizen in 1994.

'I love this city,' said Almiro, who has also participated in Portland Public Schools' Neighborhood Arts Program, and taught capoeira at Reed College and local high schools. 'It has been very supportive.'