EVEN IF you didn't notice Alair Macedo's remarkable physique — his glistening bare chest...

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EVEN IF you didn’t notice Alair Macedo’s remarkable physique — his glistening bare chest, the cleft between his pecs, the way he leaps from the stage of Seattle Center’s outdoor amphitheater, flipping so high it seems his toes could touch the rim of the Space Needle — even if you just glimpsed him back stage at BrasilFest, you’d still guess he’s a mestre.

At 31, Macedo, known in his circle as Mestre Curisco, or “Master Lightning,” is one of the world’s youngest masters of capoeira (pronounced cap-poo-WHERE-ah), a musical and acrobatic Brazilian martial art created by African slaves.

Curisco’s no-frills capoeira academy is headquartered in the old Rainier brewery in Seattle. He also leads schools in Washington, D.C.; Chico, Calif.; Toronto; Guadalajara, Mexico; Vancouver, B.C., and Ipatinga, Brazil, where he built a cinderblock studio for neighborhood kids in his mom’s front yard. Among the cool and coordinated, capoeira is fast gaining cachet.

These days in Brazil, the popular sport is played in formal competitions as well as on street corners, pairs of competitors sparring inside a circle of onlookers who clap, sing, drum and twang the berimbau, a one-string instrument handmade from a stick, a gourd, a stone and salvaged wire. Here, in Seattle, there are five capoeira schools that teach either Angola, a slower ground game, or the faster acrobatic style Curisco favors called regional or contemporary.

Between acts at BrasilFest, while little students frolic and adult students tend torn calluses, Mestre Curisco remains pumped. His neck muscles are taut, charisma throbbing as if still wowing the crowd. From the wings, he peeks at the audience. It’s hot; the lawn-chair crowd looks sapped even as grass-skirted dancers perform on stage. Curisco begins to clap. No polite patter, this, but huge, rhythmic waves of shoulder and sinew that explode the air trapped in his cupped hands.

“We gotta clap!” he urges, moving from student to student until they, too, take up the percussive beat. Energy ripples out to the audience. Without knowing why, the crowd stirs from its summer slump, charged by the 400-year-old art form of slaves.

Historians argue over whether capoeira originated in Africa or Brazil (most say the latter) and whether the word “capoeira” derives from the name of a jealous fighting bird or the baskets slaves carried to market atop their heads or the piles of brush behind which slaves secretly trained.

Yet most everyone agrees on this: Starting in the mid-1500s, Portuguese slave traders captured more than 3 million Africans and brought them to work sugar plantations in northeastern Brazil. The slaves devised a method of self-defense disguised as ceremonial dance.

To attack, they threw punches, spinning kicks, head butts. To evade, they used cartwheels, back handsprings and other acrobatic maneuvers. A pulsing dance step, called the jenga, allowed fighters to switch instantaneously from defense to attack. Onlookers always surrounded the two fighters, singing about happier times and freedom while watching for slave masters and other threats. The songs’ rhythms signaled fighters to attack or to show off — or to flee when an enemy approached.

Soon enough, capoeira was outlawed, went underground and became associated with Brazil’s ghettos and gangs. The ban was lifted in the mid-1930s through the efforts of Mestre Bimba, a longshoreman and master capoeirista. No longer stigmatized, capoeira is now played by rich and poor in Brazil and has spread around the world.

A few days after BrasilFest, in the old brewery studio, Curisco leads his students through a grueling two-hour workout, then orders them to take out their instruments. It’s late. Tired, sweaty, thirsty, everyone’s already spent their energy. Still, they run for their berimbaus. The berimbau is capoeira’s soul. Its rhythms dictate whether players fight or dance; its nasal melodies allude to longing, injustice, old masters. Tonight, though, the berimbau’s twang sounds flat; the clapping, wimpy.

“Pay attention! Pay ATTENTION!” Mestre yells. “You gotta CLAP LIKE THIS!” He demonstrates, sound waves careening off the worn brick walls and plank floors. He grabs a berimbau, deftly hits the wire, pulls the gourd to his gut then thrusts it away, using his torso as a sound board. He hits the drum at an angle, slaps the tambourine, allows it to jangle just once. In Curisco’s hands, the instruments are crisper, louder, more resonant.

“LISTEN UP! Listen UP!” Curisco commands. “You gotta PAY ATTENTION or you gonna study for 10 YEARS and you’re not gonna learn. You gotta give LIFE to the instruments. Last time! You gotta stand UP or you gonna sound too LAZY!”

WE LIVE IN a society that’s all about praise, says capoeira student Marta Mazzanti, a 30-year-old mother of two who moved here from Italy 10 years ago. “If you go to school and do something good, you get stars. If you eat dinner, you get candy.”

Mestre Curisco rarely praises, often preaches and sometimes yells. This teaching style isn’t for everyone, but the students who stay with him thrive.

“Mestre pushes us mentally,” says Ali Mojallal, an advanced capoeirista. “He’s always telling us we need to work harder. He breaks you down. If he sees you getting good at something, starting to get a big head, he makes you try a move you can’t do to show you still have more to learn. For me, it works. You learn, you grow, you get stronger.”

This is no aerobics class. Students also have to study the martial art’s history, the Portuguese language and Brazilian culture. Curisco encourages students to get to know one another and themselves. He requires greetings, is puzzled when simple courtesies like “hello” are neglected.

“People are so busy here,” Mazzanti says. “They don’t have time for personal relationships. They just want to take a class or go to the gym for an hour and go home.”

For those looking for more, capoeira fills a certain void, and when you ask Curisco’s students what they’ve learned, they tend to focus on internal lessons rather than technical details of the spectacular tucks, cartwheels and flying kicks they can perform.

“We have a lot of material things, but we’re still all searching for some kind of freedom,” says 23-year-old Lexi Brennaman Harris. “What is it in all of our lives we’re fighting for?”

When she started capoeira four years ago, Harris says, she’d been going through some tough times. “I had come out of an emotionally abusive relationship in L.A., removed from my support system, and was feeling really shitty with myself. When I came back here I was not in school, going out late, partying. When I started doing capoeira, I started getting my confidence back. At first, I’d get hit hard and I’d cry. Then I realized, it doesn’t really hurt that much. If I can get through that, I can get through emotional things, too. . . . I’ve had guys lie to me plenty, but I haven’t let them take that thing, you know, that thing that makes me whole.”

In the circle, called the roda, capoeira is a conversation between two players. After two minutes of physical parry, capoeiristas say, you know more about strangers than if you’d talked with them for a half hour at a party. You know if they’re playful, timid, crafty. Whether they’re good listeners or just want to show off. Watch your opponent’s eyes, intuit his intent, trust no one. In the roda, even the musicians play defense, always with their backs to a wall.

The chat often starts with players alternating aerial acrobatics: a cartwheel question, a back-handspring answer, each trying to impress, much as courting animals strut their stuff. But teasing talk can tilt on edge. A friendly kick to the ribs. Hey, whatcha got? Whatcha gonna do? If you don’t block, don’t fake, don’t kick back — guaranteed, you’ll get kicked again.

Harris learned the hard way, in São Paolo two years ago, playing a woman who knocked her around even as the berimbau’s rhythm called for friendly play.

“She had style to her jenga,” Harris recalls, “and she gave me such a hard time. She kicked me, put me down, and from then on, everybody knew we had it out for each other. But I was being nice. This was my lifelong weakness. I was so mad at myself after that. It’s better to be yelled at because you were too aggressive than because you let someone take advantage. Ever since that girl, I’ve decided I’m not going to be afraid anymore.”

In capoeira, unlike judo or boxing, there’s no winner or loser. The conversation never ends. It can get picked up again by the same two players, perhaps in another place, hours or even years later. “I’m waiting to see her again,” Harris says. “I’ll be ready.”

For Mojallal, whose nickname is Ninja, the lesson came in a song. During a rough game this winter, he’d been taken down while grappling with a capoeirista from Santa Barbara. The guy was big, and literally picked him up as if to body slam, which he didn’t do because proving he could was enough.

Mestre Curisco: “He just goes and lifts Ninja, and Ninja looks like: What am I going to do? He didn’t respond, didn’t protect himself. So when he came to the berimbau, I sang him a song.”

Kneeling at the berimbau, readying himself for the next round, Mojallal knew Mestre was singing for him, but couldn’t understand the Portuguese lyrics. (He’s since started language lessons.)

My friend, you remind me of when I was like you,

confused inside the game

Didn’t know what to do with my legs,

whether to kick

And my master would correct me and say

Today you fell and tomorrow you’ll fall less

But until you die, anybody can always fall, so you must stay aware, my friend.

YOU COULD easily buy hardware from Home Depot to make a berimbau without having to salvage an old tire, shave the rubber sidewall and bloody your fingers pulling out the wire. Of course, in capoeira, doing things the easy way is not the point.

Curisco was 5 years old when he saw capoeira for the first time and knew, even that young, he wanted to learn the sport. But there was no capoeira school nearby, and his father, a welder, and his mother, a washerwoman, had seven other children and not enough money for bus fare or sport fees. “Growing up in Brazil is hard,” recalls Contra Mestre Lua Branca, a childhood friend of Curisco’s who now teaches capoeira in Toronto. “You have to do everything you can to survive. Curisco had a good family that taught him to deal with people outside the neighborhood.”

The family was close. Education was important. The children were taught right from wrong.

As a boy, Curisco had a temper. “In Brazil, people talk about your family, that’s the worst,” he says. “You can say what you want about me, but if you talk about my mom and dad or brother, I gotta fight.” Playing soccer in the streets, sometimes he’d push someone harder than intended, they’d insult his mama and soon, the whole team would fight. Not to mention spats during lunch and recess. “My mom always had to come to school because I fight,” he recalls. “Even now, some of my teachers say, ‘Look! You are a totally different person than when you were a kid!’ “

Capoeira spurred the transformation. When Curisco was 13, the neighborhood community center began offering classes. Curisco threw himself into training, so talented he was awarded an instructor belt in three years, an accomplishment that takes others a decade.

Early on, before Curisco could afford a drum or tambourine, he practiced rhythms on overturned baskets. To save money, he rode his bicycle for days to attend competitions and demonstrations.

At 15, when it came time to make his first berimbau, Curisco walked to the hills behind his home and selected a straight sapling thick as his fist of a wood that’s flexible but strong. He dried it, stripped the leaves, then sanded it with a piece of broken glass. He salvaged a tire from a repair shopand pulled wire from the sidewall to string on the stick.

By 16, Curisco was so taken with capoeira, he’d given up soccer and, not coincidentally, street fights, even though toughs would goad him. “You’re scared to fight because you know what you can do,” Curisco says. “I hear of people who almost kill someone. . . . And you don’t know the other person’s intention. Maybe they don’t have anything to lose.”

Curisco was rising fast in capoeira circles. Yet he wondered if he should quit. On top of school and training, he did factory work and painting but worried he wasn’t contributing enough to the household. “Back then, you can’t make a living off capoeira. My friends say: If you gonna keep with capoeira, where you gonna be? I say: ‘That’s what I like to do. I don’t need to be rich. I need to be happy.’

“My parents say: ‘Choose what you want to do. We support you.’ “

Luckily, Curisco landed a government job teaching capoeira in a youth program. It wasn’t a lot of money, but enough to help with family bills. Two years later, he and Lua Branca were invited to teach in Vancouver.

Hearing Curisco talk now, it’s amazing he stayed as long as he did — a year in an unheated studio with paltry wages, barely enough to buy milk and bread. They didn’t know English or the system. Eventually, a capoeira student found Curisco a painting job and he earned enough to buy a ticket home.

But not before performing at the Seattle Art Museum, where he was spotted by Eduardo Mendonça, director of Show Brazil!, a dance and music performance group.

“I was about to go to Brazil to find a capoeirista to bring to Seattle,” Mendonça says. “I immediately changed my mind. I don’t have to go to Brazil, I can bring him from Vancouver, B.C.!”

After visiting his family in Brazil, including a young son from an early marriage, Curisco returned to Seattle in 1998 with his fiancée, Milani Silve, and started teaching a small class that met wherever there was space: churches, a community center, a Belltown karate studio. He and Silve lived with four relatives in a basement apartment and had day jobs cleaning houses. Since capoeira hasn’t yet developed the money muscle of, say, professional basketball or soccer, even its stars take on other work.

“It didn’t seem like his financial situation ever got him down,” says Cheryl Harrison, one of his first students. What changed Curisco, she says, was attaining capoeira’s highest rank in 2000. “Once he became a mestre, he insisted even more that we do things a certain way. Be confident, but also humble. Don’t stand on the sidelines and watch everybody else. Learn the songs. Learn the instruments so you can be right in there, participating. In the roda, the energy is created by everybody.”

Over the years, Curisco’s following has grown. These days, he’s a major presence at American and Canadian regional rodas. He doesn’t yet have a national reputation in Brazil, but since he’s one of the youngest mestres there, that will change, Mendonça predicts. “By doing capoeira by the heart, he’ll be well known soon.”

IN BRAZIL, Silve explains, everybody stops by to visit. Even at six in the morning. Or when you’re cooking dinner, someone will knock on your door: Mmmm. That smells really good. What are you making? I want to have some!

That’s the difference, Curisco says, between Brazilian and American culture, between buying an instrument from a store and making it by hand, between where his students start and where he’s trying to take them.

“Sometimes some students come to class, they didn’t even say hi,” Curisco says. “You gotta try to get them into a conversation. Sometimes they need a little more love, attention, like a friend. Sometimes we work too much, we get home late, then in the morning go to work again. We gotta do something to make ourselves feel good. Capoeira is like meditation, a therapy. You can think better. You gotta express yourself.”

Self-expression brings out students’ “capoeira personality,” inspiring mestres to bestow appropriate capoeira nicknames. Silve, a fierce competitor, is nicknamed Guerrera, or warrior. Nine-year-old Rafael Newman, who can breeze through five back handsprings in a sneeze, is called Bentivi, a legendary bird too fast for humans to see.

Child to bird, cartwheel to fight, capoeira is all about transformation. “People think it’s just a dance. Something different to try,” Curisco says. “When they start to come here, they start to change in their life. When they see their bodies change, their minds change. I have students say: I used to drink, use drugs. Some people don’t have control of their own life. We talk about freedom. Not just the physical aspect. There’s energy you feel when you get here to be around people who care about you. Everybody has problems. Raise your hands: Who never had a problem in your life? You gotta face your problem. If you’re running from it, you’re gonna be running forever.”

Curisco isn’t running, but he’s definitely on the go. Just back from Chico, he leads the Seattle batizado ceremony, performs at BrasilFest, then heads to capoeira events in Washington, D.C., and Guadalajara. In between, he works as a handyman fixing the deck of a lovely Mercer Island home. Squatting in the sun, wearing a brimmed cap and baggy painting pants, he loses, for a moment, his imposing capoeira persona. He seems shorter, younger, mortal, an immigrant happy to be here but still missing home.

Sweeping sawdust, Curisco hums his favorite berimbau song, a melancholy tune about slave mothers watching their children getting lashed.

Oh mother, don’t cry,

even though you see this tragedy

Curisco’s beloved mother and son are in Brazil; he and Silve have a baby on the way. Maybe one day, the mestre will return to live in his homeland, but not yet. His students here still need him. “You’re not gonna have me forever,” he often warns. “You have to know how to take care of yourself in the roda. I don’t want you to be like me. I want you to be better.”

The mestre notices an old cockeyed nail in the deck and extracts it with his hammer’s claw. Nails are cheap and plentiful here, yet Curisco takes the time to straighten its kinks — just as he would have in Brazil — and pounds it back in place with a few deft strokes.

Paula Bock is a Pacific Northwest magazine staff writer. E-mail: pbock@seattletimes.com. Betty Udesen is a Seattle Times staff photographer.