Vintage Pacific NW: We’re revisiting some of our favorite stories from some of our favorite former magazine contributors. Check back each week for timeless classics focusing on food, fitness, gardening and more.

Originally published Aug. 12, 2012
By Nicole Tsong, former Fit for Life writer

AS SOON AS capoeira teacher Alan Letran asked me during warm-ups whether I was comfortable with handstands, I knew I had either: a) found my people, or b) gotten in way over my head.

I prepped for my first capoeira class by watching a video of two buff, bare-chested men flowing and flipping around each other. I was interested, but I also was mildly worried about the back flip part of the Brazilian martial art (pronounced kap-eh way-reh).

It was a beautiful, sunny evening, so Letran, a substitute for the regular group teacher, moved our small class to the lawn. We jogged in circles and did a few butt kicks to warm up before hopping into handstands. I do handstands any chance I get, but handstands 10 minutes into class made me wonder whether these were my people after all.

The essential move in capoeira is the ginga (jen-ga), a swaying side-to-side step. It is not complicated, but I felt clumsy trying to keep my arms up to protect my face while syncing them with my feet. Kicks were more fun. We learned a couple kinds, all of which had Portuguese names I had trouble pronouncing.

Many of capoeira’s kicks are circular — and your leg, which swings up and over in a wide swath, is supposed to land behind your other foot so you are primed for any other attacks. I felt fierce while kicking, but often landed with a stumble.


It got harder once we added defensive moves and worked with partners to blend it all together. Letran kept layering in more complicated moves, including — yes — back flips. He taught us how to get one partner in a squat while the other person faced away, leaned back, reached for the ground, then flipped over.

Cool, yes. Doable? I got over only with a helping hand.

We also worked cartwheels. The capoeira cartwheel is lower than the elongated cartwheel most of us know, and to get us to fold at our hips, Letran moved us into one-handed cartwheels, leading with the front hand. My yoga strength only went so far in cartwheeling five times down the lawn on one hand, then five times back on the other.

Then he started us with the rear hand going over first. It’s easier than it sounds, but it takes some faith. He reassured us the unnatural motion would be helpful. Helpful for what? Oh, something called aerials, or nohanded cartwheels.

Ha. Ha. Hahaha.

As ridiculously hard as some moves sounded, I did more than I thought I could, even if my feet frequently landed with a thunk. Letran had a lot of tips that helped me get a sense for each trick. The regulars also were sweet about slowing down to work with me.

And, unlike most fitness classes, there’s a lot of talking, and not just about capoeira. It was my first time there, but I felt a genuine sense of community. Add music played by Mo Chang on the berimbau (a wooden bow with a single string), the circle at the end of class (when students pair up for “combat”) and a short tutorial on chanting, and everyone can find an element that works for them.

I’ve been working on my cartwheels; I’m ready for Round 2.