Capoeira Contra-Mestre Baz Michaeli demonstrates a handstand during a class at his Michigan Center for Capoeira in Farmington Hills.

Capoeira In Detroit

Israeli expert grows a community around
the Brazilian martial art.

Building a community takes time. It takes support and interest sustained over time, along with a large dose of dedication from members and leaders in that community.

Capoeira Contra-Mestre Baz Michaeli demonstrates a handstand during a class at his Michigan Center for Capoeira in Farmington Hills.

Capoeira Contra-Mestre Baz Michaeli demonstrates a handstand during a class at his Michigan Center for Capoeira in Farmington Hills.

Capoeira instructor Baz Michaeli does not lack dedication to his art or the desire to create a community. Michaeli is the founder and owner of the Michigan Center for Capoeira in Farmington Hills, where about 100 students learn the Brazilian martial art. The Israel native has been instrumental in fostering the capoeira (capo-era) community in the state.

“Twelve years ago, when I first came here, nobody knew what capoeira was,” Michaeli says. “Our first performance was just me and my dad, who was also my first student.”

Michaeli tried to muster interest by handing out fliers and inviting people to attend classes at his first location — a shared dance studio in downtown Farmington. Slowly, mostly by word of mouth, a core group of students began to build after about eight years. Interest burgeoned when Michaeli started offering a free introductory class once a month to people who were curious about capoeira but felt intimidated.

“The main idea was to see what would happen. Let’s share capoeira with the community and give people a chance to come try it out,” Michaeli says. “By the end, people know what capoeira is and they can leave — there’s no obligation. If they want, we offer a special promotion for going to that class.”

They still offer the monthly class, which Michaeli describes as Capoeira 101.

Baz Michaeli started learning capoeira at age 14 in his native Israel

Baz Michaeli started learning capoeira at age 14 in his native Israel

The Michigan Center for Capoeira is something of a family affair. Baz’s father, Offer Michaeli, and sister, Lital Richards, have been instrumental in building the community as well as the physical space they occupy. Richards teaches classes and Offer designed and built the interior of their studio, which opened in January after the school moved out of its previous location at the Franklin Athletic Club in Southfield.

“It was a one-man job,” Michaeli says of his father. “He worked here every day for three months consistently about 10 to 12 hours a day.”

The martial art evolved as a way for escaped slaves in Brazil to defend themselves against their would-be captors. Capoeira focuses on kicks, acrobatics, counter-attacks and takedowns. The idea was to defend oneself when outnumbered and unarmed. The practice evolved over the centuries into a mostly non-contact martial art that resembles a dance. Practitioners — or capoeiristas — are said to “play capoeira” with each other.

Israel Connection

Capoeira has found a second home in Israel where Michaeli was first exposed to it. He estimates there are 6,000 to 8,000 capoeiristas in Israel, but he cannot account for the martial art’s popularity in his home country.

 Advanced students play capoeira accompanied by live music (led by the one-stringed berimbau), clapping and singing.

Advanced students play capoeira accompanied by live music (led by the one-stringed berimbau), clapping and singing.

“It’s a question I always get. I think it got popular because of a very similar mentality,” Michaeli says. “Brazil is a very fun country, people are always looking to have a good time, and there’s fun and a playfulness in capoeira. There are a lot of similarities in Israeli culture.”

Michaeli says capoeira has become so popular that Israeli masters are being invited to teach workshops around the world.

“The Israeli mentality is that if you’re going to do something, you do it all the way,” says Michaeli, who has been practicing capoeira since age 14 and has earned his Contra-Mestre belt. He also is a certified personal trainer.

Capoeira In The Schools

Edan Harari, an Israeli capoeira master who taught Michaeli’s teacher, believed in raising a generation of children who want to be physically active. Michaeli and his sister have taken that idea to schools around Metro Detroit. Richards teaches capoeira to more than 220 students in grades K-5 at Detroit Achievement Academy and Detroit Prep. Michaeli and Richards’ program has been incorporated as part of the curriculum.

students train by doing Ginga, a mainstay move of the Brazilian martial art.

students train by doing Ginga, a mainstay move of the Brazilian martial art.

“I told Baz I wanted to open a studio in Detroit. These kids don’t have many options, so when they fall in love with something, they go all in. I very quickly fell in love with them,” Richards says.

She focuses on more than the physicality of capoeira. She teaches the students core principles such as perseverance. Kids also learn five to seven Portuguese words a month. At the end of the school year, students celebrate their accomplishments with a belt ceremony.

“I think the parents were surprised to see the kids running up to me during the ceremony. Some of the mothers came up to me saying it’s really cool to have a female role model who teaches martial arts,” Richards says.

Katy Strader is director of special projects at the Detroit Achievement Academy. She says the students were receptive to capoeira.

“Our students love capoeira so much that they practice it at recess, home and sometimes in the hallways when they think no one is watching,” Strader says. “Capoeira is more than just a bunch of hard skills that can be measured by how high they jump or hard they kick — the students are learning self-control, communication, personal space and cooperation.”

Michaeli stresses they are not teaching kids how to harm other people.

“It is a martial art, but it’s a non-contact martial art,” he says. “There’s enough violence in the world. We don’t teach kids how to fight; we teach kids how to play.”

Rob Streit JN Intern | Photos by Anthony Lanzilote

Check It Out
The Michigan Center for Capoeira in Farmington Hills is hosting a four-day event beginning Aug. 9. To acknowledge students’ progress, the school will host a capoeira performance as well as a batizado, a celebration where students receive a belt and move up in rank, on Friday, Aug. 10. The event is free and open to the public.
The batizado is bookended by workshops and rodas, where participants form a circle around performing
capoeiristas while singing and playing traditional instruments.
“This is our biggest event,” Michaeli says. “We give recognition to students who have been training, and we also do a capoeira performance choreographed with students.”
For details about the batizado or the Michigan Center for Capoeira, go to www.tmc4c.com.

To see capoeira in action, check out the video.

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