By day he is an ICT Officer, an Information Technology specialist who plies his trade at the Gros-Islet Primary School. By night he is a martial arts maven, proficient in a discipline largely unfamiliar to the St Lucian community: Capoeira. Meet 23-year-old Danny Augustin, the island’s foremost Graduado.
Capoeira, pronounced (Cap-oh-eh-ra), is a form of Brazilian martial arts which dates all the way back to the 16th century. It is characterized by quick complex moves, acrobatics, and a grace that can make it seem almost choreographed. The art form has it’s roots entrenched in slavery, as it originated from the desire to gain freedom without appearing conspicuous.
“In the early 1500’s African slaves were brought down to Brazil and they basically wanted to figure out a way to break free but they couldn’t practice martial arts outright because they would be killed. So what they did was find a way to disguise it into a dance. It looked choreographed so the slave drivers couldn’t figure it out,” Augustin explained.
So how did Augustin become acquainted with the art form? It all started with a foray into another popular form of martial arts: Tae kwon do. From the age of fifteen, he was a student at a dojo in the Choc area, even making the national touring team. It was during this stint that he received some friendly advice.
As he tells it, “One of the guys in Tae kwon do looked at me and said ‘you’re great at this but there is something better for you. Try Capoeira”.
The friend believed that the fluid movements were more suited to Augustin’s style than the static ones associated with Tae kwon do. Augustin was intrigued.
An opportunity arose when he left the island to pursue his education at the University of East London in the United Kingdom. His brother’s fiancée, who is coincidentally Brazilian, took him to his first class and the rest, as they say, is history. But it was not without its challenges, the biggest one being a slight miscalculation by Augustin.
“It was tough,” he conceded. “I thought it would have been more relaxed. It is relaxed, but it’s fairly demanding so halfway through the class I was burnt out”. Augustin elaborated. “I thought I was at the top of my game, having played tennis, volleyball, tae kwon do, and basketball for my school simultaneously, at a pretty high level. I figured I was ready. Within half an hour I was dead. I gained new respect for it.”
Despite those initial growing pains, Augustin was hooked. “I went there just to learn how to flip. A lot of people go for different reasons; for fitness, to learn acrobatics, to learn the instruments, some go for the culture. But then you realize you need to have everything. So it just sucks you in and that’s exactly what it did to me,” he admitted.
Augustin flourished in his new passion, scheduling as many classes in between his rigorous academic load. He studied under Contra-Mestre PQD, racking up fourteen belts in one group, before being promoted to another. Upon returning to St Lucia, he started contemplating ways to keep his skills sharp. However, he had not yet achieved the teacher level so he was wary of trying to assemble his own class. Mestre (master) PQD thought otherwise. Augustin’s mentor felt that he had all the qualities necessary to instruct as he had some experience gained from assisting with a schools program in the UK.
The final push came when another friend offered him a spot at his gym to host a test class free of charge. He did not expect much of a turn out so he was pleasantly surprised when sixteen people showed up. “Usually the capoeira classes I attended weren’t very big. It would be about nine people. Thirteen is a massive class. For me, the first class in a country that knows nothing about capoeira being so big? Wow,” he marveled.
He continues to hold his classes every Sunday at Fitness Freaks in Corinth, and by all accounts it has been a resounding success. With the economic situation in mind, he tries to keep his operation cost effective, charging just ten dollars per class. Beginning at 11:00 am, a class is usually an hour and a half, but often runs over at the urging of his students.
Augustin is planning on extending the reach of capoeira throughout the island. His class has become so popular that Sportivo has called on him to host a class on April 5. He envisions running a schools program similar to the one he assisted with in the UK. He believes that the medium with help channel our youth’s boundless energy and turn underlying aggression into an avenue for peaceful conflict resolution. He has also been working with Rituals Carnival Band on their Brazilian theme for this year’s celebration. His students appeared at the band’s launch to add a truly authentic touch.
He has many plans but he needs help. To facilitate this, Augustin is planning the first batizado (baptism) on the island later this year to start his students off in the belt system. Endorsement is not based on an exam but a comprehensive mix of factors. The reason can be traced back to its origins. “Most Capoeira groups maintain that it’s all about freedom,” Augustin explained. “They believe that exams make you nervous and you will never perform the way you do naturally”.
“What we do is continuous assessment. So everyday we look at not just how you kick or your form. What can get you a belt is your dedication, just you coming to class. Some people will look into the history, how involved you are, if you help other people we look at that. If you would push yourself to learn the instruments or go home and learn something new, we look at all of that,” he added.
So far he is thrilled with his students’ enthusiasm and the ease with which they have picked up the intricate moves. “People in my class couldn’t do a cartwheel to save their life,” he laughed. “To see them today to you would be amazed. They’re doing cartwheels on one hand and headstands!” He attributes this to the playful elements of capoeira. Battles are called games and take place while fellow capoeirists serenade the participants with traditional Portuguese songs in a circle called a roda.
“They do nothing but enjoy class from beginning to end,” raves Augustin, who is also referred to as ‘Graduado Urso’ or ‘Bear’.
While this does not sound like anything St Lucians have seen on the cult classic ‘Kung-Fu-Theatre’, don’t be fooled. Capoeira is no kumbaya session. “The point of it is to not look intimidating at all. It is very deceptive. If you join a class the first you learn is that you have to make your opponent see one thing, and then do something else. I might face one way and then kick you in the head,” he jokingly warned.
Fear not though. Kicks only come into play during self-defense, which takes years to master. Capoeira is very user friendly. It appeals to all genders, age groups and generations. Augustin recalled the words of one of the most renowned capoeirists, Mestre Pastinha. “Capoeira is for man, woman, and child. If they don’t do capoeira it’s because they don’t want to. It’s not because they can’t do it. It’s for everyone.”