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Friday, 23 November, 2001, 15:45 GMT
Capoeira: A life-changing art
The art developed by slaves is played around the world
The martial art of Capoeira is not as widely known as Taekwondo or Karate outside of Brazil. But the graceful dance-like fighting style changed the life of a 13-year-old street kid from Salvador in Bahia.

Capoeira helped take Valdir Alves Gomes, known as Axe, off the streets of Salvador and around the world. He now teaches Capoeira classes in London. He told BBC News Online's Dominic Bailey his story.

"To live on the street is difficult anywhere, no matter where you are.

"Before Capoeira I spent most of my time on the streets. Sometimes we slept under a bench other times at a bus stop. On the streets I asked for money and food.

Axe lived on the streets as a child
"I was selling food when someone was going around giving money to a group of Capoeiristas. I was sitting at the back and he asked if I knew how to play Capoeira.

"I went into the middle and did a few cartwheels and span my legs around. When I finished he gave me some money, so I started learning how to play."

For almost 400 years Capoeira was taught and practiced in secret among the African slaves in Brazil.

Wit and speed

Slaves were not allowed to train to fight but the calm, graceful acrobatics of the players or "capoeiristas" helped disguise the art as a dance.

Accompanied by drums, singing and the distinctive twang of the berimbau instrument, the capoeiristas pitch gravity-defying moves against each other in a battle of wit, speed and force.

Only in the 1930s was this non-contact martial art allowed to be taught and practiced.

Capoeira is a model by which you can practise to do what you want

As Axe's interest grew, he was taken in by a master of Capoeira.

Developing his skills, he went on to teach acrobatics in circus project working with street children in Brazil.

He also taught at Capoeira academies, working as a bouncer at night for famous Brazilian singers such as Daniella Mercury.

Then further opportunities appeared.

Guiding star

"People always used to tell me that I was charismatic and that I had a shining star looking out for me. Then I was invited to go to Hong Kong, I went to Maimi, Los Angeles, Canada, Mexico. From there I continued to travel and travel.

"I came here [to London] to give a Capoeira workshop for two weeks. A friend asked me to stay, as he needed somebody to help him.

"This is my profession, I don't know how to do anything else."

The moves of the players are accompanied by musicians
Axe, 27, who never went to school, accepts that he could have faced an much different life if he had stayed on the streets.

"I have many friends that the police have killed in Brazil.

"I have friends who are still there in the Requengela, only smoking crack, giving up on life.

"The majority the police have killed, others were beaten, some so badly that they are left with mental health problems."

Open to all

The opportunities of earning a decent wage and international success (one of Axe's colleagues worked on the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle films) forces many Capoeira masters out of their native country.

But Axe believes the centres could be offered more support from the government or local authorities.

"I was living in a favela and when it was election time the politicians came around and offered gifts and t-shirts and remembered that Capoeira existed.

Strength is not a priority to practice the art
"They gave us t-shirts and promised us a thousand things, but after the election, nothing."

Axe's Capoeira Angola Palmares school in London has a mix of students ranging in age, nationality and physique - the key attraction of the art.

"Capoeira is not difficult. If you want to learn Capoeira you don't have to be physically strong, you just have to have mental strength. You have to know what you want.

"You can practice Capoeira as a dance, as fighting, as a philosophy, as a culture.

"In Brazil I don't have family. I don't have a mother or father so my family is here, my students, it is because of them I am here."

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