“Stretching to touch my toes, I was an entire shin length away. I was so inflexible. After class I was drenched in sweat, my body ached all over, I was proud of myself for getting through it, only to hear the instructor say, “right, go get some water, so we can start the class”. In a total state of disbelief I scanned the room to absorb my reality. That was the warm up?!?”
The year is 2005. I had just lost both my parents to the tsunami while they were enjoying their second honeymoon after 25 years of marriage. I was 19 years’ old at the time and life was just starting for me. The year that followed was, well, a complete blur, to be honest. I pretty much only remember the most intense moments – fights with the people closest to me and experimenting with recreational substances. I had no focus for my studies or any other goals for that matter. You would think that I was depressed and sad, but honestly I felt nothing. I remember faking crying at my parents funeral. I was worried everyone would think there was something wrong with me. To me it felt like they were just still on holiday, a really long holiday. I knew there was something wrong with me when I look back, but at the time admitting it wasn’t even a consideration I was willing to face. I was treating my friends so badly that one day I had 2 of them approach me to put me back in my place. The humility that I was lucky enough to learn from my parents allowed me to listen and hear what they had to say and I made my first step towards change. I put on about 12kg of weight that year, I would sweat profusely on a daily basis and I had a bad case of flatulence, so bad that it would probably clear an entire open-air stadium within minutes. I was a mess.
December 2005 arrived and my brother had been educating himself with regards to different spiritualities, and that’s when I found God. Just kidding. I was catholic and at the time, God had been with me throughout, although, mostly it didn’t feel like it. My brother had done a course in reiki, which at the time I thought was a complete joke. He encouraged me to go for a session with his teacher. I eventually reluctantly went. I explained my situation regarding the weight, the flatulence and the sweats and she gave me some of the most life changing advice and guidance I have received to date. She explained, that due to the shock I had experienced, my entire being had gone into fight and flight mode. She explained that when someone gives you a fright, your body goes into survival mode for a split second, until you realise that you are no longer in danger and that it’s just your stupid sibling or friend having some fun at your expense. I had experienced the former but never had the reconciling latter to knock me and bring me back to safe mode. I had been operating as if I was being attacked by a homicidal manic or a lion… FOR AN ENTIRE YEAR. She told me to say an affirmation for positive reinforcement, and repeat it as often as possible; “I, Mark am okay, I am safe”. With regards to the weight I had put on, she said, “You’re eating too much!”. I probably could have figured that one out on my own. Within 2 weeks my sweats were gone, I had no more flatulence and the weight had miraculously… remained. I had no idea just a small phrase could make such a huge change over such a short time. If I had so much power over myself with words, I could only imagine what I could do with action. Fitness and health would be my next challenge, and so I was catapulted into the next stage of my life… Capoeira.
Muay Thai was very popular at the time so I started investigating different places to go. My friend and I had had a conversation a few months earlier about Muay Thai; he mentioned he knew a place. We also chatted about this strange martial art that Eddy Gordo from Tekken did, about the accompanying music and how you had to have a degree to become a master, which turned out to be a very twisted version of the truth. I was blown away by what he was telling me, but soon forgot about it. My mind was set on Muay Thai, but the universe had a different plan. In early 2006 along with some New Years’ resolutions, you know, the usual “New Year, New Me” crap, I called my friend up and asked him for the Muay Thai contact and he said, “Ah, don’t have that one anymore… but I have the number for capoeira?”. “Well I guess ill try it,” I thought. I gave the guy a call and made my way through to the next available class with a friend of mine.
When we arrived, we tried to only watch the class, but the charismatic instructor convinced us to rather join in and get the full experience, and boy was it the full experience! This strange music played through the speakers and I remember thinking, “Gees, when is this guy going to put something on that we can actually move to, you know, something powerful and uplifting? Put on some rave for goodness sake, that will get the blood pumping!” But this odd chanting, mildly melodic music played the.entire.time. Stretching exercises began, I was only an entire shin length away from touching my toes. I was so inflexible. After class I was drenched in sweat, my body ached all over, I was proud of myself for getting through it, only to hear the instructor say, “Right, go get some water, so we can start the class.” In a state of total disbelief, I scanned the room to absorb my reality. That was the warm up. Needless to say, the class started. I was so awkward, I imagine looked like a mini sumo wrestler in roller skates, trying to preform figure skating on a freshly tarred parking lot. I was horrible. My instructor, a few months later, confirmed those feelings by telling me that in those first few classes, he honestly had never seen anyone worse than me in his 10 years of teaching, all over the world. Luckily I had managed to turn my second left foot back into a right foot by that time, so it was encouraging rather than hurtful.
Towards the end of that first class everyone formed a circle and started clapping while the semi tone-deaf instructor started ‘singing’ what echoed the strange melodies I had been hearing the entire class. “Well, this is quite uncomfortable,” I thought. The next thing 2 of the students jumped inside the circle and started throwing their bodies in the most captivating ways, exchanging dangerous kicks at one another’s heads, while the opponent, ever so calmly ducking a dodging them while executing beautiful, flowing, break-dance-like movements and tricks. I can only hope that I will one day again, experience that feeling I felt in that moment. I knew instantly, that I was meant to do this. It was honestly one of the most liberating moments of my entire life. This is something I will do for the rest of my life. The car ride home with my friend was filled so much energy, we could have powered Eskom through a month of stage 8 load shedding, with “OH MY GOD’s, DID YOU SEE THAT SH*!’s, ITS EXACTLY LIKE EDDY GORDO!!!” being blurted out between us.
I could hardly sleep, pregnant with the excitement of waking up and showing my brother some of the moves I had learnt. Turns out, I should rather have slept through… to the following week. The next morning, I.could.not.move. Even blinking hurt. Every muscle in my body was stiff. I didn’t know toes could experience muscle stiffness. Even my face was stiff. Turns out, a fair amount of the effort I had put in had been through my facial expressions, giving it an equal work out to the rest of my body. It took me 6 days to recover. I returned to the same class the next week. And as they say, the rest is history.
I started off training twice a week and after a few months, I started training a third time a week – on a Saturday. I would attend classes happy, tired, hungover or stressed but I never missed. Attending classes was a combination of improving strength, fitness a conceptual understanding of the individual movements that combined into sequences. It was also about trying to control the dizziness I would experience from doing an array of flowing cartwheels across the class, and walking to the other side of the class as if I was on my way back from the pub after a 2-for-1 special on student night. I put all my focus into the movements, concepts and music. It was a beautiful escape from my current reality, allowing me to have moments to de-stress and recharge in a mindless mindfulness of movements created by my own physical creative expression.
Throughout school I was never an athlete – always B/C/D team for tennis, rugby, soccer, pretty much everything. Whatever the associated alphabetical symbol was for the last leam of my age group, I was in that one. It never stopped my passion or motivation towards any of the sports I enjoyed, in fact it was quite the reverse, my motivation gave me an extremely skewed sense of my talent. Capoeira was somehow different for me. I picked up a lot faster than everyone else in the classes, probably due to my focus and perseverance, compensating for my need to find a way of dealing with the death of my parents. I sometimes feel like this passion that I had discovered was a gift from them, to help fill the void of them moving on. It certainly did that.
I received my capoeira nickname, a proud moment for every capoeirista, early and sooner than anyone else. My attitude started to changed, all this attention and accomplishment I was receiving from my growth, gave me an ego. I remember one day getting offended because one of the students asked me why my nickname is Piranha. “It’s self-explanatory, it’s cause I’m kickass.” I thought I was better than everyone else. God, it is still embarrassing for me to think back to that moment. Soon after, a few new students arrived and also picked it up really quick. My instructor would play us against one another, saying in private to us, how good the other student was. I know it was just his way of trying to motivate us to be better but it bred a culture of egotism and aggression within the group. This culture created a group of mainly women and us, the “alpha males”, not realising that we were scaring off any other guys coming into our territory like a pack of stray dogs. When you are in it, it’s hard to notice it – a sad truth of life. Looking back, it’s not my proudest part of my life.
I started to teach after about 2 years of training or rather assisting teaching, which really isn’t ideal for my level but I was focused on growing this sport I loved so much. After about 3 years of teaching, I started my own little branch of the school at a small boxing gym right next to a restaurant in Dainfern shopping centre in Jozi. I had no students. I would go there and wait, hoping for students to just rock up. Boy was I wrong. Night in and night out I would wait, while doing my own training. One night however, a kid from the restaurant next door took some interest in the strange movements I was doing. I saw his interest as an opportunity and went to speak to his parents. I had just earned my first student. From there, he invited friends and in a few months I was up to 5 students. It stayed like that for a while, then moved up to 8. And then it stayed like that for another 3 years or so.
All the while I was growing increasingly unhappy within the group I was in. I felt like I had hit a ceiling in my training and my learning of the different aspects of capoeira. I wasn’t learning anything new and I was starting to see through my instructor’s façade. He noticed too and denied me my next belt while giving belts to my peers. I would imagine this was done with the objective of putting me in my place and feeding my insecurity and ego. My passion for the sport was draining at a rapid rate. It was only the responsibility I had to my own students that kept me going.
That same year, during the grading week of workshops, before taking on the blow of not receiving the belt, one of my friends, on the same level as me, managed to land one of Capoeira’s most devastating kicks to the right side of my face in one of rodas. I ended up in hospital for the night with a broken sinus cheek bone, broken right eye orbital bone in 2 places and my nose had broken in so many places, the doctor said he gave up counting. I was in theatre for 4 hours, being operated on by a plastic surgeon, and maxillofacial surgeon and an ENT surgeon.
A year later, after consuming an entire bakery of humble pies, watching my peers go ahead of me with the new belts, as well battling the psychological aftershock of the strike to the face, our head Mestre of the group came through from Brazil. He awarded me my Graduado belt, skipping the belt I had missed, overriding my instructors wishes to keep me behind the students that I would usually be associated with. The symbolism of this new belt, technically meant that I was no longer a student.
I started spending hours each day, before and after my full time job and in between teaching classes, teaching myself new movements, new songs, practising the instruments and finding inspiration in other groups’ philosophies and cultures. I was slowly breaking free from the egotistic culture I was brought up into by my instructor. I started practising exchanging ego for confidence and insecurity for humility, realising that the combination of confidence and humility is unwavering and incredibly powerful. This is something I am still trying to perfect up to this very day. I started toying with the idea of creating my own group but for someone at my level and amount of years in capoeira it’s not a normal occurrence, so I was reluctant. I kept on growing by learning on my own and each of my instructor’s classes I attended, would leave me wondering why we keep learning the same movements over and over, never anything new. My frustration grew.
We had a public roda/capoeira sparring activity in early 2014, with the whole Terranossa Capoeira group. I exposed all my new knowledge and skills I was trying to perfect, giving much energy in the singing of the songs and playing the instruments with passion and ease – well… more ease than before. Even today, I still have much to learn and prefect with capoeira as a whole. The roda was great, the energy was fantastic and I got the feeling that the work I was putting in had truly made a difference. Everyone was noticing.
As the roda ended, it is customary, that at the end of one of these gatherings the instructor speaks to everyone, addressing good moments and mistakes and complimenting where it’s due. I will never forget what he said to me that night. It is the reason I am who I am and where I am today, within my capoeira and in my life. To me, they are echoed within each other and are in many ways synonymous. He turned and looked at me and said, “Piranha, well done tonight, you brought so much energy to the roda, your music was great, your capoeira was beautiful, and I would just like to say to everyone else here,” as he turned to look at the crowd, “just remember that I am his teacher and he is as good as he is because of me and it will always be because of me.” My heart dropped. My students, that happened to be around me, looked at me with shocked faces and eyes filled with the truth of the hard work I was putting into capoeira, for them, and for myself. It was at that moment I would decide to leave Capoeira Terranossa and carve my own way into Capoeira in Southern Africa.
Sometime after that I told my instructor I was leaving the school. He was shocked. He told me that he knew I would not be able to create my own group as I didn’t have it in me and that I dare not think of myself and him as being on the same level or as equals (with in the sport). It was an awkward conversation, to say the least.
Liberated yet scared, I carried on learning and teaching myself, reconstructing the values and philosophy that I wanted our capoeira to be built on – confidence and humility. I had to change this in myself before I could expect my students to follow me there. I recruited a few of the ‘lost soldiers’ from the early days that had left for reasons that could be seen as parallel to mine. They were thrilled to be back at training. We had some newbies join us, some I believe sent by God or the universe to test me and my newly adopted convictions and some, to teach those concepts to. We didn’t even have a name for the group, so in November of 2014 we got together, and all the students decided on a name. Capoeira Valente was born. Valente means bravery, symbolising what we require to walk our truth in our lives. A feeling of what I had been through and what I would still to go through.
Due to the egotistic culture of my previous group, I had no connection to any of the other groups in the country. In fact, I was surprised to learn that we were so isolated; that there were groups in other cities that I didn’t even know existed. I had no mentor or master, and I knew that mentorship and leadership was important, especially for someone at my level and with my aspirations. I was far from all-knowing and I needed direction. I started making connections, visiting different cities and countries, attending events as often as I could to start creating relationships. A few of the schools even tried to recruit us into their groups. I wanted to bring everyone together. All the schools. Let everyone meet, let everyone get to know each other, so I had to get to know everyone first and let them get to know me. That is when I got to know Mestre Espirrinho and Contramestre Mordaça, my current Mestre and ‘Madrinha’ or Godmother. They supported me at my events – for no pay, just love and to help grow capoeira. I can’t even begin to express how grateful I am that I have them to guide me and my students.
In 2015 I held the first Southern African international capoeira festival. I called it Ubuntu Capoeira Festival. With the help and influence of my Mestre Espirrinho and CM Mordaça, we had attendance from 7 different countries and 10 different cities around the world, for that first event. And we have had one every year since then, except 2020 – Damn corona.
An important time to note, is the introduction of kids to the group in 2015. It almost seemed orchestrated. A couple from Europe had moved here; their kids had been training capoeira before they moved. They got hold of me and asked if I would consider starting kids classes for them. 2 kids at the time didn’t seem viable so I told them as soon as I get a few more I will give them a call back. 2 days later I received a call from an Australian couple with the exact same request. 2 weeks later, Capoeira Valente had its first kids’ class. Our school was now 12-strong. I had a bee in my bonnet, I wanted to grow this school. I had great support from my current students and so I started looking for a new academy – our own academy that we could call home. I searched far and wide for about 8 months, every week looking at a new space. Budget and size needed to be right. It’s a very difficult combo to try get the most from. I remember driving past Sloane square and seeing a ‘To Let’ sign on one of the shops in the front. I immediately called and spoke to the necessary individual. They denied my request and hung up. A few minutes later another lady called me and asked me if I would like to see a space around the back of the building. As we walked up the stairs I was apprehensive at best. “These are just offices,” I thought. “Everyone will get carpet burn”, “How big could the space possibly be?” To my surprise, and I’m sure this is a common feeling, I walked into the most beautiful space. I fell in love immediately. I had to have it. It was perfect. And huge. And definitely expensive. Not knowing how I would afford it, I got all the details together. I got some help from a very kind friend of mine, Dylan, who literally made this whole thing possible. I also spoke to the students and explained the situation and asked if they would be open to higher monthly fees to support the new rent. It wouldn’t cover it in the long run but gave us time to get more students and make the ends meet. They all agreed and supported the notion.
I had 2 months reduced rental from the landlords and had to triple our student numbers in that time to make the rent. I took to Google adwords and learnt the system and poured every cent of savings I had for the budget for marketing. I stood at robots at William Nicol during the day, dressed in my full capoeira outfit, handing out flyers for weeks. By the end of September 2015 we had recruited 28 new students in a month and a half. Capoeira Valente had grown from 8 students in January 2015 to 12 students in June and then 40 students by the time our yearly grading week began in October. We had made it. We were able to make rent consistently and had a large family of capoeiristas, enjoying the this new space of ours. 36 students graded that year. 2 of the new students were 3 years’ old at the time and are both, to this day, still training regularly.
In September 2016, all my hard decisions and hard work was rewarded, by probably the angels, that I believe guide me. Not to mention with a help from a very special, new student that had recently joined us, who sent a sneaky video of me doing movements and sequences to his old teacher back home. I was contacted by his teacher and invited to give workshops, all expenses paid, at Capoeira Brazil Egypts’ yearly Batizado/grading. Capoeira Brazil is one of the biggest and well known capoeira groups in the world. I was so honoured, its something I had never experienced or seen my previous teacher experience. It was so surreal. The people I met and the places I saw will stay with me forever. Capoeira Valente still has strong connections there and we hope to one day soon open up a Capoeira Valente in Cairo, run and taught by the same student that made this all happen.
In March 2020 our school size was sitting at 74 students, thanks to the countless hours spent by the marketing team constantly pushing to grow the school purely for the love of it, knowing how capoeira has the potential to change lives and add quality to life.
There have been so many ups and downs throughout the years. The difficulties – from admin to finances and low to no class attendance, to falling on your face, all making me want to throw in the towel. There have been many times I have wanted to give up. Capoeira has taught me so much but I now know, if you give your heart to capoeira it will give you everything you need to make your dreams come true within it – from perfect spaces, to perfect and imperfect moments that teach the perfect lessons for you to grow, and of course, perfect people, the people that are there to stop you from giving up and giving in, the people that give you their heart to show you that giving yours was all worth it. I love this thing called capoeira. I believe it has the ability to change the world.