Communicating Culture Through Capoeira

Communicating Culture Through Capoeira:

The Brazilian Arts Foundation to hold its first Dance and Music Conference


Mauricio Campos and his brother moved to the United States from their native Brazil in 1990. They didn’t speak a word of English, but they had $1,500 in each of their pockets and an unwavering desire to immerse themselves in a new culture.

For the first month, the brothers slept in sleeping bags on top of benches under a ramp at one of Houston’s skateparks. The owner had given them permission, and in return, they cleaned his property. Campos, nearly 23 years old at the time, was enamored by the adventure. “I was really young, and we were skating all day long so it didn’t phase us,” he said with a small chuckle.

The distance between him and his country has ultimately given him a greater appreciation for his heritage. Twenty-seven years later, Campos is still living in Houston, running the Brazilian Arts Foundation, which he founded in 2001 to preserve and promote his native culture in the city that has become his home away from home.  

This year, running June 22-25, the organization will reinstate its spring camp as the Brazilian Dance and Music Conference, offering a series of workshops at its new facility in the Heights. The program will feature a variety of Brazilian dance classes, such as forró, samba, and zouk, as well as classes in percussion and capoeira, the initial motivation behind the foundation.

When Campos first came to Houston, he had aspirations of working as a professional skateboarder, a career status he had already achieved on the streets of São Paulo. However, the skill level required in the States was more rigorous, and he said he struggled to keep up with the amateurs. As their plans changed, the brothers did a lot of manual labor alongside operating their skateboard company, which they started in Brazil, as an import and export business.

Seven years passed before Campos returned home for a short visit, and it was during this time that he took his first capoeira class. Little did he know, the experience would change his life.

“I think I was so homesick that the connection was really instant,” he said of the Brazilian martial art-infused dance. “I did the same thing I did with skateboarding. It became my profession. It became my life.” In 1998, he began studying under Jelon Vieira, the founder of DanceBrazil and a pioneer of capoeira in the United States.

Always seeking to further his training, Campos travels to Brazil three or four times a year, and he brings back new knowledge to share with the community of Houston. Still, he believes it’s important to expose students to other experts in the cultural traditions. For this reason, Campos has selected four guest instructors to teach at the conference – Brazil’s Chris Brasil and Paulinha Penteado, New Orleans-based Christina Anita da Silva, and local Brazilian artist and musician Tony Paraná.

“The purpose is to bring the source to Houston because a lot of people don’t have the opportunity to be there [Brazil],” Campos said.

Another goal of the conference is to educate the public and in the process, break common stereotypes. “For example,” Campos said, “when people hear ‘samba,’ the only thing that they can remember because of what the media shows is Carnival and a lady in a bikini with feathers.”

However, this vision is only one facet of the lively, multi-layered form of dance. In fact, there are numerous styles of samba, including Samba de Gafieira, a partner dance that most people are unfamiliar with. The Brazilian Arts Foundation recently created a weekly program dedicated to Samba de Gafieira, and these classes will be available during the conference.

As the organization expands, Campos acknowledges the support provided by the city of Houston, particularly the Houston Arts Alliance and the Harris County Department of Education. In 2015, the Brazilian Arts Foundation received a grant to develop a strategic plan, and through the process, Campos said his focus has shifted from hosting so many events to building curriculums for all of the programs, including a new program designed for children with special needs.

Campos intends to grow the conference as well. In the future, he hopes to offer educational courses geared toward instructors, allowing them to dig deeper into the profession, learn more about its history, and polish their technique in the most authentic way possible.

The organization may change and develop, but one thing will remain the same – the passion Campos has for his past and his present, for his country of Brazil and his home in Houston. Although his path veered away from professional skateboarding, he insisted that he wouldn’t change a thing.

“Houston has been such a blessing for us,” he said. “The city supports the arts. The city is really receptive of different cultures, and I was so hungry to live my culture everyday. It’s crazy how we as human beings have the ability to only value things to what they’re really worth when we lose them. I had to move out of Brazil to appreciate even more my own culture, to understand how much I need that to be who I am.”

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