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Centuries-old Afro-Brazilian martial art and dance thrives in Sarasota

Founded in 1996, Capoeira Volta Ao Mundo creates a place for people to learn the art of Capoeira.

Heidi Ayala and Nina Costa enter the circle of the roda.
Heidi Ayala and Nina Costa enter the circle of the roda.
Photo by Ian Swaby
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Alanna Swor was deeply moved by the sound of Capoeira.

As she watched the circle at Capoeira Volta Ao Mundo, with children singing in unison and the action of the martial art and dance combination unfolding between them, she knew she wanted to be a part of the roda. 

“It was so beautiful. ... It was so powerful,” said Swor, 39. “I was like, ‘I need to do this. I don't know what they do. But I want to do it.”

A year and a half ago, she decided to join her children as a student at the academy.

Capoeira was once practically nonexistent in Sarasota, said Mestre Rony Costa, the area resident who founded the school in 1996. 

Yet as Sarasota's preeminent Capoeira practice, Capoeira Volta Ao Mundo has created visibility for the Afro-Brazilian martial art in the community while achieving international prominence within the Capoeira world. 

In addition to its two locations in Sarasota and one in Lakewood Ranch, it has also grown to include locations in Tallahassee and Miami, as well as in four other U.S. states and in Aguascalientes, Mexico.

Spreading the tradition

Growing up in Brazil, the country where Capoeira originated, Costa was surrounded by the martial art, becoming a teacher at age 18 and a mestre (master) at age 26.

Yet when he came to the U.S. in 1992, he found that Capoeira had few practitioners. 

There were only about 10 in the whole state of California where he then resided, and the public was unfamiliar with it. 

Heidi Ayala and Nina Costa enter the roda.
Photo by Ian Swaby

“They didn't even know how to say the word,” he said.

After opening an academy in California, which ultimately did not grow beyond a small size, he decided to try again after moving to Sarasota in about 1996.

Employed as a woodworker at the time, he began to realize Capoeira was his true calling.

“Capoeira is a great instrument for improvement — self-improvement,” he said. “It has all the things, the troubles that you have, how hard it is to go to class, how hard it is to get in shape, how hard it is to be flexible, how hard it is to get taken down and deal with your ego.”


Resistance movement

The martial art dates back centuries in Brazil to its early colonial period, which began in the 16th century, and was developed by enslaved Africans as a means of defiance, both physical and mental, against their Portuguese oppressors. 

It's a form of combat camouflaged as a dance. 

“The spirit of Capoeira is resistance against oppression, just in its nature,” said Jacob Sturm, an instructor at the academy known as Professor Fogo. “That’s what it was created to do. That's what it has done all through history.”

Jeisson Gomez plays with Luis Buenrostro
Photo by Ian Swaby

Even after the abolishment of slavery in Brazil in 1888, those who practiced Capoeira were still among the oppressed, and in fact, Capoeira was criminalized in Brazil during the 18th and 19th centuries. 

Many features distinguish Capoeira from other martial arts. 

One is the emphasis on dodging the movements of one’s opponent, rather than on contact, which creates the appearance of choreography. 

Participants also maintain unique footwork, building the often acrobatic movements on a continuous rocking step known as the ginga. 

“In Capoeira, it's so different, because you need to be an artist,” Costa said. “You need to know music. You need to know how to flip, you need to do tricks. That is not martial arts at all; you're never going to do that to defend yourself — but still you can defend yourself with that.”

Costa also calls Capoeira a “pretty complex martial art.”  

Ty Rodkui, 27, started practicing Capoeira at age 8, and enjoys the versatility of the experience.

Mestra Cheri Costa, Ty Rodkui, Jacob Sturm (Professor Fogo), Mestre Rony Costa and Nina Costa play musical instruments during a roda.
Photo by Ian Swaby

“I did other martial arts and they were just too rigid for me,” he said. “This is a little more free; you get to do more stuff. It made me better at a whole lot of things, even in my regular everyday life. I felt less clumsy, more taking care of myself. ... I played a lot of sports; it helped with my sports.”

“It lifts my mood. It challenges me in many different ways. I feel like it helps with your brain development, and I always just leave here feeling connected, energized and very elated,” said Heidi Ayala, 42. 

Teachers at Capoeira Volta Ao Mundo hope to show that despite the challenges inherent in Capoeira — and perhaps, because of them — it can give its gifts to those willing to put in the effort.

In fact, it was the introduction of the school's preschool and after-school programs that truly caused the academy’s success to skyrocket.

With the service CapoKids, the academy offers a state-sanctioned and funded Voluntary Pre-Kindergarten Education program whose curriculum incorporates Capoeira, as well as an after-school program and summer camps.

Staffed with 15 full-time employees, the academy also teaches at 13 elementary schools in Sarasota and Manatee counties.

Alanna Swor plays with Noah Lewis
Photo by Ian Swaby

Instrumental in the school’s establishment and operations has been Mestra Cheri Costa, the wife of Rony Costa, who has been practicing Capoeira since 1982. 

“She is the one that really makes the business grow for sure,” Rony Costa said. “She is the one that takes care of everything is in order, everything works great. I come with the ideas for the classes … but she is basically the one that makes everything grow, and everybody being paid.”

Few Capoeira groups have their own dedicated space. Still fewer have multiple locations in the same city, Sturm said.

Embracing the challenge 

What is it that makes a multifaceted practice like Capoeira achievable for many?

“You change your body to do Capoeira, but you can also change Capoeira to fit your body,” Sturm said. “Every move that we do that that you can't perform, we have a substitution for …  I've taught 3-year-olds, I've taught 83-year-olds, there’s really not anybody that Capoeira’s not for.”

Cheri Costa said a key part of the experience can be accepting failure along the road.

Jacob Sturm (Professor Fogo) plays with Krysta Fineburg
Photo by Ian Swaby

“I love Capoeira for what it does for people," she said. "If you fail so many times, then you realize it’s okay to fail, especially kids. They start with, ‘I can’t do it,’ and then all of a sudden they’re doing it, and then they realize, ‘Oh, I can do things that are hard, and it’s okay to not be able to do it at first.”

Instructors say that the key to achieving results is for students to feel supported every step of the way. 

“Being in shape is hard. Trying new things is hard,” Rony Costa said. “So if you have a system, a people, a community that helps you with that, it's so much easier. People that make you feel like you belong there, that you're welcome, that you’re part of a team.”

Krysta Fineburg, 18, finds the school has succeeded in that goal.

“These people around the community have helped me become who I want to be, and everyone has an equal part in, almost, raising me, and everyone here is my family,” she said. 

Correction: This article has been updated to correct the age of Alanna Swor.



Ian Swaby

Ian Swaby is the Sarasota neighbors writer for the Observer. Ian is a Florida State University graduate of Editing, Writing, and Media and previously worked in the publishing industry in the Cayman Islands.

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