Jesito McLennan first discovered 500-year-old Afro-Brazilian martial art capoeira at the University of Newcastle in 2004.
He loved it and went on to start Capoeira Newcastle, which he now teaches at several locations including Merewether Surf Life Saving Club on Saturday mornings.
"You're going to get stronger, more flexible, develop spatial awareness and body awareness, be able to play music and sing, and get to learn a second language," he says of anyone who wants to explore his class.
McLennan teaches entry-level Portuguese in the classes as well.
He describes capoeira as "movement, acrobatics and music within martial arts". People play instruments, sing and clap. The rhythm of the music dictates the movement within the circle.
"It's martial arts, but it's a game. It's practiced in the circle with people singing, people playing the instruments," he says.
Prior to capoeira, McLennan was into West African drumming and dance. He started learning percussion in his early 20s while travelling to the US and Mexico.
Upon his return to Newcastle he worked at Musos Corner and taught drumming in schools.
His girlfriend at the time told him about capoeira, calling it this "cool dance thing". McLennan went to a class and fell in love with it and the musical component.
He met his teacher, or "mestre", at the university.
"My teacher, his name is Mestre Borracha," McLennan explains.
"In Portuguese, borracha means rubber. He's a mestre born in the west of Brazil in a state called Acre in the Amazon.
"They called him rubber because of the Amazon rubber plantations. He's still my master, and with nearly 30 years' experience, he's a very acrobatic guy, very flexible."
Mestre Borracha is now based in Sydney.
"When I first started, I was really not coordinated. I could dance, but I couldn't do a cartwheel or a handstand or do those acrobatic movements," McLennan says.
"I've been teaching for about a decade, but learning for 17 years."
McLennan was born in Panama. His mother is Panamanian and his father's from Cessnock. They came to Australia for safety and security when McLennan was young. He grew up in Kurri Kurri and later moved to Newcastle.
"Newcastle's always been my hub," he says.
"I've taught in Germany, here in Australia and New Zealand."
He also works as a nurse, but capoeira is definitely his passion.
"I work so I can live my life," he says.
"I've always been very artistic; my passion has always been my drive."
He's been to Brazil twice, both times for a few months, just to immerse himself in the culture and do capoeira.
"There's a place called Bahia, that's the mecca of capoeira. That's important because it is the birthplace of the art form," he explains.
"Salvador is the capital city in Bahia. It's the place where they brought the African slaves first, and it looks like you're in Africa."
Capoeira was invented by African slaves as a movement tactic to passively defend themselves against slave owners while appearing to not resist.
"They had to defend themselves in the most passive way possible. One way to do that was to combine dance elements and movement elements," McLennan says.
"It was a way to outsmart and out-trick your enemies or your slave owners without using direct aggression."
People often compare the art form to a game of chess.
"In boxing, you throw a punch and you get punched back," he says.
"Capoeira is a passive resisting movement. You see a lot of straight and round kicks. The objective of the game is not to directly attack or assault someone. It's to out-trick your opponent.
"That's why you don't see many strikes to hurt your opponents - it's to show your opponent 'I've out-tricked you'."
Capoeira Newcastle classes are attended by men and women. McLennan's youngest student is 14 and his oldest is 60. In the pre-COVID-19 years he also taught children's classes, and he hopes to bring that back soon. All fitness levels are welcome and students explore different parts of the martial art including the music, the acrobatics, the martial aspect or the history and philosophy.
"All you need to do is get on Instagram to see the different levels. It's for everyone," he says.
To see more examples follow him on Instagram @capoeiranewcastle.
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