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Early Sunday night finds the festive, star-strung environs of Cesar's Latin Palace thumping under the auspicious hand of DJ Josh. He winds through a savage set of hip hop with telling ease. The dance floor is packed. The tables are full. And, as the bar is sorely lacking for business, everyone seems to be having the time of their life without the aid of personality enhancement.
It is a mighty fine crowd for a Sunday night. In fact, one might say that it is an ecstatic crowd. Not to imply that anyone in the building is on Ecstasy, even though easy laughter abounds and everyone seems to hug rather than shake hands. Tonight's gathering is a benefit for the Omulu Capoeira Group, a collection of students and teachers who practice capoeira, an Afro-Brazilian form of self-defense combining dance, martial arts, acrobatics, and music. It seems as likely a place as any to find a fun-loving good time, but still, one whiff of the unhindered mirth in this room is enough to make any regular clubgoer instantly suspicious. First, everyone on the dance floor -- several hundred people -- can dance really well. Even the prerequisite geeky white guy in the crowd with the button-down shirt who thinks he can shake it, can, indeed, really shake it. It's a sea of twisting, twirling, thrusting, grinding, jumping, bumping dance fiends, and not one of them an embarrassment. It's staggering. Next, there's the fact that the gathering is not only multiethnic -- no, I mean really multiethnic, with a half-dozen or more ethnicities present, and not one of them dominant in number -- but it is also multiaged. Grandmothers shake their booties with teen-agers; children twirl around with parents; siblings exchange moves; young, fresh-faced lovers mingle with their aging counterparts, all with smiles and hugs and whoops of glee. It is decidedly unnerving, like stepping into a pre-utopia crash course without Cliffs Notes.
I have to wonder if all Omulu benefits are like this. A large, well-toned man sitting at the next table over answers the question with guileless sincerity: "Not really. There are a lot more people here this time." He smiles at me, takes leave of his grinning friends, and walks over to an elderly but robust Filipino woman. He pokes her arm playfully. The small woman's eyes sparkle as she shoos the man away with a mock scolding, but he is not easily dissuaded. Finally, the unlikely pair make their way onto the dance floor, where they nestle in between a large black woman wearing a bright dress of traditional African design and two fly girls so in sync that they seem oblivious to everything but the beat and each other.
The end of DJ Josh's set heralds a nameless band that proves to be quite possibly the worst reggae ensemble in the known universe. While a few sympathetic ears and stalwart dancers remain to try to keep time with the irreconcilable keyboard and distorted bass line, most of the crowd takes a much-needed break and streams outside for fresh air.
Carlos Aceituno, an instructor in Omulu, manages to cut the reggae set short, but makes a special point of thanking the band for their performance. The returning crowd applauds with great appreciation and much shouting before hitting the dance floor for a little merengue.
Barely a sweat later, and the award-winning Carnaval group Fogo na Roupa is announced. The 12-piece percussion ensemble (whose name translates as "Clothes on Fire") dances its way down the Palace stairs and onto the dance floor, where the crowd explodes with catcalls and forms a welcoming circle for the performers. Undulating tropical rhythms fill the air. Carnaval performer Pat Calloway, looking like a resplendent Brazilian priestess, dances into the circle, where she is joined by her daughter Regina. The crowd pushes closer, raising their arms in time with the beating drums. The smallest of the children climb onto the lip of the stage for a better view and stand fixed in the sway of color and movement below. A second group of dancers, these dressed in the shimmering garb of Aztec warriors, join the throng. The drumming increases in its intensity. The crowd sways. People shout. The dancers dance. Although orchestrated by Aceituno, who also acts as artistic director for Fogo na Roupa, the experience feels completely organic. The pattern of the drums is as familiar as your pulse, and even contrived festival costumes and the macarena cannot lessen the intoxicating effect.
After a short break, the mats are laid for the capoeira demonstration. Master Preguica, who has taught the art form in both Rio de Janeiro and San Francisco for over 32 years, is joined by longtime friend and Congo-born master drummer Malonga Casquelourd. While Preguica plays capoeira's principal instrument, the berimbau (a bowlike instrument with a gourd that is struck with a small stick), Casquelourd and other drummers join in making the traditional music that accompanies the practice of capoeira. Alone and in small groups, Preguica's students take their turn in the circle. Despite the late hour, their well-trained bodies perform as they are bid, executing the fluid handstands, flips, and kicks that make capoeira such a marvel to watch. Exhausted, I wonder at the length of the program and the stamina of the students who had been dancing all night beforehand.
"Dancing is at the root of capoeira anyway," explains a dark-haired bullet of a girl. "Dancing before the demonstration is like charging up your body. It gives you energy. The key is not to stop."
For information about capoeira classes or future fund-raisers, call 255-9354; or write to Omulu Capoeira Group, PO Box 460552, San Francisco, CA 94146.
By Silke Tudor