“It’s hard to tell people that come to the CPA for a class what it is,” he said. “I have so much to tell, but it’s a lot of information to give.”
The history of capoeira is rich, and Kramer tells it as if it were his own story—and it is, in a way. He hails from Natal, a city in the Brazilian state of Rio Grande do Norte, and capoeira has shaped his life. How did it develop, and how did he come to connect with it?
The story of capoeira begins with the story of Brazil. In the sixteenth century, the Portuguese Empire colonized what is now Brazil. Portugal enslaved the indigenous people and brought millions of Africans across the Atlantic to work as slaves, too. Capoeira rose as a way for slaves to covertly learn how to fight.
“The idea of the dance and the music came as a way to mislead the guards,” Kramer said. “[The slaves] added the instruments and played music, so when the guards were looking, they thought it was a religious or dancing thing. But actually they were training in the martial art to beat them.”
Because of this association, the Brazilian government prohibited capoeira in the late 19th century. As written by Matthias Röhrig Assunção in his book "Capoeira: A History of an Afro-Brazilian Martial Art," nearly 10 percent of detainees in an 1862 Rio de Janeiro jail had been arrested for capoeira. Brazilians still practiced it, however, and eventually the government saw it not just as a fighting technique, but as culturally significant. In 2014, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization declared capoeira as “intangible cultural heritage” and granted it protected status.
In the modern day, capoeira is as familiar to Brazilians as playing catch in the backyard is to Americans. While it is a martial art, it’s included in the Oxford Dictionary of Dance as well, which defines its blend of acrobatic maneuvers and athletic dance steps as influential in modern European and American dance styles. Kramer said that in Brazil, capoeira is even taught in schools, as ingrained into the culture as it’s possible to be.
“I never really [thought of] capoeira as a martial art,” Kramer said. “For me, it was just part of my life, but I didn’t practice it like a sport. It was part of me.”
When he was 6 or 7, Kramer began learning capoeira in the streets. For a long time, it wasn’t more than that for him—a casual pastime. While he had friends who trained in capoeira, he was more interested in sandboarding. He would be well into adulthood before he would understand capoeira’s significance.
“When I came to the U.S. for the first time in 2007 … was when I realized capoeira was more than I thought,” Kramer said. “Being away from the country, away from the people, and seeing capoeira was like feeling back at home.”
He started training stateside, and when he returned to Brazil four years ago, he decided to look for a master to teach him. Capoeira has a ranking system; a master, or “mestre” in Portuguese, is the highest rank. Training with Bruno Savini, known as Mestre Delicado, helped Kramer connect with his heritage in a way he never had before.
“I learned a lot of history of Brazil that I didn’t even imagine existed,” he said.
"For me, it’s a way to keep close to my roots."
This interest in Brazil’s storied history is, ironically enough, what brought him back to the states for graduate school. Kramer is a biologist. In his home state, there are many caves, and he established a nonprofit group to preserve them. He wishes to protect the caves from companies that would exploit their high mineral concentration.
“I started finding fossils in the cave, and I thought, ‘I have to do something,’” Kramer said.
It was this discovery that eventually led him to connect with the director of the ETSU Center of Excellence in Paleontology, Dr. Blaine Schubert. Schubert encouraged Kramer to apply to ETSU’s graduate program in geosciences.
Kramer hopes to return to Brazil and his work with the caves someday. He believes what lies within them could bring a sense of pride to his home city.
Until he completes his degree this December, he works to bring some of Brazil to East Tennessee. Laura Rooney, another graduate student of geosciences, has been attending his classes since spring 2017.
“The idea of a martial art combined with music and dancing just blends the best of both worlds,” she said.
But what keeps her coming back is Kramer’s instruction. As quick with a smile as he is with a form correction, he knows how to make newcomers and regulars feel comfortable in the main aerobics studio where he teaches.
“He’s really great at blending a class that has higher-level people and lower-level people,” Rooney said. “He makes it still entertaining for the people that have been around for a bit, while doing it in a way that the new people can understand.”
Kramer originally started teaching because there were no local capoeira groups. Why not start his own? He did, and now he teaches yoga at the Downtown Yoga Center too.
“He brings some really cool, different varieties of things not only to Downtown Yoga Center, but to East Tennessee,” DYC owner Kim Blaine said.
After attending one class, students agree that he is a natural teacher. His emphasis on capoeira’s context and history only enriches the experience.
“For me, it’s a way to keep close to my roots,” Kramer said. “My teacher in Brazil told me, ‘Wherever you go, try to take capoeira with you. Try to show the people there because that’s the best way to show Brazilian culture.’”
Above left: Kramer demonstrates the high level of agility characteristic of capoeira.
Above right, center: Students both new and old have fun in Kramer's classes at ETSU.
Photographs by Hannah Purdy