João Grande is one of only two living grand masters of the ancient art of Capoeira Angola, according to Robert Farris Thompson, Professor of African and African American Studies at Yale University. Capoeira combines music, dance, martial arts, ritual and belief in a tradition that defines Afro-Brazilian cultural identity. Said to have originated in central African Angola, it was brought to Brazil by slaves who then adopted Capoeira's many forms as a means of defense and solidarity. Capoeira is usually performed by two players who dance and maneuver in the center of a roda (circle) of musicians who sing and play the berimbau, a one-string bow-like instrument.
João Oliveira dos Santos traveled from a tiny village in the southern part of the state of Bahia to Salvador, the heart of Capoeira activity, to study under the great Mestre Pastinha, who gave him the name João Grande (Big John). In 1966, João Grande traveled to Dakar, Senegal with his master to perform in the first International Festival of Black Arts. In 1968, he received his diploma from Pastinha's academy. After touring Europe, Africa, and the Middle East in Capoeira troupes and performing in the United States at the National Black Arts Festival, he settled in New York City in 1990 and founded his own capeoira academy, where he has taught hundreds of students and has become the acknowledged master in the United States. C. Daniel Dawson, lecturer in African culture, says of capoeira: "This ancient art and its masters teach one how to encounter harsh experiences while remaining flexible and receptive; how to respond to social violence with evasion and grace; and how to use the trials and tribulations of life to develop physical strength, spiritual strength, and wisdom in one's thoughts and actions. Capoeira Angola is ancestral wisdom passed on so that each person can make the best of their times and possibilities, creating balanced and productive lives, while adding some beauty to the world."
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