Mac Layne’s day isn’t complete without a roundhouse kick in his face.

“One of the main reasons I do it is that it makes me feel more alive every time I do,” Layne says. Grappling the nerves with determination, the UCSC fourth-year awaits the moment to demonstrate his ability.

“Add that to the fact that I feel so energized – it’s like a drug,” he says.

In Santa Cruz lies a haven for those like Layne who can’t live without the addictive thrill of narrowly avoiding a foot smashed in their face. While it’s not an underground fight-club-turned-crime-syndicate led by a charismatic schizophrenic, the rapid pace of the sport of Capoeira provides a support system to help Mac and like-minded individuals continue to do what they love, on and off campus.

“Everything you learn you apply it to certain parts of your life. In the Roda [circle in which Capoeira is played], you have to be smooth, but you also have to be objective. That’s something I’ve thought about a lot, definitely something I’m expecting to apply soon,” Layne said, referring to his upcoming graduation from UCSC and his hopes in applying this philosophy to his post-graduation life.

A group of Capoeira students in Mestre Papiba’s class display their hard-earned cords.

The Santa Cruz chapter of Raizes do Brasil, an international organization founded in New York City that has worked to help spread Capoeira around the world, held their 17th annual Batizado in Santa Cruz on May 14th. Directly translating into “baptism,” a Batizado is an event held for all the members of a Capoeira community to celebrate the arrival of new members and the graduation of deserving ones.

Sitting on the floor in line with five others of his experience level — all relatively new members — Layne maneuvers his way towards the inner circle, awaiting his turn in the Roda, which is surrounded by Capoeiristas and musicians. A woman sings in Portuguese behind him. Her long, brown hair and the large Brazilian flag behind her complement the wooden floor, striking shades of earthy brown, green and gray to the plainly walled room. Musicians clump together on one side, hitting berimbaus and other percussion instruments with fervor while singing in Portuguese. Capoeiristas rotate between playing music, sparring and simply being an energetic part of the Roda. They all sing.

At the center, two players spin and kick circles in the air, each one narrowly dodging the other’s line of fire. Driven by the mounting music, the kicks become faster, making each dodge narrower and narrower. Even the audience is sucked into the powerful energy, or Axe as the Portuguese say; clap clap clap, clap clap clap, clapping their hands in rhythm with the music. Beats in groups of three resound throughout the community room in Santa Cruz’s Louden Nelson community center. Amid all the energy, Layne hopes to prove himself in the Roda against a master of the art — no easy task — and earn a higher place in the Capoeira order.

From the edge of the Roda, Layne rises and walks slowly towards the center to face his opponent. Crouching together to prepare their minds for the acuteness they will need, they shake hands respectfully, waiting for the musicians to signal them in. Five quick snaps of the berimbau — Layne dives sideways and kicks out with his right leg, missing his target by an inch. The crowd claps gleefully around them, celebrating the kind of physical freedom that Capoeira brings.

So what is Capoeira?

“Capoeira is a game — part of the art is to be able to show the movement,” said Capoeira instructor Colin Maher. “We don’t have to shove [the opponent’s] head or get your dirty feet all over his clothes to show that you got him — he knows.”

Maher teaches Capoeira at UCSC on Saturdays and Mondays, and one of the things he emphasizes about the sport is its playful and celebratory nature.

Though never quite at center stage in western pop culture, Capoeira has found a home in California in the last few decades, planting roots in cities like Los Angeles, San Francisco and Santa Cruz. While Capoeira is traditionally taught as a viable option for self-defense, some of the new lure of Capoeira stems from the sport’s spirituality, both musically and communally.

Video games and movies have provided some limited yet visible examples of the martial art as a combat technique, steering the focus away from spirituality and more towards the fluid fighting style itself. Martial arts movies like “Only the Strong” (1993) and “The Protector” (2006) brought Capoeira’s viability as a fighting technique to Hollywood.

Perhaps most dear to fans of the video game Tekken, playable character Eddie Gordo specializes in Capoeira, challenging some of the most daring gamers to master his slippery style.

In addition, Capoeira has found its way into the Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) arena. Andre Gusmao used elements of Capoeira to win many high-stakes fights in his professional career as a UFC fighter. While they bring media attention, these kinds of representations are often criticized for characterizing Capoeira as an aggression-sport and missing the deeper philosophy behind it.

Head of the Santa Cruz chapter of Raizes do Brasil, lead instructor Mestre Papiba noted that while Capoeira remains somewhat under the radar of the public, it has become increasingly popular with college. UCSC is a large contributor to the Santa Cruz community, and to his student base.

“The media promotes so many options to kids that endorse American culture at a young age,” he said. “Teenagers tend to endorse pop culture, and Capoeira is definitely not part of that pop culture. When people go to college they’re not really happy with what pop culture offers. Capoeira is complete, [it has] dance, music, action, [and] fun. It’s very fulfilling.”

“I think fundamentally this kind of culture is African,” Maher said.

Though known to have originated in Brazil, Capoeira is widely accepted as having its roots in Afro-Brazilian slave culture, particularly of the Yoruba tribe. As a way of resisting capture and containment, slaves and ex-slaves adopted a martial art that could be disguised as a dance and encouraged avoidance over offensive resistance.

Capoeira has since evolved from the days of the early freedom fighters, and today it is a widely practiced martial art.

“There’s Capoeira everywhere nowadays,” said Brian Cavalo de Faria of the Miami Capoeira Project in a promotional video addressing the popularity of Capoeira. “I know of at least one Capoeira group in every country — it’s something of a phenomenon … a few decades [ago] that was unheard of.”

Many still take up the sport as a form of self-defense, but some begin their training to access the spirituality and community that Capoeira can bring, especially in the United States.

“The reason I believe that Capoeira is getting really popular in the U.S. is the culture,” de Faria said. “The [Brazilian] culture is something that Americans love and is something that really draws a lot of non-Brazilians to the art.”

Like many activities with African roots, Capoeira utilizes percussion instruments to energize participants. Aside from momentous chants and energetic phrases in Portuguese, Brazilian drums, Berimbaus and bells are the mechanisms that fuel the Roda.

“The music drives the game,” said Maher of the indispensability of music to a game of Capoeira. “Not only does it give it the energy and the style, it drives it on and controls it. A Capoeirista has to be able to play music as well as dance. They have to do it all.”

Tagged out of the center of the Roda by another eager to play, Layne takes up a drum and begins to hit it to the beat of the music, demonstrating the need for this kind of fluency in different aspects of Capoeira. During the Batizado, students are tested on their ability to perform in all aspects of Capoeira in order to receive a promotion in rank, not just combat ability like many other forms of self-defense.

“I was baptized today,” said UCSC second-year Nick Larry, walking out of the Roda after sparring with one of his teachers. Larry started training Capoeira at the beginning of the year and is planning to continue as long as he attends UCSC.

“I was excited, and once I got out I was just happy,” Larry said. “I felt inducted in a sense, like it was my rite of passage.” As this is his first Batizado, Larry has just been promoted to the level of student, becoming one of the few to tackle the challenge of understanding the multi-faceted game of Capoeira and receiving a new cord to symbolize his growth in the sport. There are five ranks in total, symbolized by the many different schools in terms of belt color — student, graduate, formed, professor, and master. One is promoted based on his or her talent, but also by the level of dedication shown to the community through teaching and building a student base of one’s own.

UCSC sophomore Nick Larry proudly displays his new cord, signaling a promotion in the ranking system used by Capoeiristas. The cord reflects the growth in the sport he has shown during the Batizado, or Baptism, at the Louden Nelson Community Center in Santa Cruz, on May 14.

“A lot of students expect the [promotion] to happen,” Papiba said. Papiba has been training in Capoeira for 25 years and teaching at the Santa Cruz chapter of Raizes do Brasil for 17 of them. The Batizado means something a little different for him.

“For me it’s the moment that we all get to come together and really be a family,” he said. “We talk a lot about philosophy — it’s a week of learning.”

Papiba has been teaching classes every day for the past week to help his students prepare for the event. With more than 10 schools coming together to participate in the annual Batizado, the days leading up to it are spent in training and preparation, fundraisers and workshops to enhance the experience.

“Some say it looks like dance-fighting, [but] its actually pretty dangerous,” said Amber Michaelson of the Capoeira club on campus. The club has shrunk considerably since its beginnings a few years back. Originally focused solely on the physical practice of Capoeira, it has since expanded to include a class on the fundamentals of Capoeira music. Michaelson is a current UCSC fourth-year and has been training Capoeira for four years, including a brief stint in Chile, which she now describes as her life.

“It’s a family — it’s exercise, there’s a lifestyle and a community when you do it,” she said.

Perhaps none would understand that better than Papiba himself — and after 25 years of practice, he seems to have settled into life inside the Roda as well as he has life outside of it.

“I feel a little more relaxed,” he said. “It becomes more of a spiritual experience now — I let the flow of Capoeira guide me. A lot of Capoeira is instincts. Naturally it becomes a lifestyle.”

Capoeiristas gather in a Roda, or circle where they get together to make music and play Capoeira.

In the 17 years he has taught at his school, Papiba has noticed the rising maturity of his students. Though the community has remained relatively the same size in number since the foundation of the school 17 years ago, he sees a noticeable growth in the core strength of the Santa Cruz community.

“You learn to let the rhythm come in and guide you,” said Trigo, who prefers to be called by her Brazilian name, and is Papiba’s first student. “You begin to think as you grow older that you have to learn to use your mind as well as your body — [it] really is a way of life.” Trigo has been to every Batizado in the last 17 years, and in that time she has seen herself grow in many ways through her training in Capoeira.

“I’m a coach for competitive soccer and also teach Capoeira to kids,” she said. “All of that comes from the confidence I get doing Capoeira.”

Throughout the day, many were promoted, some graduated, and a few received a dry baptism, the only moisture to touch their bodies being the few drops of sweat still clinging to their skin from the exertion. Near the back wall of the room, UCSC fourth-year Layne exits the Roda, walking forward with a new cord wrapped around his waist despite suffering a swift take-down from one of the masters present.

“Oh, you saw that, huh?” asks Layne, his laughing eyes showing no disappointment, only satisfaction. “It was fine — you just have to get back up and smile. You have to have a good attitude — you gotta have that playfulness. Just get back in there.”

Between two pairs of flying feet, two spinning forces of furious Axé, Layne dives back into the fray, just as he and his fellow Capoeiristas have plenty of times before, and will many times again.