It was the ’90s, and breakdancing reigned supreme. Bay Area native Chris Montiel was 15 and loving it. The new decade was bringing fresh elements to the dance community, incorporating more gymnastic and aerial elements, not all of which Montiel liked. Without knowing it, he was developing a personal dance style not unlike the Brazilian martial art of capoeira.

“I imagined different ways of moving my body. I was more of a dancer, not so much [into] gymnastics.  What I had imagined in my head was exactly what I saw when I saw capoeira for the first time,” he recalls, “minus all the kicking.” 

Montiel wanted to learn, but didn’t know where to go. For a while, his only guide was the 1993 action film, “Only the Strong,” which featured capoeira heavily. For a couple years, he would watch the film and diligently follow the characters’ motions and forms. By the time he was 19, capoeira schools were opening across the Bay Area, and he began taking classes in Berkeley. 

“Once you find something and you connect, you know you’re gonna do it for the rest of your life,” says Montiel, now 44. And he has.

Most might not call a torn ACL and losing a job within months of each other as a sign from God. For Montiel, also known as Mestre Recruta, it meant it was time to create his own capoeira practice, which he named Jogo Novo.

Capoeira students sparred at a workshop held at Jogo Novo Studio in Hayward. (Courtesy Chris Montiel)

“Capoeira is a communal activity. It traces it roots to the Africans who were stolen and forced into slavery. It is a connection to people,” says Montiel, who speaks Portuguese fluently and produces his own music. Opening Jogo Novo as the Hayward branch of the United Capoeira Association in November of 2009 was a “dream come true.”

For a decade, the studio was an intersection of various dance and martial arts disciplines, offering taiko drumming, samba, zumba and Filipino martial arts classes in addition to capoeira. The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic forced the space to close, and a GoFundMe was set up in July to keep it afloat. 

Things took a turn for the worst on Sept. 1, when a fire in downtown Hayward destroyed the building and everything inside, down to the last drum. No one was hurt, but the anguish stayed with Montiel for weeks. Now over a month later, the wound has begun to heal, and Montiel is looking for the next incarnation of his business, even if it doesn’t look exactly like the original Jogo Novo.  

This is all that remains of the building that held Jogo Novo Studio, which was devastated in a Sept. 1 fire in downtown Hayward. (Courtesy Chris Montiel)

“I went into the studio and wrote a new song among the ashes,” he says. “It was a way to say goodbye. It was cathartic, devastating. There’s nothing left. I’m so grateful to be a part of such a community that gives and receives such support.”

From the ashes rise new possibilities. Since the fire, the GoFundMe has achieved 90 percent of its goal to support reopening, and has been updated to replace musical and athletic equipment lost in the fire, as well as a new venue.

Montiel has a “dream space” in mind, but isn’t rushing. His mentor, capoeira pioneer Mestre Acordeon — whose full name is Ubirajara Almeida — has a saying, one Montiel has taken to heart, and admits sounds much better in Portuguese. 

“‘I’m not in a hurry, but I’m not gonna waste time,’” he muses. “I’m living by that day to day.” 

* To donate to the “Help Jogo Novo Rebuild After a Destructive Fire” campaign, click here.