CAPOEIRA (pronounced ka-poo-eyh-rah) is an Afro-Brazilian martial and art self-defense form that brings together fighting techniques, acrobatics, dance, percussion, and songs, in a rhythmic dialogue of body, mind, and spirit. It is a communal game in which two opponents play each other inside a circle, formed by other players, who establish a rhythm for the game by clapping, singing and playing traditional instruments. The players face each other using Capoeira movements, mixing self-defense kicks and moves with playful acrobatics and dance-like swings, improvising strategies to fool their opponents and catch them off guard.
Capoeira was developed in Brazil by enslaved Africans. Capoeira is such an important art expression that it is part of the UNESCO list of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. The exact history of the art is unclear, but most people believe that it emerged over three hundred years of slavery in Brazil. Since the 1500s, many Africans were taken from different areas of West Africa and brought to Brazil to be kept as slaves by the Portuguese. They were taken from their land, but their culture and desire for freedom could not be taken away. Out of their passion for freedom, Afro-Brazilians began developing techniques for defending themselves and for escaping bondage.
In Brazil, generations of enslaved African people shared the customs, dances, rituals, and fighting techniques that would combine to become Capoeira. Slaves used Capoeira for fighting, escaping and resisting capture, but concealed its combative purpose through music, song, and dance. Although their practice appeared to be a harmless dance, the dancers, or “Capoeiristas”, were rehearsing deadly fighting techniques. That needed to be disguised, and trickery is part of what separates Capoeira from other martial arts. A lot of the kicks and some movements done in Capoeira can be seen in other arts, but the difference is the delivery. There are many fakes and deceiving movements in Capoeira. Although movements are done with grace and style, they can be also very dangerous.
Capoeira was born as an expression of resistance and resilience, and brought spiritual and emotional empowerment to its practitioners. Over time, the culture of enslaved Africans and also that of Brazilian indigenous peoples and Brazilians of Portuguese and European ascent all contributed to the art of Capoeira. The contemporary martial art reflects the cultural and social integration of diverse peoples.
After the abolition of slavery in Brazil in 1888, Capoeira became illegal and its practitioners were socially ostracized for over forty years. The legendary Capoeira “Mestre”, or Master, Mestre Bimba rescued the martial art form and established its legitimacy, opening Capoeira’s first official school in Bahia, Brazil, in 1932.
At first, there was only one “style” of Capoeira: the original style used as a tool and expression of the African slaves far from their homeland. Within this original Capoeira, “capoeiristas” sought beauty and freedom, movement and dance, and also a weapon to protect themselves from the perils of a life in slavery.
When the slaves achieved freedom, Capoeira came with them out of slavery and into society at large. Once removed from its cultural origins, Capoeira, for a while, degenerated from a celebration of freedom and liberty into a vicious and bloody form of street fight. The capoeirista was no longer revered as a freedom fighter and hero, but rather feared as a ruffian, thug and criminal. It was not long before the authorities declared Capoeira illegal. Even knowing the martial art became a punishable offense. Due to official oppression, its practice was either forgotten or fell into disuse in most Brazilian cities. Capoeira nearly became a lost art.
It was only in its native Bahia that Capoeira stayed alive, and it was from here that it would see its rebirth. In the early part of the twentieth century, Capoeira was almost single-handedly rescued by one man: Mestre Bimba. After a group of foreign diplomats was awed by a Capoeira demonstration by Bimba and his students, the Brazilian government finally decided to recognize Capoeira as a unique native-born cultural art form, deserving of protection. Opening the first legal Capoeira academy in 1932, Mestre Bimba also sought to make Capoeira “legitimate”. He developed a new style of Capoeira known as “Regional”. This style brought structure and sound teaching methods to the art, but unfortunately downplayed the use of the music and the more playful movements of Capoeira.
Practitioners of the older style of Capoeira, commonly referred to as “Angola” style, felt an essential aspect of the art was being lost as the Regional style spread and flourished under Bimba and his students. To them, Capoeira was losing its roots and connections to the past by over-emphasizing the sport and exercise aspects of the practice. In contrast, they highlighted Capoeira as an art form, where music and playful movements were a key to understanding the true nature and spirit of Capoeira – an expression of the people struggling for freedom and self-knowledge. The most important name of Capoeira Angola was Mestre Pastinha.
Capoeira has developed over the years as a means of empowerment and a forum for social and cultural exchange. It is now an internationally respected art form of grace and strength, that combines ritual, self-defense, acrobatics, and music in a rhythmic dialogue of the body, mind, and spirit.
Capoeira helps people to approach conflict, fear, and uncertainty with greater confidence, determination, and humor. Ultimately, Capoeira is a celebration of the joys of movement, music, physical expression, and strategy. Today’s students, like the earliest practitioners of Capoeira, learn to translate struggles into celebrations, to believe in their abilities, and to understand the richness of sharing with others. Capoeira has gained respect as a martial art form throughout the world. Increasingly visible in popular culture and mainstream media, Capoeira has attracted millions of individuals from every part of the globe.
The “roda” (pronounced “ho-dah”) refers to the circle formed by Capoeira players during practice, and inside of which the game is played. Those forming the roda are as important to the game as the two players inside— setting up the energy and rhythm of the game by clapping hands, singing choruses of Capoeira songs, and playing instruments. The two players inside receive energy and support from the roda. As a metaphor for the circle of life, the Capoeira roda illustrates that all individuals are important in the creation of the whole, and that cooperation is essential to the process. There are several instruments used to make music in the Capoeira roda. The “agogô” (double cowbell), “pandeiro” (tambourine), “atabaque” (conga type drum), and the “berimbau” which is the most important. Each instrument, when played correctly, contributes to the energy in the roda, but the berimbau is the commanding instrument. It tells the players inside the roda how to play, fast or slowly, aggressively or graciously, always with acrobatics. The berimbau starts and stops the Capoeira roda, and all the other instruments follow its rhythm and time.