Capoeira The Dance of Freedom
Exploring the history and culture of the Afro-Brazilian Martial Art of capoeria.
Capoeira or the Dance of War by Johann Moritz Rugendas, 1825, published in 1835
Capoeira (/ˌkæpuːˈɛərə/; Portuguese pronunciation: [kapuˈejɾɐ]) is a Brazilian martial art that combines elements of dance, acrobatics and music, and is sometimes referred to as a game. It was developed in Brazil mainly by African descendants with native Brazilian influences, probably beginning in the 16th century. It is known by quick and complex moves, using mainly power, speed, and leverage for a wide variety of kicks, spins, and highly mobile techniques; at heart is the ginga, the back-and-forth, foot-to-foot movement that serves as the starting point for such leverage. Capoeira used in genuine self-defense situations incorporates many sweeps and low moves, whereas when played as a game there is more emphasis on high moves, demonstrations of acrobatics, full cartwheels (called au) for evasion, and flips or other exotic techniques by mestres(masters), and performing an entertaining match for the audience.
The word capoeira probably comes from the Tupi language, referring to the areas of low vegetation in the Brazilian interior where the game was played. It was invented by slaves and disguised as a dance in order to prevent itscapoeiristas from punishment or execution for learning how to fight and defend themselves, which was forbidden to those who were legally defined as property. It is nearly always practiced to traditional Brazilian berimbau music.
Capoeira’s history begins with the beginning of African slavery in Brazil. Since the 16th century, Portuguese colonists began exporting slaves to their colonies, coming mainly from West Africa. Brazil, with its vast territory, received most of the slaves, almost 40% of all slaves sent through the Atlantic Ocean.
Early history of capoeira is still controversial, especially the period between the 16th century and the early 19th century, because historical documents were very scarce in Brazil at that time. But oral tradition and evidence leave little doubt about its Brazilian roots.
In the 16th century, Portugal had claimed one of the largest territories of the colonial empires, but lacked people to colonize it, especially workers. In the Brazilian colony, the Portuguese, like many European colonists, chose to use slavery to supply this shortage of workers.
In its first century, the main economic activity in the colony was the production and processing of sugar cane. Portuguese colonists created large sugar cane farms called engenhos, which depended on the labor of slaves. Slaves, living in inhumane and humiliating conditions, were forced to work hard and often suffered physical punishment for small misbehaviors. Although slaves often outnumbered colonists, rebellions were rare due to lack of weapons, harsh colonial law, disagreement between slaves coming from different African cultures and lack of knowledge about the new land.
Capoeira arose as a hope of survival for an escaped slave, completely unequipped, in this hostile, unknown land and against the capitães-do-mato, the armed and mounted colonial agents who were charged with capturing escapees. The dance was incorporated to avoid detection and corporal punishments. If slaves were caught practicing fighting techniques, they could be punished or executed. With music and rhythmic moves, they raised no suspicion of escape attempts.
Escaped slaves gathered and established primitive remote settlements called quilombos. Some quilombos grew, attracting more fugitive slaves, Brazilian natives and even Europeans escaping the law, and some became independent multi-ethnic states.
Life in a quilombo offered freedom and the opportunity to revive traditional cultures away from colonial oppression. In this multi-ethnic environment, constantly threatened by colonial attack, capoeira evolved into a martial art focused on war.
The biggest quilombo, the Quilombo dos Palmares, consisted of many villages which lasted more than a century, resisting at least 24 small attacks and 18 colonial invasions. Portuguese soldiers sometimes said that it took more than one dragoon to capture a quilombo warrior, since they would defend themselves with astrangely moving fighting technique. The provincial governor declared “it is harder to defeat a quilombo than the Dutch invaders.”
In 1808, the prince and future king Dom João VI, along with the Portuguese court, escaped to Brazil from the invasion of Portugal by Napoleon’s troops. Formerly exploited only for its natural resources and commodity crops, the colony began to develop as a nation. The Portuguese monopoly ended when Brazilian ports opened for trade with friendly foreign nations. Thus, cities grew in importance and Brazilians got permission to manufacture common products once required to be imported from Portugal, such as glass.
Registries of capoeira practices existed since the 18th century in Rio de Janeiro, Salvador and Recife. Due to city growth, more slaves were brought to cities and the increase in social life in the cities made capoeira more prominent and allowed it to be taught and practiced among more people. Because capoeira was often used against the colonial guard, in Rio the colonial government tried to suppress it and established severe physical punishments to its practice.
Ample data from police records from the 1800s shows that many slaves and free coloured people were detained for practicing capoeira:
“From 288 slaves that entered the Calabouço jail during the years 1857 and 1858, 80 (31%) were arrested for capoeira, and only 28 (10.7%) for running away. Out of 4,303 arrests in Rio police jail in 1862, 404 detainees—nearly 10%—had been arrested for capoeira.”
End of slavery and prohibition of Capoeira
By the end of the 19th century, slavery was doomed in the Brazilian Empire. Reasons included growing quilombo militias raids in plantations that still used slaves, the refusal of the Brazilian army to deal with escapees and the growth of Brazilian abolitionist movements. The Empire tried to soften the problems with laws to restrict slavery, but finally Brazil would recognize the end of the institution on May 13, 1888, with a law called Lei Áurea (the golden law), sanctioned by imperial parliament and signed by Princess Isabel.
However, free former slaves now felt abandoned. Most had nowhere to live, no jobs and were despised by Brazilian society, which usually viewed them as lazy workers. Also, new immigration from Europe and Asia left most former slaves with no employment.
Capoeira found new applications. Criminals and war lords used capoeiristas as body guards and hitmen. Groups of capoeiristas, known as maltas, raided Rio de Janeiro. In 1890, the recently proclaimed Brazilian Republic decreed the prohibition of capoeira in the whole country. Social conditions were chaotic in the Brazilian capital, and police reports identified capoeira as an advantage in fighting.
After the prohibition, any citizen caught practicing capoeira, in a fight or for any other reason, would be arrested, tortured and often mutilated by the police. Cultural practices, such as the roda de capoeira, were conducted in remote places with sentries to warn of approaching police.
Luta Regional Baiana
By the 1920’s, capoeira repression had declined. Mestre Bimba from Salvador, a strong fighter in both legal and illegal fights, met with his future student, Cisnando Lima. Both thought capoeira was losing its martial roots due to the use of its playful side to entertain tourists. Bimba began developing the first systematic training method for capoeira, and in 1932 founded the first capoeira school. Advised by Cisnando, Bimba called his style Luta Regional Baiana (“regional fight from Bahia“), because capoeira was still illegal in name.
In 1937, Bimba founded the school Centro de Cultura Física e Luta Regional, with permission from Salvador’s Secretary of Education (Secretaria da Educação, Saúde e Assistência de Salvador). His work was very well received, and he taught capoeira to the cultural elite of the city. By 1940, capoeira was legalized.
Bimba’s Regional style overshadowed traditional capoeiristas, who were still distrusted by society. This began to change in 1941 with the founding of Centro Esportivo de Capoeira Angola (CECA) by Vicente Ferreira Pastinha. Located in the Salvador neighborhood of Pelourinho, this school attracted many traditional capoeiristas. With CECA’s prominence, the traditional style came to be called Capoeira Angola. The name derived from brincar de angola (“playing Angola”), a term used in the 19th century in some places. But it was also adopted by other masters, including some who did not follow Pastinha’s style.
Today, capoeira is not only a martial art, but an active exporter of Brazilian culture all over the world. Since the 1970s, capoeira masters began to emigrate and teach it in other countries. Present in many countries on every continent, every yearCapoeira attracts to Brazil thousands of foreign students and tourists. Foreign capoeiristas work hard to learn Portuguese to better understand and become part of the art. Renowned capoeira Masters often teach abroad and establish their own schools. Capoeira presentations, normally theatrical, acrobatic and with little martiality, are common sights around the world.
The martial art aspect is still present and still disguised, leading many non-practitioners to ignore its presence. Trickery is ever present and expert capoeiristas and an attack can be disguised even as a friendly gesture.
Capoeira is now a symbol of Brazilian culture, its ethnic amalgam, and of resistance to oppression. It is now a source of pride for Brazilians and is officially considered intangible cultural heritage of Brazil.
Capoeira is a fast and versatile martial art which is historically focused on fighting outnumbered or in technological disadvantage.
The ginga (literally: rocking back and forth; to swing) is the fundamental movement in capoeira, important both for attack and defense purposes. It has two main objectives. One is to keep the capoeirista in a state of constant motion, preventing him or her from being a still and easy target. The other, using also fakes and feints, is to mislead, fool, trick the opponent, leaving them open for an attack or a counter-attack.
The attacks in the Capoeira should be done when opportunity arises and must be decisive, like a direct kick in the face or a vital body part, or a strong takedown. Most Capoeira attacks are made with the legs, like direct or swirling kicks, rasteiras (leg sweeps), tesouras or knee strikes. The head strike is a very important counter-attack move. Elbow strikes, punches and other forms of takedowns complete the main list.
The defense is based on the principle of non-resistance, meaning avoiding an attack using evasive moves instead of blocking it. Avoids are called esquivas, which depend on the direction of the attack and intention of the defender, and can be done standing or with a hand leaning on the floor. A block should only be made when the esquiva is not possible. This fighting strategy allows quick and unpredictable counterattacks, the ability to focus on more than one adversary and to face empty-handed an armed adversary.
A series of rolls and acrobatics (like the Cartwheels called aú) allows the capoeirista to quickly overcome a takedown or a loss of balance, and to position themselves around the aggressor in order to lay up for an attack. It is this combination of attacks, defense and mobility which gives Capoeira its perceived ‘fluidity’ and choreography-like style.
Playing Capoeira is both a game and a method of practicing the application of Capoeira movements in simulated combat. It can be played anywhere, but it’s usually done in a roda. During the game most Capoeira moves are used, butcapoeiristas usually avoid using punches or elbow strikes unless it’s a very aggressive game.
The game usually does not focus on knocking down or destroying the opponent, rather it emphasizes skill. Capoeiristas often prefer to rely on a takedown like arasteira, then allowing the opponent to recover and get back into the game. It is also very common to slow down a kick inches before hitting the target, so acapoeirista can enforce superiority without the need of injuring the opponent. If an opponent clearly cannot dodge an attack, there is no reason to complete it. However, between two high-skilled capoeiristas, the game can get much more aggressive and dangerous. Capoeiristas tend to avoid showing this kind of game in presentations or to the general public.
The Roda (pronounced [ˈʁodɐ]) is a circle formed by capoeiristas and capoeiramusical instruments, where every participant sings the typical songs and claps their hands following the music. Two capoeiristas enter the roda and play the game according to the style required by the musical instruments rhythm. The game finishes when one of the musicians holding a berimbau determine it, when one of the capoeiristas decide to leave or call the end of the game or when another capoeirista interrupts the game to start playing, either with one of the current players or with another capoeirista.
In a roda every cultural aspect of Capoeira is present, not only the martial side. Aerial acrobatics are common in a presentation roda, while not seen as often in a more serious one. Takedowns, on the other hand, are common in a serious rodabut rarely seen in presentations.