What is Capoeira?

Capoeira is a Brazilian art form that combines elements of dance, fight, game, and music. It originated amongst the African slaves brought to Brazil, and is believed to have evolved as a means to escape the horrors of slavery.

Upon arrival in Brazil, slaves were sorted such that people of the same ethnic group, hence language and culture, were sent to different plantations. This was done to impede communication between slaves, in the hopes to stifle any uprisings.

There is no written history of the early stages of Capoeira. However, the folklore suggests that because the slaves developed Capoeira as a fighting system to escape from the plantations into the surrounding forest. Because they were not allowed to train to fight, they disguised Capoeira as a dance, by practicing to the accompaniment of musical instruments. Whether or not this story is true, many of the rituals and traditions of these Africans are still seen today in the movements and body language of modern day Capoeiristas.

Undoubtedly, Capoeira arose, at least in part, due to the need to establish a common cultural reference between Africans of different origins, all of which would have been suffering from being out of their natural environment, to survive as individuals within a multiethnic community (Mestre Gato, personal communication 2005). This cultural process of absorbing the traditions from various ethnic groups, such as the early European Brazilian descendents, Brazilian Natives, and Brazilians of African origin, also produced other folk manifestations like Samba, Coco, Maculele, Frevo, and Maracatu.

After the abolition of slavery in 1888, the freed slaves moved into the cities to find work. In the cities, Capoeira was often practiced amongst dock workers, to bide time, and in some cities, like Rio de Janeiro, became associated with gangs that would use Capoeira to fight the police and each other, and sometimes to rob passersby (Reis, 2000).

In an attempt to suppress both this subversive element and to suppress Afrobrazilian culture, Capoeira was made illegal in the 1890’s. Prison records of those who were arrested for practicing ‘Capoeiragem’ show that not only the afrobrazilians were involved in Capoeira, but also the poorest elements of Portuguese society and other immigrant nationalities (Reis, 2000). Hence, Capoeira’s focus had changed from being a fight for freedom to being an outlet for the most marginalized and excluded members of society.

Although at the end of the nineteenth century, Capoeira became associated with violence in cities like Rio de Janeiro, in other parts of the country it began to take on game-like aspects. This first occurred in the street fairs of Bahia along the Recôncavo Baiano, the mountains along São Salvador Bay, in cities and villages like Salvador, Santo Amaro da Purificação, and Ilha de Maré. This manifestation blended the elements of fight present in the earliest Capoeira forms with a type of ritualized combat, and placing greater value on the _expression of the body and on the use of different rhythms and paces (Mestre Gato, personal communication 2005).

These rhythms were mostly determined by a percussion instrument of African origin, the berimbau, but were often supported by other percussion instruments and sometimes even a guitar. Songs that would challenge opponents or tell stories also became an important element of this art. Thus arose the Game of Capoeira, now recognized as Capoeira Bahiana. This form of Capoeira survives until now, and is being continuously transformed as it adapts itself to the region in which it is practiced (Mestre Gato, personal communication 2005).

In the beginning of 1900, the way the Game of Capoeira was conducted varied according to each group or "roda" (wheel) of Capoeira. Each leader or mestre (master) had a characteristic way of leading the rhythms and a particular vision to how Capoeira should be practiced. The practice of Capoeira was learned exclusively in the roda, where the "bambas" (the most clever or the best practitioners) would demonstrate their secret steps and exchange techniques.

Capoeira’s fate changed due to the activities of two important mestres: Mestre Bimba and Mestre Pastinha. Although they approached Capoeira from very different perspectives, both were critical to the popularization and acceptance of the art by society. Mestre Bimba, who developed the style now known as Capoeira Regional, was an innovator who adapted movements from an African folk fighting art, Batuque, to his Capoeira style and created a training system for Capoeira. He was the first Mestre to be legally allowed to open a school in 1936. On the other hand, Mestre Pastinha is recognized as the father of Capoeira Angola who worked to maintain the afrobrazilian traditions and culture, and to preserve the characteristics typical of the Capoeira of his day. The efforts of these two mestres led the Brazilian authorities to recognize Capoeira as uniquely Brazilian and as an artform that should be valued and promoted within Brazilian society.

Today Capoeira is a symbol of the resistance against inequality and oppression, and a celebration of

Reiss, Letícia Vidor da Souza (2000).
O Mundo com as Pernas Pelo Ar: a Capoeira no Brasil.
Publisher Brazil, São Paulo.