In recent decades, capoeira has become increasingly popular, spreading from Brazil throughout the world. Here in Canada, there is a multitude of groups and styles of capoeira to choose from. I've been training capoeira for most of my adult life, practicing the most traditional form called Capoeira Angola. My friends and family often can’t quite figure out how to interpret what it is we’re doing when we train and "play" capoeira. I'm often asked the following questions, which have more complex answers than they had anticipated, to their dismay.
Here are the top five questions about capoeira that I regularly encounter:
1. Is capoeira a dance or a martial art?
Short answer: Capoeira is a Brazilian art combining a variety of kicks, spins, sweeps, acrobatics, upside down movements, all to a swaying step called the “ginga”. Part dance, part fight, part game, capoeira was a personal defense method for slaves and a time for music, amusement, community and celebration. It was a form of resistance to slavery and oppression, as well as a tool for survival.
Long answer: Capoeira is an art form that emerged in the early 1500s when the Portuguese began importing slaves to Brazil from Africa. Capoeira was born out of the senseless cruelty and violence inflicted on African but also of indigenous peoples of Brazil. Between 1501 and 1888, 4 million slaves from Africa were brought to Brazil.
The slaves were stripped of everything they owned, but they still held on to their diverse African religions, cultures and traditions, which provided them with the strength and resilience to go on in the horrific cruelty of their everyday lives. One of these traditions were African combat games, such as “n'golo” or “engolo”, which evolved into capoeira in Brazil.
Capoeira was a method of survival and a way to stay physically, psychologically and spiritually resilient. Slave masters didn’t allow their slaves to train in martial arts, self-defense or combat sports. But, they were allowed to dance and sing; the slave masters enjoyed it and it seemed innocuous enough. Some claim that slaves used capoeira's dance-like appearance to hide their training of combat and self-defense.
Furthermore, in the 1940s and 50s, capoeira was taught to the military and police, which by definition makes it a martial art, although it's also a dance — and a game.
2. What is the capoeira game? How do you know who wins?
Short answer: Although we train by learning sequences of movements (attacks, defenses and counterattacks), the capoeira game is completely improvised. A capoeira game takes place in a circle of people and musicians called “roda” (or “wheel”, basically a metaphor for the world), where two players go into the middle of the circle and improvise attacks, defenses, counterattacks, fakes and trickery.
When you play a capoeira game, you are effectively “sparring” in a playful and collaborative way, by trying to "get" the other player with kicks, sweeps and headbutts. Ideally, the other player elegantly and astutely avoids attacks, dispels any trickery and counterattacks with playfulness, patience and precision, striking at the opportune time. There is no declared winner; the goal is for both players to play a fluid, interesting, entertaining and creative game together.
Long answer: Although the objective of the game is not to score points or “win” per se, one player will try to “get” the other player in various ways. Their opponent must avoid these attacks, defend himself/herself and then deftly counter-attack. Both must be strategic about their approach based on the situation and their respective abilities.
To "get" their opponent, a capoeirista marks a variety of kicks or headbutts (cabeçada) to the most vulnerable parts of the body, typically head, neck, chest and abdominal area. These parts of the body are only available when the capoeirista is "open". Protecting these vulnerable areas of the body through proper defense is called “corpo fechado” (or closed body). This is also a spiritual concept in Afro-Brazilian traditions.
Another way to "get" your opponent is through "rasteiras" (or sweeping the legs), which is used to make the other player fall while they are kicking and spinning precariously on one leg (although you can sometimes sweep both legs at the same time). Rasteiras are sometimes just "marked" to indicate you could have made your opponent fall, as to not impede the flow of the game or injure the other player. Dominating your partner through better endurance ("resistência") or better management of space in the roda, or tricking them, are other ways to “get” your partner.
However, it is of very bad form to humiliate your opponent and violence is frowned upon. Capoeira is to be kept playful and collaborative. For example, if you know you’re playing capoeira with a less experienced opponent, the objective is to help them play their best game, while also playing well yourself. Playing well means being strategic, careful and effective in attacks, maintaining a responsive and effective defense, and minding the rhythm, beauty and flow to the game. This is remarkably difficult to consistently achieve, even for experienced players.
At the end of a capoeira game, the two players will shake hands, but no official "winner" will be declared. Everyone taking part in the roda can observe and judge for themselves which player is more experienced, athletic, creative, resourceful, theatrical, played particularly well that day or whose wits are sharper.
One player may not be the most athletic, but instead, use mental strategies like deception to confuse their partner. Another capoeirista may be more conservative in their movements but instead be gifted at seeing holes in the defense of their opponent to pinpoint opportunities to "get" the other player.
Here is a good example of "malandragem" (using malice and being clever):
3. Do you do a lot of flips and acrobatics?
Short answer: Capoeira is not about flips and acrobatics. The type of capoeira used to impress tourists during demos is mostly focused on acrobatics, because that’s what they to see.
Long answer: Most people who have seen capoeira have only been exposed to the “Capoeira Contemporânea” style, which is not the original form of capoeira, yet it is the most common nowadays. This style was developed in the 1960s and incorporates many ornamental flips and short, fast games (a game is like a match where two capoeira players spar; more details below).
The original game of capoeira, developed in colonial times, is slower, subtler, and incorporates intricate movements and strategies.
There are three main styles of capoeira:
Capoeira Angola is a style that keeps the traditions as close to the original roots as possible. Capoeira Angola is characterized by smooth movements, low kicks, headbutts and playing close to the floor. In Capoeira Angola you also play very close to your opponent, and at a variety of speeds, from painfully slow to very fast. The interaction is more collaborative and less aggressive than in other styles, focusing on positive energy.
There are few acrobatics used in the Capoeira Angola game, except some handstands and very small, tight cartwheels. However, capoeiristas must be extremely athletic to execute the capoeira movements and have the endurance to maintain a long capoeira game, which lasts an average of about 10 minutes. Training typically last at least two hours and are grueling. Rodas can last several hours.
There are many ritualistic and demonstrative movements (e.g. chamadas and ladainhas), which brings a sense of the African rituals and philosophy to the game. There are no “belts” or ranking system but today, there are Mestres (Masters) and Contramestres (Vice Masters). There were no Capoeira Angola schools or teachers until the 1940s. People would learn capoeira by playing in rodas.
Here is a nice summary of the spiritual and philosophical aspects of Capoeira Angola:
Capoeira Regional was developed in the 1930s and adds many new movements from other martial arts. Jumps and acrobatics are kept to a minimum in this style as well, keeping at least one hand or foot on the ground.
Here is the original Capoeira Regional from Mestre Bimba's school:
Capoeira Regional is faster and more aggressive than Capoeira Angola. Capoeiristas often use head kicks and strikes, as well as jumping and spinning movements. Capoeira Regional academies functioned more like eastern martial arts schools and introduced a basic ranking system. There are few traditional Regional schools today. Most Regional schools actually practice Capoeira Contemporânea.
Capoeira Contemporânea is by far the most widespread style both inside and outside Brazil. This style is heavily influenced by Capoeira Regional. The games are faster-paced, are played farther apart, and are of short duration – on average one minute. Some groups make use of ornamental flips during the game or to enter the roda. The use of "batizados" and colored cords are used to classify rank and ability of the capoeiristas.
4. You can’t actually use capoeira for self-defense though can you?
Short answer: If you’re a beginner like Will Farrell below, probably not:
But, once you learn capoeira in depth, many techniques can be deadly, such as the “meia lua de compasso” kick. There are a few reasons we slow the movements down when we practice capoeira: to develop precision and control, but also because the movements are dangerous.
Check out these capoeira movements used during MMA fights:
Long answer: Historically in Brazil, capoeira is renowned as a force to be reckoned with. Two examples below, the formation of "quilombos" and the governments ban on capoeira illustrate the efficacy of this martial art as a self-defense, combat and even war technique.
In colonial times, escaping slaves would establish “quilombos”, communities in remote areas outside of Portuguese control. Capoeira was a vital part of the defense and cultural practice of these communities. There, capoeira evolved from a survival tool for slaves to a martial art focused on war.
Some of these quilombos grew to enormous sizes, attracting even more fugitive slaves, Brazilian natives and even Europeans escaping the law or Christian extremism. These quilombos were strongholds against the Portuguese and famous for their courageous defenses against the constant threats of the Portuguese colonial troops. The Quilombo dos Palmares was the largest and most famous quilombo and is thought to have been home to about 30,000 people at its peak.
The ban on capoeira from 1890 to the 1930s
On May 13th 1888, slavery was abolished in Brazil. However, these former slaves, had nowhere to live, no jobs and were shunned by Brazilian society. The Brazilian government feared the ex-slaves would join force and use capoeira to revolt against the government. Criminals and warlords used capoeiristas as bodyguards and hitmen. Groups of capoeiristas, known as maltas, raided Rio de Janeiro and some were used as a hit-force by the Conservative and Liberal party of Brazil.
Therefore, a ban was put on Capoeira in 1890 and anyone who was known to be practicing it would be arrested, sent to jail, tortured and often mutilated by police. To keep the tradition of Capoeira alive it was practiced secretly and disguised as a folk dance. Sentries were used to warn capoeiristas of approaching police. Capoeiristas were known only by their nicknames, which made it more difficult for the police to identify and arrest them since their real identities were unknown.
Capoeira was decriminalized in the 1930s and was awarded the status of cultural patrimony in Brazil in 2008.
5. Is Capoeira a cult?
Short answer: No! Capoeiristas are not required to practice a certain religion or any religion at all.
Long answer: Capoeira is very loosely connected to candomblé (an African religion) and Catholicism. References to both orixás (the deities of candomblé) and Catholic saints appear in capoeira songs. When Africans brought their religions to Brazil, slave masters forced them to adopt Catholicism. The slaves would use Catholicism as a façade behind which to practice their own religion. Each orixá of candomblé is associated to a Catholic saint: if you were praying to the Virgin Mary, you were really be praying yo Iemanjá, the Queen of the Sea. Similarly, Saint Anthony is linked with the God of War, Ogún.
There are many traditional capoeira songs citing Catholic saints posing as African orixás:
Santo Antônio é protetor
Da barquinha de Noê
Santo Antônio é protetor
Protetor da capoeira
Saint Anthony is the protector
Of Noah’s little ark
Saint Anthony is the protector
Protector of capoeira
Others refer to elements of candomblé. For example, a patuá is an amulet used for protection and to maintain "corpo fechado" in the candomblé tradition:
Foi na Bahia que eu mandai fazer
Foi na Bahia qui eu mandai preparar
meu patuá meu pai meu patuá
meu patuá para meu proteger
It was in Bahia where I ordered to make
It was in Bahia where I ordered to prepare
My Patua, my father, my Patua
My Patua to protect me
Simple questions, complex answers
These five simple questions have complicated answers, yet there is even more complexity to the art. Even capoeira music appears simple on the surface but there layers of meaning and are volumes to be written about it as well.
This is but a birds-eye view of a rich cultural heritage. Learning capoeira is a lifelong discovery process. A capoeirista's game is constantly evolving as is our understanding and relationship to the art.
Once illegal and practiced secretly, capoeira is now popular all over the world. There are deep lessons to be learned from capoeira and one of them is the sense of community, acceptance and non-violence. We must always remember the suffering and strength of the Africans peoples enslaved in Brazil, who are still faced with many inequalities in Brazil today. Against all odds, they managed to preserve their cultural heritage and share it with the world.