Reader beware – this is an opinion piece on the topic of what Capoeira is, based on my nine years of experience as a Capoeirista. For more information, check out the Wikipedia entry here, or check out any of the major groups’ different websites.
What is Capoeira?
This seemingly straightforward question has caused a lot of debate – some say it’s a fight, others call it a dance, and some call it poetry in motion. I think my Capoeira teacher put it best when she called it ‘an expression of Brazilian culture’. It’s probably the most fitting label you can put on it, since the nature of Capoeira depends upon the players themselves – some like to play hard, some like to show off their acrobatic tricks, others like it because the music and singing involved that expresses the art’s history. I like to think of it as empty stage where two actors step in and then improvise and interact with each other according to the scenario set (the music being played is a strong influence in the atmosphere). If this sounds abstract, don’t worry too much about it – any one school will have a firm idea of what their Capoeira is all about and will inform you thusly. Just don’t be surprised if another school claims differently.
A Capoeira promo video (choreographed)
How did it come about?
Again, much debate rages on this topic. As there are virtually no concrete historical records, much is left to speculation, theories and the stories left behind within the Capoeira songs. Some say it was formed amongst the African tribes in Angola and brought with them to South America, other theories claim it was a game played amongst the African slaves in Brazil in their slave quarters. Some say it was a proper fighting style developed by runaway slaves to resist the slave owners, and others yet say it was kind of mano-a-mano game played in market places or at the docks (sort of chestbumping meets breakdancing). Take your pick – it could be any of these theories, a mixture of all of them, or something entirely else. In my own humble opinion, I favour the theory that claims that it’s a game developed somewhere in the cultural chaos that was Brazil – a mix of multiple African tribes, Portuguese immigrants, native Americans etc all with their own culture and through this whirlpool of human souls emerged this bizarre challenge of a game… Someone said that ‘Capoeira was conceived in Africa but born in Brazil’, which I think puts it very well.
All debate aside, most sides agree that Capoeira came from the African slaves that were shipped to Brazil. Rather than rise up to their owners (and get killed), slaves would retaliate through more indirect means. For example, assigned labour such as building repairs would suffer delays through broken tools or random accidents – or soon break down due to hidden flaws in the workmanship. In the spirit of divide and conquer, slave owners would prohibit any activities that would encourage a sense of culture and identity amongst the slaves in order to more easily keep them subdued. So from the very beginning, the practise of Capoeira was banned.
A common perception – one often perpetuated by a lot of capoeiristas* who like the legend – is that Capoeira was once a ‘proper’ martial art, but in order to hide it from the oppressive slave owners they would disguise it as a dance. Personally I disagree with this, based on what was stated above – any cultural activities amongst the slaves were forbidden. So masking it as a dance wouldn’t suddenly make it alright. In light of this I asked my teacher why then there was still such a strong focus on dance, music and song in Capoeira (as it wouldn’t save it from persecution), and she pointed out to me that these elements were prevalent across virtually all African cultures. So it would make sense for it to be part of any fighting system that would emerge – in fact, several examples of that has been noticed.
Later on when slavery was abolished, the persecution of Capoeira continued as it was normally practised by rogues and outlaws – and authorities are not so keen on criminal activities that leads to people stabbing each other. The police would take any chance to capture players, imprison and torture them to get the names of other capoeiristas. This is how the tradition of nicknames in Capoeira came to be, as it made it harder for them to identify your fellow capoeiristas if the police caught you. This tradition lives on today – in fact, ‘Lobo’ is an example of such a nickname.
What are the major styles?
In the past, Capoeira was as diverse as life itself. Every player had his own style (sometimes based on his lineage), and most often learning how to play would be done simply by watching others play. This started to change in the early 1900’s when Mestre* Bimba decided to create his own style, and founded the very first Capoeira academy. For the first time ever, students were taught systematically in organised classes. This fundamental difference in both philosophy and way of playing Capoeira caused a rift between the students who learned from Mestre Bimba at his “Centro de Cultura Física e Luta Regional” (this style came to be called Capoeira Regional for short) and the traditional Capoeiristas who followed the old ways (the umbrella term for these styles came to be Capoeira Angola).
Note – as Capoeira is ever evolving, the Capoeira Regional that is practised nowadays is vastly different from the original system that Mestre Bimba created. Because of this, Capoeira Regional is often referred to as Capoeira Contemporanea (i.e. contemporary, modern Capoeira).
The differences between the two styles are many – where Regional favours a more systematic and strict approach to what techniques should be used, angoleiros (Capoeira Angola players) will play in a more freestyle manner. Regional styles generally contain much more ‘flashy’ techniques such as jumping kicks and flamboyant acrobatics, whereas angoleiros will play a tighter game with a stronger focus on theatrics and deception. This is similar to the likeness and difference in styles between Northern and Southern Kung Fu, for example. Regardless of style, at the heart of Capoeira you will find trickery, deceit and cunning. These traits are highly valued and probably go back to the days of slavery where it was not an option to confront your opponent directly. This is reflected in the game where you seldom block a kick – instead you evade or dodge it, ideally while launching a counter attack of your own. So a move that looks like cowering in fear is actually a deceptive lead up to a lethal attack or sneaky takedown.
A staple Capoeira attack, beginning with a ducking motion where the momentum is then channelled directly into the kick itself
How do you do it?
Capoeira is quite unique in its mixture of martial arts and culture. There are basically two parts to it – the training itself, and the application of Capoeira in the roda*.
The training is similar to other styles, but very diverse – due to the many aspects of the roda and the game, a class may contain several phases. There is the physical training of evading attacks, practising attacks (mostly kicks), takedowns, learning acrobatics and how to use the basic ginga* movement to weave it all together in the game. In addition to that, there is also a requirement to learn the musical aspect – there are several instruments that all have their own role to play, and even clapping your hands is a skill in itself! The songs in Capoeira also play a special role; the song of choice can be a prayer, a retelling of Capoeira history and legends (as there are no written chronicles) or a running commentary of what is happening in the roda at the time. Normally you either go through songs in class, but it’s also common to do it as ‘homework’ as learning a new song can take time.
This is where all the action takes place. All training aims towards improving your experience in the roda. It’s where all the aspects of Capoeira comes together and gets expressed in an organic and structured – yet still improvised – manner through the music, singing and game itself. The roda is what a stage is to an actor, a battlefield is to a warrior…
Normally a Capoeira roda will take shape by having people form a circle, where part of the circle will comprise of the people playing musical instruments. The remainder of the circle is formed by capoeiristas and/or onlookers. The lead instrument, the iconic berimbau*, will start playing a repeating pattern of notes (this rhythm is referred to as toque) and the other instruments will join in based on what kind of rhythm is being played. A lead singer will then start a song, and everyone else responds in the song’s chorus. Next, two players will then enter the roda and squat underneath the berimbau in order to start the Capoeira game itself, which will take shape based on what rhythm is being played (as well as be influenced by the singing). The specific game itself then plays out depending on how the two players interact, which is completely un-choreographed and improvised on the spot.
Examples of a Capoeira roda
So what is Capoeira?
If all this sounds complicated, that’s because it is. At its best, Capoeira is an intricate weave of energies and passion that leads to infinite possibilities as to what happens. It is a ritual that blends historical tradition with your own personal choices, in a way telling a never ending story of human interaction. All aspects of the roda influences each other – the rhythm of the berimbau sets the general ‘tone’ of the game, the song that is being sung can tell of legends past, the game between the two capoeiristas can develop and get a life on its own…
For example, halfway through a game a smaller guy can suddenly sweep the feet off a larger opponent and because of this the song changes to a description of how the sharp machete cut down the banana tree (serving as not-so-subtle description of bigger player’s falling to the ground). With a smile that says ‘yeah, you got me alright’ the big guy gets back on his feet, seemingly unfazed by his fall but already plotting his revenge. As the players then circle each other and gathers underneath the berimbau to start the game anew, the rhythm changes to a faster pace and a new song edges on the players, calling upon the blessing of a saint from times past. As the onlookers join in the singing of the chorus, the two players cartwheel into the centre of the circle – determined to settle who is the most skilful and cunning player once and for all. Until the next game, that is…
Capoeirista Practitioner of Capoeira
Ginga Basic continuous movement to move around and use techniques
Roda Circle of people wherein the Capoeira game is played
Berimbau Primitive bow-like instrument that leads the music