Part of Brazilian folklore, capoeira is a battle dance, a martial art, and a national sport. In past decades, it has been taught in Brazilian schools, universities, and private health clubs. Today, it is popular all over the globe, and interest in this fast-spreading battle dance has yielded a great number of historical, anthropological, and sociological studies that examine its various facets and manifestations.
Capoeira includes a variety of components: musical instruments, dancing, and singing. Because it is also a social event conducted in a circle, it is sometimes defined as a dance. But it also includes combat maneuvers, jumping and kicking, which complies more or less with the definition of a martial art. Those who participate are called capoeiras.
Two Styles of Capoeira
There are two major known capoeira styles today. The first, capoeira Angola, purports, as its name indicates, to preserve the pure, authentic dance brought from Angola by enslaved Africans who practiced a rite of passage called “Zebra Dance,” the N'golo, in which the winner would get to marry his chosen bride without having to pay her dowry. The Angoleiros (those who practice capoeira Angola) believe that, due to the circumstances of Brazilian slavery, the ritualistic aspect of N'golo was lost while the combative elements gained prominence. Thus, capoeira emerged as a means of resistance and survival. The second, capoeira Regional, purports to be modern and innovative in that it incorporates elements from East Asian combat sports into the traditional movements. Fans of capoeira Regional believe that it was invented in the Reconcavo plantations in North-Eastern Brazil.
The origin of capoeira is still a principal subject of research and debate among scholars. Some trace its origins from West Central African combat games, while others emphasize that it came about as a result of creolization.
The earliest written sources found on capoeira are from the late 17th century, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. At that time, studies and documents, were written mainly by whites and obviously reflect their outlook on life. Some of them viewed Africa as a backward continent, deprived of the developed European cultures. These attitudes—together with the needs of plantation owners—translated into policies designed to prevent and annihilate any black cultural expression, including capoeira.
From the white authorities' standpoint, capoeira had two aspects, both odious. On one hand, it was a game played by enslaved Africans, and that game might become aggressive and dangerous. On the other hand, it was a means capoeiras used to undermine the public peace and threaten the lives of peaceful citizens. In either case, capoeiras were severely punished when caught.
In the early 1800s, authorities and tourists described capoeira “as slaves' plays,” “dances,” and “battles.” The inconsistency in definitions was the result of their attempt to define an activity that was irreconcilable with their experience. Dancing does not go hand in hand with boxing—at least from the white man's point of view. Moreover, the movements of capoeira presented a specific kind of a martial art— without the physical contact—thereby lending the air of a game to the entire activity. The confusing definitions stem from the significant differences between the life experiences of the various cultures.
For the African enslaved in the early 1800s in Brazil, capoeira was a social expression that inherently incorporated all the basic elements of African dances: the circle, the dance, the music, and the spectators, as well as rituals, symbols, and other components that served the capoeiras in the course of the activity. As with many other activities, it contained elements that combined the sacred and the secular; hence the gods or the dead or both were active participants in the event. It was necessary to appease them; there were ways to secure their help; and there were customs, various garments, accessories, gestures, songs, and sounds that assured the desired results. There are reports about capoeiras who participated in public festivals and mass celebrations, dancing, leaping, and hopping in front of military parades and religious processions, supposedly disturbing the peace and exhibiting the kind of behavior expected of them. The records report that they used amulets and participated in rituals that were supposed to protect their bodies against injuries. They put on special accessories and played music to connect with arcane worlds and with their gods and forefathers to secure their protection against evil spirits.
While the authorities tried to label them as dangerous and violent hoodlums, the people admired capoeiras and their deeds. The lower classes, which mainly consisted of blacks, held on to their ancient traditions, gods, ceremonies, and symbols. Yet, with the changing reality, they did not remain isolated and segregated. Various influences infiltrated the patterns of their customs and rituals. Their direct connection to their countries of origin was cut off when the transatlantic slave trade was stopped in 1850, and the traditions that were transmitted from generation to generation depended on memory and on oral teachings, which were influenced by external factors.
In the 1870s, there was a noticeable growth in the amount of capoeiras' activities and an improvement in their social status, followed by a change in the attitude of the authorities toward them. In this period, capoeiras began to team up into two major groups: the Nagoas and the Goaiamus. They competed against each other to gain supremacy over the various city regions. Historians have characterized this rivalry as a struggle for control over the urban space and a political conflict between social classes.
The major capoeira characteristic in the third quarter of the 19th century, at least from the authorities' perspective, was their entrance into the field of politics. The other characteristics—well-organized and loyal groups, physical skills, the use of arms, the perpetration of heinous acts of violence, disturbances of the peace, and rioting—instilled fear in the public. Politicians, well aware of the power of the capoeira gangs, of their command of the streets, and of their intimidating effect on the citizens, took advantage of this power to further their personal political aspirations. As bodyguards, capoeiras wielded their influence, especially during elections. They guarded the polls and encouraged or deterred the voters, depending on their connections with their patrons. Opponents were beaten up savagely, whereas supporters were provided with armed escorts as they made their way to the polling stations.
The Fall of the Monarchy
Once the Brazilian monarchy fell on November 15, 1889, the Republicans retaliated against the capoeiras they detested by launching a relentless war. The leader of this unyielding campaign was Police Commissioner João Batista Sampaio Ferraz, a sworn Republican, who was determined to root out violence and crime from the city and considered the capoeiras his main target. Capoeira was no longer only a black performance but had become an activity in which various other people engaged, including many mulattos and whites, most of whom had definite occupations and a regular income. Still, because they participated in capoeira, these people were stigmatized as drifters and idlers whose source of livelihood was theft, extortion, and murder.
The policy of suppression eventually expressed itself in the penal code signed October 11, 1890 that outlawed capoeira. Capoeira groups lost their power and political influence and dismantled. But as numerous records of their arrests in the last decade of the 19th century and the early 20th century prove, the phenomenon did not vanish altogether.
In the 1930s, researchers led by Gilberto Freyre began stressing the beneficial influence of the African and Indian cultures on the creation of Brazilian society. There began an intensive preoccupation with the creation of a national Brazilian identity with an emphasis on homogeneity. The new mixed identity was called mestico. Getulio Vargas's “Estado Novo” (new state) Policy in 1937–1945 advocated the image of Brazilian unity where whites, blacks, mulattos, mesticos, and others live in harmony and with no racial strife. Capoeira, like other popular manifestations such as samba, carnival, and African-Brazilian religions, gained legitimacy as part of the national identity and increased in stature. Because sports were also encouraged, capoeira was recognized as the Brazilian martial art, as the national sport, and as a Brazilian product worthy of the public's admiration.
To cleanse the capoeira of the negative connotations associated with it, it became necessary to refashion and show capoeira in a new light. The Rio de Janeiro version of capoeira stood for everything the authorities rejected and abhorred, so the first action was to sever ties with this version. “The negative” Rio de Janeiro brand of capoeira was totally ignored, and all eyes turned to the second capoeira center, to Bahia, which henceforth became the symbol of Brazilian authenticity, the pure source of social and cultural expressions.
Engraved in the collective memory are two great teachers of capoeira from Bahia: Mestre Bimba and Mestre Pastinha, who respectively started the two prevailing capoeira styles, capoeira Regional and capoeira Angola.
Manoel dos Reis Machado (Mestre Bimba)
The most significant turnabout in capoeira was introduced by Manoel dos Reis Machado, known as Mestre Bimba, who made capoeira a profession by creating capoeira Regional, the most famous and popular style today. From a spontaneous street and beach activity, from public celebrations and processions, capoeira turned into a sport, a martial art, presented as superior to all others. Bimba's greatness lies in his realization that capoeira must be institutionalized, severed from its “playful” context as a pastime, and ushered in as an integral part of physical education and self-defense. Bimba did it by adding elements from other martial arts—especially from the Far East, such as karate, judo, and jujitsu—and by introducing its systematic and consistent teaching into the syllabus of special schools.
Vicente Ferreira Pastinha (Mestre Pastinha)
Many capoeiras, led by Vicente Ferreira Pastinha (Mestre Pastinha), who wished to preserve the spirit of what he considered the “pure” capoeira, demonstratively refused to accept the regimentation of Mestre Bimba's version. Their style, which they claimed represented the real capoeira brought over from Angola, presumed to keep alive the values, movements, rituals, and esthetic language prevalent in African cultures.
As Brazil's military regime weakened in the early 1980s and as a result of similar processes taking place in the United States, radical social changes revived interest in the traditions, customs, and values of African cultures. Brazilians returned to the “sources” and attempted to connect once again with the traditions of the “motherland.” Protest groups demonstrated against the government, claiming that the hitherto pursued policy of encouraging the recognition of a uniform Brazilian identity and image embodied in a common national type was meant to conceal the deep chasm between whites and blacks and between rich and poor, thereby perpetuating veiled and camouflaged discrimination and racism. New groups of capoeira Angola were founded, stressing more than ever the African elements. These processes rekindled the embers of interest in this almost-defunct version, and new students enrolled in these schools first in Brazil and later in the United States and Europe.
Some scholars as well as capoeiras believe that, nowadays, there is a new type of capoeira called capoeira atual (actual capoeira) created by Bimba's students who felt the loss of African traditions known in capoeira Angola. These students tried to combine the traditions and adapt them to our times. When people adopt what they like from the two capoeira styles, they create countless hybrids, depending mostly on the masters' predilections. In Brazil, the further invention of new styles, such as capurate (capoeira with karate) or capugitso (capoeira and jio jitso), points to an intricate process in constant flux, the encounter, collision, and fusion of different cultures, traditions, world outlooks, values, and customs, all of which find their expression in contemporary capoeira.
- martial arts
- African culture
- Desch-Obi, T. J. (2000). Engolo: Combat Traditions in African and African Diaspora History. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, University of California, Los Angeles. Desch-Obi analyzes Capoeira's African cultural roots.
- Downey, Gregory John. (1998). Incorporating Capoeira: Phenomenology of a Movement Discipline. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, University of Chicago. This work takes a look at relatively recent developments in Capoeira.
- Lowell, Lewis. (1992). Ring of Liberation: Deceptive Discourse in Brazilian Capoeira. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. In this book, Lowell reviews the history of the attitudes toward Capoeira.