What Is Capoeira?

Capoeira is “a dance like a fight, a fight like a dance, a song, a ritual, a way of life…”

– Mestre Acordeon

To some, Capoeira looks like a fight and to others, a dance. Which is it? Capoeira is an art form that is incomparable to any of the more traditional martial arts. Two capoeiristas enter the roda de capoeira (circular arena) and begin to move around one another with flowing movements, evading each other’s kicks and attacks all while attempting to trick one another by faking movements. The players do not move by accident but their steps are not choreographed; capoeiristas learn to listen to the music of the bateria (musical instruments) and especially the berimbau (the main instrument which dictates the mood of the roda). These players move and swing to the rhythms of the instruments, the clapping, and the singing of all those waiting for their turn to enter the roda.

The origins and evolution of Capoeira is an ongoing debate. The most accepted explanation is that Capoeira evolved during the slave trade beginning in the sixteenth century. Slaves were left to the will of their masters without any form of self-defense. In order to put an end to their enslavement, they began to train themselves for combat. Slave owners forbade any form of physical training; therefore slaves disguised their training as a dance. Slaves who were fortunate enough to escape organized and governed communities known as the quilombos. The largest and most resilient of the quilombos was the Quilombo dos Palmares, in the northeastern part of Brasil. Slaves, using Capoeira, formed a rebellion that would lead to their freedom. Unfortunately many of the details of Capoeira’s origins were lost to the mass burning of written records ordered after the abolition of slavery. What lives on are the songs and stories passed down by oral tradition and a commitment to keeping the history of Capoeira alive.

Despite the love of Capoeira amongst many Brasilians, the president of the Republic of Brasil outlawed the practice of Capoeira in 1890. Police kept an eye out to punish any who attempted to learn the art form. Nevertheless, capoeiristas continued to practice and train underground. In the 1920’s, one man set out to improve the reputation of Capoeira. Manoel dos Reis Machado, or Mestre Bimba, created a form of Capoeira that incorporated other martial art forms like kickboxing, jiu-jitsu, and batuque. He called this art form, Capoeira Regional. Mestre Bimba pioneered and transformed the image of capoeira from illegal and dangerous to a proud national sport. Vincente Ferreira, or Mestre Pastinha, pioneered the way for Capoeira Regional’s exact opposite and yet, compliment, Capoeira Angola. For more on Capoeira’s rich history and traditions, visit our ***Student Resources*** page.

Today, capoeira has taken flight and can be found in many countries outside of Brasil, especially here in the United States. It is possible to find a Capoeira school in almost every state in the nation. Men and women, young and old, blacks, whites and Asians have all found themselves drawn to the game of Capoeira. Its influence on Hollywood, breakdancing, and the music industry proves Capoeira’s popularity. Yet, its style, grace, beauty, and athleticism keeps the crowds coming.