Capoeira History and Style Guide

Martin Laine/Flickr/CC BY 2.0

Usually, when you see people dancing, it's for pure enjoyment. But if you took a longer glance at such activities in Brazil, you might see something different. Dance moves with purpose. And that is the foundation of the martial arts style known as Capoeira, one with a history that includes strong ties to Africa, slavery, and Brazil.

Here is the Capoeira story.

Capoeira History

Capoeira draws its original, distant origins from African fighting styles, and much of its' beginnings in South America comes from slaves. In somewhat similar fashion to how karate was often hidden in kata by practitioners, slaves in the rubber industry in Bolivia invented fighting 'dances' where one performer played the slave and the other, the Caporal (master). During this performance, the slave defended himself against the master. Eventually, this dance traveled to Brazil via African slaves, where it was refined and became known as Capoeira.

In Brazil, it has been described as a warrior's dance for those that escaped their masters, as well as a dance that readied slaves for fighting their masters in a rebellion. Unfortunately, during the mid to late 1800's, those seen practicing Capoeira were often detained, as it was considered a criminal practice. In 1890, Brazilian president Dodoro da Fonseca actually went as far as to sign an act prohibiting the practice of it. Still, Capoeira did not die and continued to be practiced, particularly by the poor.

Manuel dos Reis Machado (Mestre Bimba) eventually brought Academic Capoeira, also known as Capoeira Regional, to the masses. By 1930, some of his political efforts convinced authorities to lift the ban on the martial arts style in the region. Soon after, Reis Machado founded the first Capoeira school in 1932, causing many to consider him the father of modern capoeira.

From there, several offshoots emerged. Today, Capoeira remains strong in the areas of Bahia, Pernambuco, Rio de Janeiro, and Sao Paulo.

Characteristics of Capoeira

Music, dance, and martial arts.

Music sets the tempo for the game that is going to be played within the roda. The roda names the wheel or circle of people that several Afro American martial arts forms, including Capoeira, are practiced within. Singing often accompanies work within the roda, sometimes in a call and answer format. Generally, the beginning of the song is done in narrative form, called ladainha. Then comes the chula, or call and response pattern, which often involves thanking God and one's teacher. Corridos are songs sung while the game is afoot after the call and response pattern.

And then, of course, there is the dancing, which is a really a martial arts style in and of itself. Part of the dance aspect is the ginga. With both feet shoulder width apart, practitioners move one foot backward and back to the base in a somewhat triangular and rhythmic step. This is really a preparatory movement.

Capoeira places a premium on kicks, sweeps, and head strikes. Punches are rarely emphasized. From a defensive standpoint, evasive moves and rolls comprise most of the art's teachings.

Capoeira Games

Games and competitions are held within the roda. It is not a style that emphasizes full body contact. Rather, when two practitioners square off, they oftentimes show moves without completing them. There is also a fair play aspect to the games, where if an opponent cannot evade a more simplified or slower attack, a faster more complex one will not be utilized.

Leg strikes, sweeps, and headbutts are the norm.

Major Sub Styles of Capoeira

  • Capoeira Angola: The most ancient form of Capoeira, steeped in tradition. It is generally practiced lower to the floor and more slowly than the other sub styles.
  • Capoeira Regional: This is the most common form of Capoeira. It is also generally the one the people speak of as emanating from Brazil.
  • Capoeira Contemporânea: A hybrid sub style of Capoeira that is eclectic in nature, pulling from various other types.

Famous Capoeira Practitioners

  • Anderson Silva: A famous mixed martial arts fighter, Silva once trained in Capoeira. His highly fluid fighting style gives hints of this in competition.
  • Wesley Snipes: Snipes, a very well-known actor, has trained in several martial arts styles. One of these is Capoeira.
  • Charlize Theron: Theron, a famous actress, trained in Capoeira for her role in Aeon Flux.