Capoeira, Beware the Dance

CAPOEIRA (Angola and Brazil)

Capoeira was developed by Brazilian slaves of African descent (presumably taken from the Portuguese colony of Angola) some time in the 16th century.

Since it was illegal for slaves to practice fighting skills, they altered native African religious dances so that when they practised their art they would appear to simply be dancing.

Because these dances included manoeuvres such as handstands, back flips, and cartwheels, Capoeira is today the most acrobatic of all martial arts, with many kicks being executed from a handstand position.

Its offensive techniques are primarily kicks, its defensive techniques are primarily body movements which avoid the enemy's attack all together.

African culture is a large part of studying Capoeira, especially since training and competition is done to the rhythm of the berimbau, a single- stringed musical instrument.

Only in the 20th century has the practice of Capoeira become legal in Brazil, and only in very recent years has it been taught in other countries.


Capoeira is an art form hat involves movement, music, and elements of practical philosophy. One experiences the essence of capoeira by "playing" a physical game called jogo de capoeira (game of capoeira) or simply jogo.

During this ritualized combat, two capoeiristas (players of capoeira) exchange movements of attack and defense in a constant flow while observing rituals and proper manners of the art.

Both players attempt to control the space by confusing the opponent with feints and deceptive moves.

During the jogo, the capoeiristas explore their strengths and weaknesses, fears and fatigue in a sometimes frustrating, but nevertheless enjoyable, challenging and constant process of personal expression, self-reflection and growth.

The speed and character of the jogo are generally determined by the many different rhythms of the berimbau, a one-string musical bow, which is considered to be the primary symbol of this art form.

The berimbau is complemented by the pandeiro (tambourine), atabaque (single-headed standing drum), agogo (double bell), and reco-reco (grooved segment of bamboo scraped with a stick) to form a unique ensemble of instruments.

Inspiring solos and collective singing in a call-and-response dialogue join the hypnotic percussion to complete the musical ambiance for the capoeira session.

The session is called roda de capoeira, literally "capoeira wheel," or simply roda.

The term roda, refers to the ring of participants that defines the physical space for the two capoeiristas engaged in the ritualized combat.


During the Middle Ages, Portugal suffered a drastic decrease in its labor force as a result of human loss in the war for independence from Castile, and from a series of epidemics of devastating proportions.

Moreover, a huge deployment of people to Africa and India in Portugal's colonial endeavors intensified the crisis (Pinsky1988: 14).

Gomes Eannes de Azurara was one of the first to register Portugal's incipient attempt to replace its productive hands, narrating how Antáo Gonçalves in 1441 captured and took the first Africans to the Infant D. Henrique, King of Portugal (in Rego 1968: 1-2).

By the early 1500s, Portugal had begun extensive human trafficking from Africa to its South American colony of Brazil.

Between the years of 1500 and 1888, almost four million souls crossed the Atlantic in the disease-ridden slave ships of the Portuguese Crown.

The signing of the Queiroz Law prohibiting slave traffic in 1850 was not strong enough to empty the sails of the tumbadoras (slave ships) crossing the ocean.

Many Africans were still forced to face the "middle passage" and were smuggled into Brazil.

The ethnocultural contributions of this massive forced human migration, along with those of the Native inhabitants of the colony and those of the Europeans from Portugal, shaped the people and the culture of Brazil.

From the Africans, we inherited the essential elements of capoeira.

This is evident in the aesthetics of movement and musical structure of the art, in its rituals and philosophical principles, as well as in historical accounts of the ethnicity of those who practiced capoeira in the past.

Most of the questions related to the formative period of the art still remain unanswered.

When, how, and why did capoeira emerge in Brazil? From what specific cultural groups did it come, and from which original art forms did it derive? The difficulty in answering these questions resides in the lack of written registers of capoeira and in the absence of an oral tradition that reaches as far back as the pre-dawn of the art.

Also, the unclear Europeans' notion of cultural and geographic boundaries of the African territories at the beginning of Portugal's colonial enterprises, as well as the mixing of Africans from different tribes in the same work areas in Brazil, increase our uncertainties.

According to E. Bradford Burns, it is possible to identify three major African contributors to Brazilian society: the Yoruban and Dahomean Sudanese people originating from regions that later became Liberia, Nigeria, the Gold Coast, and the southern part of contemporary Benin (former Dahomey); the "Mohammedanized Guinea-Sudanese" Hausa; and the Bantu people from Angola, Congo and Mozambique (Burns 1970: 39).

Early documents about enslaved Africans in Brazil, however, refer only to "natives from Guiné."

At that time, "Guiné" was a generic denomination for a large area of West Africa with no precise ethnic or politico-geographic definition in the European mind. "[Guiné] extended from the delta of the Senegal River limits of the desert region between Senegal and Mauritania to the Orange River, in the contemporary Gabon ..." (Pinsky, 1988: 24).

Kenny Mann (1966), in his own description of the area, placed its boundaries a bit further north, so as not to include the contemporary states of Cameroon, Equatorial Guinea and the Island of Sáo Tomé.

Such broad geographical definitions have been insufficient and confusing for the investigator looking into the ethnic history of capoeira. This lack of clarity was felt even by the earliest chroniclers of the art.

Plocido de Abreu stated in his pioneer work Os capoeiras (1886), the difficulties he faced in his attempt to trace the origins of the art form (Soares, 1994: 10).

The importance of Yoruban influences in the state of Bahia has long been recognized.

Recently, though, the weight of the Bantu contribution has been reevaluated, gaining more prominence as traces of this culture are identified in the way of life of the inhabitants of Bahia's old cities.

Since the cadence in the ginga (the multi-funcional and characteristic movement of capoeira ), the music, and the rituals of today's capoeira seem to have radiated from the Reconcavo Baiano (coastal areas of the Bay of All Saints in Bahia), it is not a far stretch of the imagination to associate the formative elements of the art with cultural expressions embedded in the traditions of the sub-Saharan Bantu people from Angola.

In reality, the historical journey of capoeira is as elusive to grasp as is the disconcerting typical movement of a good capoeirista.

We know for sure that the largest cultural river that flooded Brazil ran from Africa, but the sources of its tributaries are still hidden, and the specifics of its murmurs are still like the riddles of an ancient sphinx yet to be deciphered.


Three main lines of thought concerning the origins of capoeira have been introduced throughout the times: capoeira was already formed in Africa; capoeira was created by Africans and their descendants in the rural areas of colonial Brazil; and capoeira was created by Africans and their descendants in one of the major Brazilian urban centers.

Arguments supporting these theories have long been discussed.

One of the first theories proposing African origin for capoeira was put forward in 1889 by Beaurepaire-Rohan, who defined the art of capoeira as being a "kind of athletic game introduced by the Africans..." (in Soares, 1993: 20). Much later, in 1960, the Portuguese Albano de Neves e Souza revisited the African origins hypothesis, writing: "Among the Mucupe in Southern Angola, there is a zebra dance, the n'golo, ... The n'golo is capoeira" (In Moura, 1980: 15-16).

Kongo scholar Dr. K. Kia Bunseki Fu-Kia introduced yet another possible African "ancestor" of capoeira: "Kipura, in the Kongo cultural context, is ... an individual whose techniques of fight or struggle are based or developed on the ground of roosters fighting techniques ... (in Dawson, 1993).

For the last three decades, theories of rural Brazilian origins of capoeira have been popular among young fight-oriented capoeiristas.

One of these theories was promoted in detail by the professor of journalism Augusto Ferreira, who emphasized the martial aspects of capoeira.

In what seems to be a rather creative description, he wrote in the Journal of Capoeira (1968, vol2: 6) that capoeira was born out of a "burning desire for freedom," developing its structure as a fight in the the quilombos, back-country villages formed by runaway slaves.

Brasil Gerson (n/d), in his book History of Rio de Janeiro's Streets, presented a theory supporting the urban origins of capoeira.

He stated that in the street Rua da Praia de D. Manoel, there was a large bird market where the slaves converged carrying their "capoeiras" (baskets) of chickens on their heads. The game of capoeira, Gerson proposed, "was born from the slaves' pastimes at this market" (Gerson, 3rd. Edition p. 31).

This theory was later accepted by the respected Brazilian linguist Antenor Nascentes (n/d), while examining the etymology of the word capoeira. Nascentes wrote: "The slaves who brought capoeiras of chickens to sell in the market, while waiting for the market to open, would enjoy themselves by playing the game of capoeira .

As a metonymy res pro persona, the name of the thing was passed on to the person related with it" (In Rego 1968, pp. 24-25).

Waldeloir Rego (1968), an African-Brazilian sociologist and expert in African culture in the Americas, has written one of the most comprehensive and well-researched books on capoeira. In his book, Capoeira Angola, Rego presented his claim: My thesis is that capoeira was created in Brazil, with a series of movements and rhythms common to all of those who practice it...[C]oncerned with capoeira's improvement, its own inventors and descendants changed it with the introduction of new movements and toques [rhythms of the berimbau] transforming some and extinguishing others... [This process occurred] over time and in conjunction with the social and economic development of the community that practiced capoeira, thus relegating many of [the movements and rhythms] to the realm of the forgotten (Rego, 1968: 35).

The existence of capoeira in different parts of Brazil without apparent connection suggested yet another proposition about the formation of a more unified display of the art. This theory was presented by Nestor Capoeira in his book Fundamentos da Malicia (1992):

Based upon what we have seen up to this point, I am going to propose the thesis that the fights, the dances, rhythms and musical instruments from different African ethnicities did not fuse to 'escape prohibitions and to deceive the white lords' but, this synthesis happened after 1830 in accordance with a general tendency of the black community, in which, the armed fight, impossible to be won, was substituted by the conquering of space and territory through culture.

And, that the jogo de capoeira did not have an exclusive center of dispersion, but sprouted spontaneously in different formats and in various locations materializing in Brazil between 1830 and 1930, a certain archetype existent within the black collective unconscious (Capoeira, pp. 40).

Nestor Capoeira's considerations were part of a complex and interesting discussion with Muniz Sodré, professor of communications and a well versed scholar in capoeira, candomblé (certain African-Brazilian religious ceremonies) and other African cultural traditions. In this discussion, commenting from the African cultural perspective, in which the ritual and the sacred are present in everything, Muniz Sodré said:

The hypothesis of 'unconscious' [would be] valid for the modern occidental society which repressed the ritual, in the sense that it represses the mythical manifestation of the world...However, something is hidden, and hides itself through the secret, the secret that is controlled by the elders, by the initiated. Therefore, repression does not exist, secret does.

If there is not repression, there is not the unconscious.

Capoeira is the conjunction of cult, secret and fight...The secret is a dynamic of communication, of the redistribution of axé [the force that moves everything in the universe according to some African beliefs], of the existence and vigor of the cosmic game... In terms of is not [only] the violence or the force of the weapons that come into play (the war is just a small and episodic aspect of the fight), but the tricks, the astuteness, the courage and the power of realization (Axé) involved (Capoeira, 1992: 39-41).

What then is capoeira? Is it African, and if so, what does it mean to be African in this case? Capoeira has been an elusive "chameleonic" art form that has assumed many shapes throughout its existence.

Change, however, has never been able to wring out the reflection of capoeira's soul, or extirpate its formative seeds, the common denominator threading together all the shapes capoeira has assumed.

Capoeira's spirit, its innate capacity to resist pressure through a deceptive strategy of adaptability and "non-direct" confrontation of opposing forces, is one of the essences that exudes from its African roots.

Julio Cezar de Souza Tavares, one of the contemporary authors who revolutionized the thinking on capoeira, referred to the art as the "war dance: archive weapon" in his master's sociological thesis.

Tavares introduced:

The comprehension of one phenomenon that characterizes the manifestation of the wisdom of the blacks, is the wisdom of the body. This knowledge constitutes the nucleus, a body of configured attitudes, while [being] a strategy, with the goal of edifying spaces where the socio-cultural identity would be presented...

It is exactly for being always treated as a body that exclusively incarnates work, this side of the African culture reinforced itself to become strategically structured with the goal of preserving and strengthening the body as an instrument of cultural transmission of the socially acquired habits (archive), and at the same time, as an instrument of organization of the physical, individual, and community defense (weapon)... [In Brazil], capoeira was chosen as an event that possesses this corporeal knowledge.

Of course, another kind of practice could have been chosen, but [capoeira] was the one that better allocated itself according to the binomial archive weapon (In Capoeira, 1992: 41-42).

Capoeira is not the only popular expression that derives from the same formative elements. African in essence, these elements are present in other African rooted art forms, such as the dancesmani from Cuba and laghya from Martinique, or in other purely African cultural expressions, such as the ceremonial dance n'golo from Angola. In many ways, these arts resemble capoeira.

However, common structural elements that are coalesced in different geographic and cultural environments result in different outcomes.

In spite of capoeira's mutant, broad and diffuse contours that may obfuscate those who are not experienced enough to understand the art's complexities and contradictions, capoeira is a well-known popular cultural expression that has been practiced in Brazil for centuries.

As the venerable capoeira teacher Mestre Pastinha said: "Capoeira is capoeira" (Pastinha, n/d).