If you ask ten people to describe capoeira, you will most likely hear ten very different answers. Capoeira has been described as a martial art, a dance, an art form, a form of self-defense, or any hybrid of these. Many people often use more than one of these definitions in the same breath when describing this form of movement that combines spins, turns, precisely-aimed kicks, evasive defense moves, and breathtaking acrobatics into a rich fabric of motion, percussion, and song. Whatever terms may be used when one tries to define capoeira, there is some truth in all of them. Mestre Jelon Vieira, a leading Mestre ("master") of capoeira in Brasil and the United States, has described it as a dance which is a fight and a fight which is a dance.
Capoeiristas, anthropologists, historians, and others have developed several theories about the exact geographic and cultural origins of capoeira. Amidst this diversity of opinion, at least one point agreed upon by everyone is that capoeira is a product of the extensive slave trade between Brazil and Africa. Part of the difficulty in discovering the origins of capoeira can be attributed to the fact that few documents about slavery in Brazil exist today. Two years after the official abolition of slavery in 1888, all documents related to the slave trade were ordered burned by the government as an attempt to erase slavery from the face of Brazilian history. As a result, the true story of capoeira will probably never be known.
It is generally agreed that the seeds of capoeira were sown by the African slaves taken from the region of Angola. The original movements were based on a courtship dance called "The Zebra Dance," in which men would engage in mock fights for the right to marry. In Brazil, this ritual dance evolved into a form of self-defense whose movements emphasized attacks with the head and feet, including head butts, sweeps, and kicks from a handstand position. Portuguese slave owners outlawed its practice because they recognized that capoeira was used as a form of resistance. However, instead of being suppressed, capoeira's movements of attack and defense were blended with dance steps and acrobatics so that the plantation overseer would instead see a strange but harmless dance. The slaves also began using musical instruments, such as the berimbau and the atabaque, as a way to disguise capoeira. Different rhythms were even created to alert capoeiristas of approaching danger and avoid being caught.
Capoeira developed as a result of the institution of slavery, and those who practice it today are aware of its history of oppression. A federal statute even prohibited the practice of capoeira until 1890. Even after the abolition of slavery, capoeira was looked down upon by many as a game of the street. Although it was practiced by some whites and members of the upper classes, most capoeiristas were working-class blacks and mulattos. It was not until the 1930s that capoeira's shady reputation began to improve when Manoel dos Reis Machado, better known as Mestre Bimba, opened the first capoeira academy in 1932. Mestre Bimba is considered one of the founding fathers of capoeira's modern era and the creator of the style known as capoeira regional, which incorporated movements from other martial art forms such as boxing and jujitsu.
Other famous capoeira Mestres ("masters"), emerged during this period, including Vincente Ferreira, also known as Mestre Pastinha, the father of capoeira angola, a style of capoeira distinct from but complementary to capoeira regional. Because of Mestre Bimba, Mestre Pastinha, and others, capoeira's movements, songs, rhythms, and rituals were preserved, popularized, and transformed into a formal discipline and a respected art form. What was once considered to be a disreputable pastime is now a nationally recognized sport that has spread from Brazil to the rest of the world.
In Brazil, capoeira is rivaled in popularity only by soccer. Capoeira schools can be found throughout the entire country, attended by both male and female students. It can also be found throughout the Americas, Europe, and Asia, practiced by people of all ages, races, and nationalities. Capoeira has found considerable success in the United States. Capoeira made its debut in New York City and San Francisco during the mid 1970s through the work of Jelon Vieira, Loremil Machado, Bira Almeida, and other Brazilian mestres who introduced this unique art form to a generation of Americans only familiar with Asian martial art forms like Tae Kwon Do or Karate. Although it may not be as well known or widely practiced as other martial art forms, one can find capoeira schools in almost every state in the country, and its popularity is growing. Today Capoeira can be found on television, in Hollywood films, and music videos, and has influenced other dance styles such as breakdancing.
image credits: "Jogo da Capoeira" -Johann Rugendas