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Summary Article: Capoeira from Brazil Today: An Encyclopedia of Life in the Republic

Capoeira is an Afro-Brazilian form of martial arts that combines music and dance with fighting. Typically, participants gather in a circle, or roda, and take turns battling each other in the center. While in the center, the combatants will spar each other using acrobatic and dancelike moves. Capoeira is most known for its participants’ prominent use of leg sweeps, head butts, and kicks, although jabs, punches, and body throws are also used, albeit to a lesser extent. Some styles use a belt, or corda, system similar to that used in karate, and those being given their first corda are initiated in a ceremony known as a batizado, or baptism. During these batizados, other members may also receive their higher-ranking belts as well (troca de cordões).

Sparring matches are usually accompanied by music and sometimes even singing. What makes capoeira so unique to other forms of martial arts is that music is such an integral part of it. The berimbau, a musical bow that probably has African origins, is the instrument most often used to accompany sparring matches, although other instruments are also used, and they line up in a formation known as the bateria. The tempos range from slow to very fast, and the movements are often timed to match the music. As for the singing, there are usually three types of songs that are used during matches or games. The first is the ladainha, or litany. This is usually sung as a solo and is normally done by the master, or mestre, who sings a song that he has previously written or one that he improvises at that moment. The second type is the chula, which is done in a call-and-response format (the responders repeat what the caller sings) and is normally excluded from regional matches. The final style is the corrida, which is sung during the actual match and is also done in a call-and-response manner, although the response is not always the same as the call.

The Afro-Brazilian art of capoeira combines music, dance, acrobatics, and fighting. (AP/Wide World Photos)

The origins and purpose of capoeira is a debated topic. Some historians maintain that it is a purely Brazilian innovation, while others suggest that it is derived from African fighting techniques, especially since similar fighting styles have existed in one form or another throughout the Caribbean. Whatever its origins, we do know that in the early 19th century, Brazilian slaves often gathered in large groups that sometimes numbered in the hundreds during the various religious festivals, days that often meant a day of rest and celebration for them. During these celebrations, they gathered in large groups that sometimes numbered in the hundreds, and it is here that outsiders often had their only opportunities to view things such as the lundu, a traditional dance from Angola, and capoeira. The sight of the slaves kicking and head butting each other in this manner frightened and angered the authorities who viewed this activity as a possible tool for inciting slave rebellions, all the while being disguised as a dance. In large cities such as Rio de Janeiro, capoeira gangs were associated with street violence and some critics even accused politicians of employing capoeira gangs to intimidate opponents. As a result of these various concerns, those who were apprehended for participating in capoeira were severely punished. Despite laws prohibiting capoeira, it persisted in Brazil through the rest of the 19th century but with its practitioners deflecting police crackdowns by emphasizing that it was an artistic dance form rather than a method of fighting.

In the 1920s and 1930s, the mood toward native Brazilian culture changed as scholars, such as the anthropologist Gilberto Freyre, began to emphasize the multiracial makeup of the Brazilian people, particularly those of mixed European and African ancestry, known as mestiços. It was the mestiço that began to embody the new Brazilian national identity that many were seeking to form, something to differentiate themselves from their old colonial background. The ban on capoeira was finally lifted in 1930 thanks to the efforts of Manuel dos Reis Machado, also known as Mestre Bimba. Reis Machado opened the first official capoeira school, Academia-Escola de Capoeira Regional, in 1932 in Salvador da Bahia. Reis Machado is often called the “Father of Capoeira,” and he pioneered a style of capoeira known as Capoeira Regional. Other forms of capoeira emerged, including the Capoeira Angola and Capoeira Contemporânea.

This meant that capoeira began to be recognized in a positive light, and many began to view it as a Brazilian sport and martial art. However, throughout much of the 20th century, it was still practiced only among the poorest of Brazilians as well as the black community. In the 1970s, several capoeira masters immigrated to the United States and Europe, and they took capoeira with them as they began to teach foreigners the art that had been a purely Brazilian sport. The introduction of capoeira to countries outside South America helped bring it into the mainstream and removed much of the stigma that had been associated with it previously. Today, capoeira has been disseminated through much of the world, and its members are drawn from many ethnicities and social backgrounds. In today's Brazil, capoeira schools include males and females from all ethnic and social backgrounds, while many capoeira masters are white and middle class.

Suggested Reading
  • Almeida, Bira. Capoeira: A Brazilian Art Form—History, Philosophy, and Practice. North Atlantic Books Berkeley, CA, 1986.
  • Assunção, Matthias Röhrig. Capoeira: A History of an Afro-Brazilian Martial Art. Routledge New York, 2005.
  • Talmon-Chvaicer, Maya. The Hidden History of Capoeira: A Collision of Cultures in the Brazilian Battle Dance. University of Texas Press Austin, 2007.
  • Vallance, Monique M.
    Copyright 2012 by John J. Crocitti and Monique M. Vallance

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