CAPOEIRA—Dance, Sport, and Martial Art
“The balance and flexibility of acrobatics, the grace and strength of dance, the speed and cunning of the fight, and the rhythms of the music.”
THAT is how one writer defined the essence of the Brazilian art named capoeira. According to one writer, capoeira has become “a truly global phenomenon.”
Choreographer and researcher Edward Lunda calls it “a unique fusion between a dance, martial art, game, and ritual.” The New Encyclopædia Britannica describes it as a “folk dance.” How is it performed? Players and onlookers form a circle, inside of which “two men face each other, emulating the blows and parries of ‘the fight’ in time with the rhythms of the berimbau, or musical bow.”
While there is much debate over the origins of capoeira, most researchers believe it is rooted in African tribal dances and rituals. It evidently made its way to Brazil during the days of slave trading. For decades the dance was practiced by slaves
When slavery was abolished in Brazil in 1888, “the newly freed slaves,” according to one Brazilian writer, “did not find a place for themselves within the existing socio-economic order.” As a result, many former slaves joined criminal gangs. Capoeira became a form of violent street combat. Armed with knives and sticks, these gangs terrorized neighborhoods.
The journal Planet Capoeira admits that the street form of the dance was “rough stuff.” It explains: “Its teachers eliminated all the pretty moves that were not much use in real fights. For example, kicks were lower, and aimed at the body rather than the head. The hands were used in various ways to deceive or to deliver punches to the body or finger strikes to the eyes. There was no music, [and there were] no cartwheels and no acrobatics except those that were combat-oriented.” Not surprisingly, then, capoeira was banned nationwide in 1890. Convicted capoeiras faced prison sentences, up to 300 lashes, and even deportation.*
In the 1930’s, Manuel dos Reis Machado, known in capoeira circles as Mestre Bimba, opened an academy for teaching the art. Of course, since the practice was still illegal, he was careful not to say publicly that he was teaching capoeira. In 1937 after winning the approval of Brazilian President Getúlio Vargas, capoeira gained the status of an authentic Brazilian sport. Today an estimated 2,500,000 Brazilians practice capoeira, and it is taught in many public institutions, such as schools, universities, and military academies.
Folk Dance or Martial Art?
While capoeira has dancelike moves, many still classify it as a martial art. Augusto, who learned capoeira with his father, is convinced that “despite being a form of dance, it incites violence and violates principles of peace and love.” He observes: “It would be easy to use capoeira in a moment of anger to hurt someone.” Even when performers seek to avoid physical contact, a mistimed movement can result in serious injuries.
Many also feel that capoeira has strong religious overtones. Pedro Moraes Trindade, a capoeira master from Bahia State, Brazil, describes it as “a fusion of the body and the mind.” He adds: “By viewing capoeira as just a sport, you minimize its history and its philosophy.” Edmilson, who practiced capoeira for eight years in Niterói, Rio de Janeiro, notes: “Some chulas [introductory songs] and rituals associated with capoeira are clearly related to spiritism.