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What is Capoeira?

By Alison McAdams
Updated May 17, 2024
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Capoeira is a combination of dance, ritual and martial arts that developed out of the Portuguese trade of African slaves to Brazil the 16th century. Capoeira was illegal in Brazil until the 1930's.

The ritual game begins with two players squatting in a circle, or roda, of spectators. The players rest at the feet of a single-stringed instrument, or berimbau, and one player sings a commencement song.

The other player can sing in response or remain silent to allow the first player to sing the announcement that the game has started. The musician at the berimbau then picks up the song as the players move to the center of the circle. The lead berimbauist is the Mestre, or master of the capoeira game. The roda chants, sings, and drums under the direction of the Mestre.

The players and the Mestre carry on a dialogue during the game; the music sets the tempo for the tricks that a player can use. A player may also improvise his movements according to the musical commentary the Mestre gives to his performance. The Mestre in turn may play music that reflects the players' attitudes, reactions and strategies.

The goal of the game, or jogo, is to catch the opponent off-guard using guile, technique and gymnastics. Players can fake each other out using rapid kicks, cartwheels, handstands, leg sweeps, flips, jabs, dodges, and turns. The base movement, and the one most often used by beginners, is a side-to-side motion in a semi-crouched stance called ginga.

Unlike most martial arts, strikes are admired most when there is no physical contact. A player gains the most applause when the other player has been skillfully baited into a vulnerable, off-balance position, but has not actually fallen or been hit.

Although there is no point system, and no official winners or losers, players can be disqualified for falling into a seated position or, in some forms of capoeira, using their hands to strike. Some speculate that the lack of hand use in capoeira harkens back to an ancient Kongo saying: "hands are to build, feet are to destroy."

Modern martial artists have two main choices for capoeira techniques and philosophy. Angolan capoeira is the more traditional form, with slow, dance-like steps while Regional capoeira relies much more on high-energy acrobatics.

Capoeira today is truly a global phenomenon with schools teaching Angolan, Regional and dozens of fusion styles in major cities all over the world.

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Discussion Comments
By Mykol — On Mar 14, 2012

What kind of capoeira music do they play at these classes where they teach this? Do most places use a CD or do they really have someone who is singing or playing an instrument?

I have never heard of this ritual game, and am trying to picture what one of these classes would be like. Do they also have spectators and actually carry on a conversation while they are doing this?

I was surprised to learn that they are teaching capoeria in schools. This was the first I have heard of martial arts being taught within the school system.

I can understand the dance part of it, but wonder if some parents would object to the martial arts.

By honeybees — On Mar 14, 2012

@anon11179 - More people are becoming aware of capoeira and it seems to be offered in several places. I live in the Seattle area, and they teach classes for kids and adults.

My son has been interested in signing up for one of these classes. I think he is more interested in the martial arts part, but it is very interesting to know some of the history of capoeira.

We have been at the gym where they are teaching some of these classes. It is easy to get caught up in what they are doing. You really have to be very alert and limber as you don't want to be caught off-guard.

It looks like this could help teach patience and balance. I think it would be important to learn about the instructor who is teaching the class. If they have a long history of practicing capoeria, you could probably learn a lot from them.

By truman12 — On Mar 14, 2012

I took copoeira classes for a while and it is a great workout, especially for the legs. When you are doing capoeira you are basically bouncing up and down the whole time. A lot of the capoeira moves involve springing and big bursting jumps so over time your legs become really powerful without being over muscled like you might get at the gym.

By backdraft — On Mar 13, 2012

@anon11179 - I know that in St. Louis where I live there is at least one capoeira class that is available to beginners. It is taught by someone who has been practicing capoeira fighting for years and wants to spread it to a new generation and a new culture.

By anon11179 — On Apr 10, 2008

How can you get involved with this kind of hobby? It sounds great.

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