Capoeira is an Afro-Brazilian martial art where the combat element is disguised through the use of dance, game and music. It is also the only sport from Brazil that seeks Olympic recognition. It was created in Brazil some time after the 16th century in the regions known as Bahia, Pernambuco, Rio de Janeiro, Minas Gerais, and São Paulo. The fighting techniques, acrobatics, music and rituals of capoeira can be traced back to diverse African fighting forms and rituals. Capoeira itself is the result of the mixing of different African cultures among the African slaves brought to the American continent to work on plantations.
Capoeira has its roots in Central and West African cultures that were brought to Brazil through the Trans-Atlantic slave trade. The slave traders thought that if the African slaves could not communicate with each other they would be less effective at organizing rebellions. As a result, many peoples were brought together that had never had anything to do with each other before, and started sharing many of their rituals and cultural practices, eventually creating new traditions alltogether. Capoeira and many of the other African slave martial arts are the fruits of this mixture of African cultures.
That explains why the different aspects within capoeira (dance, acrobatics, martial arts, music and song) can be referenced in a number of diverse African fighting forms and rituals. In Angola and other parts of Africa today, one can find fighting techniques, music and rituals similar to some of the elements in capoeira, but not capoeira itself. Capoeira was created in Brazil by the mixing of cultures.
As with almost all martial arts in the twentieth century a schism appeared between traditionalists (Capoeira Angola), who view capoeira as their heritage, a weapon to be used against injustice and repression; and reformers (Capoeira Regional), who defend the recognition and the spread of the sport internationally. Broadly speaking one could say that the regional style emphasizes aesthetics, efficiency and technique, while Capoeira Angola tend to defend the traditions and African heritage.
Capoeira Angola was created by Mestre Pastinha and derives from the Bahian style fo the late 19th and early 20th century. The term Capoeira Regional, on the other hand, was originally popularized by Mestre Bimba in the 1930s in an attempt to differentiate this newer style from the older form of Capoeira Angola.
With the rise of the more ostentatious and far more overtly martial Capoeira Regional style the popularity of Capoeira Angola declined little by little. By the end of the 1970s however, many players of Capoeira Regional began to seek out the older Angola masters in order to connect with and understand the roots of the game. Capoeira Angola thus experienced a resurgence that involved a re-assessment of the traditional form of Capoeira. This may also have been because Capoeira began to be played outside of Brazil, where a greater number of capoeiristas became interested in Capoeira Angola.
Capoeira Angola itself has changed from what it used to be 100 years ago. It is much more organized, and the style of play, though it is distinct from Capoeira Regional, has become very technical in some places. Due to the creation of Capoeira Angola academies the play has become more instituted and formal as compared to the original, informal play.
Some authors prefer to speak about Capoeira Regional when talking about Bimba's capoeira and just capoeira (or capoeira angola) when referring to all other styles. A new emerging style Capoeira Contemporâna is trying to merge the two major styles, incorporating movements and musical rhythms from both styles in their art.
Many schools in Brazil do not claim affiliation with either lineage, but trace their descent to Capoeira Carioca, a style dating back to the early 1900s. In its original form Capoeira Carioca is said to have been much more violent and much less deceptive than Capoeira Angola or Capoeira Regional. Striking targets included the neck, eyes, joints, crotch, and vital points in order to incapacitate the opponent as quickly as possible. Music was not part of the art.
Differences between Capoeira Angola and Capoeira Regional
Capoeiristas in the regional style usually wear white clothing. In the early days being able to win a game without soiling your clothes was a mark of expertise. A colored belt indicates the player's rank. The color system may vary from school to school but usually includes the colors of the Brazilian flag. Capoeira Regional is visually more impactful, with fast and high kicks often delivered from a spinning base and many aerial movements. The game is also played at a faster pace than in Capoeira Angola, keeping the body more upright.
Capoeiristas in the Angola style generally wear black pants and their school's T-shirt, often in a black and yellow color combination, because they were the colors of Mestre Pastinha's favorite soccer team. There is no belt ranking system. Angola players keep their movements closer to the ground. Attacks are often executed from a crouched position with one or both hands on the ground. Movements require more strength and control, rather than speed. The chamada, a ritual intermezzo, commonly used as a recovery period, is typical of the Angola game.
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Photos by Gregory Brophy (hand wraps), Gerville Hall (TaeKwonDo girl), Lucian (Karate fight).
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Aceti, Monica (2010), "Capoeira in Europe." Martial Arts of the World. An Encyclopedia of History and Innovation. Ed. Thomas A. Green and Joseph R. Svinth. Vol. 2. Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO LLC. 455-459.
Assunção, Matthias Röhrig (2005), Capoeira: a history of an Afro-Brazilian martial art. Routledge.
Dias, Adriana Albert (2006). Mandinga, Manha & Malicia, uma hisoria sobre os capoeiras na capital da Bahia (1910-1925) [Mandinga, Manha and Malicia, A History of Capoeira in the Capital of Bahia (1910-1925)]. Salvador, Bahia: EDUFBA.
Irvine, Magnus (2008), Attitudes in Capoeira and in Life in General.
Miller, Lauren (2010), "Capoeira." Martial Arts of the World. An Encyclopedia of History and Innovation. Ed. Thomas A. Green and Joseph R. Svinth. Vol. 2. Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO LLC. 455-459.
Whittle, Steven M. "Savate, The Fighting Art of France." Black Belt [Burbank, CA] June 1987, Vol. 25, No. 6.: 62+.
While capoeiristas refer to capoeira as The Game (Jogo de Capoeira), it is not really a game or sport as there are no "winner" and "loser", no referees, no rigid rules or predetermined time for duration of the game. In fact, in some aspects it is a dance, because it evolves in function of the rythm and sound of the music, but clearly also a fight, with offensive and defensive movements.
The three central aspects of the Capoeira game are mandinga, malicia and malandragem. Madinga is the ability to disguise one's intentions and to influence situations. Malicia in the context of capoeira could be translated as "cunning comportment", or the ability to follow through the intentions that one has with the aim to harm. Malandragem is the ability to be victorious through trickery or in an alternative way. One author defines it as "what one does to survive in a "violent, miserable and discriminatory environment" (Dias, 2006), so it is not necessarily seen as something negative.
Resistance, improvisation, deception and freedom are the major strengths of Capoeira, which explains how it survived through slavery, oppression and illegality.
Capoeira considers that most of the time it is better to mislead the opponent and to lead them into a false sense of security rather than making a frontal attack, because a frontal attack has no element of surprise. Only an element of surprise can overpower a stronger opponent.
Sense of observation and mental flexibility are essential qualities. Instincts must be freed to act on the spur of the moment.
Another important principle in Capoeira is the practice of standing on the hands as a base to kick from in order to minimize power loss. Power loss occurs when the martial artist forces his leg in an unnaturally high position in order to reach a high target with his foot, such as the opponent's head. The higher the leg is raised the weaker the force becomes. Standing on the hands allows the martial artist to use the most powerful limbs against the most vulnerable of targets (the head) and, as a consequence, minimizes power loss.
Capoeira is marked by fluid, acrobatic and tricky movements often played on the ground or completely inverted, including sweeps, kicks, and headbutts. Less frequently used techniques include elbow-strikes, slaps, punches, and body throws.
Capoeira is practiced in a roda, a circle formed by the capoeiristas and the musicians. Two players enter the game and interact through an exchange of techniques, codes and values, based on the skill level of the practicioners, the style of capoeira and the musical accompaniment (particularly the berimbau, a single-stringed percussion bow). The master (mestre) controls the interactions.
History and Origins
Negros lutando, watercolor by Augustus Earle, 1822