From The Martial Arts Encyclopedia

Capoeira is a Brazilian fight-dance, game, and martial art created by enslaved Africans during the 19th Century Nestor Capoeira (2003)Participants form a roda (circle) and take turns playing instruments, singing, and sparring in pairs in the centre of the circle. The game is marked by fluid acrobatic play, feints, subterfuge, and extensive use of groundwork, as well as sweeps, kicks, and headbutts. Technique and strategy are the key elements to playing a good game. Capoeira has three main styles, known as "regional", "Angola", and the less-well defined "contemporânea".History of capoeira<


"Negroes fighting, Brazil" c. 1824.
Painting by Augustus Earle depicting an illegal capoeira-like game in Rio de Janeiro

From the 16th to the 19th centuries, Portugal shipped slaves into South America from western Africa. The South American country of Brazil was the most common destination for African captives with 42% of all enslaved peoples shipped across the Atlantic. Most commonly sold into Brazil were Akan, Igbo, Yoruba, Dahomean, Muslim Guineans, Hausa, and Bantu (among them Kongos, Kimbundas and Kasanjes) from Angola, Congo and Mozambique. These Africans brought their cultural traditions and religions with them to the New World. One theory suggests that capoeira originated from a courtship dance in Angola used by suitors of young women, however, capoeira's origins are often disputed. Originally, capoeira referred to a completely different game than today, wherein two competitors attempted to score against each other by means of headbutts to the chest<ref name="nestor2003" />. There is contention as to whether it arrived with enslaved Africans or whether Africans refined it once they reached Brazil. One catalyst for capoeira was the homogenization of African people under the oppression of slavery. Capoeira emerged as a way to resist oppression, secretly practice art, transmit culture, and lift spirits. This form of capoeira is best represented in capoeira Angola (which continues to uphold the roots of capoeira) today.<ref>Capoeira Angola</ref> Some historians believe that the indigenous peoples of Brazil also played an important role in the development of capoeira.

Batuque and Maculelê are other fight-dances also developed by African-descended populations that are closely connected to capoeira. There are also engravings and writings that describe a now-lost fighting dance in Cuba, the baile del maní, with two Bantu men moving to the yuka drums.

After slavery was abolished in 1888, the freed people moved to the cities of Brazil and with no employment to be found, many joined or formed criminal gangs. They continued to practice capoeira, and it became associated with anti-government and criminal activities. As a result, capoeira was outlawed in Brazil in 1890. The punishment for practicing it was extreme (practitioners would have the tendons on the backs of their feet cut){, and the police were vicious in their attempt to stamp out the art. Capoeira continued to be practiced, but it moved further underground. Rodas were often held in areas with plenty of escape routes, and a special rhythm called cavalaria was added to the music to warn players that the police were coming. Capoeira practitioners (capoeiristas) also adopted apelidos or nicknames to make it more difficult for police to discover their true identities. To this day, when a person is baptized into capoeira at the batizado ceremony, they may be given an apelido.

Legal persecution of the art faded eventually.

Mestre Bimba made a major contribution to the preservation of the art by opening the first academy for instruction in capoeira. This was a significant development because it eventually led to the legalization of the art in Brazil, and allowed capoeira to gain popularity at a time when the art could possibly have died out. A notable example of the influence of Mestre Bimba's system of formal instruction took place in 1937, when he was invited to perform with his students at an event at which Getulio Vargas, the president of Brazil at that time, was present. Vargas was so impressed with the discipline and devotion of Mestre Bimba's students he declared capoeira the national sport of Brazil. Mestre Bimba also had a major impact on the practice and method of instruction of the art, and introduced changes that affect the practice of the art to this day. Because of these changes Mestre Bimba remains a controversial figure. Prior to the legalization of the art, the public associated the art of capoeira with the poor underclass, criminal activity, and negative stereotypical elements of the afro-Brazilian population. In order to alter the image of the art in the eye of the public, Mestre Bimba removed many of the rituals and traditions of the art of capoeira for practice in his academy. In order not to confuse it with capoeira, he called it Uma Luta Regional de Bahia (A regional fight from Bahia). Mestre Bimba's capoeira is now called capoeira regional, or simply regional. Mestre Bimba's capoeira continued to gain popularity, but eventually an effort was made to prevent the art from losing its traditions and rituals.

In 1942, Mestre Pastinha opened the first formal academy for instruction in the traditional form of the art, known as capoeira Angola. Mestre Pastinha's efforts prevented capoeira Angola from being lost as newer, modernized forms of the art gained popularity.

This era was a milestone of a dramatic change in the mode of instruction of the art of capoeira. Previously, capoeira was passed on in secret, usually from a relative such as one's father or uncle, or in a small group setting where several young people in a particular community would receive guidance from elder practitioners from that community. During this era, the academy system became the predominant form of participation in the art. Presently, there are capoeira academies on almost every continent of the world.

Another significant change that occurred due to the proliferation of capoeira 'schools' is the participation of middle and upper class members of the population. Presently, some Mestres participate in seminars where they discuss the need to make the art available to poor blacks who can not afford the cost of training in an academy. This is an issue of concern to practitioners who recognize the importance of making the art available to people who come from the culture that invented the art in the first place.


The derivation of the word "capoeira" is under dispute, as there are several possibilities:

  • The Portuguese word "capoeira" derives from the word capão, which translates as capon, a castrated rooster. The sport's name may originate from this word since its moves resemble those of a rooster in a fight. "Capoeira" has several meanings, including any kind of pen where poultry is kept, a fowl similar to a partridge, and a basket worn on the head by soldiers defending a stronghold. "Capoeira" is also what people used to call a black inlander who mugged travelers.
  • Afro-Brazilian scholar Carlos Eugenio has suggested that the sport took its name from a large round basket called a capa commonly worn on the head by urban slaves selling wares.
  • The word could derive from two Tupi-Guarani words, kaá (leaf, plant) and puéra (past aspect marker), which literally means "formerly a forest", referring to an area of forest that had been cleared by burning or cutting down. In such places a thick, low secondary vegetation would grow, making it a good place for those who escaped slavery and bandits to hide. According to this etymology, the term was first used as a synonym of outlaw, especially the type of outlaws that would evade justice by escaping to the jungles, to be only later applied to the fighting art most of them knew.
  • Kongo scholar K. Kia Bunseki Fu-Kiau has posited that "capoeira" could be derived from the Kikongo word kipura, a term used to describe a rooster's movements in a fight and meaning to flutter, flit from place to place, struggle, fight, or flog.


Music is integral to capoeira. It sets the tempo and style of game that is to be played within the roda. The music is composed of instruments and song. The tempos differ from very slow (Angola) to very fast (São Bento Regional). Many of the songs are sung in a call and response format while others are in the form of a narrative. Capoeiristas sing about a wide variety of subjects. Some songs are about history or stories of famous capoeiristas. Other songs attempt to inspire players to play better. Some songs are about what is going on within the roda. Sometimes the songs are about life, or love lost. Others are lighthearted or even silly things, sung just for fun. Capoeiristas change their playing style significantly as the songs or rhythm from the berimbau commands. In this manner, it is truly the music that drives capoeira.

There are three basic kinds of songs in capoeira. A ladainha (litany) is a narrative solo usually sung at the beginning of a roda, often by the Mestre (Master). These ladainhas will often be famous songs previously written by a Mestre, or they may be improvised on the spot. A ladainha is usually followed by a chula or louvação, following a call and response pattern that usually thanks God and one's teacher, among other things. Each call is usually repeated word-for-word by the responders. The ladainha and chula are often omitted in regional games. Finally, corridos are songs that are sung while a game is being played, again following the call and response pattern. The responses to each call do not simply repeat what was said, however, but change depending on the song.

The instruments are played in a row called the bateria. Three instruments are berimbaus, which look like an archer's bow using a steel string and a gourd for resonance. It is played by striking the string with a stick, and the pitch is regulated by a stone. Legend has it that, in the old times, knives or other sharp objects were attached to the top of the berimbau for protection and in case a large fight broke out. These three bows are the Berra boi (also called the bass or Gunga), Medio, Viola, and lead the rhythm. Other instruments in the bateria are: two pandeiros (tambourines), a Reco-Reco (rasp), and an Agogo (double gong bell). The Atabaque (conga-like drum), a common feature in most capoeira baterias, is considered an optional instrument, and is not required for a full bateria in some groups.

The capoeira roda

File:Bantus roda.jpg
A sit-down roda held in a capoeira academy.

The "roda" is the circle of people within which capoeira is played. People who make up the roda's circular shape clap and sing along to the music being played for the two partners engaged in a capoeira "game" ("jogo"). In some capoeira schools an individual in the audience can "buy in" to engage one of the two players and begin another game.

The minimum roda size is usually a circle where the radius is about 3 metres (10 feet) in diameter. They are often larger, up to 10 metres in diameter (30 feet). The rhythm being played on the berimbau sets the pace of the game being played in the roda. Slow music limits the game to slow yet complex ground moves and handstands.

Hits usually aren't made but feigned or just shown. The players often turn away from each other's hits just to throw their own. Slow games are often seen as finesse games, less impressive for the casual viewer. Faster music allows for more circular momentum which is key to gaining "big air" in the roda.

For the participants, the roda is a microcosm of life and the world around them. Most often in the roda, the capoeirista's greatest opponent is himself. Philosophy plays a large part in capoeira and the best teachers strive to teach Respeito (Respect), Responsabilidade (Responsibility), Segurança (Safety/Security), Malicia (Cleverness/Street-smarts), and Liberdade (Liberty/Freedom).

Modern capoeira is often criticized by more traditional practitioners of capoeira as being in the process of losing its "playfulness" and dialogue, in the sense that many capoeiristas tend to focus more on impressive acrobatics or the martial elements than the playful interaction with the other player in the roda.

Capoeira is uniquely social. Networking with other groups and students from other teachers can teach a capoeirista more about the art and improve their skills.

The game

Capoeiristas outside Faneuil Hall in Boston.

Capoeira does not focus on injuring the opponent. Rather, it emphasizes skill. Capoeiristas often prefer to show the movement without completing it, enforcing their superiority in the roda. If an opponent cannot dodge a slow attack, there is no reason to use a faster one. Each attack that comes in gives players a chance to practice an evasive technique.


The ginga (literally: rocking back and forth; to swing) is the fundamental movement in capoeira. Capoeira Angola and capoeira regional have distinctive forms of ginga. Both are accomplished by maintaining both feet approximately shoulder-width apart and then moving one foot backwards and then back to the base, describing a triangular 'step' on the ground. This movement is done to prepare the body for other movements.

The rest of the body is also involved in the ginga: coordination of the arms (in such a way as to prevent the body from being kicked), torso (many core muscles may be engaged depending on the player's style), and the leaning of the body (forward and back in relation to the position of the feet; the body leans back to avoid kicks, and forward to create opportunities to show attacks). The overall movement should match the rhythm being played by the bateria.


Capoeira primarily attacks with kicks, sweeps, and head strikes. Some schools teach punches and hand strikes, but they are not as common. Some scholars have speculated that this is because the art was originally developed by handcuffed slaves fighting against their guards but this is highly unlikely as slaves were just as often restrained by the feet and/or neck. Another, more probable explanation for the primary use of feet is the common West African belief that hands are for creation and feet for destruction. Elbow strikes are commonly used in place of hand strikes. "Cabeçada" or Headbutts are common- as they are in many of the fighting arts of the African Diaspora. Knee strikes are sometimes seen. Capoeira also uses acrobatic and athletic movements to maneuver around the opponent. Cartwheels called "" (a very common acrobatic movement), handstands (bananeira), headspins (pião de cabeça), hand-spins (pião de mão), hand-springs (gato), sitting movements, turns, jumps, flips (Mortal), and large dodges are all very common in capoeira though vary greatly depending on the form and rhythm. Fakes and feints are also an extremely important element in capoeira games and the setting of "traps" or illusory movements are very common.


Capoeira defenses consists of evasive moves and rolls. A series of ducks called esquivas, which literally means "escape", are also staple of a capoeiristas' defensive vocabulary. There are typically different esquivas for every step of the Ginga, depending on the direction of the kick and intention of the defender. A common defense is the rolê, which is a rolling move that combines a duck and a low movement. This move allows the defensive player to quickly evade an attack and position themselves around the aggressor in order to lay up for an attack. It is this combination of attacks and defense which gives a game of capoeira its perceived 'fluidity' and choreography.

Other evasive moves such as rasteira, vingativa, tesoura de mão or queda allow the capoeirista to move away or dangerously close in an attempt to trip up the aggressor in the briefest moment of vulnerability (usually in a mid-kick.)


File:Au batido.jpg
A capoeirista performing the au batido.

There are also styles of moves that combine both elements of attack and defense. An example is the au batido. The move begins as an evasive cartwheel which then turns into a blocking/kick, either as a reflexive response to a blocking move from the opposing player or when an opportunity to do so presents itself, eg. at an opponent's drop of guard. Two kicks called meia lua de frente and armada are usually combined to create a double spinning kick.


The Chamada is a ritual that takes place within the game of Capoeira Angola. Chamada means 'call', and consists of one player 'calling' their opponent to participate in the ritual. There is an understood dialogue of gestures of the body that are used to call the opponent, and to signal the end of the ritual. The ritual consists of one player signalling, or calling the opponent, who then approaches the player and meets the player to walk side by side within the roda. The player who initiated the ritual then decides when to signal an end to the ritual, whereby the two players return to normal play. The critical points of the chamada occur during the approach, and the chamada is considered a 'life lesson', communicating the fact that the approach is a dangerous situation. Approaching people, animals, or life situations is always a critical moment when one must be aware of the danger of the situation. The purpose of the chamada is to communicate this lesson, and to enhance the awareness of people participating in the ritual.

During the ritual, after the opposing player has appropriately approached the caller of the chamada, the players walk side by side inside the circle in which the game is played. This is another critical situation, because both players are now very vulnerable due to the close proximity and potential for surprise attack.

Experienced practitioners and masters of the art will sometimes test a student's awareness by suggesting strikes, head-butts, or trips during a chamada to demonstrate when the student left themselves open to attack. The end of a chamada is called by the player that initiated the ritual, and consists of a gesture inviting the player to return to normal play. This is another critical moment when both players are vulnerable to surprise attack.

The chamada can result in a highly developed sense of awareness and helps practitioners learn the subtleties of anticipating another person's intentions. The chamada can be very simple, consisting solely of the basic elements, or the ritual can be quite elaborate including a competitive dialogue of trickery, or even theatric embellishments.

Volta ao mundo

Volta ao mundo means 'trip around the world.'

The volta ao mundo takes place after an exchange of movements has reached a conclusion, or after there has been a disruption in the harmony of the game. In either of these situations, one player will begin walking around the perimeter of the circle, and the other player will join the 'trip around the world' before returning to the normal game.


As students master the basic moves, their game naturally acquires a more cunning slant as they begin to perfect the art of trickery, or malandragem. This involves a lot of improvisation and modifications of basic moves into a flurry of feints and fakes to trick the opponent into responding wrongly. These attempts can be blatant or subtle at discretion of the players. Effective malandragem lies in the development of sharp observation skills and a keen innate ability to anticipate the moves of the opponent and prepare an appropriate response. Some capoeiristas take this aspect of the art to heights akin to the guile of theatrics and drama. Games displaying elaborate performances and even staging skits reenacting historic cultural aspects of capoeira are commonly demonstrated amongst the most learned of the art.

Styles of capoeira

Capoeira has two main classifications: traditional and modern. Angola refers to the traditional form of the game. This is the oldest form, approximately 500 years old, with roots in African traditions that are even older, and is the root form from which all other forms of capoeira are based. Modern forms of capoeira can be classified as Regional and Contemporanea.

Capoeira Angola

Capoeira Angola is considered to be the mother form of capoeira and is often characterized by deeply held traditions, sneakier movements and with the players playing their games in closer proximity to each other than in regional or contemporanea. Capoeira Angola is often mis-characterized as being slower and lower to the ground than other major forms of capoeira. However, this is a common misperception as some of the fastest and intriguing games can be found in Capoeira Angola rodas.

The father of the best known modern Capoeira Angola schools is considered to be Mestre Pastinha who lived in Salvador, Bahia. Today, most of the capoeira Angola media that is accessible in the United States comes from mestres in Pastinha's lineage. He was not the only Capoeira Angola mestre. However, he is the best known mestre who helped bring more traditional Capoeira philosophy and movements into the modern setting of an academy.

Capoeira Regional

Regional is a newer form of Capoeira. Regional was developed by Mestre Bimba to make capoeira more mainstream and accessible to the public, and less associated with the criminal elements of Brazil. The regional style is most often composed of fast and athletic play.

Later, so called modern regional came to be (see the next section about capoeira Contemporânea). Developed by other people from Bimba's regional, this type of game is characterized by high jumps, acrobatics, and spinning kicks. This regional should not be confused with the original style created by Mestre Bimba.

Regional ranks capoeiristas (capoeira players) by ability, denoting different skill with the use of a corda (colored rope, also known as cordel or cordão) worn as a belt. Angola does not use such a formal system of ranking, relying instead upon the discretion of a student's mestre. In both forms, though, recognition of advanced skill comes only after many years of constant practice.

Capoeira Contemporânea

Contemporânea is a term for groups that train Angola and modernized capoeira simultaneously. This is controversial because many modern practitioners argue that Angola must be practiced alone, or that regional can only be practiced alone for the student to truly understand the form of the game. Other practitioners argue that a capoeirista should have a working knowledge of traditional and modern capoeira, and encourage training both forms simultaneously. This is an issue of great disagreement amongst capoeiristas.

The label contemporânea also applies to many groups who do not trace their lineage through Mestre Bimba or Mestre Pastinha and do not strongly associate with either tradition.

In recent years, the various philosophies of modern capoeira have been expressed by the formation of schools, particularly in North America, which focus on, and continue to develop their specific form of the modern art. This has become a defining characteristic of many schools, to the point that a seasoned student can sometimes tell what school a person trains from, based solely on the way they play the game. Some schools teach a blended version of the many different styles. Traditionally, rodas in these schools will begin with a period of Angola, in which the school's mestre, or an advanced student, will sing a ladainha, (a long, melancholy song, often heard at the start of an Angola game). After some time, the game will eventually increase in tempo, until, at the mestre's signal, the toque of the berimbaus changes to that of traditional Regional.

Each game, Regional and Angola stresses different strengths and abilities. Regional emphasizes speed and quick reflexes, whereas Angola underscores a great deal of thought given to each move, almost like a game of chess. Schools that teach a blend of these try to offer this mix as a way of using the strengths of both games to influence a player.

Capoeira in popular culture

As capoeira's popularity spreads throughout the world, so does its use in popular culture. Capoeira players have been seen in television commercials, video games and music videos for a number of years.

Special events

Capoeira regional groups periodically hold Batizados ("baptisms" into the art of capoeira). Members being "baptized" are normally given a corda (cord belt) and an apelido (capoeira nickname) if they haven't already earned one. Batizados are major events to which a number of groups and masters from near and far are normally invited. Sometimes a Batizado is also held in conjunction with a Troca de Corda (change of belts), in which students already baptized who have trained hard and been deemed worthy by their teachers are awarded higher-ranking belts as an acknowledgment of their efforts. Such ceremonies provide opportunities to see a variety of different capoeira styles, watch mestres play, and see some of the best of the game. Sometimes they are open to the public.

Batizados and Trocas de Corda do not occur in capoeira Angola, which does not have a system of belts. However, some contemporary schools of capoeira have combined the study of both arts and may require their students to be learned in the ways of capoeira Angola before being awarded a higher belt.

Related activities

Samba de roda

Performed by many capoeira groups, samba de roda is a traditional Afro-Brazilian dance that has been associated with capoeira for many years. The orchestra is composed by pandeiro (tambourine), atabaque (drum), berimbau - viola (berimbau with the smallest cabaça and the highest pitch), chocalho (rattle - a percussion instrument), accompanied by singing and clapping.


Puxada de rede

Important Mestres (Masters)

See also




Further Reading

  • Almeida B. (1986). Capoeira, a Brazilian Art Form: History, Philosophy, and Practice (2nd ed.). North Atlantic Books. ISBN 0-938190-29-6
  • Nestor Capoeira. (2002). Capoeira: Roots of the Dance-Fight-Game. North Atlantic Books. ISBN 1-55643-404-9
  • Lowell L.J. (1992), Ring of Liberation : Deceptive Discourse in Brazilian Capoeira. University of Chicago Press. ISBN 0-226-47683-9
  • Röhrig Assunção, Matthias (2004) Capoeira: The History of Afro-Brazilian Martial Art. Routledge ISBN 0-7146-5031-5
  • Downey, Greg. (2005). Learning Capoeira: Lessons in Cunning From an Afro-Brazilian Art. Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-517697-9
  • Mansouri, Arno (2005). Capoeira, Bahia. Editions Demi-Lune. ISBN 2-9525571-0-1 Bilingual (French and English)
  • The Art of Capoeira- short BBC article on Capoeira
  • Taylor, Gerard (2005). Capoeira: The Jogo de Angola from Luanda to Cyber Space. North Atlantic Books. ISBN 1-55643-601-7

External links