Courtesy of Marcel at

The Evolution of Capoeira
by Boca - ABADA´-Capoeira New York

The Afro-Brazilian art of Capoeira is one of the most unusual martial arts in the world. It,s the only martial system still practiced today that is known to have been developed in the Americas. In its almost 400 years of history, the art has constantly evolved and changed. Beginning as the fighting art of an oppressed people, it later became associated with criminals and outlaws. Today, Capoeira has been rehabilitated and proudly stands as a cultural expression of the Brazilian people. As the art is accepted and practiced by more and more people and spreads to countries throughout the world, it continues to evolve at a rapid pace. To see where Capoeira is and might be going, we must first turn our attention to where it has been.

Although there was nothing really like it in Africa, Capoeira can be said to have come to Brazil with the arrival of the first slaves. Most of the captured Africans were from Bantu tribes of Angola, along the South-East coast. To further subjugate their slaves, the Portuguese captors would break up families and mix together individuals from different tribes to prevent them from organizing. Thus each group became a hodge podge of different languages, customs, and traditions. Unable to communicate in their own languages, the slaves were forced to speak to each other in the tongue of their oppressors, Portuguese, just as their captors hoped. And while such practices did have a disastrous effect on their native African culture, it also had unexpected benefits for the slaves themselves. The displaced Africans brought with them their games and rituals, their various religions, their love of music and dancing and good natured bragging of physical prowess, as well as whatever fighting techniques they may have known. All of these mixed together to form the fertile ground from which Capoeira sprung.

The slaves were not docile, subservient types as they are often portrayed. Many were warriors, accustomed to the respect that such position held in tribal society. Although severely handicapped by being in a new country were they couldn't even communicate with their fellow captives, the slaves did not give up. They sought for a method to help them fight against the oppressors. People started to teach each other what they knew and they started to develop a form of guerrilla warfare.

When Capoeira was originally practiced by the slaves, it was not a dance, it was a fighting art. It became a dance because it was highly illegal. Once the slave owners realized that the slaves had developed a highly effective fighting art, they immediately prohibited it. The punishments were severe. Slaves caught practicing the art were either killed outright or horribly mutilated so that they were physically unable to practice. To keep the art alive the slaves added music and songs to the practice sessions. Capoeira came to look like a dance and in this way, the slaves were able to practice virtually under the noses of their captors.

Of course the Capoeira of that time looked very little like the Capoeira of today. In order to keep the true nature of the art a secret, the actual fighting techniques were disguised. Kicks could not be extended. A leg that whipped about full speed so that the heel just grazed the head of the partner, which is so often seen in today's Capoeira, could not existed in the slave's time.

The Capoeira of that time had to be much more subtle, more dancelike, so that only the initiated would understand what was really happening. Music became a important part of Capoeira. The songs, in Portuguese, created by the players, brought the people together. The entire community could join together, sing and play the instruments and watch the young men play, enjoying the music and the movement, yet also knowing that, should they need it, Capoeira would come to their defense against their oppressors.

The music also served as a form of communication as well. Certain rhythms played on the "berimbau", a one stringed bow instrument with a resonating, gourd, would warn the participants that the slave masters were coming and that they should make the movements more dance-like in order to fool them. One rhythm even announced the approach of the Calvary. Perhaps Capoeira was inspired by the African dances and traditions, then the dance aspect was reinforced as a form of disguise.

Originally they were practicing to fight. The berimbau and the dance was adopted in Brazil to disguise it, make it appear that it was more a folk dance.

Once slavery was abolish and Capoeira was no longer needed to bind the slaves together. It began to degenarate to mere steetfighting. Most of the fighting now was done with razors, the favorite weapon of the petty criminal. A folding straight razor was held between the first and second toes of one foot, the blade extending along the sole. The kicks became more probing and subtle since, with a weapon, even the slightest touch could be deadly. The street thugs were taught to never show that they had a weapon.

Capoeira-trained gangsters of this time never went out without three essential items; a silk scarf, wooden-soled shoes and a razor. The scarf and the shoes were used to defend against the razor, the shoes often worn on the hands to in order to parry the cuts and slashes of the weapon. Street fights were bloody affairs, fought over control of a piece of crime territory. No longer a source of pride among the former slaves, Capoeira and its practitioners were despised by all but the very lowest classes of society, and the art was again outlawed, this time by the people who had originated it.

The art was brought back from the abyss and into the public's eye in the 1930's by the legendary Mestre Bimba. Bimba managed to open the first legal academy in 1932, which the Brazilian government recognized in 1937. When a group of foreign diplomats saw a demonstration of Capoeira by Bimba and his students. They praised it as an Afro-Brazilian expression of culture. Then the Brazilian government became a little more lax in their persecution of Capoeira. That's where Capoeira started to become more legitimized.

As the public began to accept the art, Bimba worked to give the art a structure, and develop a sound teaching method. Out of this came Bimba's Capoeira, "Capoeira Regional", to distinguish it from the more traditional "Angola Style". Belt ranks were established and the emphasis was placed more on sport and exercise than on fighting, although practice session could still be quite rough.

The art of Capoeira became something that is beautiful to watch, something that the Brazilian people can once again be proud of. Capoeira is today exported to countries all over the world.