What is Capoeira?
Capoeira is an art form that mixes movement, music, and elements of practical philosophy. This form of Martial Art was developed in Brazil by African descendants, brought to the “New World” by the Portuguese to serve as slave work force in theirs colony, and was combined with native Brazilian influences, probably beginning in the 16th century. In this environment, Capoeira was born as a simple hope of survival. A tool with which an escaped slave, completely unequipped, could survive in the hostile, unknown land and face the hunt of the capitães-do-mato, the armed and mounted colonial agents who were charged with finding and capturing escapees.
Capoeira is known for quick and complex moves, using mainly power, speed, and leverage for a wide variety of kicks, spins, and highly mobile techniques. One experiences the essence of capoeira by "playing" a physical game called jogo de capoeira (game of capoeira). During the game brimful of rituals, two Capoeiristas (players of capoeira) exchange movements of attack and defense in a constant flow while other participants around the Roda (literally circle - referring to the ring of participants that defines the physical space for the two capoeiristas to explore during the game) play instruments, sing, and clap, providing a great and energizing atmosphere. As players make their way into the roda for a game of capoeira, they are both attempting to control the space, focusing on each other as they try to anticipate the opponent’s next movement while disorienting him with kicks, acrobatics and deceptive moves. Capoeiristas keep eye contact at all times as they explore each others’s strengths and weaknesses in a challenging and highly physical game that ignites self-reflection, expression and growth.
The game of Capoeria is then complemented by it’s full ritual that involves the playing of instruments and collective singing in a call-and-response dialogue between participants of the roda and Masters or teachers leading the roda. The musical aspect of Capoeira is very rich and plays an important part in this art form. The main instrument of Capoeira, considered to be the primary symbol of this art form, is the Berimbau, a one-string musical bow played with the use of a thin wood stick and a rock, that is also responsible for dictating the speed and character of the game, depending on which of it’s many different rhythms is being played.
It can be said that Capoeira defies description, that one must witness its magic firsthand to comprehend its energy, beauty, and skill. To understand the movement, music, and magnetism of Capoeira, we must explore the art's fascinating tradition and mysterious history. Capoeira is a story of triumph and freedom.
Rooted in the rich African cultures brought to Brazil by slaves, Capoeira's history, mostly oral, is a subject of much debate.
It is the teachings of old masters and a few surviving documents that tell the story of this singular art. Capoeira's origin dates back 500 years to the beginnings of Brazil's slave trade period. Throughout the 488 year slave trade the Congo, Bantu, and Angolan tribes met and intermingled in the senzalas (slave quarters) and in the quilombos (escape slave nations). From this intermingling of cultures came a melding of traditions and rituals, and Capoeira was born.
Capoeira and its practitioners persevered through centuries of marginalization and discrimination and today the art has evolved from cultural ritual to martial art to way of life. This once clandestine vehicle of physical and spiritual empowerment, has transformed itself into a staple of Brazilian society. What was once outlawed by police is now an international phenomenon. Across the globe in fitness circles, artist communities, on print and television film we see Capoeira's legacy.
In the last few years, Capoeira has taken the world by storm. In the United States it is in demand, rapidly becoming the most sought-after art form and means of creative self-expression. Capoeira promotes diversity and tolerance, teaches discipline and respect for tradition, insures amazing fitness, and encourages investment in culture. Programs exist in over 35 states and in over 50 countries. From coast-to-coast, continent to continent, Capoeira is captivating people of all ages and walks of life.
Within the space of the Roda, two players engage in a dance-like physical play performing acrobatic kicks and defenses which often take the form of difficult contortions and leaps, building together an unique, graceful corporal conversation.
The nature of Capoeira is of a physical dialogue, where questions are presented in the form of attacks and initiate a response along the lines of a dodge, counter-attack or a combination both, using alternatively circular or straight kicks, escapes, sweeps, takedowns, and gymnastic flourishes, with booming creativity and inspired by the music.
The practice of Capoeira is a great way to stay healthy and in balance, building body awareness, teaching fast reflexes and self-defense tactics, all within a graceful and challenging activity.
Anyone new to Capoeira and first time at a Roda, will soon discover the importance of music within the culture behind this art form, where traditions, rituals and stories are passed down generations through song. The Roda (circle) is where Capoeiristas gather to sing, clap and play Capoeira…is where everything happens…following the rhythms of the orchestra. Commonly the orchestra, at the head of the roda, will consist of 3 berimbaus (a mono-chord instrument from Central Africa that can play several different rhythms and it’s variations), 1 or 2 pandeiros (tambourines) and 1 Atabaque (samba drum) that is the heartbeat of the Roda. Eventually orchestra will include a Rêco-rêco (wood scraper) and an Agogô (Cowbell).
The sound of the orchestra is complemented by the chorus of voices of all participants around the roda, in a call and response form, lead by one Capoeirista (normally this is a master or a teacher, if neither is available then it would be the most experienced and respected capoeirista present at that time)
Songs are sung in Portuguese, inspiring capoeiristas of all backgrounds to learn the language, and tell the art’s powerful history, stories of legendary mestres, and narratives that are at times colorful, funny or sad, bringing light to the intensity and vision of the art.
In class and in the Roda, you will hear four main types of rhythms, each associated with a particular style of the game.
Capoeira Angola refers to every capoeira that keeps the traditions held before the creation of the Regional style. Angola is more than just the rhythm dictated by the berimbau playing, is the most historical and raw form of capoeira. The pace is slow and games long and very expressive, requiring mental concentration as well as physical skill. Capoeiristas play the game low to the ground, with mandinga (essentially trickiness/cleverness) and in a ritualistic approach. At Capoeria Brasil students don’t begin to learn Angola until he or she is at an intermediate level in their training.
The game style called Banguela was developed by the famous Mestre Bimba, creator of Capoeira Regional. It’s a medium-paced rhythm where capoeiristas play close to each other marking takedowns, and at a distance work on developing more complex, intricate movement combinations and flourishes. As a beginner in the training of capoeira, this is the rhythm you will learn to play first.
Regional style is fast, bringing out a more aggressive game. Capoeiristas move quickly, using the same movements and techniques as in Banguela, but faster in a more objective and dynamic way, exploring reflexes and quick reactions to fast unexpected attacks. Beginners typically do not play the Regional rhythm.
The game of Iuna is very technical and only advanced students within the group are permitted to play in the presence of their Mestre. In the roda, the berimbau rhythm is accompanied solely by atabaque and pandeiro, as capoeiristas demonstrate their strength, balance, agility, and acrobatic skills.
There are two ways a Capoeirista can enter the Roda to play a game...
The first way is when two players kneel at the foot of the lead berimbau, shake hands and au (cartwheel) into the roda. When their game is over, they shake hands and back quickly out in to the ring of Capoeiristas making up the roda. It is important to note you should never turn your back to the center of the roda, whether you are standing on the perimeter, or especially when you are leaving the center after a game. This is a safety issue - other players may not notice that you haven't completely left the roda before they start throwing kicks and flips. And from the other perspective, be conscious of the other players who are leaving the roda before you enter.
The second way to enter the roda is to buy the game. This is when a player "buys out" the person who has been playing longer. During a practice/training or "dry" roda (no live instruments and singing), all cord levels can buy the game. During an official roda only higher cords may buy the game. A lower cord may not buy out a higher cord unless Mestre Boneco or the instructor in charge of the roda gives permission. When you enter the game in this way, the most important thing is to make sure both players can see you. Go in from the side, and be assertive.
There is an etiquette to buying in the roda that is difficult to explain ...observe the higher cords, and don't be afraid to ask questions.