Capoeira from Brazil

By Emily Anderson

You may have heard of capoeira referred to as a Brazilian martial art, but it actually bears a striking resemblance to breakdancing. Set to music and practiced in a ring of spectators, opponents “face off” in a mix of choreographed dance steps, tumbling moves, and high kicks.

It is highly entertaining to watch but often raises the question, “Is it a dance or a fighting style?” In short, capoeira is both. This video is slowed down to show the complexity of the movements and the incredible agility and strength required.

Like samba music, capoeira has roots in West Africa that precede its history in Brazil. Though there are several theories of how capoeira came into being, what is known is that during the height of Brazilian slave trade in the 16th to 19th centuries, slaves from West Africa integrated self-defense moves into dance routines. Because slaves who were caught practicing fighting techniques were punished, potentially even with death, they set the techniques to music and added dance steps to keep from arousing suspicion. The dance moves were more than just a disguise, though. The back-and-forth and side-to-side foot moves, also part of a traditional Brazilian dance called ginga, help the dancers—called capoeiristas—build momentum to leverage powerful kicks.

Graceful as it is, the potentially dangerous nature of capoeira techniques did not escape the Brazilian government. The end of slavery in the late 1800s ushered in a period of massive cultural change, just as it did in the United States. The Brazilian government outlawed capoeira in 1890, noting that capoeiristas had advantages in fights.

Capoeira demonstration
Capoeira demonstration, photo by Jarek Miszczak CC BY-NC 2.0.

Despite severe penalties, the practice of capoeira continued and even became popular with tourists. It was legalized in 1940, and dedicated schools began to open throughout Brazil as a means of preserving the cultural tradition. Today capoeira is popular worldwide, and there are many adaptations and sub-styles. Though it may be considered a form of entertainment, capoeira is rich with Brazilian historical and cultural significance.

Learn more about Brazil in the Arts Midwest World Fest study guides.

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