Capoeira Description

The Capoeira | What is Capoeira | Capoeira Description | Capoeira History | Styles of Capoeira | Capoeira Basics | Capoeira Angola | The Game of Capoeira | Capoeira Music | Capoeira in Popular Culture

CAPOEIRA (kah-PWEH-dah) is an ambiguous, ambivalent movement form historically performed by African men and their creole descendants in Brazil. As just one of many expressions of what is now called “Afro-Brazilian” culture, capoeira embodies the diverse experiences of a community that has survived more than four centuries of slavery and marginalization.

In this context, capoeira has been performed as a subversive dance, an evasive form of self-defense, a strutting acrobatic display, an urban street-fighting form, a semi-competitive game, a trick, a joke, and an idle pastime (or vadiação) associated with dock workers, rogues, and vagabonds. More recently, it has been transformed into a modern, multivalent art form, synthesizing many or all of these aspects for contemporary purposes.

Among the many contemporary iterations of capoeira, however, the oldest extant form—capoeira angola, from the Brazilian state of Bahia—has resisted the reflexive modernization and streamlined pedagogy that has turned capoeira into an international martial art/sport.

Capoeira angola, despite some apparent modernizations, is still practiced as a secretive, streetwise tradition passed down semi-formally from one practitioner to another in lines that can be traced directly to the late 1800s, and indirectly hundreds of years earlier. Capoeira angola is thus positioned as an authentic cultural tradition rooted in local history, communal memory, and Afro-Brazilian (or specifically, Afro-Bahian) identity.

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.

The practice of capoeira is said to be linked to a number of dance-fighting games, challenge dances, and warrior arts found throughout Bantu-speaking areas of Africa, especially the Central African regions known today as Angola, the Congo, and Mozambique. These are the same areas from which a large percentage of Africans were taken and transported to Brazil throughout the 17th and 19th centuries, as part of the ruthless trade of slavery.
(Drawings by Neves e Sousa, 1965)

While traditional African iterations of these forms have, like Africa itself, undergone radical transformation in the last several centuries, a few contemporary dance-fighting games found in Africa today (for example, the engolo of southwest Angola, the moringue of Madagascar, and the dundunba of Guinea’s Mandinka) still utilize various capoeira-like movements such as acrobatic leaps, headbutts, kicks, and leg sweeps.

Over the course of nearly four hundred years of slavery (c. 1550–1889), a number of these African dance-fighting games were likely adapted and “reframed” to the New World context, in various ways. The existence of dance-fighting games in other African-American communities, such the tripping/punching game maní of rural Cuba, the percussive kicking sport l’adja/danmye of Martinique, and the combative “knocking and kicking” of the southern U.S. offer interesting clues to the ways in which African forms were both continued and adapted to new conditions throughout the Americas. However, few of these arts (with the possible exception of l’adja) appear to have reached the level of complexity achieved by capoeira in Brazil.

(In Harper’s Weekly, 1874)

In addition, there are many other dances, games, and movement practices performed by Africans, Europeans, and Amerindians—most notably stick-fighting and wrestling—that have yet to be seriously considered in this complex history. Further research will no doubt unearth surprising links between these various forms.

Some of these forms were likely used in a combative context—between rival slaves, or as one of many guerilla tactics available to rebel or runaway slaves. Runaway slaves formed temporary backland communities (called mocambos or quilombos in Brazil) where these forms could be practiced openly, and possibly to be used in their defense. Even some of the slave hunters sent to capture these runaways (known in Brazil as capitães-de-mato) were Africans who may have been familiar with these African warrior arts.

However, open resistance by slaves was usually met with death or severe punishment, so Africans were faced with two alternatives: they could give in to despair, or adapt themselves to an oppressive system. All over the Americas, slaves who chose the latter option conducted noisy events during rest days and religious festivals. These events, consisting of dance circles and music, often lasted well into the night, much to the annoyance of their masters. Through these events, Africans came together as a community, often in full view of their oppressors.

In Brazil, these celebrations were known as batuques, which later gave rise to the famous samba and other dances. As part of the batuque, an ambivalent form somewhere between a game, dance, and fight would have been ideally suited to channel the violence of slavery to more life-affirming purposes.


In spite of the historical accuracy of the context just described, it is still not known precisely when or where capoeira developed. Nor can it be accurately determined if specific peoples of Africa contributed specific movements or philosophies to the game. African ethnicities have been historically fluid, and slave traders who had little concern for the humanity of their “cargo” usually defined Africans by their point of departure, not their actual origin. Moreover, the association of capoeira with Angola, as well as research into the spiritual beliefs of the Kongo nearby (also possibly linked to capoeira), are more recent developments that have unfortunately been projected onto the past.Even the etymology of the very word “capoeira” is difficult to know for certain. Its most likely etymology is from the native Brazilian Tupi word for “burned forest”, but the word is also is used in Portuguese to describe a chicken coop, or a kind of militarty dugout. “Capoeira” may have even been derived from one of the many African languages brought to Brazil, which have lent many words to Brazilian Portuguese. More problematically, it seems likely that capoeira (or certain aspects of it) were known by other names long before they were associated with the word “capoeira,” making a search for the word itself a limited task.


JOGAR CAPOEIRA, ou danse de la guerre
(J. M. Rugendas, Rio de Janeiro, c. 1830s)The first written notices of the word “capoeira” as associated with a slave game date to the colonial records of late 1700s and early 1800s Rio de Janeiro, the second capital of Brazil.

In this increasingly urban context, capoeira was known as a bloody “war dance” practiced by thugs, also known as capoeiras. By mid-century, it was associated with semi-organized street gangs known as maltas. Throughout thief period, the practice was recorded in the police records of Rio de Janeiro as capoeiragem, or the practice of capoeira, often linked with criminality and public disorder.

Capoeira was not merely a criminal pastime, however, as capoeiras were often found at the front of parade-like processions and religious celebrations. Moreover, similar variants of capoeira were also reported throughout the 1800s in Salvador (Bahia), Recife (Pernambuco), São Luis (Maranhão), and Sorocaba (São Paulo), among others. After a number of local persecutions and legal statutes failed to wipe out the practice, the newly-established Republic of Brazil officially prohibited capoeiragem nationwide in 1890.

Under harsh persecution, capoeira in Rio become a marginalized underground art, kept alive by roguish characters such as Madame Satã (the famous transvestite), sports enthusiasts such as Sinhozinho, and as part of training regimens in a few military academies. Other local variants of capoeira found throughout the rest of the country appear to have diminished as well, destined to be replaced by a revitalized Bahian capoeira in the 1950s.

(c. 1850s)

In the former capital, Salvador, Bahia, and its surrounding sugar-rich recôncavo region, capoeira defied the trend towards extermination. This was partially the result of inconsistent enforcement of the 1890 prohibition, as well as the geographic diversity of the Bay of All Saints region. Furthermore, in Salvador, the maltas never reached the level of organization that they did in Rio, so no equivalent “purge” of capoeira had been necessary.

Bahian capoeira also took on the more deliberate appearance of a game—known colloquially as vadiação, or simply “idling”—by appropriating instruments such as drums, tambourines, bells, and an ancient Angolan bow instrument called the berimbau. While Rio’s capoeira had sometimes been performed to drums, and the berimbau was linked to parallel activities such as the batuque, the use of music did not seem as central to the practice as it became in Bahia. In Bahia, capoeira—and its music—became important symbols of the playful subterfuge and resilience necessary for everyday survival.


(Salvador, Bahia, c. 1950s)Many mysterious figures inhabited the world of Bahian capoeira in the early twentieth century. Among them was the legendary Besouro (or Bisoro) Mangangá from Santo Amaro, named for his ability to transform himself into a beetle to avoid capture by the police. He was also known for having a corpo fechado (or “closed body”) invulnerable to harm by metal. It is said that he was only killed (c. 1924) by being stabbed with a knife made of tucum wood.

Other streetwise mestres of Bahian capoeira (whose ranks included a small, slender young man who would later be known as Mestre Pastinha) also remained active, performing open rodas (capoeira circles) at various religious celebrations and in outlying neighborhoods. These men collaborated with sympathetic local authorities—some of whom were capoeiras themselves—or sought refuge in houses of the Afro-Brazilian religion candomblé during times of persecution. They taught the secrets of their art informally, in back rooms, closed bars, and backyard patios—often one student at a time.


(Article about Mestre Bimba, Salvador, 1930s)Another one of these capoeiras, nicknamed Mestre Bimba (1899–1974), was unhappy with the marginalized status and informal teaching style of capoeira. After playing and teaching in the traditional style for years, by the 1920s Bimba decided to streamline this seemingly innocuous, folkloric pastime into an effective Afro-Bahian fighting form. Initially, he called his form the luta regional baiana (or “regional fight of Bahia”) to avoid the illegal word, capoeira. In the 1930s, he founded one of the earliest formal academies of capoeira, called the Centro de Cultura Física Regional (CCFR), which was the first to be recognized by the Brazilian government. This recognition—although only applicable to “official” capoeira institutions—nevertheless paved the way for the eventual decriminalization of capoeira altogether.

Under his strict leadership and standardized teaching methods, capoeira became increasingly popular among the lighter-skinned middle classes and professionals, first in Salvador, and later throughout Brazil. Thanks to a series of challenge matches and public demonstrations that further legitimized capoeira as a fighting form and a uniquely expressive cultural practice, Bimba’s capoeira regional became the dominant form of capoeira by the 1950s, largely replacing whatever remnants of local capoeira that may have still existed outside of Bahia.


(Salvador, Bahia, c. 1940s)With the rise of capoeira regional, the traditional practice of capoeira became known as capoeira angola, in recognition of the imagined origins of the practice. Among the many mestres who played and taught capoeira angola in this golden era (c. 1920–1960), were such men as Daniel Noronha, Maré, Samuel Querido de Deus, Waldemar da Paixão, Canjiquinha, Caiçara, and Cobrinha Verde. One famous description by Ruth Landes paints a vivid picture of a game between the boatman Querido de Deus (“Beloved of God”) and another capoeirista named Onça Preta (“Black Jaguar”):

Beloved of God swayed on his haunches while he faced his opponent with a grin and gauged his chances. The fight involved all parts of the body except the hands, a precaution demanded by the police to obviate harm. As the movements followed the musical accompaniment, they flowed into a slow-motion, dreamlike sequence that was more a dancing than a wrestling. As the law stipulated that capoeirists must not hurt each other, blows become acrobatic stances whose balancing scored in the final check-up, and were named and classified. Various types of capoeira had evolved, with subtleties in the forms and sequences of the blows and in the styles of playing the berimbau.

Beloved was prodigiously agile in the difficult formal encounters with his adversary, and he smiled constantly while the ritual songs droned on…

(Pierre Verger, Salvador, Bahia, c. 1940s)But above all, it was Mestre Pastinha who would become the most widely known protector of traditional capoeira. In the 1940s, Pastinha emerged from 30 years of semi-retirement to open his own academy, the Centro Esportivo de Capoeira Angola (CECA). The CECA linked capoeira to the ethics and aesthetics of sport, while insisting on maintaining its rituals as part of the “regulations” of the game.

Guided by his gentle demeanor, informal teaching style, and philosophical spirit, Pastinha’s academy became an important focal point for capoeira angola, and Bahian culture in general. Where other mestres could dominate their own peripheral neighborhoods, Mestre Pastinha’s location on the Pelourinho was centralized, thereby attracting traditional capoeiristas from all over the city. His welcoming attitude ensured that many diverse traditions of vadiação would be given continuity.

Among the many rewards he received, perhaps none was greater than the opportunity to present capoeira in Africa. In 1966, at the age of 77, Mestre Pastinha’s group performed capoeira angola as part of the Brazilian delegation to the First Festival for Negro Arts in Dakar, Senegal.


(Photo by Lois Greenfield, c. 1990s)In the meantime, a group of young capoeira enthusiasts in Rio de Janeiro (some of them originally from Bahia) pioneered a more stylized version of capoeira regional that incorporated extreme acrobatics, techniques from other martial arts (such as vale tudo, or free-for-all fighting), and rankings based on rope cords, or cordões.

The most prominent of these groups has been the Grupo Senzala, formed in the mid 1960s. Armed with this new, more competitive form, this style of capoeira—often called “capoeira contemporânea“—eventually took the country and the world by storm. Through large organizations (whose members number in the tens of thousands), organized tournaments, and public demonstrations, the Grupo Senzala and its offshoots, such as ABADÁ-Capoeira and Omulu, have thus become the dominant force in capoeira today.

Commercial interests have found this somewhat “de-Africanized” type of capoeira the easiest to market, utilizing it in advertisements for Nokia and the BBC, and featuring it in mainstream films such as Only the Strong (1993) and Ocean’s Twelve (2004). The game company Namco also famously motion-captured capoeira to create the characters of “Eddy Gordo” and “Christie Monteiro” for their Tekken series of fighting games. Capoeira has also become a stage-friendly form, providing movements for dance choreographers from Cirque du Soleil to Jelon Vieira’s DanceBrazil.

Capoeira has also been promoted as an efficient system of self-defense, taught alongside Brazilian jujitsu, karate, boxing, and vale tudo. Increasingly, it is even being taught as an aerobic workout equivalent to Tae Bo (known by such names such as Capoeira Workout, Capoeirobics, Cardio Capoeira, or CapoFit).

(Recent postcard from Salvador, Bahia)

With so much emphasis on modernization, innovation, and efficiency, the “contemporary” style of capoeira has become a truly international sport and martial art. With the increasing social acceptance of this traditionally male, vagabond art, women have also become more and more involved in capoeira. A few—such as Mestrandas Edna Lima and Cigana of ABADÁ—have already achieved higher ranks in capoeira contemporânea.

However, in this process, capoeira has also become somewhat of a commodity. Like Carmen Miranda, bossa nova music, and football soccer, capoeira is often just another “sign” of Brazilianness. Much of the elegant simplicity of Mestre Bimba’s original capoeira regional, and the uniquely ambivalent and playful quality of capoeira angola, have thus been changed in this transition.

In the case of capoeira regional, a few of Mestre Bimba’s most famous graduated students, such as the esteemed Dr. Angelo Decânio, Jair Moura, Mestre Acordeon, and Mestre Itapoan, have eloquently tried to keep the spirit of Bimba’s teachings alive since his bitter death away from Bahia in 1974. However, among the hundreds of capoeira teachers who claim to represent capoeira regional today, only Bimba’s own son, Mestre Nenél, adheres strictly to the form as Bimba taught it.


(Salvador, Bahia, c. 1970s)In the 1970s, as capoeira regional grew exponentially, capoeira angola suffered a period of neglect, no doubt exacerbated by the sad closure of Mestre Pastinha’s academy on the Pelourinho. The government of Bahia asked him to temporarily leave his space to allow for the resoration of the city’s historic central district, but instead of returning the space to him, they transformed it into a restaurant for tourists (the SENAC) which is still in operation today.

Some traditionalist mestres stopped teaching out of disgust for these kinds of deceptions, as well as the exaggerated aggression of modernized capoeira. Others (including Mestre Canjiquinha and Mestre Caiçara) created their own simplified style of “show” capoeira for folklore demonstrations. With the death of Mestre Pastinha in 1981 (aged 92), blind and penniless, it appeared that the strength of capoeira angola was very much on the wane.

A few well-meaning practitioners of “contemporary” capoeira, believing in the imminent extinction of the old traditions, began to study capoeira angola in order to rescue the form and enrich their own teachings. In the process, traditional capoeira became another “style” of capoeira, especially in contemporânea schools, where practitioners have either tried to integrate the two modalities into one, or to insist that each “style” has its appropriate time and place.

Yet from the point of view of most traditionalists, the assimilation of capoeira angola into the rhetoric of “contemporary” capoeira has only caused confusion, while also dishonoring and oversimplifying the spirit of both forms of Bahian capoeira—angola and regional—that are intricately linked to their complex cultural, historical, and philosophical context.

In the case of traditional capoeira, an overemphasis on the visible aspects—with its rituals, supposed tendency for lower, slower movements, aesthetics of trickery, and unified musical orchestra—has tended to reduce the deeper, more mysterious aspects of the game to mere caricatures.


(Salvador, Bahia, c. 1950s)

Likewise, the tendency to characterize capoeira regional by its faster games, higher stances, streamlined pedagogy, supposed “borrowings” from Asian martial arts, or other modernizations have also oversimplified the deeper significance of Mestre Bimba to Bahian culture.

Mestre Bimba was undoubtedly a fighter at heart, and often spoke out against the traditional capoeira of the streets. Indeed, his capoeira regional had very few obvious allusions to the rituals of traditional vadiação. At the same time, almost everything in capoeira regional was drawn directly from some aspect of Bahian capoeira and its culture, which also included a tripping game called batuque and samba-de-roda. In all of this, there are very few signs that Mestre Bimba “borrowed” movements from other martial arts. Moreover, as a capoeirsta, Mestre Bimba was also reported to have played capoeira in the traditional way. Mestre Bimba also continued to be a master drummer in the religion of candomblé, and even protected many of its adherents from persecution, even while he eschewed the use of the atabaque drum in his own capoeira circles.

This suggests that Mestre Bimba created his highly individualized style of capoeira to clarify the distinctions between his own Afro-Bahian culture, and the new global culture of capitalism that threatened to change it. This act of strategic and purposeful separation is well understood by the direct students of Mestre Bimba and traditional capoeiristas in Bahia today, who share a common understanding of this reasoning. In contrast, those who advocate for a “fusion” or “reintegration” of the two art forms—a common theme in capoeira contemporânea—argue that this division no longer serves a purpose.


(Vadiação in Europe, c. 2000)

In spite of the continued growth of capoeira contemporânea throughout the world, and the assumptions that often come with it, traditional capoiera has remained elusive, and many of its “secrets” are still in the hands of Bahian mestres.

Mestre João Pequeno de Pastinha (b. 1917), one of Mestre Pastinha’s oldest students, was the first to take up where the elder mestre had left off, reopening the Centro Esportivo de Capoeira Angola in 1982. The students of Mestre João Pequeno—including Mestres Jogo de Dentro, Barba Branca, Electricista, Ciro, and Professora Ritinha—remain highly respected throughout the world.

Other elder students of Pastinha, such as Mestres João Grande (b. 1933) and Boca Rica (b. 1937?), as well as a few younger ones such as Bola Sete (b. 1952?), have also established their own schools. In particular, Mestre João Grande has been one of the most prolific teachers of capoeira angola, especially after establishing his academy in New York City around 1992.

Capoeira angola also underwent a more self-conscious reinvention under
Mestre Moraes (b. 1950), a student of the two Joãos under Mestre Pastinha, who established the Grupo Capoeira Angola Pelourinho (GCAP) in Rio de Janeiro in 1980. GCAP mobilized black political consciousness and taught a stylized form of capoeira angola that was informed by years of playing capoeira angola in the tough rodas of Rio. Although a number of GCAP’s teachings differ from the majority of Bahia’s traditionalist schools (notably, the use of the lead berimbau in the center of the musical orchestra, as opposed to the “corner”), Moraes and his students have been hugely influential, spreading their brand of capoeira angola worldwide through their teachings, popular CD recordings, and various offshoot organizations such as the FICA/ICAF of Mestre Cobrinha Mansa.

Another notable mestre who passed through Mestre Pastinha’s doors is the mandingueiro Mestre Curió, who established his own Escola de Capoeira Angola Irmões Gêmeos in 1982, and has recently graduated the first female mestra in capoeira angola, named Mestra Jararaca.

Mestre Pastinha and his former students thus appear to dominate the present-day practice of capoeira angola. Due in large part to Mestre Pastinha’s open acceptance of all traditional capoeiristas under his roof, few are completely free from his direct or indirect influence. Even so, today’s traditional capoeira is not a monolithic practice, as it incorporates teachings from forgotten or neglected lineages, and includes those who have deliberately set themselves apart from Mestre Pastinha’s line. Among this assorted group are Mestre Lua de Bobó, Mestre Renê, Mestre Neco, Mestre Pelé da Bomba, Mestre Zé do Lenço, Mestre Raimundo Dias, and our own Mestre Caboquinho. In spite of their differences, many of these mestres joined to form an umbrella organization called the Associação Brasileira de Capoeira Angola (ABCA) in 1993, to preserve the diverse heritage of capoeira da Bahia, and to continue the work begun by Mestre Pastinha.