From Academic Kids

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Capoeira or the Dance of War by Johann Moritz Rugendas, 1835

Capoeira is an Afro-Brazilian martial art developed in the 1500s by African slaves. It is marked by deft, tricky movements often played on the ground or completely inverted. It also has a strong acrobatic component in some versions and is always played with music. The word capoeira has a few meanings, one of which is an area of forest or jungle that has been cleared by burning or cutting down. Alternatively, Kongo scholar K. Kia Bunseki Fu-Kiau thinks that capoeira could be a deformation of the Kikongo word kipura, which means to flutter, to flit from place to place; to struggle, to fight, to flog. In particular, the term is used to describe rooster's movements in a fight.

Breakdancing, developed in the 1970s, has many analogous moves; thus, many believe that capoeira is its root. Indeed, many Brazilians had immigrated to the US, and particularly to New York, by that time, and would practice capoeira in the streets where it was able to influence this new dance form.

There are two main styles of capoeira that are clearly distinct. One is called Angola, which is characterized by slow, low play with particular attention to the rituals and tradition of capoeira. The other style is Regional (pronounced 'heh-jeeh-oh-nahl'), known for its fluid acrobatic play, where technique and strategy are the key points. Both styles are marked by the use of feints and subterfuge, and use groundwork extensively, as well as sweeps, kicks, and headbutts.

Recently, the game was popularized by the addition of the capoeiristas Eddie Gordo and Christie Monteiro in the popular computer games Tekken 3, Tekken 4, and Tekken 5 respectively, as well as Elena from Street Fighter III. In addition, Meet the Fockers and Ocean's Twelve, two highly successful movies of 2004, featured Capoeira in several memorable scenes. A character of Tenjho Tenge, Bob, also practices capoeira.



During the 1500s, Portugal shipped slaves into South America from Western Africa. Brazil was the largest contributor to slave migration with 42% of all slaves shipped across the Atlantic. The following peoples were the most commonly sold into Brazil: The Sudanese group, composed largely of Yorubaa and Dahomean people, the Islamised Guinea-Sudanese group of Malesian and Hausa people and the Bantu group (among them Kongos, Kimbundas and Kasanjes) from Angola, Congo and Mozambique.

There are engravings and writings that describe a now-lost fighting dance in Cuba that reminds us of Capoeira with two Bantu men moving to the yuka drums. It is called the baile del maní. Batuque and Maculele are other fight-dances closely connected to Capoeira.

These people brought their cultural traditions and religion with them to the New World. The homogenization of the African people under the oppression of slavery was the catalyst for Capoeira. Capoeira was developed by the slaves of Brazil as a way to resist their oppressors, secretly practice their art, transmit their culture, and lift their spirits. Some historians believe that the indigenous peoples of Brazil also played an important role in the development of Capoeira.

After slavery was abolished, the slaves 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 or criminal activities. As a result, Capoeira was outlawed in Brazil in 1892. The punishment for practicing Capoeira was extreme, 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 were added to the music to warn players that the police were coming. To avoid being persecuted, Capoeira practitioners (Capoeiristas) also gave themselves an apelido or nicknames, often more than one. This made it much harder for the police to discover their true identities. This tradition continues to this day. When a person is baptized into Capoeira at the batizado ceremony, they may be given their apelido.

In 1937, Mestre Bimba was invited to demonstrate his art in front of the president. After this performance, he was given permission to open the first Capoeira school in Brazil. Since that time, Capoeira has been officially recognized as a national sport, and has spread around the world. Mestre Bimba's systematization and teaching of capoeira made a tremendous contribution to the capoeira community.

In 1942, Mestre Pastinha opened the first Capoeira Angola school, the Centro Esportivo de Capoeira Angola, located in Bahia. He had his students wear black pants and yellow t-shirts, the same color of the "Ypiranga Futebol Clube," his favorite soccer team. Most Angola schools since then follow in this tradition, having their students wear yellow capoeira t-shirts.

Together, Mestre Bimba and Mestre Pastinha are generally seen as the fathers of modern Capoeira Regional and Capoeira Angola respectively.


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A capoeira bateria led by Mestre Cobra Mansa featuring three berimbaus and a pandeiro
See also: Capoeira music

Music is integral to Capoeira. It sets the tempo and style of game that is to be played within the Roda (pronounced Ho'da). The music is comprised 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 (right) 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 (a teacher). 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, 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 chula is 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. For the words to many of the songs, see Capoeira songs.

The instruments are played in a row called the bateria. The first three instruments are berimbaus, which look like an archer's bow using a steel string and a gourd for resonation. 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 Berraboi (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.

Roda and philosophy

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 match or rather a "game" ("jogo"). Depending on some capoeira schools an individual in the audience can jump in to engage one of the two players and begin another game. The minimum roda size is usually a circle where the radius is the length of a berimbau, or 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. Capoeiristas can take up a lot of space while playing, so the roda is rarely small, especially if the players are playing quickly. In the fast game, acrobatics and big, circular kicks abound to the delight of the crowd. Sometimes actual hits are registered, but only between higher-level competing Capoeiristas. The roda is a microcosm which reflects the macrocosm of life and the world around us. Most often in the roda, your greatest opponent is yourself. Philosophy plays a large part in Capoeira and the best teachers strive to teach Respeito (Respect), Responsabilidade (Responsibility), Segurança (Safety/Security), Malícia (Cleverness/Street-smarts), and Liberdade (Liberty/Freedom).

The game

Capoeira doesn't focus on destroying the person you play against, rather on demonstrating more skill (or cunning). Capoeiristas often prefer to show the movement without completing it, enforcing their superiority in the roda. If your opponent cannot dodge your slowest attack, there is no reason to use your fastest. Each attack that comes in gives you a chance to practice an avoidance technique.


The "ginga" is the fundamental movement in Capoeira. Both Angola Capoeira and Regional Capoeira have their own "ginga". Both are accomplished by having both feet shoulders distance apart and then moving one foot backwards and then back to the base. Then this is done with the other foot and repeated. This is done to move around the roda quickly and to trick the other player.

Volta ao mundo

Volta ao mundo (or "trip around the world") is a short break taken by both players. Though each school is different, an example would be walking counter-clockwise in large circle, loosely holding left hands and walking in the same direction. Two or three gentle laps is all the rest you get, then it's time to play again. The "volta ao mundo" is commonly used to force the other player to cool down after a heated exchange or by a player when he/she needs a break. It is important to note that volta do mundo is practiced differently by different schools – some hold hands, some do not, some walk, some run. In some schools, the "volta ao mundo" is done when the music is over and the players are waiting for the new one to start. If you ever visit a roda, make sure you respect that school's behaviours in this respect as failure to do so is looked upon as quite rude.

Capoeira Angola rodas feature a ritual called the "chamada". In a chamada, one player assumes a ritual pose, for example, with one hand in the air. Normally, the other player should approach and join the pose (in this example, touching their hand to the first player's hand). The players then walk back and forth until the first player separates and offers a slow attack, and the jogo resumes. However, the whole chamada is fraught with tension, since it is acceptable for either player (although most often the player that called the chamada) to strike out in a sudden attack – at any speed at all. If the other player is caught, it's because they weren't being careful enough. The goal of the chamada is to test a player's ability to cooperate, to appear friendly, without exposing himself to a sneaky attack. Many ritualized chamadas exist, including one resembling the "volta ao mundo", but experienced players will make up their own. Some mestres will playfully involve spectators in the chamada (for example, introducing a female bystander to their opponent only to take the opponent down while he doffs his hat). Chamadas serve to show how well a player can handle the tricks of the world ("o mundo enganador" is a common call in the louvação).

Capoeira primarily attacks with kicks and sweeps. Some schools teach punches and hand strikes, but they are not as common. Capoeira also uses acrobatic and athletic movements to maneuver around the opponent. Cartwheels, handstands, head- and hand-spins, sitting movements, turns, jumps, flips, and large dodges are all very common in capoeira.

If the leader of the roda finds it is time to stop the players, he will shout or strike his berimbau string repeatedly on the same note. The players should quickly squat before the leader while he explains what he needs to explain.

Styles and groups of capoeira

There are many different kinds of capoeira. The two largest types are Angola and Regional. Although groups of one style do exist, most groups tend to mix the two styles to some degree. Capoeira Angola groups from the Northeast will tend to identify only as Capoeira Angola and will mimic Regional for performances.

Angola is considered to be the true root style of Capoeira, often characterized by slower, sneakier movements played closer to the ground. Capoeira Angola, in actuality, is played in a great range of speeds, ranging from Mestre Rene's school (with fast, highly acrobatic movements and frenetic high tempo music) to Mestre João Pequeno's school (with much slower, methodical movements to low tempo, hypnotic music). The father of modern Capoeira Angola is considered to be Mestre Pastinha (Paas-cheen-yah) who lived in Salvador, Bahia. Today, most of the Capoeira Angola media that is accessible comes from Mestres in Pastinha's lineage, but this isn't to say that he was the only one or that he was the originator. Many others helped in the preservation and propagation of Capoeira Angola, including Mestre Caicara, Mestre Bobo, Mestre Noronho, Besouro Manganga, etc. The Angola style, while emphasizing the traditions and history of Capoeira remains a contemporaneous art in the vibrant street scene of Salvador, Bahia. There is a diversity of styles and players, all of the traditional form, playing or performing in a great range of speeds and testing each other in various academies and in the street.

Regional is a newer and more martially-oriented game. 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. While Capoeristas can sometimes play Angola-like, slow games, the Regional style is most often composed of fast, acrobatic, and athletic play. This type of game is characterized by high jumps, acrobatics, and spinning kicks, while maintaining the trickiness and ground-work characteristic of Capoeira Angola. Today, there are many fusion styles, which mix the Angola and Regional traditions. Some refer to this as Capoeira atual, or Capoeira contemporanea. Whether playing Angola or Regional, groups often have different styles of wildly different movements. In general, older groups/styles often have a greater emphasis on the traditions of Capoeira, while newer groups concentrate chiefly on sports-like technique.

Finding a place to play

If you are interested in playing Capoeira, most major cities throughout the world have at least one club/group to join. Make sure you find out about your group's style and watch a class. Different groups have many differing advantages, so do the research yourself. Some styles are heavily geared towards being clever in the roda whereas others focus more on the physical capabilities of the players. Some groups practice exclusively Angola, while others practice exclusively Regional, so if the style you see isn't what you hoped for, keep looking.

If you join a Capoeira Regional group, you may eventually have a chance to take place in a batizado, a baptism into the art of Capoeira. At this point, you will normally be given a corda, a cord belt, as well as your apelido or Capoeira nickname. Batizados are great celebrations of Capoeira, and normally a number of groups and masters from nearby or far away areas are invited to the celebration. These ceremonies are a great chance to see a variety of different Capoeira styles, to watch mestres play, and to see some of the best of the game. Sometimes they are open to the public, and they are a great chance for outsiders to learn about the art. Batizados do not occur in Capoeira Angola, which does not have a system of belts.

See also


  • Almeida B. (1986). Capoeira, a Brazilian Art Form: History, Philosophy, and Practice (2nd ed.). North Atlantic Books. ISBN 0938190296
  • Capoeira N. (2002). Capoeira: Roots of the Dance-Fight-Game. North Atlantic Books. ISBN 1556434049
  • Capoeira N. (2003), The Little Capoeira Book (Revised ed.). North Atlantic Books. ISBN 1556434405
  • Lowell L.J. (1992), Ring of Liberation : Deceptive Discourse in Brazilian Capoeira. University of Chicago Press. ISBN 0226476839

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