Dance Style: Capoeira


Dance is more than entertainment… it is an emblem of our culture, and a spirit of our society. It bestows in us feeling of belongingness with oneself, with our own world and with the world outside. It generates fire of imagination, shows attitude and represents whole essence of our life and our existence. In short, it is a way of our life. Among the various dance forms, youngsters of the urban elite in the European and U S states are seen enjoying musical bow, or berimbau. These are musical instruments of the most popular of all dance forms known as Capoeira.

Capoeira is a marshal form of dance and art emerged straight away from the soils of Brazil. It is not just a dance but represents the whole meaning and existence of life by its versatile characteristics. It is an expression of happiness on the one hand and a regression on the other. It is a sport, a ritual, musical identity; a marshal art as well as exhibits complete philosophy of life. My research for this project is identifying Capoeria in its various forms and perspectives.

It is has become most popular of all the dance forms among youngsters, as this is the expression of their feelings and answers to the various questions of philosophies of life. It encompasses the major part of the folklores of Brazil and then spread to the rest parts of the world. Traditionally it had been a sign of regression by the slaves and their willingness to free themselves from the colonial yoke. For Mestre Bimba who was an ex-carpenter, ex-horseman, ex-horse coach and a person who created capoeria regional said, “Capoeira is treachery, the way dealing with the dangers of life.” (Almeida, 1986, p. 2-3)

Capoeira comes under the category of marshal art form, as it contains all the traits of marshal art such as acrobatics, war scenes, and supplements physical and mental health including psychological perspective from a different historical and sociological context. For Bira Almeida, “it is a question of infinite possibilities, and spring of crystalline water to quench my thirst for knowledge”. (Almeida, 1986, p. 2-3)

Significance and the History of Capoeira

Capoeira is known to be 400 years old form of art mixed with music, dance, songs, and acrobats. It creates a blend of holistic feeling with a feeling of enlightenment and motivation to fight for their rights. This dance form originated in Africa and reached to the lands of Brazil through the slaves. Initially it was method of self-defense and their sign of showing their aggressiveness towards their lords.

The slaves who were brought to Brazil, combined their conventional form of dance and songs with the regional dialect to represent their glorious culture they had left behind, their lords and deities and their ardent desire to exert their right for freedom. “Number of percussion instruments like the tambourine (pandeiro), bells (agogo), and, most importantly, the one-stringed instrument brought from Africa, the berimbau” (Moulthrop, 2001, para 2) were used during these performances.

With the adoption of the new forms and styles, and faster styles of Mestre Bimba’s along with its traditional forms, it has now become most popular form of dance in the world and a way of life for the Brazilians. Capoeira is categorized in three forms: “capoeira angola, capoeira regional, and capoeira atual (Florida State University, 2007, para. 8)” The first form is traditional and exists and incorporates the various aspects of music and dance. The second form is more like a sport encompassing athletic style and accompanied with music. Whereas the third form is the blend of the other two displaying modern styles. It is popular among youths of New York and Los Angeles in the USA, Cologne in Germany, and in many of the metropolitan cities in the West. (Florida State University, 2007)

The most crucial element of the Capoeira dance is ginga, also known as swing. In this movement, two people giving performance make their movements look like dancing instead of fighting. It is performed to the tune of the berimbau and other instruments like bateria to increase the presence of the dance steps and also to teach the importance of timing, which is the most important part of Capoeira.

The participants avoid having a direct eye contact and showing of threatening movements against opponents, which helps them to hide behind the mask. Since slaves were not allowed to display their aggressiveness, they adopted the art of showing tricks, which they called by the name malandro. (Moulthrop, 2001) This practice is followed till the day today when capoeiristas of today prove their cleverness instead of power and belligerence.

The goal of Capoeira is not to defend through violence but by redirecting and avoiding violence. Though this practice was generally perceived as totally peaceful but in 1888 this practice began to be used by street gangs in Rio de Janeiro. In 1888, slavery came to virtual end but with the end of the slavery, number of jobs too got reduced and slaves adopted themselves to the new situation by forming their own Capoeira gangs who would earn their living by indulging in crimes.

The terror these gangs created provoked the law authorities to give orders for their banishment in Brazil in 1892. Still those who wanted to continue kept their art alive by moving underground. They were identified by their nicknames capoeiristas. (Moulthrop, 2001) This trend is continued till day today by bestowing the names in the form of titles to the new students of Capoeira. The Nationalistic President Getulio Vargas again revived this form of dance in 1937, as he wanted to give it a place in Brazilian sport. (Moulthrop, 2001)

Its traditional form depicts illusory movements of body and lyrics. During the performance, a good dancer must display cleverness to elude his or her opponent to get maximum points. The lyrics are sung with the use of the double entendre. (Florida State University, 2007) The deceptive part in their performances had always helped the African slaves in Brazil. The way the language was used also acted as the way of deception. This deception was their way to show their regression and now fun. Traditionally, males were the sole performers of Capoeira but now especially in America, women also participate in it as dancers.

As this form of art is a blend of dance and sports, it requires flexible body and a sharp mind. Training of the dance requires exercises like push ups, squat, dead lifts, etc. While performing the dance, they must show their relax moods but with movement and must learn to show “sensuousness, charm, and fun — even sweetness” (Macaulay, 2008, para 6) to make Capoeira breathe with life and emotions to make the purpose of this dance come alive on stage.

Cultural Significance of Capoeira

Capoeira represents the culture of the most dominated races of the world-African slaves. But now it is a culture and the life of Brazilians. It is both a part of the Brazilian folklore as well as the part of the country national sport. Some suggests that there has been an influence of the Kongolese and Yoruban cultures in today’s form of Capoeira. Among the enthusiasts the slogan Capoeira e uma so means there is only one capoeira and has lot of significance and in the schools of Capoeira both the Angola and regional forms of dances are taught. (Talmon-Chvaicer, 2008, p. 2)

This shows that the current forms of dance has an influence of ruling elite who has modified the traditional forms according to their needs. Julio Cesar de Souza Tavarez found that the slaves had conserved their traditions in movements of their body in Dança de guerra or War Dance. (Talmon-Chvaicer, 2008, p. 3) Kenneth Dossar reflected and displayed the aesthetics of Africa and various elements of dance in Capoeira Angola, and recently J. Desch-Obi discovered a link between capoeira with the Angolan martial arts namely kandeka and engolo and the culture so predominant among the military of the Imbangala groups. (Talmon-Chvaicer, 2008, p. 3)

Kongolese culture became the base of capoeira since the early years of nineteenth century and this is the place where it is thought of that the dance form had got birth. However most of the elements and the style this culture was hidden from the public views and underestimated by the Europeans.

It also saw the influence of Yoruban culture which had been effecting the lives of the slaves and culture of Rio de Janeiro and Bahia since the second half of the nineteenth century, and exerting its influence on the capoeira to the capoeira of today. Portuguese Catholics belonged to the ruling and elite classes and owing to their higher status and position had exerted tremendous influence over capoeira. The adoption this art form by the large number of Brazilian Catholics had also seen several changes in the very fabric of their culture. (Talmon-Chvaicer, 2008, p. 3)

As said by Matthias Rohrig Assuncao, “During 1990, it had become an expression of postmodern chic and is seen as an integral part of the post modern experience in globalized metropolises”. (Assunca, 2005, p. 2) Traditionally this dance form represented African warriors, their cults and the horrors they witnessed during the days of their slavery and their struggle with them like black slaves giving greater fights against police on the squares of colonial cities, gangs of guys creating turmoil and terror among citizens and assisting corrupt politicians to win their elections. (Assunça, 2005, p. 3) On owing to these practices they were bounded, bundled up into the different islands of Atlantic.

Military, bureaucrats and authorities representing tourist industry tried to coordinate with them. Still one of the many reasons why it had fascinated the young people all over the world is because it is a symbolic of resistance- against slavery, bureaucracy, politics and police. The capoeira dances along with the songs remember its most famous players and memorize about the constant struggles for freedom. Like Gred Downey suggested:

“This past gives Capoeira play gravity, revealing that Capoeira was once a deep and sinister business, and mincingly suggests the possibility that it may still be. The roda of Capoeira especially among those who self consciously cultivate “traditional practice”, is a play space haunted by an epic history.” (Assunça, 2005, p. 2)

Brazil had invited several cultures into its soils and intermixed with the culture that was typical Brazilian. This characteristic of Brazil is the characteristic of all the various cultures and it is the way of life and naturally this feature would have an impact on the Capoeira too which was not Brazilian native but brought from the African colonies of Portuguese. Many of these plantations were confined in the areas of Northeastern part of Brazil including city of Bahia. This city was the most important port where the slaves were transported and this place also became the first capital of Brazil. (Assunça, 2005) All these circumstances and the nature of the Brazilian culture promoted Capoeira.

Capoeira as a Marshal Art Form

Capoeira is a dance style yet it comes under the marshal art form due to its characteristics quite similar to marshal art. Typically marshal art involves methods of fighting, and develops in the performer discipline of mind and body, emotional and psychological satisfaction, moral relief and motivation and increases intellectual capability too.

Martial art has been greatly influenced by the Taoist philosophy helping in maintaining the balance between the body and mind, meditation powers of Buddhists and breathing techniques, and Confucian ethics. As said by Brutz Frantzis, “By its very nature the field of Marshal art deals directly with this area of human existence, not by sublimating our natural violent tendencies, but by delving into them.” (2007, p. 5)

We can call marshal art as an art of self-defense, an art of enhancing spirituality, attaining enlightenment and to coordinate between the mind and spirit. The concept of the marshal art is simple, and lays on the basis that tools for fighting are inside your body and in the mental strategies and the tools to enhance the spirituality are found inside the hearts of the artists, and in the mind and spirit. (Frantzis, 2007, p. 297)

The most useful aspect of the marshal art is the power that it endows even inside the weaker persons and the women. It gives them ability, and strength to defend themselves without any tools, which is very useful in our day to day lives. Experts in the marshal arts have also the power to defeat their inner enemies, which are in the form of weaknesses and increase the inner strength to tackle all odds and turmoil’s of life with great poise and servitude.

Further Frantz says “Spiritual martial art can provide martial artists with skills to genuinely encounter and embody spirituality, until they wake up and live in the depths of their souls. In doing so, they take up the greatest challenge of human existence, to become relaxed, balanced, compassionate, and free at the deepest core of themselves. If successful, they will emerge forever connected to- and not separated and alienated from-all of life’s experiences.”(Frantzis, 2007, p. 297)

In the middle of the nineteenth century, the way Capoeria was performed looked like a war dance with the Congo drum beating like war like rhythm. Then they had the “Batuque with its sensual movements (laciva), with the urucongo (the berimbau)” (Talmon-Chvaicer, 2008, p12) to increase and slowing down the rates of rhythmic movements. Capoeria adopted all the characteristics of marshal art, like learning warm ups, defense and escape moves, different kinds of kicks, various kinds of ground and acrobatic movements, and giving freedom to adopt an artistic flavor to increase the energy and strengthen the body. (Poncihanino & Porter 2008)

Latest of the Capoeria form is known as Boneco Capoeira, and has been formed a program of exercise with its kicks and spins. (Henderson, 2005) Dancers also learn to interact and act in a speed with many of the movements similar to Judo and Karate and in the many number of techniques, handstands is the most common. (Macaulay, 2008)

This form of dance was traditionally could also be considered as war to stir the emotions among the blacks to show their resistance against the whites but now performers of the Capoeria adopt many marshal art forms to attain strength, increase in stamina and make the body flexible for giving them training. It is said, “capoeira is a complicated art that combines physical strength with artistic expression”. (Atwood, 1999, p. 9) They also get emotional strength and adopt positive attitude towards the life and can also come closer to the world they represent.


We can call Capoeria as the most versatile form of dance with its ability to adopt various styles and techniques from different cultures. Just like its form and style, this dance form is performed with various purposes. It is for entertainment, it is for the fun of joy for sports, it is for self-defense and to show aggressiveness and rebellion yet in a non-violent form. It is also for building the body movements to attain flexibility, power and endurance and to create a harmony between you and with your society and culture. It has the influence of various cultures and is performed in the various parts of the world, but it is a part of life in Brazil and popularly performed by the Americans and youths.

It is a mirror to the heritage past. “In Capoeria Angola, the singing by the Roda (the circle of the capoeristas surrounding those performing those capoeria moves) has a traditional structure consisting of three parts, the ladainha, the chula and the corridor (McGowen & Pessanha, 1998, p. 120).” In the sequences they convey the story, reflect their cultural past and convey messages. It could also be political commentary. Earlier it was performed as a form of reprisal from depression owing to the slavery and subjugation the blacks in the Brazil had to endure to. They performed it, as it would give them relief from their hard work and to show their aggression against their colonizers.

But now the people practicing it feel enjoyment, spiritual relief and satisfaction of achievement. There are various forms of Capoeria with various modifications in the form and style representing and depicting their culture in which they are presented. This dance form has also become a part of films, movies, TV shows and video games and has become a pop culture in itself. On the one hand, it is a form of dance, songs and instruments and on the other hand, it has various attacking and defensive moves. It is also a sport with acrobatic skills.

Regional groups of Capoeria groups hold Batizados, which means baptism. (Atwood, 1999) Baptized members are given corda or cord belts and an apelido, which is a nickname of capoeira. (Atwood, 1999) These are the most important events performed where many groups and masters from near and far are given invitations. Many times Batizado is also held in collaboration with a Troca de Corda in which belts are changed whereby expert students are given belts as the part of their acknowledgements, but this system is not prevalent in Capoeria Angola.

In short, Capoeria is performed for fun, and excitement of dance, martial arts, games and music, all rolled into one.

Reference List

Almeida, B. (1986). Capoeira, a Brazilian Art Form: History, Philosophy, and Practice California: North Atlantic Books.

Assuncao, M.R. 2005. Capoeira: A History of an Afro-Brazilian Martial Art. Oxon / New York: Routledge.

Atwood, J. (1999). Capoeira: A Martial Art and a Cultural Tradition. New York: The Rosen Publishing Group.

Florida State University. (2007). African Heritage 2 (Brazil). Web.

Henderson, S. 2005. The rhythm of capoeira: aerobic workout combines cultural music and dance for an effective exercise. Ebony, 51-52.

Macaulay, Alastair. (2008). Energizing Modern Dance With a Martial-Arts Kick. The New York Times. Web.

McGowan, C. & Pessanha, R. 1998. The Brazilian Sound: Samba, Bossa Nova, and the Popular Music of Brazil. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.

Moulthrop, D. (2001). Capoeira History. Web.

Poncianinho, M. & Porter, M. 2008. Essential Capoeira: The Guide to Mastering the Art. California: North Atlantic Books.

Talmon-Chvaicer, M. 2008. The Hidden History of Capoeira: A Collision of Cultures in the Brazilian Battle Dance. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press.