The other day, in my effort to do more Brazilian things (and admittedly, also in the hopes of meeting some Brazilians so I could practice my Portuguese a bit!), I decided to try out capoeira…And (even though everyone in the class turned out to be French) I loved it! It was fun, liberating, and unlike anything that I have ever done before.

The history of capoeira

Capoeira is Brazilian martial art that can only be described as something between a dance and a fight.  Created in the sixteenth century by African slaves, capoeira was a way for slaves to empower themselves.  It also became a survival method that escaped slaves relied on to defend themselves against people trying to catch them.  However, from 1890 until 1940, it was strictly forbidden.  The art survived (obviously) and has thus become a symbol of freedom.  Starting in the 1970s, capoeira became exported around the world and it is now an integral representation of Brazilian culture.

So what is capoeira exactly? 

Played everywhere from the streets to gymnasiums, this martial art can be seen everywhere in Brazil. It is most often performed by two people (or “capoeiristas”), who are surrounded by a circle of people, called a “roda.” Those who make up the circle sing along to the music and clap their hands.

Capoeira performed in a “roda”

The main instrument used in capoeira is called “berimbau;” it is composed of a  wooden bow and a steel string (that often comes from the inside of a car tire) that is tightly wound to the bow from top to bottom.  A gourd is attached to the lower end of the bow by a string.  And voilà – that’s all there is to it!

Berimbau Instruments

This instrument is essential because the capoeiristas enter the circle and then must pick the style of play that matches the rhythm of music being played by the berimbau.

Capoeira being played with berimbau

The Moves 

The ginga is the most basic move (this is one of the three moves that I learned in my first lesson).  It consists of moving back and forth, moving both the arms and the legs to form a square, but being sure to block one’s head with an alternating arm at all times.  As my capoeira teacher told me during the lesson, one of the most important rules of the game is to always be in constant movement; the ginga move makes sure that one is always moving.  If you thought my description was a bit confusing (it was!), the video below gives a better idea of how it’s done…

Capoeira moves mostly focus on kicks, flips and rolls, but without (or with little) actual physical contact with the opponent.  It is incredibly acrobatic and requires immense strength, coordination, and flexibility.  Personally, I found that it also requires a lot of concentration; since it is partly a dance, you have to pay attention to your movements, at least in the beginning, before they become habit. The main goal is to be able to defend oneself; it is about being on the defensive, not the offensive.

Want to see some good capoeira? Check out this video…according to their youtube title, apparently they are the “best” in Brazil:

I don’t know about you, but that makes me want to go to my next capoeira lesson ASAP! Because not only does capoeira have an incredibly rich history that defines it, but the unique combination of dance, harmless fighting, music and singing, truly makes it one of a kind.


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