Disguised in Dance: The Secret History of Capoeira

Capoeira is a martial art infused dance, which is thought to have originated in the 16th century in Brazil. Although today capoeira has become somewhat omnipresent with the booming popularity of street acrobatics such as parkour, its history remains mysterious. Discover the story of this 500 year old martial art, and explore the best places to experience capoeira in Brazil.

Sometimes referred to as a martial art, sometimes a dance, and sometimes even a game, capoeira is a unique phenomenon which has caught the world’s attention. It is instantly recognisable from its musicality and the movements of the performers, as they seem to move together and then suddenly attack each other, still keeping in time with the rhythm. However despite its rising popularity, the exact origins of the art have been lost in history due to a scarcity of historical evidence and the secretive nature of its beginnings.

It has been suggested that capoeira was first created during the 16th century by slaves who were taken from West Africa to Brazil by the Portuguese colonists. Prohibited from celebrating their cultural customs and strictly forbidden from practicing any martial arts, capoeira is thought to have emerged as a way to bypass these two imposing laws. Hidden in the musical and rhythmical elements of the form, violent kicks were disgusted as passionate dance movements, and its combination of a mixture of West African cultures saved it from being identified as an attempt to preserve any specific tradition. As such, capoeira came to life as a survival tool, not only of self-defence, but also of cultural identity.

Using capoeira, many slaves escaped their masters and formed rebellion groups known as Quilombos, creating communities outside of Portuguese control. These communities stood as strongholds against the Portuguese, and many are famous for the courageous defences they put up; Palmares is the most famous of these, and is thought to have been home to over 10,000 people. Although there are few historical documents, it is believed that capoeira was a vital part of their defence and cultural practice.

Within the societies under Portuguese rule capoeira was just as difficult to control. With the growing cities that were forming during the late 17th and early 18th centuries, larger populations resulted in larger communities of slaves in smaller areas. This produced an expanding social culture for slaves, and capoeira dominated as a popular entertainment. While there were examples of it being used for self-defence, many cases were simply competition or for leisure, creating a difficult dichotomy for the ruling class to react to. Despite this, capoeira dancers were warned and punished for practising, but the art form lived on.

The end of slavery in Brazil brought about a darker era for capoeira, with its martial elements being use for criminal purposes. With the abolishment of slavery in 1888, many newly freed citizens found themselves without home and income, creating widespread poverty. As Brazil’s population expanded in the 19th century, crime exploded within the urban centres and capoeira was one of the many weapons used by criminal elements. Using fake names to avoid identification and concealing weapons such as razor sharp barber blades, some gangs were trained in the art of capoeira and caused many problems throughout Brazil. Consequentially capoeira was outlawed nationally in 1890, and those seen practising it suffered severe consequences, such as death or having their Achilles heel severed. During this era stories that both romanticised and vilified capoeira masters became widespread; one such figure was Nascimento Grande, whose legend portrays him as almost invincible.

Capoeira survived the near extinction it faced from illegality, and it was Mestre Bimba from Salvador, one of the last cities where capoeira was still practised, who rekindled the popularity of this art form. Presenting the cultural significance of capoeira while also highlighting the attention it gained from tourists, Bimba successfully convinced Brazilian authorities of the cultural value of the art and was allowed to open the first capoeira school in 1932, although not under the name of capoeira as this was still illegal. Bimba’s strict approach to the martial art created new movements and choreographed attacks, which became known as ‘Regional’. In the 1940s the official ban was lifted from capoeira, and this allowed for two main streams to develop in unison, ‘Regional’, which was influenced by Bimba’s teaching, and ‘Angola’ which looked to the traditions of the art before it was banned.

Today capoeira is a cultural icon of Brazil, and it is widely practiced around the world. Being performed in different contexts, from entertaining choreographed dances to competitions where one competitor must make the other get out of time with the music or fall over, capoeira is a diverse martial art and is also popular for those interested in a fun exercise that teaches basic martial arts and acrobatics. If travelling to Brazil, either seeing a capoeira performance or visiting a capoeira school is a must.

While there are many acclaimed capoeira schools scattered across the country, Capoeira Training Camp stands out with its international focus. Centred on welcoming people from all around the world, this great institution is set in the birthplace of modern Capoeira, Salvador. Its training focuses on Brazilian culture as a whole, and they offer classes with masters of both styles of capoeira, as well as lessons in the music of capoeira and the Portuguese language.

Due to the secretive nature of the origins of capoeira, the truth about its foundation may be truly lost in history. However through the passion and commitment of those who have practised the art, capoeira has been eternalised in stories, music and movement. While the past of capoeira may be shrouded in mystery, the future of this cultural icon is as bright as ever.

By Andrew Kingsford-Smith