Capoeira: The Dance Of Death

CULTURE | December 27, 2019

Source: (YASUYOSHI CHIBA/AFP via Getty Images)

Two capoeiristas square off in a circle called a roda. Music is played on percussion instruments and songs are sung. The two move fluidly, bobbing and weaving in a rhythmic ritual. They spring on their hands and cartwheel as feet fly through the air in low kicks then high. They flip to the music as each evades the other. It seems like a dance. It seems like a game. It also seems like a fight. The truth is capoeira is all of these at once and has one of the most curious histories of any martial art.

Public flogging of a slave in 19th-century Brazil, by Johann Moritz Rugendas

More than 3.5 million Africans were forced into slavery to Portugal’s colony of Brazil mainly from the west and central coastal regions of Africa. In Brazil, these slaves were set to a variety of tasks including mining, sugar cane cultivation, and construction. Because the enslaved Africans were generally from the same regions, they had elements of a shared culture. This included religious dances which in the 16th century became merged with traditional fighting techniques.

Painting of fighting in Brazil c. 1824 by Augustus Earle. Source: (Wikipedia)

Much of the early days of capoeira are shrouded in mystery, but there are compelling and logical theories as to its origins. Without weapons, the slaves tried to carry on what traditions they had as best they could which included forms of ritualized fighting. In Brazil, this evolved into a form of combat that was set to music (typically drums, clapping, and singing) so that it had the appearance of dance. It was a form of cultural expression and disguised resistance — slaves had transformed into warriors.  

Early capoeira. Source: (Wikimedia Commons)

During the era of slavery in Brazil, oftentimes escaped slaves would form their own settlements in remote regions. The quilombos or maroon colonies were fiercely independent. Capoeira, therefore, took on new meaning as a practical means to prevent re-enslavement.

By the early 19th century, capoeira was seen by the Portuguese as a threat to their power. It was therefore suppressed. When Brazil abolished slavery in 1888 under the so-called Golden Law, the former slaves found themselves in a marginal position in society since they were still viewed as second class. Capoeiristas, especially in Rio de Janeiro, soon began to employ their skills for illicit activities. Gangs were founded and used as cudgels by various factions to exert political power. In other areas, capoeira continued its existence as a fight-dance-game though all capoeiristas became painted with the same criminal brush.

Modern capoeristas. Source: (gettyimages.com)

However, by the 1930s this attitude toward capoeira began to shift as it became embraced as a national sport and pastime. This was mainly achieved through the efforts of Manuel dos Reis Machado (Mestre Bimba) and Vincente Ferreira Pastinha (Mestre Pastinha) who opened capoeira academies with the support of the government. These two did much to codify the martial art to the form that is known today.

The Warriors of Brazil perform on Coogee Beach on November 23, 2009 in Sydney, Australia. Source: (gettyimages.com)

By the 1970s and 1980s, capoeira entered a period of tremendous growth. It was during this period that capoeira began to be exported to countries around the world. Capoeiristas come now from all walks of life and revere it as an art and discipline. At the same time, much of the grittiness of the fighting portion of the ritual has given way to more performance. Yet, all the same, it is impressive at how enduring this tradition is. In 2014, capoeira was added to UNESCO’s Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. The citation noted that capoeira “...functions as an affirmation of mutual respect between communities, groups and individuals and promotes social integration and the memory of resistance to historical oppression.”

Tags: Capoeira

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