Capoeira is most commonly referred to as a Brazilian martial art. However, both fighting elements and the artistry of dance can be found in its practice. Its utility is found in its making the discreet practice of fighting techniques possible. It is debatable whether Capoeira is a form of dance or martial art. Nevertheless, it is considered a game, a part of afro-Brazilian tradition and culture.
It originated among the African slaves in Brazil through the sharing of dances from their varying cultures, rising from the oppression and poverty that the slaves endured in daily life. It became its own dance which accompanied their festival of Nossa Senhora do Rosario as part of a competition to crown the “King of Kongo”. It was also played in the streets, along with other games and dances, as a part of preserving African culture in a passive rebellion against those that owned and oppressed them.
As some may know, in Africa there is no direct translation for the word “dance” because it is not seen as separate from the music, song and costume. Capoeira fully embodies this concept of performance. Capoeira is practiced in a circle, or ronda. People gather to sing, play music and witness the game. The berimbau and drum dictate the rhythm, or mood of the game. This element of African culture, despite the hybridization that created the Capoeira art, is evident and holds strong through the centuries.
The majority, if not all, African traditions were looked down upon by the upper class in Brazil in the 19th century. Compared to the European culture to which they were accustomed, African culture was barbaric and primitive, full of vulgar dances with gyrating bodies and loud music. All precautions were taken to prevent the preservation of their cultural practices. Capoeira, being a fighting game, was no less immune to opposition by the upper class.
By law, Capoeira was considered a form of disturbing the peace, supposedly because often times the games lead to shouting and throwing rocks. At this point in history the slave population in Brazil greatly outnumbered the European population, and it is likely that this “disturbance of the peace” was used as an excuse to arrest and imprison all capoeiristas out of fear that they would lead an active rebellion against their European masters.
Capoeira continued to be practiced illegally until 1932 when Manoel dos Reis Machado, or Mestre Bimba, decided to formally teach capoeira, creating a structured methodology for Capoeira and opening a capoeira school. After he performed a Capoeira demonstration to government officials in 1936, Capoeira was made a legal practice.
A capoeira battle today is one of the greatest displays of energy and power that one can witness. The bodies are constantly in motion, a call and response, an exchange of strikes and evasions, riding momentum and sustaining a mentality of cunning. The object of the game is to trick your opponent. It is a battle of wits, thus trickery is one of the most important elements of the Capoeira game. Because each fighter is an individual, their trickery is unique just as they are unique and this is the part of Capoeira that comes from within, from passion, from the heart. In this way it relates to the practice and performance of dance.
In a Capoeira battle, one can observe the fighters maintaining eye contact, even whilst upside down, using direct focus to help them to evade an attack quickly and strike again immediately. The bodies in motion remain in motion, elastic and resilient, bound on attack, ready to respond to any impact or impulse they sense.
Similar to the martial arts of other regions of the world, a major principle of the capoeirista mentality is to restore and/or keep peace. Although it is a battle, each fight begins and ends with an acknowledgement of respect in the form of a hand shake, or a nod of approval.
There are formal schools of Capoeira, but unlike other martial arts, Capoeira is still a part of the street culture of the people of Brazil. Poverty and oppression and the segregation of classes still exist in Brazilian society, thus the fighting spirit from which Capoeira manifested lives on, and so does the debate on whether it is dancing or a martial art, dividing its practice worldwide into two major schools of thought.
The first seeks to preserve Capoeira as a martial art, holding strong the tradition that the slaves had developed as a means of rebellion against their oppressors. The second seeks to preserve Capoeira more so as an art form, recognizing the expression of an oppressed people and the spirituality that accompanies the practice. Such passionate expression is so identifiable and unmistakable that it can’t go unacknowledged. The metaphorical fight against oppression, I believe, makes room for this interpretation of Capoeira as more than just a Brazilian martial art, but also as a dance form.