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Capoeira: The Art of the Slaves
Friday, September 16, 2011
Upon first witnessing a Capoeira demonstration, one immediately sees flashbacks of Zoolander and Mugatu’s famous line: “They’re break-dance fighting.” To the average person that is indeed what Capoeira appears to be! But at its heart Capoeira is one of the few true native cultural gifts of Brazil, a mixture of martial arts, sport, music, and dance. There is a great deal of culture and history in this art form that many aren’t aware of, an art form that dates back all the way to the 16th century. Below we’ll explore a brief history of Capoeira and its evolution into the mainstream.
Capoeira started in Brazil back when it was still a Portuguese colony in the 16th century. The African slave trade was providing the colonists with a workforce to prep and farm the new land. The primary crop grown at the time was sugarcane, and slaves were bought to do the job. The slaves lived in horrible conditions, were worked extremely hard, and were punished physically and severely. And although they outnumbered the colonists, the slaves were not able to unify in rebellion as they had no weapons, no knowledge of the land, and no common heritage, seeing as they were all pulled from different tribes. Thus Capoeira was developed by the slaves as a freedom exercise, teaching the ways to survive if one was able to escape the bonds of slavery, and evade capture by colonial slave hunters.
Pretty soon runaway slaves began forming small African slave communities known as quilombos. In the freedom of the quilombos, Capoeira spread faster as more than just a survival skill, but a form of martial art. The residents of the quilombos used it to fight against the colonists and slavehunters that attacked their villages to try and regain control, often successfully. It was clear the colonists were not prepared for this new type of fighting.
In 1808 the prince of Portugal Dom Joao VI fled his home country to escape Napoleon’s invasion, and headed for Rio de Janeiro. When his mother the queen died in 1816, he officially became king of Portugal, but decided to stay in Brazil, eventually emancipating the colony in 1822 as the Kingdom of Brazil. By this time slavery had become urbanized and slaves were practicing Capoeira in the cities as well. Seeing as things such as art, dance, music, and culture were feared by the colonists for it excited the slaves, Capoeira was quickly banned and anyone practicing it would be arrested.
With the abolition of slavery in Brazil in 1888, the Africans became a marginalized segment of Brazilian society, seen as lazy and undesirable. They were abandoned with no jobs, no homes, and despised by non-black Brazilians. With nothing to do, Capoeira took to the streets, and Capoeira gangs called maltas began terrorizing Rio. By 1890, Capoeira was officially declared illegal in the entire country.
It wasn’t until 1932 that one man organized a revival of the art form. Manoel dos Reis Machado, more commonly known as Mestre Bimba, was born and raised in Salvador, Bahia, by his batuque-trained father. Batuque is a style of fighting similar to Capoeira but focused more on rough, low kicks and sweeps to the areas of the thighs and shin. Growing up, Bimba had felt that Capoeira had turned into a tourist attraction and lost all of its martial arts origins. With a desire to bring that back, he opened the first Capoeira studio in 1932, calling it Luta Regional Baiana, meaning the “regional fighting of Bahia” (since at the time Capoeira was still illegal). Bimba’s style was heavily influenced by his upbringing in batuque, and it eventually became known as regional Capoeira. He focused on techniques of attack and counter-attack, and less on the acrobatics of the sport. In fact Bimba taught his students to always keep at least one foot on the floor. Although his students had to work very hard under strict rules, their success helped Brazilians begin to release some of the stigma attached to Capoeira.
Soon after, a man by the name of Vicente Ferreira Pastinha, better known as Mestre Pastinha, denounced Bimba’s style in favor of traditional Capoeira. So he opened his own school in 1941 called Centro Esportivo de Capoeira Angola, or “center for the sport of Capoeira Angola.” Pastinha’s school was even more disciplined, based on maintaining tradition and philosophy. Pretty soon Capoeira Angola became synonymous with the traditional style, which was sneaky, strategic, and unruly.
Today both styles are still taught, often intermingled. Since the 1970s Capoeira has spread to all parts of the world. Many people interested in mastering the sport choose to migrate to Brazil to immerse themselves in the language, the culture, and their study of the art form. At its heart Capoeira is still a martial art consisting of a few primary movements. The ginga is the neutral stance that consists of a basic rocking back and forth, designed to create a tough target as well as a method for fooling the opponent. Attacks are mostly made with legs (however arms are allowed too) and are made up of swirling kicks, spinning kicks, sweeps, knee strikes, and take-downs. Defense in the sport is to basically get out of the way. Blocks against attacks are only used as a means of last resort, with avoids, or “esquivas,” being the preferred method. Other movements such as cartwheels, rolls, and headstands combine acrobatic elements to provide a fluidity of movement.
Capoeira is most often practiced as a game in a circle of fellow practitioners and musicians known as a roda. On the outside of the roda everyone sings and claps to the beat of the musicians, while inside two Capoeira artists begin a display of skill and technique. Unlike other martial arts, the game of Capoeira discourages any actual contact. Attacks are mainly done by the legs, and kicks are slowed down to a stop just before hitting an opponent. Otherwise, a competitor will not fully complete an attack if it’s clear it cannot be dodged. The game ends once someone quits, someone else takes over, or one of the musicians calls the winner. Due to its spectator element, there tend to be more aerial stunts performed in the game of Capoeira than in traditional martial arts Capoeira.
Today Capoeira has grown from just a game to an excellent method of exercise to get in great shape. Many also practice to connect to a long lost history. Others simply harbor an artistic appreciation for the sport. Our own Zen Arts Capoeiristas are well-skilled in both styles and put on amazing gravity-defying performances! Call us at 855-ZEN-ARTS or email to book your event today!