The History of Capoeira
Capoeira (or Capoeiragem, Malandragem or Vadicão) has been traced through slave-quarters (Senzalas) of the plantations, to
secret societies (Maltas) in Bahia. It survived under persecution as an oral tradition, living in the streets and open spaces in
Brazil. It is now a flourishing cultural form of itself, and hailed as the National Sport.
From 1535 to 1885, millions of Africans were subjugated into slavery, including people from Angola, the Congo and Mozambique.
Many of the important documents relating to slavery in Brazil were burned, to cleanse from history the traces of slavery, and this
has taken from us valuable insights as to the development of the art.
It is commonly believed that a form of Capoeira arrived in Brazil with the Africans and was developed by their descendants.
However, some say Capoeira was created by Africans in Brazil, others rigidly hold that its roots in Africa, but it flourished and
blossomed in Brazil. Capoeira is a tradition of fighting with the feet, perhaps directly descended from tribal dervishes of strength
and ritual dance.
Capoeira was banned by Penal Decree from 1890 to 1930, and during that time, it was only street hoodlums (Malandros) and
members of secret societies who practiced the art. Bandits used the steps of the dance as a weapon; sometimes with straight
razors held between their toes.
Zumbi and Quilombo Dos Palmares
Zumbi (1645-1695), also known as Zumbi dos Palmares, was the last leader of the Quilombo dos Palmares. Quilombos were
settlements in the jungle where fugitive slaves escaped to, Quilombo dos Palmares being the biggest. During its height, it was
reportedly having 30,000 people, both escaped and freed slaves as well as those born free. It was a self-sustaining settlement in
what is now modern day Algaos. The Portuguese government sought to destroy the Quilombo Dos Palmares and had constant
war with them betwen 1680 to 1694. Zumbi was a great warrior and leader, and held off the Portuguese for many years until his
betrayal, capture and death.
The significance of Zumbi and the Quilombo dos Palmares to Afro-Brazilian culture and Capoeiristas is enormous. It represented
freedom and fighting oppression. The inhabitants of Quilombo dos Palmares were reported to be capoeristas themselves, and
many capoeira songs glorify him as well as give tribute to him.
Mestre Bimba and Capoeira Regional
Manuel dos Reis Machado (November 23, 1899 – February 5, 1974), commonly known as Mestre Bimba, is the founder of
Capoeira Regional and one of capoeira’s most influential and important figures.
Mestre Bimba took capoeira at a time when it is illegal and looked down upon in Brazilian society. He stripped a lot of the rituals
and ties to the relegion Candomble in capoeira. He also added some techniques from Batuque and other movements he created
and began to develop Luta Regional Baiana (Regional Fight of Bahia), more commonly known as Capoeira Regional.
The first capoeira academy was founded by Mestre Bimba in 1932 in Salvador, Bahia. He formalized and standardized a set of 8
partner sequences to help teach capoeira. All of his students had to wear white and had a code of conduct and practice. Taking
capoeira into an academic and sport setting and outside of the street, he began to garner more interest in capoeira. He began to
teach more affluent middle-class Brazilians like doctors, lawyers, etc, which helped to change the image of capoeira.
He also took to the ring to uphold capoeira’s reputation as a fighting art, and challenged many martial artists in matches with his
Capoeira Regional and never lost. In 1937 Mestre Bimba was invited to demonstrate capoeira for the president of Brazil, Getulio
Vargas, which led to the legalization of capoeira and recognition of it as a national sport of Brazil. Mestre Bimba’s former
students carry his legacy teaching capoeira regional around the world.
Capoeira Regional is often characterized as a fast pace, aggressive and sometimes acrobatic style of capoeira focusing on kicks
and takedowns. Regional games typically do not last very long, due to it’s faster pace. The instruments used in Regional are only
one berimbau and two pandeiros. It’s three most commonly used berimbau rhythm’s are São Bento Grande Regional, Banguela,
Mestre Pastinha and Capoeira Angola
Vicente Ferreira Pastinha (April 5, 1889 – November 13, 1981), commonly known as Mestre Pastinha is the greatest
representative of Capoeira Angola, and another one of capoeira’s most important figures.
In the 1940s, at the request of many Mestres of the time, Mestre Pastinha was placed in charge of keeping the traditions of
capoeira. Whereas Mestre Bimba took capoeira, changed it and added to it creating Capoeira Regional, Mestre Pastinha was
dedicated to preserving the past and maintaining the traditions of the older capoeira style, which became called Capoeira
He opened a capoeira academy in 1941 in Pelourinho in Salvador, Bahia. His students wore black pants with yellow shirts, the
colors of Ypiranga, his favorite soccer team. Mestre Pastinha was known as a philosopher and his wisdom survives in songs and
sayings about the art of capoeira and life in general.
Although beloved by his students, Mestre Pastinha’s later years were filled with tragedy. The government confiscated his
academy with promise of renovating it, but never gave it back. He died penniless, sick and blind. Despite this, his legacy of
preserving Capoeira Angola lives on through his students who continue to teach today, most notably Mestre João Grande in New
York City, and Mestre João Pequeno in Salvador, Bahia.
Capoeira Angola is characterized by its slower, more methodical movements often lower to the floor and longer games in the
roda. It allows for more expression and subtlety as well as trickery. It has many ritual movements such as the Chamada or call,
with specific call and responses. Angola rodas use a full bateria of three berimbaus, two pandeiros, one reco reco, one agogo,
and attabaque. The most common rhythms are Angola, São Bento Pequeno and São Bento Grande Angola.
Contemporanea: Modern Capoeira
Today capoeira can be found all around the world It has thrived and flourished due to the hard work and sacrifice of capoeristas.
While there are Angola and Regional specific schools, many modern capoeira groups touch on both styles and simply teach
capoeira as an all encompassing artform.
Capoeira is a unique blend of movement, song and music. At first glance one sees a circle of clapping onlookers, singing choruses
in Portuguese to traditional call and response songs. In the center of the circle two capoeiristas move in what resembles a
competitive dance. There is an acrobatic and beautiful avoidance of physical contact. The players’ movements display ritual,
trickery and grace. Many moves involve headstands, handstands, cartwheels and other improvised movements. There are small
rituals and gestures that season the games. Everyone’s style of play is very individual, and evolves with their experience in the
In training, we often play competitively with our partner. Rather than block an oncoming blow, we evade it with a flight or a
flourish, and trip them up as we leave. At its best expression, there is never any actual contact between players. Skill is cultivated
to pull blows, and it is enough to show that a kick could have landed, without striking the other person. In class you learn all the
physical elements of Capoeira, but this is only one facet of Capoeira. There is much more than physical training involved. You will
learn to sing, to play musical instruments, possibly to speak a whole new language!
Capoeira is a living testament to the durability of the human spirit that is practiced in dance academies, cultural centers and
universities. The evolution of capoeira continues under the influence of creativity and imagination.