The History of Capoeira – Dance of Self-Defense

Anything that is composed with freedom at its core never fails to enthral the masses, and the tale of Capoeira is no different. Believed to have originated in 16th century Brazil, this Afro-Brazilian art form incorporates dance, songs, acrobatics, and percussion to give birth to a pulsating and intimate dialogue between the mind and body and soul. 

Although it is a 500-year-old art form, Capoeira continues to captivate the attention of the world to date. In the recent past, particularly, Capoeira’s popularity has shot up rather dramatically. It is referred to as many things by different individuals- a game, a dance, and a martial heart. Above anything, however, Capoeira is a form of expression and a symbol of African culture.  

Today, Capoeira has become rather ubiquitous. Capoeira is practiced in parks, schools, and professional institutions, and the inimitable and eye-catching style of this martial art makes it instantly recognizable. As a matter of fact, the athletic movements associated with this martial art are considered by many to have sown the seeds of modern break dancing, further adding to its importance in the context of culture. 

Capoeira - Mestre Mão Branca.

Capoeira’s exact origins, known for their pronounced secretiveness, remain obscure due to an acute shortage of historical evidence. This article attempts to educate the uninitiated on this unique African martial art and other various wonderful aspects associated with Capoeira. Read on to find out.

How is Capoeira Played as a Sport? 

Two individuals adorned in white clothes kneel to the ground to play this sport, preparing to engage in a duel. They are enclosed in a circle by other players who sing, clap, and play the ancestral sounds of the berimbau, a single-stringed bow-shaped instrument, to create a rhythm for the fighting.   

The opponents shake hands with each other before commencing the match. A rhythmic battle ensues as the two players immerse in an arabesque exhibition of dynamic attack and defense movements. These movements are infused with dance-like moves and playful acrobatics, as the individuals strive continuously to craft a strategy that would lead to the other’s undoing.  

They tenaciously explore each other’s strengths and weaknesses in the hope of uncovering a moment of neglect, which they then utilize to inflict the decisive blow. 

Capoeira demonstration Master de fleuret 2013 t221458.jpg
By Marie-Lan Nguyen, CC BY 2.5, Link

A Brief History of Capoeira 

To understand why Capoeira is so important in the context of African culture and tradition, it is important to dive into its history. It is a direct outcome of almost 300 years of slavery in Brazil. It is considered to have been created in the 16th century by enslaved Africans who were taken across the Atlantic Ocean (from West Africa to Brazil) by Portuguese colonists. 

At the time, their oppressors forbade the enslaved Africans from practicing their martial arts as well as celebrating their cultural customs. This, in turn, prompted them to devise Capoeira in a bid to go around both of these laws. 

Gradually, this African martial art picked up momentum and started being practiced widely across plantations with the intention of fighting slavery, both physically and mentally. The training was imparted to those who wanted to be part of the rebellion. More than anything, Capoeira was a means of breaking the cruel fetters of slavery.  


However, the prevalent Brazilian code during the time officially prohibited the practice of this art, considering it as a social infirmity. Soon “capoeiristas”, or the masters who performed Capoeira, started to be regarded as outlaws. So much so, that the term Capoeira was made interchangeable with “bum”, “bandit”, and “thief”, and these masters gained a notorious reputation. 

The practitioners of Capoeira, for their part, were anything but discouraged by this. Instead, they took their art to marginal places and masqueraded it as a form of dancing, all the while continuing to impart training to interested folks. The violent kicks associated with Capoeira and its fighting were now concealed within its musical and rhythmic elements.  

Now, it could no longer be identified as an attempt to preserve a particular tradition. And so, this one-of-its-kind war dance and fighting established itself both as a survival tool as well as a cultural identity.   

The Rise of Capoeira’s Tradition 

Brazil, from 1500-1815, was colonized by the Portuguese Crown. This empire relied extensively on slave labor, consisting of enslaved Africans, to sustain itself. It is believed that until the mid-19th century, Brazil witnessed the shipping of an estimated four million enslaved people. 

Capoeira empowered several enslaved people to escape the clutches of their oppressors. Once free, they formed rebellion groups called quilombos and started establishing communities outside the Portuguese territory. 

The main objective of these communities was to present stiff resistance to the Portuguese Crown. Many of these communities are famous for their valorous defenses and for acting as strongholds against colonial rule. In this quest, Capoeira is thought to be a pivotal part of their cultural practice and defense.  

During the late 17th and early 18th centuries, the rising number of cities brought with them a larger population, which subsequently resulted in larger communities of enslaved people. Within these communities, Capoeira reigned large as the most popular form of entertainment.  

Festival Curau 2015

Besides being practiced as a form of martial arts or self-defense, Capoeira was primarily performed for pleasure during this time. Even though performers continued to be punished for practicing Capoeira, this unique form of fighting survived regardless. 

However, the end of slavery in Brazil ushered in a dark phase for Capoeira. This was because many of its martial elements started being used for committing crimes. With the Brazilian population expanding in the 19th century, crime reached new heights within the urban centers, Capoeira being the weapon of choice of the perpetrators.  

Towards the beginning of the 20th century, Capoeira became more widespread. It was practiced by bodyguards, mercenaries, and outlaws and, up to a certain degree, by politicians as a means of swaying constituents. 

During this era, a powerful social current flowing through Brazil gradually paved the path for the transformation of Capoeira into a less aggressive weekend pastime. Stories both romanticizing and reviling Capoeira masters and their practices were common at the time.  

The Role of Mestre Bimba 

The 1930s saw the oppression of Capoeira reducing drastically. During this time a popular master, or Mestre, was beginning to gain recognition for his efforts towards restoring the historical perspective and dignity of the Capoeira of his time. His name was Bimba.  

Born in 1899, Bimba scripted history by becoming the first master to open a formal Capoeira school. This school went by the name Luta Regional. By 1937, the government had granted official recognition to the school, thus changing the course of Capoeira for times to come.  

Igreja de Nossa Senhora do Carmo Salvador Bahia Jazigo Manuel dos Reis Machado Mestre Bimba-0124.jpg
By Paul R. Burley, CC BY-SA 4.0, Link

This development sealed its status as an important symbol of culture and took its popularity to unprecedented heights. Additionally, Bimba is also credited with developing the Capoeira regional style, a practice known for emphasizing the technicality of movements and a dance-like nature. 

The Future of Capoeira 

Capoeira has come a long way from its humble origins to establish itself as a cultural symbol of present-day Brazil. Now, it has become an intrinsic part of their tradition. From giving rise to entertaining choreographed dances to teaching basic acrobatics and martial arts, it is performed in different contexts in the country. Its practice and training are now actively promoted throughout the region. Additionally, the immense popularity of the annual batizado exists as an excellent tourist attraction of sorts, with visitors flocking in great numbers to catch a glimpse of it. 

Goma, North Kivu, DR Congo: On the occasion of the International Day of the African Child (on 16 June 2017), demobilized and vulnerable children offered a Capoeira show at the Heal Africa Hospital in Goma.