Capoeira is a traditional Brazilian martial art that has only started to gain popularity in the United States and elsewhere in the last 50 years or so. Even for people who aren't interested in martial arts in general, capoeira is interesting for its unique elements, such as the importance of music. In fact, to call capoeira a martial art is a little bit misleading. Many practitioners of capoeira - called capoeiristas - think of it as a game rather than a fight.
The art of capoeira has existed since some time in the 1500s. It developed among African slaves in Brazil as a way to fight when outnumbered and without a weapon. After the end of slavery in Brazil, capoeira was prohibited and had to be practiced in secret. The game of capoeira survived as an important part of Brazilian culture, and in the early 20th century it spread in popularity. One unique aspect of capoeira is its lack of standardization. Because it was illegal to practice capoeira for so long, many different groups evolved, and no unified system of capoeira ever developed. There are different schools of thought regarding the art, and even the ranking system is not standard. The most common ranking system involves colored ropes tied around the waist, but some capoeira groups use no ranking system at all.
Game of Capoeira
The traditional Brazilian capoeira game takes place in a formation called a roda, which is Portuguese for "circle" or "wheel." Capoeiristas gather in a circle, at one end of which several people play traditional instruments and lead call and response style songs. The others join in the singing. There are thousands of songs specific to capoeira, and learning these songs is an important part of capoeira training. Inside the roda, two capoeiristas "play" one another. The game involves special kicking and rolling movies, and the players try to anticipate one another's moves and to trick one another into making mistakes or being thrown off balance. Importantly, a well-played capoeira game involves no actual physical injury. No one "wins" the fight, but the game proceeds when the players return to the roda and others take their place.
The Capoeira Way of Life
As with many traditional forms of martial arts and physical training, the art of capoeira includes a specific mindset or way of life. Because capoeira developed as a survival mechanism, principles of survival and awareness are important to the capoeira worldview. A capoeirista is ready to deal with any difficult situation that arises, but a good capoeirista knows how to avoid the difficult situations in the first place.
Modern Capoeira Schools
In the United States, capoeira is primarily practiced at capoeira schools, run by mestres, or teachers, who have attained the highest capoeira rank. The first capoeira schools in Brazil were founded in the 1930s and 1940s, around the time capoeira became legal again. A few well-known mestres, including Mestre Bimba, helped raise the profile of capoeira and founded capoeira schools in other countries. Many different capoeira associations and organizations exist, each with its own unique philosophy and style.
Worldwide, capoeira is one of the most prominent aspects of Brazilian culture. Like other martial arts, it can provide a fun and physically challenging extracurricular activity for children and adults. For those who choose to practice capoeira as a lifestyle, it can provide a new perspective and worldview. For those who aren't involved, it is a beautiful and exciting activity to learn about and observe.