Capoiera Essay

Capoeira is the common name for the group of African martial arts that came out
of west Africa and were modified and mixed in Brazil. These original styles
included weapons, grappling and striking as well as animal forms that became
incorporated into different components and sub styles of the art. In 1500’s the
Portuguese, led by explorer Pedro Alvares Cabral, arrived in Brazil. One of the
first measures taken by the new arrivals was the conquering of the local
population, the Brazilian Indians, in order to allow the Portuguese slave labor
(for sugarcane and cotton). The experience with the Indians was a failure. The
Indians quickly died in captivity or fled to their nearby homes. The Portuguese
then began to import slave labor from Africa. On the other side of the Atlantic,
free men and women were captured, loaded onto slave ships and sent on nightmare
voyages that would end in bondage. The Africans first arrived by the hundreds
and later by the thousands (approximately four million in total).Three major
African groups contributed in large numbers to the slave population in Brazil,
the Sudanese group, composed largely of Yoruba and Dahomean peoples, the
Mohammedanized Guinea-Sudanese groups of Malesian and Hausa peoples, and the
“Bantu” groups (among them Kongos, Kimbundas, and Kasanjes) from
Angola, Congo and Mozambique. The Bantu groups are believed to have been the
foundation for the birth of capoeira. They brought with them their culture; a
culture that was not stored in books and museums but in the body, mind, heart
and soul. A culture that was transmitted from father to son, throughout
generations. There was candomble’, a religion; the berimbau, a musical
instrument; vatapa, a food; and many other things. The Dutch controlled parts of
the northeast between 1624 and 1654. Slaves took steps towards reconquest of
their freedom when the Dutch fought against the Portuguese colony, invading
towns and plantations along the northeastern coast, concentrating on Recife and
Salvador. With each Dutch invasion, the security of the plantations and towns
were weakened. The slaves, taking advantage of the opportunities, fled into the
forests in search of places in which to hide and survive. Many, after escaping,
founded independent villages called quilombos. The quilombos were very important
to evolution of capoeira. There were at least ten major quilombos with economic
and commercial relationships with neighboring cities. The quilombo dos Palmraes
lasted sixty-seven years in the interior of the state of Alagoas, fighting off
almost all expeditions sent to extinguish it. Because of the consistency and
type of threat present, capoeira developed as a fight in the quilombos. The
birth of capoeira as a fighting style was created in the slaves’ quarters and
might not have developed further if left only to that environment. Starting
around 1814, capoeira and other forms of African cultural expression suffered
were prohibited in some places by the slave masters and overseers. Up until that
date, forms of African cultural expression were permitted and sometimes even
encouraged, not only as safety against internal pressures created by slavery but
also to bring out the differences between various African groups, in a spirit of
“divide and conquer”. But with the arrival in Brazil in 1808 of the
Portuguese king Dom Joao VI and his court, who were fleeing Napoleon Bonaparte’s
invasion of Portugal, things changed. The newcomers understood the necessity of
destroying a people’s culture in order to dominate them, and capoeira began to
be persecuted in a process, which would end with its being outlawed in 1892. Why
was capoeira suppressed? There were many motives. First of all it gave Africans
a sense of nationality. It also developed self-confidence in individual capoeira
practitioners. Capoeira created small, cohesive groups. It also created
dangerous and agile fighters. Sometimes the slaves would injure themselves
during the capoeira, which was not desirable from an economical point of view.

The masters and overseers were probably not as conscious as the king and his
intellectuals of his court of all of these motives, but even still, they knew
something didn’t seem right. There are many other theories to explain the
origins of capoeira. According to one well known theory, capoeira was a fight
that was disguised as a dance so that it could be practiced without knowledge of
the white slave owners. This seems unlikely because when African culture began
to be repressed, other forms of African dancing suffered prohibition along with
capoeira, so there would be no sense in disguising capoeira as a dance. Another
theory says that the Mucupes in the South of Angola had an initiation ritual (efundula)
for when girls became woman, on which occasion the young warriors engaged in the
N’golo, or “dance of the zebras,” a warrior’s fight-dance. According
to this theory, the N’golo was capoeira itself. This theory was presented by
Camara Cascudo , but one year later Waldeloir Rego warned that this
“strange theory” should be looked upon with reserve until it was
properly proven (something that never happened). If the N’Golo did exist, it
would seem that it was one of several dances that contributed to the creation of
early capoeira. Other theories mix Zumbi, the legendary leader of the Quilombo
dos Palmares with the origins of capoeira, without any reliable information on
it. All of these theories are important when trying to understand the myth that
surrounds capoeira, but they cannot be accepted as historical fact according to
the data and information that we presently have. Maybe with further research,
the theory that capoeira as a mix of various African dances and fights occurred
in Brazil, mostly in the 19th century, will also be outdated in future years.

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With the signing of the Golden Law in 1888, which abolished slavery, the newly
freed slaves did not find a place for themselves within the existing society.

The capoeirista (practitioner of capoeira), with his fighting skills,
self-confidence and individuality, quickly descended into criminality and
capoeira along with him. In Rio de Janiero, where capoeira had developed
exclusively as a form of fighting, criminal gangs were created that terrorized
the population. Soon thereafter, during the transition from the Brazilian Empire
to the Brazilian republic in 1890, these gangs were used by both monarchists and
republicans to exert pressure on and break up the rallies of their adversaries.

The club, the dagger and the switchblade were used to complement the damage done
by various capoeira moves. In Bahia on the other hand, capoeira continued to
develop into a ritual-dance-fight-game, and the berimbau began to be an
indispensable instrument used to command the rodas ( sessions of capoeira
games), which always took place in hidden places since the practice of capoeira
had been outlawed by the first constitution of the Brazilian Republic (1892). At
the beginning of the twentieth century, in Rio the capoeirista was a rouge and a
criminal. Whether the capoeirista was white, black or mulatto, he was an expert
in the use of kicks (golpes), sweeps (rasteiras) and head-butts (cabecadas), as
well as in the use of blade weapons. In Recife, capoeira became associated with
the city’s principal musicbands. During carnival time, tough capoeira fighters
would lead the bands through the streets of that city, and wherever two bands
would meet, fighting and bloodshed would usually occur. In Bahia, the
capoeirista was also often seen as a criminal. The persecution and the
confrontations with the police continued. The art form was slowly extinguished
in Rio and Recife, leaving capoeira only in Bahia. It was during this period
that legendary figures, feared players such as Besouro Cordao-de-Ouro in Bahia,
Nascimento Grande in Recife and Manduca da Praia in Rio, who are celebrated to
this day in capoeira, made their appearances It is said that Besouro lived in
Santo Amaro da Purificacao in the state of Bahia, and was the teacher of another
famous capoeirista by the name of Cobrinha Verde. Besouro did not like the
police and was feared not only as a capoeirista but also for having his corpo
fechado (a person who through specific magic rituals, supposedly has almost
complete invulnerability in the face of various weapons). According to legend,
an ambush was set up for him. It is said that he himself carried the written
message identifying him as the person to be killed, thinking that it was a
message that would bring him work. Legend says he was killed with a special
wooden dagger prepared during magic rituals in order to overcome his corpo
fechado. Of all the rouges that led the carnival bands through the streets of
Recife, Nascimiento Grande was one of the most feared. Some say he was killed
during police persecution in the early 1900s, but others say he moved from
Recife to Rio de Janiero and died of old age there. Manduca da Praia was of an
earlier generation and always dressed in an extremely elegant style. It is said
that he owned a fish store and lived comfortably. He was also one of those who
controlled elections in the area he lived in. It is said that he had
twenty-seven criminal cases against himself (for assault, knifing etc.) but was
always overlooked due to his influence of the politicians he worked for. The two
central figures in capoeira in the twentieth century were undoubtedly Mestre
Bimba and Mestre Pastinha. These two figures are so important in the history of
capoeira that they (and the mystery that surrounds them) are the mythical
ancestors of all capoeira players. Much of what a modern capoeira player tries
to be is due to what these men were or represented. In 1932 in Salvador, Mestre
Bimba (Manuel dos Reis Machado) opened the first capoeira academy. He started
teaching what he called “the regional fight from Bahia,” eventually
known as Capoeira Regional (faster more aggressive than traditional Capoeira
Angola style). This was made possible by nationalistic policies of Getulio
Vargas, who wanted to promote capoeira as a Brazilian sport. Although Bimba
opened his school in 1932, the official recognition only came about in 1937. The
Getulio Vargas government permitted the practice of capoeira, but only in
enclosed areas that were registered with the police. With the opening of Bimba’s
Academy, a new era in the history of capoeira began, as the game was taught to
the children of the upper classes of Salvador. Bimba was active in capoeira his
whole life. In 1941, Mestre Pastinha (Vincente Ferreira Pastinha) opened his
capoeira angola school. For the first time, capoeira began to be taught and
practiced openly in a formal setting. He became known as the “philosopher
of capoeira”. Unfortunately, government authorities, under the reforming of
the Largo do Pelourinho, had his academy confiscated. Although he was promised a
new one, the government never came through. The final years of his life were
sad. Blind and almost abandoned, he lived in a small room until his death in
1981 at the age of ninety-two. Capoeira has grown tremendously over the last
fifty years. It has finally been excepted by the masses in Brazil. Capoeira
competitions and academies are surfacing everywhere. In 1974 it was recognized
as the national sport of Brazil. This forced the creation of a national
federation of capoeira. In 1974 it was recognized as the national sport of
Brazil. It was formed to govern, promote and coordinate capoeira since no effort
was made previously to unite the various emurgances of capoeira throughout
Brazil. Capoeira has expanded beyond the borders of Brazil and is growing
rapidly in other countries (including the United States). Capoeira appeals to
many for many different reasons. First of all the pure beauty of the art is
hypnotic. Capoeira is a dance and a fight. It’s not only a combination of
gymnastics, dance and martial arts but also music, culture, history and
knowledge. The capoeirista must learn to balance the physical with the mental.

The capoeirista must play many instruments and sing. The capoeirista may at
times be your enemy but is usually a friend. The capoeirista is a historian. The
capoeirista is all of these. Description: Capoeira consists of a form of dance,
practiced in a circle called the “roda”, with sound background
provided by percussion instruments, like the “agogo” and the “atabaqui”.

The “Berimbau” is a non-percussion instrument that is always used on
rodas. Capoeira relies heavily on kicks and leg sweeps for attacks and dodges
for defenses. Is not uncommon to not be taught any kind of hand strike, though
arm positioning for blocks is taught.The “ginga” (the footwork of
Capoeira), consists in changing the basic stance (body facing the adversary,
front leg flexed with body weight over it, the other leg stretched back) from
the right leg to the left leg again and again. Capoeira also puts a heavy
emphasis on ground fighting, but not grappling and locks. Instead, it uses a
ground stance (from the basic stance, you just fall over your leg stretched
back, flexing it, and leaving the front leg stretched ahead), from which you
make dodges, kicks, leg sweeps, acrobatics, etc. Hand positioning is important
but it is used only to block attacks and ensure balance, though street fighting
“capoeiristas” use the hands for punches. When fighting, it is rare to
stop in one stance, and in this case, you just “follow” your opponent
with your legs, preventing him from getting close, or preparing a fast acrobatic
move to take advantage when he attacks. The rest of the time, you just keep
changing stances and do the equivalent of boxing “jabs”. Players enter
the game from the pe’da roda (foot of the circle), usually with a cartwheel
(au). Once in the circle, two players interact with a series of jumps, kicks,
flips, head and handstands and other ritualistic moves. Games can be friendly or
dangerous. The music plays an important role in the feel of the game. The type
of game being played, whether fast or slow, friendly or tough, depends on the
rhythm being played and the lyrics being said. Training: After a thorough
warm-up, standing exercises are done, with emphasis on the “ginga”,
and on the basic kicks: “bencao”, a front-stomping kick, “martelo”,
a roundhouse kick, “chapa”, a side-kick, “meia-lua”, a low
turning kick, “armada”, a high turning kick, “queixada”, an
outside-inside crescent kick. Then walking sequences are done, with the
introduction of somersaults, back flips and headstands, in couples and
individual. Some more technical training follows, with couples beginning basic
and slow, and then the whole class forms and goes for “roda” game for
at least 30 minutes. Capoeira conditions and develops the muscles, especially
the abdominal muscles. Sub-Styles: Regional style is capoeira in a more
artistic, open form, giving more way to athletic prowess and training. Angola
style is a more closed, harder style that is closest to the original African
systems that came to Brazil. Iuna is a totally athletic and artistic form of the
art, where the couple inside the “roda” play together, as opposed to
one against the other.


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