The Roots Of Capoeira: The Brazilian Dance Fight

Capoeira or the Dance of War by Johann Moritz Rugendas, 1825, published in 1835

The Portuguese in the sixteenth century bought, sold, traded and transported African people illegally. Brazil, due to its large territorial region received almost forty percent (40%) of these indigenous African people via the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade. These slaves from Africa formed or practised a dance called Capoeira.

The most widely accepted origin of the word “capoeira” originates from the “Tupi” words Ka’a which means forest and pau which means round. These words were describing the areas of low vegetation in the Brazilian interior where slaves usually hid themselves from their masters. The capoeira dance originally evolved from the Kingdom of Kongo which is modern day Angola and it (capoeira) was called N’golo or Engolo.

Painting of fighting in Brazil c. 1824 by Augustus Earle

These slaves believed that in the act of practising the dance, they would be able to link up with their past ancestors and bond with them perfectly. They believed that whiles a person is dancing, he or she is possessed by his or her forefathers who were very good at the fight. Another belief they had was that through this dance provided a link to the afterlife.

Capoeira is largely and popularly known for its acrobatic and fine manoeuvres. It is based on flowing movements of the body parts instead of a fixed stances and moves. It often involved inverted kicks, cartwheels, and hands on the ground. The elements of capoeira included kicking, headbutting, slap-boxing, walking on one’s hands, deception, evasion, etc.

Capoeira at the Marcha da Consciência Negra in São Paulo, Brazil, 2009

During the Trans-Atlantic slave trade, the tradition was transferred around the Americas and it carried different names. It was called Capoeira in Brazil, Damnye in the Caribbean, and also, Knocking and Kicking in the United States. After the abolishing of slavery in Brazil, capoeira was made illegal but in the early parts of the 20th century, authorities begun to relax on the enforcement of its ban and this gave rise to the practice of the Capoeira dance again in Brazil. In the course of time, some aspects of Capoeira has been fused into martial arts.

On the 26th of November 2014, UNESCO specially protected and classified Capoeira as an intangible cultural heritage in the world. Currently, Capoeira is one of the dance that is practised and taught globally.



Video credits: Steve Bartholomew 


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