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Slavery and martial arts

From its origin in slavery, Capoeira has developed into a fascinating body language. It requires intuition, improvisation and creativity, fighting and playing, aggressiveness and poetry.

Capoeira was an idea of the African slaves in their fight for freedom in response to a culture of oppression and suffering. It is a martial art that developed in Brazil from traditional dances, rites and fights.

The slaves were forbidden to practice martial arts. For this reason they invented ways with music and dance to learn various defensive and offensive techniques that could turn deceptive, graceful, soft and flowing movements into very dangerous ones.


The inhuman living conditions on the plantations, poor nutrition, unlimited working hours, punishment and torture limited the life expectancy of the slaves. In the jungle, in the quilombos, life expectancy was not much higher, but life was free. More and more slaves fled from their masters to live in these jungle settlements and to practice fighting in order to survive without weapons against the private armies of the slave owners.

Since 1575, more and more quilombos were built in inaccessible places in the jungle. Palmares, which originated in the south of Pernambuco around 1602, was probably the most famous quilombo with a long history against the violence from outside and its famous leader Zumbi, often sung about in capoeira songs.

State authority

Until 1807, capoeira took place only hidden in the jungle. After that, the fight spread also to the cities. When the Portuguese royal family emigrated to Brazil, under police chief Vidigal, a wave of violence began to break out over quilombos, candomblés (Afro-Brazilian cults) and capoeiristas. The capoeiristas were forced to go to war for the king, from 1864-1870. But even after the proclamation of the republic, the brutal persecution did not stop.

Capoeira was, from the very beginning, an illegal fight that was still pursued by the state authority for a long time after slavery was abolished.  Since 1890 it was also a  criminal offense, and was generally disapproved of. This fact, as well as bloody street fights and mysterious stories of criminal and opaque characters, made it difficult for capoeira to establish itself as a national, traditional sport for a long time.

Since 1900, there has been an increasing Africanization of Brazilian culture in dance, music, folklore, religion and language. But Capoeira has only been tacitly tolerated since about 1937.

Mestre Pastinha & Bimba

Especially in Bahia, Capoeira survived and developed anew. With Mestre Pastinha and Mestre Bimba, two capoeira schools with very different goals were founded. Mestre Pastinha, as the most famous Angoleiro, practiced the very traditional Capoeira Angola. In 1932, Mestre Bimba founded an academy on the Pelourinho, in Salvador da Bahia, and developed the new branch, Capoeira Regional. The Angoleiros had lost too many traditional aspects of playful, spiritual and musical nature at the expense of a sportive structured aspect.

Capoeira becomes public

Bimba (Manoel dos Reis Machado) created training sequences, set up capoeira rules, and integrated new movement techniques that surely also came from areas of influence of other modern martial arts.

In 1936, he achieved state recognition of his school and registration into the office for culture, health and education. His work to bring acceptance to street capoeira was finally appreciated when he received permission from General Magalhães to present it for the first time in public as a culture of Brazil, with dance and folklore character. In 1972, capoeira was officially recognized as a sport by the government, and rules were established in the "Regulamento Técnico de Capoeira".

Capoeira work as help

Today's capoeira is a lifestyle, combining dance and fight, violence and aesthetics, play and deadly seriousness, ritual and spontaneity, magic and sense of reality.

Even today, capoeira in Brazil serves as life training, survival, and building up the person and culture against oppression. There is a lot of capoeira work with children in favelas , often free of charge, and combined with social and political education.

Culture with diversity

Capoeira developed in this way as one of the four most important forms of expressive culture in the Reconcavo Baiano. Besides Capoeira, Candomblé, Samba and Makulelê are to be mentioned. Makulelê is closely related to Capoeira and is a stick fight in dancing form. The highlight of a Brazilian Capoeira show is often Makulelê, with swords flashing against each other when the players fight (Makulelê is played like Capoeira, in pairs, where two of the players' sticks are hit against each other in a certain rhythm).

Global practice

Today you can find capoeira all over Brazil. Especially in Bahia, you find it on every street corner, and on every beach. In the game, unlike in former times, the fight is no longer vital and the spiritual and artistic aspects can be more effective, which happens especially in Europe or America.

It is not uncommon for the teaching in Europe to be more artistic - combative with acrobatic play, while in Brazil the style is even more combative. Also, women participate more and more in capoeira. Historically, only a few women are mentioned: Mestre Bimba is said to have taught only 6 women mainly for public performances.

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