Capoeira is one of the main legacies of Afro-Brazilian culture. This mixture of martial art, dance and music has its roda (its basic formation) now considered as Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO.
The art of capoeira was developed in Brazil by descendants of African slaves wishing to keep their physical fitness without calling the attention of their masters. Capoeira involves the simultaneous practice of blows and acrobatic movements in a kind of fight in a format which is more like a dance.
Those who participate in this unique dance also learn to sing songs that tell the history of capoeira and also how to play its typical musical instruments, such as the berimbau (a kind of musical bow), the pandeiro (hand frame drum) and the atabaque (conga drum).
The capoeira formation
The practice of capoeira takes place quite literally amidst a basic formation known as a roda de capoeira. The participants in the dance, known as capoeiristas, form a circle, either standing or sitting down, and two of them fight each other by playing capoeira.
The aim of the game is not to hurt or knock out the opponent, but rather to make the opponent fall down. For this ultimate aim, several different types of movements and acrobatics are used, seeking not only to affect the person’s balance as also to confound the opponent – the practice which is known as ginga, or swing.
As a rule, there is no physical contact between the capoeiristas, especially if one of them is less experienced, making the martial art look more like a dance and a spectacle – a strategy which was used to confound the slaves’ masters (senhores do engenho) who thought this was a festive occasion rather than a form of training for combat. Among the more experienced, the movements become quick and aggressive.
Music and song
While the game unfolds, the capoeiristas who are in the circle all sing, play instruments and clap, all in unison. In special presentations for tourists, it is quite common for the capoeiristas to present their art in the form of choreography.
The music which is part of capoeira also sets the pace of the fight, and this music can be more intense when the combatants are more experienced. The singing is led by soloist, who is accompanied by the rest of the band who respond in chorus.
Even though most of the songs are traditional in origin, it is allowed to insert original and improvised phrases. This happens mainly in order to narrate the game that is currently in progress and also to encourage the opponents.
Qualification of the capoeirista
To become a capoeirista, it is necessary to take some courses under the tutorship of those who are more experienced. According to the extent of improvement, a grading system is shown through the use of ropes that are attached to the person’s waist.
The strings are awarded in a special ceremony known as batizado (baptism), at which the students take on the more experienced capoeiristas according to their degree of qualification – and also, during the first batizado the student is given a nickname, a tradition which goes back to the times when capoeira was illegal in Brazil.
The colours of the ropes vary according to the degree of qualification and also to the variant of capoeira. The ultimate aim in terms of qualification is that of first obtaining the title of aluno formado (qualified student), followed by those of teacher, contramestre (a kind of submaster) and master.