Combining elements of the fight, the game and the dance, capoeira was developed by Afro-Brazilian slaves more than 400 years ago as a means of maintaining a ready self-defense against their masters. Today it remains a uniquely Bahian art form.
Capoeira is said to have originated from a ritualistic African dance. It was prohibited by slave owners and banished from the senzalas (slave barracks), forcing slaves to practice clandestinely in the forest. Later, in an attempt to disguise this act of defiance from the authorities, capoeira was developed into a kind of acrobatic dance. The clapping of hands and striking of the berimbau, a one-string musical instrument that looks like a fishing rod, originally served to alert fighters to the approach of the boss and subsequently became incorporated into the dance to maintain the rhythm.
As recently as the 1920s, capoeira was still prohibited. In the 1930s, Mestre Bimba changed the emphasis of capoeira from a tool of insurrection to a form of artistic expression that’s become an institution in Bahia.
Traditions & Variations
Today there are two schools of capoeira: the slow and low Capoeira de Angola, originally led by Mestre Pastinha, and the more aggressive Capoeira Regional, initiated by Mestre Bimba. The former school believes capoeira came from Angola; the latter maintains it was born in the plantations of Cachoeira and other cities of the recôncavo region (named after the concave shape of the bay).
The movements are always fluid and circular, the fighters always playful and respectful as they exchange mock blows. Capoeira is typically practiced by two fighters at a time inside a roda (circle) of spectators/fighters who clap and sing. In addition to the berimbau, other instruments such as the pandeiro (tambourine), agogô (bell) and atabaque (drum) provide musical accompaniment. Capoeira gains more followers by the year, both nationally and abroad. Throughout Brazil – particularly in Bahia – you will see people practicing their moves on the beach and street rodas popping up in touristy areas.