Learn the history and techniques of the kicking-oriented martial art that was created by African slaves who were taken to Brazil 300 years ago and forced to disguise their fighting moves with music and dance.
Capoeira Angola is often referred to as the traditional form of capoeira. Dating back some 300 years, the art originated when the first African slaves — from Angola, the Congo, Guinea and other nations — arrived in Brazil. Because of the brutality of many of the Portuguese slave traders, the Africans gradually created a system of physical combat they hoped would one day take them on a path to freedom.
The Africans were able to deceive their European masters by disguising their deadly art as a recreational dance that incorporated spectacular back flips, cartwheels and handstands. Little did the Europeans suspect that such acrobatic exercises were really an intense form of martial arts training.
Even with their wrists chained, the Africans could work to perfect their art; this accounts for the fact that 90 percent of capoeira is based on kicking techniques. The art does employ head butts, takedowns, sweeps, slaps and eye jabs, but they are obviously subordinate.
For much of its history, capoeira was banned by the Brazilian government. A few slaves were able to escape to remote villages and continue practicing the art, however.
In the 19th century, many capoeira stylists roamed the streets as criminals because they had no other means to make a living. This caused practitioners of the art to be ostracized, persecuted and ultimately prohibited from practicing. Fines and threats of imprisonment were levied against anyone caught training in capoeira.
Only a few nobles such as D. Pedro and Juca Reis recognized the value of capoeira and practiced it secretly. Finally in 1932, a mestre (teacher) named Manoel Machado (nicknamed Mestre Bimba), born in Sao Salvador, Bahia, Brazil, received an invitation to perform for Brazilian President Getulio Vargas. Getulio Vargas was impressed and subsequently ended the prohibition of the art.
In 1972 capoeira became an official Brazilian sport, and rules and regulations for competition were implemented. Later it spread outside its homeland. A small number of schools now operate in Europe, the United States and a few other countries, where capoeira lives as a testimony to the indomitable spirit and ingenuity of its Brazilian founders and a unique expression of their culture.
Capoeira instructor Deraldo Ferreira established schools in his home country of Brazil and in Montreal before relocating to Boston. “Capoeira is spontaneous, not choreographed,” he says. “It requires acute attention and cooperation between the players.”
Deraldo Ferreira claims that the unique character of the art stems from the acrobatic way the kicks are performed, and from the way training sessions and matches are often accompanied by music from traditional Brazilian instruments such as the pandeiro (tambourine), atabaque (conga drum) and berimbau (single-string bow).
Before a capoeira student learns how to kick, he must learn the ginga. “All kicking techniques start with the ginga,” Deraldo Ferreira says. It’s the root from which all capoeira kicks grow — both offensive and defensive. It allows the practitioner to impart maximum momentum and body motion to his kick.
Thus, capoeira stylists can generate more powerful kicking techniques than can practitioners of martial arts in which students merely use their leg muscles to push the foot straight into the target.
After having traveled extensively in Brazil to study many different styles of capoeira, Deraldo Ferreira prefers the X-type footwork of the ginga because it allows him more opportunities when moving. Other variations of capoeira employ L-shaped footwork.
Kinds of Kicks
When looking at the kicks of capoeira, it’s important to realize that 80 percent are circular and very versatile. “There are no basic kicking techniques in capoeira,” Deraldo Ferreira says. “Everything is based on the right move for the right situation.”
Many factors are involved in capoeira kicking. Depending on what the practitioner’s intentions are, a kick may move in a snapping, pushing, circling or swinging fashion. The kicker stays in constant motion while he attacks and counterattacks, so the position he ends up in after each technique is important.
Students find capoeira training strenuous because they must support their bodyweight in a multitude of positions. And because many techniques are practiced in slow motion as well as at full speed, the muscles used to kick and move the body must be developed.
This variable-speed practice enables the student to better analyze the technique he’s performing. It accounts for the fact that when people observe capoeira, they’re impressed by its graceful and fluid movements and by the power and effectiveness those movements possess.
Text by Henry Parker • Photos by Robert W. Young
The martial artist shown is Carla Ribeiro, a capoeira practitioner from Brazil.