Updated 05 July 2013

Capoeira: an unusual martial art

Not quite fighting, not quite dancing - capoeira is not what you would usually expect from a martial art.

Capoeira (pronounced 'Ka-poo-ee-ra') isn't what you'd usually expect from a martial art. Not quite fighting and not quite dancing, it's a rhythmic kind of play fighting where opponents try to dominate each other through physical displays of what I would call, well, a fighting dance.

Okay, so you probably don't have a clue what I'm talking about. But this might perhaps ring a bell:

  • In the movie Oceans Twelve, the acrobatic Frenchman, called "The Nightfox" used capoeira to get across a laser grid.
  • In the latest Indiana Jones movie, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, capoeira is used by natives hiding among Peruvian ruins.

    One last try:

  • In the fighting game Tekken, the characters Eddy Gordo and Christie Monteiro both fight in the style of capoeira. And the same goes for characters Blanka and Elana in Street Fighter II and III.

As I said, capoeira is considered a form of the martial arts. It was developed by African and Indian slaves in Brazil, way back in the 16th century and is based on African dance and rituals.

The movements are fluid, precise and nimble. Capoeiristas (that's capoeira jargon for "players") kick, cartwheel, sweep and duck in slow, cat-like movements.

Showing off their skills
Capoeira fighting is much like pretend cockfighting, explains Wikipedia. Participants show off their skills rather than fighting to actually harm an opponent. "Capoeiristas 'play' together, rather than fight against one another," says Graduado Beleza, teacher at Abadá-Capoeira Cape Town.

The area of play, called a "roda", is a small circle where the two capoeiristas do their fighting dance. One fighter is always the negative of the other – if the one kicks, the other ducks, if the one bends down, the other moves over him, if the one goes left, the other goes right, and so forth.

"Capoeira is about give and take: one player attacks and the other retreats, and vice versa," says Beleza.

Music is integral to capoeira. For a game, all the capoeiristas gather around in a circle, while some play instruments, such as bows, drums and tambourines. The rhythm of the music then dictates the pace of play. Others sing verses about history and slavery, or inspirational lyrics.

Different types of capoeira

  • Capoeira Angola: This is an older style of capoeira. It's played at a slow pace, mostly on the ground. It's an interactive game full of tricks and theatrical display to disguise the player's real intention to get an advantage over his/her opponent.
  • Capoeira Regional: This style is more modern. It's played at a fast pace, mostly in a standing position. It's a more combatitive game of powerful kicks, acrobatics and takedowns executed at high speed.

The origins of capoeira
There are many theories on how and by whom capoeira was developed, but the most popular version goes like this: back in the day, Brazilian slave masters forbade any form of martial arts or combat among the slaves (probably out of fear of a revolt), so the slaves developed a martial art, disguised as a dance, to train their bodies for combat situations.

First-hand account
In order to write about capoeira, I decided to give it a shot. As a result, I'm a little spaced out on painkillers right now, my muscles ache and my movements are limited (this isn't an attempt to dis capoeira – in fact, it's a sign of just what a good workout it is).

Two days ago I joined master Beleza and some students at Abadá-Capoeira Cape Town for a class. The more experienced students were all very well toned, especially in their upper bodies – a sign of how beneficial capoeira is for the physique.

Obviously, beginners don't just fall in with the rest of the class. I merely practiced some of the basics during my session, but it was still a hell of a workout.

Lots of movements and routines have to be learnt before you can attempt even your first "fight". Although the individual movements aren't all that difficult, it takes commitment and practice to make the movements flow into one another gracefully. To properly practice capoeira, you require physical strength, muscle control and a good level of fitness. However, as I explained with the movements, this can all be achieved through practice.

Capoeira is perfect for anyone that wants to do something different. It's a lot of fun, and trust me, it's great exercise.

- (Wilma Stassen, Health24, July 2008)


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