Capoeira: Artful Resistance

Historical Rendition of Capoeira. Image courtesy of Rio.com

Historical Rendition of Capoeira. Image courtesy of Rio.com

The history of slavery in the U.S. is taught nationwide; however, slavery elsewhere in the world is barely touched upon in school curriculum. Yet, the resilience and ingenuity that enslaved Africans displayed during and after the Trans-Atlantic slave trade extends beyond U.S. borders. From the 16th to 19th centuries, Brazil was the main destination for Africans sold across the Atlantic and contained the largest slave population in the world. Just as slaves in the U.S. used music, poetry and dance to preserve their heritage and subtly organize against oppressors, African slaves in Brazil also created new forms of art and defense. One of the most influential creations to come from this period is a type of martial arts called Capoeira.

Capoeira Masters. Image Courtesy of the United Capoeira Association of Los Angeles

Capoeira Masters. Image Courtesy of the United Capoeira Association of Los Angeles

Capoeira began in the mountains of Brazil in the 1500’s among groups of runaway slaves called Quilombos. The largest and most famous Quilombo, called the Quilombo dos Palmares, consisted of Africans from all over the continent, who banned together to defend their newfound freedom. Capoeira was initially created as a system of defense, a blend of the warfare styles of many types of African tribes. Incorporating fast and tricky movements with stealth agility and strength, Capoeira struck fear into colonists venturing into the Amazon jungle in an attempt to reclaim their property. When members of the Quilmbo dos Palmares were recaptured and placed on plantations they introduced Capoeira to other enslaved persons, eventually creating units of highly trained fighters. Music and singing often accompanied training sessions, leading plantation owners to view Capoeira as simply dancing.

After the abolition of slavery in the 19th century, Capoeira was deemed illegal, as newly freed Africans and their cultural traditions were viewed with suspicion and fear. Underground schools and communities continued to teach the art form, and its popularity grew throughout the country. In the late 1930s, public pressure forced the Brazilian government to legalize Capoeira.

Presently, Capoeira is taught and performed all over the world. Two major schools for Capoeira are located in New York Arte Capoeira Center and New York Capoeira Center. Both offer classes ranging from beginner through advanced study. DanceBrazil, a modern dance company founded by native Brazilian Jelon Vieira, is heavily influenced by Capoeira, and Vieira has presented his mixture of classical and AfroBrazilian dance to audiences worldwide. By taking a class or watching a performance of this mesmerizing practice you can experience the lasting influence of African descendants on the development of Brazilian culture.

by Michelle Grazio

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8 Comments

  1. max111

     /  September 19, 2013

    Change the video. Does not demonstrate what Capoeira truly is. Also it is not the traditional capoeira.

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  2. LaKeisha

     /  September 19, 2013

    I really appreciate Progressive Pupil for educating their readers about the African Diaspora. I attended an HBCU where African Diaspora and the World was a required course. We briefly touched on Africans in Brazil. This blog post takes the topic just a little bit further to discuss activities post displacement. I did not know that capoeira was a system of defense further more an evolved dance form. Thank you for this enlightenment.

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  3. Samantha

     /  September 22, 2013

    wow! I had heard about Capoeira (from friends who study it in Israel, of all places!?) but didn’t realize it had such a rich history and that it had even been banned in Brazil in the 19th century. It’s absurd to me to “ban” a type of dance. I really enjoyed watching the video and seeing the incredible amount of strength and choreography that go into the moves and the way in which the performers interacted with one another, as if they were actually fighting each other, but not really.

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  4. Capoeira: Artful Resistance
    Africa holds a deep and rich heritage for most people in where their roots began. Yet, the denial to having an African culture or having black ancestors are still relevant today. As I read the blog, I was surprised to find out that Brazil was the main destination for Africans being sold across the Atlantic and contained the largest slave population in the world during the 16th to 19th centuries. The surprise was also that the use of music, poetry and dance were used to preserve their heritage or organize against oppressors. The Capoeira unique art known as martial arts was used to defend their freedom and used as a survival techniques to over come or escape their oppression. It is in Brazil with the African root that created ways of protection. The Dominican Republic and other Latino countries have an African heritage as well. However, society have dismantled the mind of many against claiming their heritage of being or having African roots. Their fork arts allow them to express their struggles the same as Africans.

    By Joann Crandall

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  5. Wow, this is fascinating! I’ve been around self-styled capoeiristas and capoeiristos for years, but never knew anything about the history of it. When I’d ask, they’d usually just tell me that it was a form of Brazilian dance/martial arts. And then they’d keep “dancing.”
    Seems like it’s certainly made its resurgence in this era — so much so that it’s odd to think that it was ever illegal. I guess it’s like so many currently popular art forms, movements, and other pockets of culture. Capoeira has been sanitized, wiped clean of its own history in the eyes of the general public.
    Maybe that’s not always a bad thing, if it can aid in the exposition and proliferation of some really neat stuff. At what line does this sort of cultural revision / removal of history become offensive? Or at least, a total misrepresentation? Can we ever fully experience art or culture outside of its context, or are history and practices seamless? I’m always curious…

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  6. The video posted while has some Capoeira movement IS NOT Capoeira. Its a clip of Dance Brazil a very good dance show, but not Capoeira.

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  7. Samantha Erskine

     /  November 9, 2013

    Thank you for sharing a little about the history of capoeira. I’ve taken a few capoeira classes and I love it…it’s a challenging work out + it inspires me to learn more about Afro-Brazilian history and culture. What I find fascinating about capoeira is that while it started because slaves were trying to convince their captors that they were practicing a cultural ritual, they were really developing strategic fighting (and survival) techniques. Meanwhile, the art form continues to live on centuries later and engages new audiences, as well as male & female capoeiristas of all ages and races, who are able to gain a broader appreciation of this wonderful art form. (I did not look at the video, given the previous comments but there are tons of great capoeira videos on youtube for anyone who wants to see real capoeira.)

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