What is Capoeira? It's an Afro-Brazilian martial art that combines hand-to-hand combat, dance, acrobatics, and music that can be learned by all age groups.
A group stands in a circle clapping in rhythm along with three musicians. Two people from the circle jump into the centre. What follows is a beautiful display of kicks and flips, with each of them executing movements in close proximity but just missing each other. This is Capoeira.
An Afro-Brazilian martial art, Capoeira (ca-poh-AIR-ah) combines hand-to-hand combat, dance, acrobatics, and music, making it one of the more exotic martial arts and a unique form of exercise.
Originally developed by displaced African slaves as a means of rebellion during the trans-Atlantic slave trade between the 17th and 19th centuries, it has since grown in popularity. It is now taught around the world and has even begun to invade Hollywood, having been featured in films such as Ocean’s Twelve and The Protector.
A Way of Life
Vancouver-based instructor Mestre Eclilson De Jesus has been teaching Capoeira in Canada since his arrival in 1990. In addition to teaching, he is a stunt performer in the Vancouver film and television industry and a touring musician, fronting the music group Aché Brasil (achebrasil.com). For De Jesus, Capoeira is more than good exercise–it is a way of life.
“I like teaching people about Brazilian culture,” says De Jesus. “Capoeira can help people to have a better life and be strong and healthy.”
Capoeira is unique from many other martial arts due to the multidisciplinary approach and because its practitioners see it as a game rather than a fight. However, this attitude and approach does not make it any less physically demanding. While it can be picked up by beginners, true mastery can require years of dedication.
It’s for Everyone
Capoeira can be learned by all age groups; however, some of the flashy kicks and acrobatics may be more challenging for older practitioners of the art.
Grace “Jazz” McNab admits many challenges (such as not doing her first cartwheel until starting Capoeira at 43), but these are all outweighed by the benefits.
“It takes all my courage to keep coming, but it’s part of the rhythm of my life,” McNab says. “I feel less well both physically and mentally when I don’t go.”
Children especially can benefit from Capoeira. “It helps them interact,” says De Jesus. “It makes the kids healthy because they exercise. It gives them discipline and makes them strong.”
Kelly Christie, who has a young daughter enrolled in Capoeira, tends to agree. “It’s not a chore for them,” she says, “It’s fun, it’s good physical exercise, and they’re part of a community.”
Like everything else, beginners start with the basics. These include ginga (“sway”), a side-to-side motion from which all other movements are based; esquiva (“escape”), a defensive dodge; and simple kicks (there is more emphasis on kicks than punches).
A Conversation In Movement
While learning movements, students learn combinations and how each movement is incorporated in the game of Capoeira, allowing a roda (circle) to become a conversation in movement. They will also start learning music (see sidebar).
While the movements may be awkward for novices, after a few classes students will experience more confidence and coordination, and later improved muscle tone, flexibility, and endurance.
Above all, Capoeira is a martial art. Some believe that it was also intended to be disguised as a dance so the slaves could train to fight in secret. Regardless of whether or not that theory is accurate, practitioners can deliver kicks with serious force, speed, and accuracy.
Truly multidisciplinary, Capoeira does more than train the individual to fight. It promotes discipline and makes you strong. It trains the mind and the spirit.
Music of Capoeira
The music separates Capoeira from other martial arts. In the roda, music dictates the speed and style of play, keeps rhythm, and brings out energy. Three musical instruments are central to Capoeira.
- Berimbau–a bowlike stringed instrument that leads the rhythm
- Atabaque–a single drum
- Pandeiro–better known as a tambourine
While instruments are often learned after basic movements, everyone is encouraged to participate in the music by clapping and singing along.
Where to Play
Capoeira is taught through many local community centres, university recreation programs, and martial arts studios. Go to capoeirista.com to find a Capoeira teacher near you.