Capoeira – A Brazilian Martial Art by Lexi Sierra Harris

If we are lucky, there is or has been something in our lives that has challenged us enough to shape us into better people.  I can say without a doubt that the sport that I did throughout my 20’s led me to who I am today; goal oriented, focused, competitive, athletic, driven and culturally open minded.  It is my sport, it is Capoeira.

For those who have never seen Capoeira, it is difficult to do it justice in words.  Like many subcultures, it becomes a way of life and we who do it become fiercely protective about how to portray it in the correct light.  At the surface, Capoeira is an Afro-Brazilian martial art that combines elements of dance, fight, acrobatics, music and culture.  For outsiders I’ve heard it explained as ‘dance-fighting’ a term all of us ‘capoeiristas’ cringe at, but in reality is what it looks like.  For those of us who dedicate time and energy to it, we know it can be both deadly and beautiful.  Doing it can make you can feel like a dancer and a fighter all in the same day.  That is what resonated with me, that it was a platform where I had permission to be all these things.

I started Capoeira in 2001 with a group in Seattle, WA.  I had no idea how much I would connect to the sport and how it would shape my career and life.  In the beginning it was fun, the group was amazing.  I would train 3-5 times a week, I worked my work schedule around classes and I always found a way to travel to as many events as I could. I learned how to take a hit in Capoeira, I learned that I could be both mentally and physically tough.  I learned how to do a back flip and a no-handed cartwheel.  I learned how to express myself through song and I learned Portuguese as a second language.  I overcame many physical and mental challenges that came with dedicating yourself to any art form.  To understand how all this is possible, it is important for me to explain the history and how Capoeira works practically.

In the colonial time, the Portuguese brought over 2 million enslaved Africans to Brazil’s coast to work the sugar cane fields (to put that in perspective there were roughly 200,000 brought to the continental United States).  The Africans came from many different tribes, spoke many different languages and held many different beliefs and religions.  Upon arrival in Brazil, slaves often mixed with the native Brazilians who were in some cases also being used as slaves.  All of these cultures and languages mixed to create many amazing uniquely afro-brazilian traditions, many of which are alive even today (Samba is one of them).

Capoeira is dance-like in nature because of the cultural influence but also because of necessity.  It hid the true intention of the slaves which was to teach and practice a martial art to protect themselves.  Because many historical records of slavery were burned when it was abolished in Brazil, no one can say for sure when Capoeira was actually first created.  What we do know for sure is it played a rich part in Brazil’s history.  There are historical references to Capoeira fighters being a part of defending the monarchy when Brazilians were fighting for independence.  For this reason, among others, it was outlawed until the 1930’s.  Then, in the 1930’s a man named Manuel Dos Reis Machado began to teach Capoeira to local university students.  He brought Capoeira from the streets into an academy setting and taught to blacks and whites alike.  He routinely challenged other martial artists such as boxers, Jujitsu practitioners and street fighters to prove the effectiveness of the martial art. Soon he was doing demonstrations for politicians and Capoeira eventually became legal.

Just because it was now legal, didn’t mean that it was accepted.  It had been seen as a poor man’s sport and many Brazilians still see it as something only ‘malandros’ (bums) do.  In the early 1970’s two men came to the United States around the same time, one to the East Coast and one to the West.  Both men were ‘Mestres’ (masters) of the art.  Some theorize that breakdancing came from kids’ interpretation of Capoeira as it emerged around the same time that Mestre Jelon began to teach Capoeira in New York.  Both men worked tirelessly to promote the art and soon many Americans were doing it and traveling to Brazil to learn more about it.  Once the doors were open and demand grew, more Mestres immigrated to the US, Canada and Europe to teach it.  Today it is practiced all around the globe and has made appearances in many hollywood movies.

Capoeira is practiced within something called a ‘roda’ (direct translation is circle or wheel).  The Roda is made up of people, other Capoeiristas, who are all singing and clapping their hands or playing the instruments that lead the players, as they observe the two opponents’ ‘game’.  We call it a jogo (game) and not a luta (fight) because of the historical need to hide the fact that it was martial in nature.  Trickery and playfulness are a huge part of being a mature Capoeirista.

Two opponents enter the roda at the instruments in a ritualized manner.  There are many unwritten rules of the roda that dictate how you enter and how you play, too many to go into much detail here, but it is very important to always be aware of what is going on.  The two opponents then do what I can only compare to sparing, although it can almost look like a choreographed dance.

There are no points, no declared winner (although there are some rare competitions where there are points system, but this is not traditional).  As a player, you are trying to feel the opponent out, trying to read what he or she will do next or what their intent toward you is.  Through a series of feints, attacks, and counter attacks you gain more information about your opponent.  Do they jump at every opportunity you give them to attack you, or do the cower back into the outside of the roda?  You look for areas of opportunity, of potential weakness, and then carry out your own attack or just continue to play with someone.  In some of the best ‘games’ I have seen or been a part of no one ever gets kicked or taken down, there are just a series of more and more amazing attacks and counter attacks. It is beautiful to watch and to experience.

A game only ends when both players mutually agree that it is done or when the leader of the roda declares it over.  It may end with a takedown, a handshake or just because both players have gone as far as they can physically and mentally.  It took me many years to enjoy it on the level of a chess game.  As a beginner, you are very reactive to the opponent, you don’t really know what is going on and if you ‘get’ someone in a take down or attack, it is usually by shear luck or repeated attempts.  The beauty really comes when you stop thinking about it so much, when Capoeira ‘finds’ you and you are able to enter into it as a conversation.  I like to think of Capoeira like a language, one that enables me to communicate with people of all cultures, languages and beliefs.  The best games are like conversations where there is equal give and take, where ideas are shared openly and debate freely and safely had.  There are so many unique things to be found in this sport that it is hard to summarize it in a single article.

Through my experience in Capoeira, I developed an obsession with breaking down human movement.  This obsession led me to a degree in Human Kinetics and a career in the fitness industry.  I still use the skills that I developed from over 13 years of practicing Capoeira.  I compete in Fitness and I use the mental toughness to get through the dieting and I use the flowing kicks and acrobatics in my routines.  Above all else, I use the lesson of reading people.  I find I observe before I speak or pass judgement.  I listen, I watch.  I see how others interact to me and to others around them.  I see their intent, I read their body language.  With clients, I can see where they are going before they even start a movement; the vision I developed through Capoeira makes it easy for me to break down angles, see mis-alignments and correct form.

If you are interested in finding a class near you, google ‘Capoeira’ and see your choices.  There are two main styles that are commonly practiced, ‘regional’ or ‘contemporania’ which is faster, more upright and ‘angola’ which is slower and played generally closer to the ground.  Both are great and I encourage you to try out all the different schools until you find the teacher and style you enjoy most.  I was lucky, I found that thing that challenged me, that made me into who I am today.  I am forever a changed and better person for having done it.

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