Capoeira (IPA: [ka.pu.ˈej.ɾɐ]) is an Afro-Brazilian martial art, game, and culture created by enslaved Africans in Brazil during the 17th Century. Participants form a roda (circle) and take turns playing instruments, singing, and sparring in pairs in the center of the circle. The game is marked by fluid acrobatic play, feints, subterfuge, and extensive use of groundwork, as well as sweeps, kicks, and headbutts. Throughout the game, a player must avoid a sweep, trip, kick, or head butt that may knock him or her on the floor less frequently, elbow-strikes, slaps, punches, and body-throws are used. Technique and strategy are the key elements to playing a good game. Capoeira has three variations known as "Capoeira Angola", "Capoeira Regional", and the ever-evolving "Capoeira Contemporânea". 
From the 16th-19th centuries, Portugal shipped slaves into South America from western Africa. The South American country of Brazil was the most common destination for African captives with 42% of all enslaved peoples shipped across the Atlantic. Most commonly sold into Brazil were Akan, Igbo, Yoruba, Dahomean, Muslim Guineans, Hausa, and Bantu (among them Kongos, Kimbundas and Kasanjes) from Angola, Congo and Mozambique. These Africans brought their cultural traditions and religions with them to the New World. One theory suggests that capoeira originated from a fern courtship dance in Angola used by suitors of young women, however, capoeira's origins are often disputed. There is contention as to whether it arrived with enslaved Africans or whether Africans refined it once they reached Brazil. One catalyst for capoeira was the homogenization of African people under the oppression of slavery. Capoeira emerged as a way to resist oppression, secretly practice art, transmit culture, and lift spirits. Some historians believe that the indigenous peoples of Brazil also played an important role in the development of capoeira.
Batuque and Maculelê are other fight-dances also developed by African-descended populations that are closely connected to capoeira. There are also engravings and writings that describe a now-lost fighting dance in Cuba, the baile del maní, with two Bantu men moving to the yuka drums.
After slavery was abolished in 1888, the freed people moved to the cities of Brazil and with no employment to be found, many joined or formed criminal gangs. They continued to practice capoeira, and it became associated with anti-government and criminal activities. As a result, capoeira was outlawed in Brazil in 1890. The punishment for practicing it was extreme (practitioners would have the tendons on the backs of their feet cut), and the police were vicious in their attempt to stamp out the art. Capoeira continued to be practiced, but it moved further underground. Rodas were often held in areas with plenty of escape routes, and a special rhythm called cavalaria was added to the music to warn players that the police were coming. Capoeira practitioners (capoeiristas) also adopted apelidos or nicknames to make it more difficult for police to discover their true identities. To this day, when a person is baptized into capoeira at the batizado ceremony, they may be given an apelido. During the 19th century, men of many ethnic backgrounds, called capoeiras, formed a group of gangs in Rio de Janeiro. But they began to disappear after 1988 due to persecution by the new republican government. Capoeiragem which is their style of fighting was eradicated from Rio de Janeiro ever since. In Contrast to Rio de Janeiro, practice of Capoeira in the state of Bahia suffered less persecution. The emergences of a champion, Mestre or teacher, was created in the beginning of 1930s.
Legal persecution of the art faded eventually.
Mestre Bimba made a major contribution to the preservation of the art by opening the first academy for instruction in capoeira. This was a significant development because it eventually led to the legalization of the art in Brazil, and allowed capoeira to gain popularity at a time when the art could possibly have died out. A notable example of the influence of Mestre Bimba's system of formal instruction took place in 1937, when he was invited to perform with his students at an event at which Getulio Vargas, the president of Brazil at that time, was present. Vargas was so impressed with the discipline and devotion of Mestre Bimba's students he declared capoeira the national sport of Brazil. Mestre Bimba also had a major impact on the practice and method of instruction of the art, and introduced changes that affect the practice of the art to this day. Because of these changes Mestre Bimba remains a controversial figure. Prior to the legalization of the art, the public associated the art of capoeira with the poor underclass, criminal activity, and negative stereotypical elements of the afro-Brazilian population. In order to alter the image of the art in the eye of the public, Mestre Bimba removed many of the rituals and traditions of the art of capoeira for practice in his academy. Because of the negative stereotypes associated with capoeira, he called his capoeira Uma Luta Regional de Bahia (A regional fight from Bahia). Mestre Bimba's capoeira is now called capoeira regional, and subsequently many modern forms of capoeira not directly derived from Bimba's teaching are also called regional. Mestre Bimba's capoeira continued to gain popularity, but eventually an effort was made to prevent the art from losing its traditions and rituals.
In 1942, Mestre Pastinha opened the first formal academy for instruction in the traditional form of the art, known as capoeira Angola. Mestre Pastinha's efforts prevented capoeira Angola from being lost as newer, modernized forms of the art gained popularity.
This era was a milestone of a dramatic change in the mode of instruction of the art of capoeira. Previously, capoeira was passed on in secret, usually from a relative such as one's father or uncle, or in a small group setting where several young people in a particular community would receive guidance from elder practitioners from that community. During this era, the academy system became the predominant form of participation in the art. Presently, there are capoeira academies on almost every continent of the world.
Another significant change that occurred due to the proliferation of capoeira 'schools' is the participation of middle and upper class members of the population. Presently, some Mestres participate in seminars where they discuss the need to make the art available to poor blacks who can not afford the cost of training in an academy. This is an issue of concern to practitioners who recognize the importance of making the art available to people who come from the culture that invented the art in the first place.
Music is integral to capoeira. It sets the tempo and style of game that is to be played within the roda. The music is composed of instruments and song. The tempos differ from very slow (Angola) to very fast (São Bento Regional). Many of the songs are sung in a call and response format while others are in the form of a narrative. Capoeiristas sing about a wide variety of subjects. Some songs are about history or stories of famous capoeiristas. Other songs attempt to inspire players to play better. Some songs are about what is going on within the roda. Sometimes the songs are about life, or love lost. Others are lighthearted or even silly things, sung just for fun. Capoeiristas change their playing style significantly as the songs or rhythm from the berimbau commands. In this manner, it is truly the music that drives capoeira.
There are three basic kinds of songs in capoeira. A ladainha (litany) is a narrative solo usually sung at the beginning of a roda, often by the Mestre (Master). These ladainhas will often be famous songs previously written by a Mestre, or they may be improvised on the spot. A ladainha is usually followed by a chula or louvação, following a call and response pattern that usually thanks God and one's teacher, among other things. Each call is usually repeated word-for-word by the responders. The ladainha and chula are often omitted in regional games. Finally, corridos are songs that are sung while a game is being played, again following the call and response pattern. The responses to each call do not simply repeat what was said, however, but change depending on the song.
The instruments are played in a row called the bateria. Three instruments are berimbaus, which look like an archer's bow using a steel string and a gourd for resonance. It is played by striking the string with a stick, and the pitch is regulated by a stone. Legend has it that, in the old times, knives or other sharp objects were attached to the top of the berimbau for protection and in case a large fight broke out. These three bows are the Berra boi (also called the bass or Gunga), Medio, Viola, and lead the rhythm. Other instruments in the bateria are: two pandeiros (tambourines), a Reco-Reco (rasp), and an Agogo (double gong bell). The Atabaque (conga-like drum), a common feature in most capoeira baterias, is considered an optional instrument, and is not required for a full bateria in some groups.
The "roda" is the circle of people within which capoeira is played. People who make up the roda's circular shape clap and sing along to the music being played for the two partners engaged in a capoeira "game" ("jogo"). In some capoeira schools an individual in the audience can "buy in" to engage one of the two players and begin another game.
The minimum roda size is usually a circle of about 3 metres (10 feet) in diameter. They are often larger, up to 10 metres in diameter (30 feet). The rhythm being played on the berimbau sets the pace of the game being played in the roda. Slow music limits the game to slow yet complex ground moves and handstands.
Hits usually aren't made but feigned or just shown, although this depends directly on the rhythm played by the berimbaus. In some rhythms (e.g., Benguela) strikes are generally shown but not finished while in others (e.g., São Bentro Grande da Regional) the players have more freedom to strike each other. Slow games are often seen as finesse games, less impressive for the casual viewer. Faster music allows for more circular momentum which is key to gaining "big air" in the roda. Note, however, that it is the specific toque played on the berimbau, regardless of its speed, which dictates the type of game to be played.
For the participants, the roda is a microcosm of life and the world around them. Most often in the roda, the capoeirista's greatest opponent is himself. Philosophy plays a large part in capoeira and the best teachers strive to teach Respeito (Respect), Responsabilidade (Responsibility), Segurança (Safety/Security), Malicia (Cleverness/Street-smarts), and Liberdade (Liberty/Freedom).
Modern capoeira is often criticized by more traditional practitioners of capoeira as being in the process of losing its "playfulness" and dialogue, in the sense that many capoeiristas tend to focus more on impressive acrobatics or the martial elements than the playful interaction with the other player in the roda. Dominance in the roda is much psychological and artistic as it is a question of who winds up tumbling to the floor.
Capoeira is uniquely social. Networking with other groups and students from other teachers can teach a capoeirista more about the art and improve their skills.
Styles of capoeira
Capoeira has two main classifications: traditional and modern. Angola refers to the traditional form of the game. This is the oldest form, approximately 500 years old, with roots in African traditions that are even older, and is the root form from which all other forms of capoeira are based. Modern forms of capoeira can be classified as Regional and Contemporanea.
Capoeira Angola is considered to be the mother form of capoeira and is often characterized by deeply held traditions, sneakier movements and with the players playing their games in closer proximity to each other than in regional or contemporanea. Capoeira Angola is often mis-characterized as being slower and lower to the ground than other major forms of capoeira. However, this is a common misperception as some of the fastest and intriguing games can be found in Capoeira Angola rodas.
The father of the best known modern Capoeira Angola schools is considered to be Mestre Pastinha who lived in Salvador, Bahia. Today, most of the capoeira Angola media that is accessible in the United States comes from mestres in Pastinha's lineage. He was not the only Capoeira Angola mestre. However, he is the best known mestre who helped bring more traditional Capoeira philosophy and movements into the modern setting of an academy.
Regional is a newer form of Capoeira. Regional was developed by Mestre Bimba to make capoeira more mainstream and accessible to the public, and less associated with the criminal elements of Brazil. The regional style is most often composed of fast and athletic play.
Later, so called modern regional came to be (see the next section about capoeira Contemporânea). Developed by other people from Bimba's regional, this type of game is characterized by high jumps, acrobatics, and spinning kicks. This regional should not be confused with the original style created by Mestre Bimba.
Regional ranks capoeiristas (capoeira players) by ability, denoting different skill with the use of a corda (colored rope, also known as cordel or cordão) worn as a belt. Angola does not use such a formal system of ranking, relying instead upon the discretion of a student's mestre. In both forms, though, recognition of advanced skill comes only after many years of constant practice.
Contemporânea is a term for groups that train Angola and modernized capoeira simultaneously. This is controversial because many modern practitioners argue that Angola must be practiced alone, or that regional can only be practiced alone for the student to truly understand the form of the game. Other practitioners argue that a capoeirista should have a working knowledge of traditional and modern capoeira, and encourage training both forms simultaneously. This is an issue of great disagreement amongst capoeiristas.
The label contemporânea also applies to many groups who do not trace their lineage through Mestre Bimba or Mestre Pastinha and do not strongly associate with either tradition.
In recent years, the various philosophies of modern capoeira have been expressed by the formation of schools, particularly in North America, which focus on, and continue to develop their specific form of the modern art. This has become a defining characteristic of many schools, to the point that a seasoned student can sometimes tell what school a person trains from, based solely on the way they play the game. Some schools teach a blended version of the many different styles. Traditionally, rodas in these schools will begin with a period of Angola, in which the school's mestre, or an advanced student, will sing a ladainha, (a long, melancholy song, often heard at the start of an Angola game). After some time, the game will eventually increase in tempo, until, at the mestre's signal, the toque of the berimbaus changes to that of traditional Regional.
Each game, Regional and Angola stresses different strengths and abilities. Regional emphasizes speed and quick reflexes, whereas Angola underscores a great deal of thought given to each move, almost like a game of chess. Schools that teach a blend of these try to offer this mix as a way of using the strengths of both games to influence a player.