“The afro-brazilian fight-dance and its culture of resistance”
by PadRoc (Zulu Nation Switzerland)

Capoeira combines opposites like fighting and dancing, violence and aesthetics, game and death. Capoeira is a fight-dance which uses the beauty and efficiency of animal movements for combat.

It’s not quite clear where the name Capoeira comes from. Some people think it comes from a agressive bird called “odontophorus capoeira spix”; others think it’s a Tupi-Guarani word (Guarani-Indios = aborigine of Brasil) which means a forest that’s completely cut down (this would point at the destroying potential of Capoeira).

During the thirties of the 16th century the cultivation of sugar cane was intensified, therefor the Portugies had to import a very large number of slaves. Since 1538 about 18 millions slaves had been brought to Brasil. Most of them died after five years of work. The ships brought Capoeira to South America. The rhythm and the movements were in the heads and bodies of the african slaves; that was the only thing the slave-drivers couldn’t take away from them. The slaves weren’t allowed to fight but dancing and singing were tolerated. That’s why the guards didn’t pay too much attention to it. This was the chance for the slaves to prepare their resistance. Capoeira, a fast and effective way of fighting was performed in the “rodas” (circles) which were formed by the slaves. As soon as a guard came too close to the circle the fight turned into a dance and it was tolerated.

On the fields the slaves had only two choices: death through exhaustion and torture or they could escape in the forest. There the escaped slaves founded villages called “quilombos”, most of them in the 90’s of the 16th century. From these guitombos they organised the resistance against the Portugies. Next to the weapons Capoeira was one of the main instruments of the Africans against the slave-drivers. The consequence was that Capoeira was forbidden even after slavery had been abolished (may 13th, 1888) because it was always connected with rebellion.

But nevertheless Capoeira was still practised in the Brazilian slums, hidden from the eyes of the white people. If someone was caught doing Capoeira, he had to do forced labour on the isle of “Fernando de Noronha” for up to six month. The police went hunting Capoeira and quite often they got involved in body fights. Ironically the police sent people out there who could do Capoeira as well. During the years the situtation cooled down and the Capoeira schools called “academias” were tolerated.

The most famous Capoeira-master is Mestre Bimba. He was born 23rd sept. 1899 in Bahia, his birthname is Manoel dos Reis Machado and he started training when he was twelve. Mestre Bimba founded the first official “academia” in 1932 and lifted Capoeira out of the underground. On 9th of july 1937 the police turned up in his school and told him to follow them. They didn’t put him into prison, instead they took him to the gouverneurs palace. He was asked to do a performance of the fight-dance with his pupils, and that was a hugh success. Mestre Bimba managed to convince the audience of the cultural importance of Capoeira. As a result it was officially legalized.

Even nowadays Capoeira is performed mainly in the “favelas” – the Brazilian slums – where life is hard and where Capoeira is a useful and intelligent way to gain self-confidence in the struggle of life. But not only in Brasil Capoeira is practiced and performed nowadays, it is known all over the world and a lot of moves and thoughts were even entered in other dances like B-Boying.