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Capoeira History

From the beginning of the sixteenth until the end of the nineteenth century, Portuguese slave traders raided villages along the Yoruban costal region of western Africa to stock the slave trade. The demand for slaves to work on plantations in the New World colonies duing this period increased constantly, especially in the region that is today northeastern Brazil.

Approximately three million slaves were forced to learn to survive in this new, harsh land. Unable to defend themselves against the weapons of their new masters, and unable to unify their diverse cultural groups, the slaves had no way to rebel against captivity. With influences from Africa, Portugal, and the indigenous peoples of the New World, a new form of self-defense was developed that ultimately led to their freedom.

Disguising their training as a ritualistic dance, participants (capoeiristas) threw spinning kicks and head butts, narrowly missing their opponents, who countered with acrobatic retreats that suddenly changed from defense to attack. Onlookers sang, clapped their hands, and played drums to the rhythm of the berimbau, a one-stringed bowlike instrument. The lyrics of the songs spoke of happier life and freedom.

As rebellion among the slaves grew more common, capoeira was outlawed. Capoeiristas were forced to move their training underground, where it remained until about fifty years ago. With the influence of Mestre Bimba in the 1930s, capoeira began to be recognized as a legitimate sport and an important part of Brazil’s cultural history.

Capoeira's popularity grew throughout the country and it is now practiced openly in the streets and taught in the public schools. Capoeira was formally brought to the United States for the first time in the 1970s, and is now taught in cities across the country. Its exotic appearance, and driving make it fascinating to watch, and its symbols of the unification of the masses and the freedom of the individual ensure the growth and survival of capoeira in the future.