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The Hidden History of Capoeira

The Hidden History of Capoeira
A Collision of Cultures in the Brazilian Battle Dance

A richly researched historical and cultural study of capoeira, the Brazilian martial art/dance that is spreading around the world.

December 2007
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249 pages | 6 x 9 | 47 b&w figures, 5 maps, 7 tables |

Capoeira, a Brazilian battle dance and national sport, has become popular all over the world. First brought to Brazil by African slaves and first documented in the late eighteenth century, capoeira has undergone many transformations as it has diffused throughout Brazilian society and beyond, taking on a multiplicity of meanings for those who participate in it and for the societies in which it is practiced. In this book, Maya Talmon-Chvaicer combines cultural history with anthropological research to offer an in-depth study of the development and meaning of capoeira, starting with the African cultures in which it originated and continuing up to the present day.

Using a wealth of primary sources, Talmon-Chvaicer analyzes the outlooks on life, symbols, and rituals of the three major cultures that inspired capoeira—the Congolese (the historic area known today as Congo-Angola), the Yoruban, and the Catholic Portuguese cultures. As she traces the evolution of capoeira through successive historical eras, Talmon-Chvaicer maintains a dual perspective, depicting capoeira as it was experienced, observed, and understood by both Europeans and Africans, as well as by their descendants. This dual perspective uncovers many covert aspects of capoeira that have been repressed by the dominant Brazilian culture.

This rich study reclaims the African origins and meanings of capoeira, while also acknowledging the many ways in which Catholic-Christian culture has contributed to it. The book will be fascinating reading not only for scholars but also for capoeira participants who may not know the deeper spiritual meanings of the customs, amulets, and rituals of this jogo da vida, "game of life."

  • List of Abbreviations
  • Foreword
  • Acknowledgments
  • Introduction
  • Chapter 1. A Rio de Janeiro Slave Game
  • Chapter 2. The Battle and the Game (1840s-1870s)
  • Chapter 3. Patrons and Oppressors (1870s-1930s)
  • Chapter 4. New Center, New Style: Capoeira Regional and Capoeira Angola in Twentieth-Century Bahia
  • Chapter 5. The Game of Life: Battle of Cultures
  • Epilogue
  • Notes
  • Glossary
  • Bibliography
  • Index

Maya Talmon-Chvaicer is an independent scholar in Toronto, Canada. She holds a Ph.D. in history from the University of Haifa.


Capoeira is a Brazilian battle dance, a national sport that is part of Brazilian folklore, and, in recent decades, has been taught in schools, universities, and private health clubs. Today it is popular all over the world, and increasing interest has given rise to a large number of historical, anthropological, and sociological studies examining its various aspects and manifestations. In the nineteenth century players, or participants, in capoeira were known as Capoeiras. To avoid confusion I use the same terms: those who play capoeira are Capoeiras (plural) or Capoeirista (singular).


The new historiography looks for and studies the Other, marginal groups ignored and unheard by historians for hundreds of years. Though they sometimes constitute a numerical majority, these groups have been virtually disregarded by scientific research because of their inferior social status, and their story, if told at all, was told by external observers. Since the last part of the twentieth century, however, efforts have been made to listen to the voices of these minorities. Using new and innovative approaches, scientists have begun to investigate the effect of the Other on dominant cultures. In Brazil it has been found that despite the differences between masters and slaves, rulers and subjects, the intercultural encounter has engendered mutual influences, integration, and radical changes in all facets of the cultural and social fabric. In other words, a belief in the superiority of European culture and a homogeneous Brazilian culture no longer exists. This study supports the view that Brazil's social and cultural reality, molded in the dynamic processes of multiculturalism, is influenced by diverse philosophies of life that are still changing.

During the nineteenth century, consistent efforts were made to obliterate capoeira by a variety of methods. White people's sense of superiority induced them to segregatee themselves from those they had subjugated, slaves who had brought with them the ancient traditions and cultures of their homeland. Consequently, official descriptions, as well as reports by tourists and the press, of blacks' performances and of capoeira were merely synoptic, superficial, and incomplete. Capoeiras were stigmatized as dangerous drifters who committed criminal acts and threatened public order, as can be seen in the writings of Barreto Mello Filho e Lima, Plácido de Abreu, Allain Emile, Azevedo Aluizo, and others. However, in the early twentieth century, a few army and police officers demonstrated the advantages of capoeira as a martial art and published the first capoeira instruction booklets.

In the 1930s and 1940s Gilberto Freyre, Artur Ramos, Viriato Correia, Edison Carneiro, and other scholars began emphasizing the beneficial influence of African and Indian cultures on Brazilian society. There began an intensive preoccupation with creating a Brazilian national identity, with emphasis on homogeneity as embodied in the new mixed type, or Mestiço. Capoeira, like other popular manifestations such as samba, carnival, and the African-Brazilian religions, gained legitimacy as part of Brazil's national identity and was practiced extensively. Capoeira was recognized as the Brazilian martial art, as the national sport, and as a Brazilian product worthy of the public's attention and involvement. As an extension of this approach and because of the significant social changes that have occurred over the past seventy years, capoeira has become very popular among the middle and upper classes. In the 1980s and especially in the 1990s many studies of capoeira were undertaken. The anthropologists Iria D’aquino, Lewis Lowell, Leticia Reis, and Gregory John Downey focused on social relationships among Brazilian Capoeiras, discussing the role of the capoeira schools in achieving status, power, and identity; capoeira as a tool in the struggle for equality; racial relationships between whites and blacks in capoeira; and the differences in capoeira movements as a result of social and political diversity. The historians Thomas Holloway, Marcos Luíz Bretas, Luis Sergio Dias, Antonio Liberac Pires, Carlos Eugênio Líbano Soares, Maria Burges Salvadori, Luís Renato Vieira, and Mathias Röhring Assunção wrote histories of nineteenth- and twentieth-century capoeira, focusing on the authorities' policies against capoeira during colonial and imperial times and the first republic and the development of capoeira from an outlawed activity to an integral part of twentieth-century Brazilian popular culture. Likewise, Brazilian Capoeiras such as Almeida Bira, Nestor Capoeira, Angelo Augusto Decanio, Oliveira José Luis have written about capoeira from their own experiences.

The authorities and the Regionais (those who practice Capoeira Regional) have tried to characterize capoeira as a national activity originating in Brazil, the country's national sport, and part of Brazilian folklore. Slogans such as "Capoeira é uma só" (There is only one capoeira) and claims that in schools of Capoeira Regional both styles (Angola and Regional) are being taught suggest that the prevailing view among the ruling circles has been accepted. They have tried to force their convictions on the rest of the population and have thus redefined capoeira according to their needs and interests. Today this is not enforced through legislation and oppression as had occurred during the nineteenth and early twentieth century but through the inculcation of values and the emphasis on aspects of capoeira that coincide with the prevailing views. In other words, most of the available written sources reflect the convictions of the elite and the ruling circles. Consequently, due to the marginal social status of slaves and former slaves in Brazil, the importance and influence of the Kongolese and Yoruban cultures have not found expression in these sources. Few authors have attempted to demonstrate the connection between Brazilian capoeira and African cultures. Júlio Cesar de Souza Tavarez, in "Dança de guerra" (War Dance) claimed that slaves preserved their African traditions through body movements. Kenneth Dossar analyzed African aesthetics and dance elements in Capoeira Angola, and in a recent work T. J. Desch-Obi developed a connection between capoeira and twentieth-century southwestern Angolan martial arts (kandeka and engolo) and the seventeenth-century military culture of the Imbangala groups.


The object of this book is to reveal narratives that have been repressed and excluded from the history books and thus to present a far more intricate and detailed study of the development and meaning of capoeira than has been available previously.

This is a historical-cultural-social study combined with anthropological research. It is an intricate and detailed examination of primary written sources, analyzing the outlooks, symbols, and rituals of the three major cultures that inspired capoeira—Kongolese, Yoruban, and Catholic Portuguese. It also discusses the depth, wealth, and differences of the various capoeira languages, which arise from their different social and cultural heritages and from encounters, collisions, and fusion. Capoeira has become diversified; the variations on the theme incorporate numerous traditions that are influenced by many aesthetic, spatial, and time perceptions and teaching methods, as well as by African, African-Brazilian and Catholic-Christian convictions, rituals, symbols, and religious beliefs.


Kongolese culture formed the background for most of the capoeiras from the early nineteenth century and is probably where they originated. Many of the rich elements of that culture were hidden, repressed, misunderstood, or underestimated by Europeans and their descendants.

Yoruban culture has had a great influence on slave life and culture in Rio de Janeiro and Bahia, mainly since the second half of the nineteenth century, after the massive forced immigration of slaves from western Africa who, due to their sheer number and subsequently elevated social status, have left their mark on capoeira to this day.

Portuguese Catholics, among whom were the elite and ruling classes and therefore determined policies regarding capoeiras, also exerted great influence on the form. The increasing number of Brazilian Catholics active in capoeira groups has brought about meaningful changes in its cultural manifestations.

By studying the changes that have taken place in the goals of capoeira, as well as its symbols and characteristics since the beginning of the nineteenth century, we can perhaps detect the influences of these cultures on each of these aspects.


The five chapters that constitute this study examine the various processes that capoeira has undergone, from different points of view in different eras. The first part of each chapter depicts capoeira as it was experienced, observed, and understood by Europeans and their descendants who considered this activity in relation to their own interests. The second part of each chapter discusses the covert aspects and the further numerous meanings of capoeira.

Chapter 1 discusses capoeira in Rio de Janeiro in the early nineteenth century, up to the 1840s. It deals with the nature of capoeira—which was initially perceived as a slave pastime but soon became a means of disturbing the peace—and the way in which authorities tried to tackle this development. At the time capoeira was regarded as an insignificant slave activity, one among many, and contemporary myths linking capoeira with rebellion are inaccurate, to say the least. The second part of the chapter introduces the concept of capoeira as reflecting the outlook of its practitioners, who were, by and large, slaves originating from West Central Africa. The significance of play in these cultures, particularly as connected with the spiritual and symbolic features of capoeira, is also discussed.

The second chapter, covering the period 1840-1880, examines differences in the Capoeiras' countries of origin, skin color, and social status and how the authorities perceived them as bloodthirsty murderers who used capoeira to kill and maim innocent citizens just for fun. Another interpretation of their behavior suggests that capoeira was used in some instances to protect the regional and social interests of gangs struggling for control of urban space. The second part deals with the hidden aspects of capoeira. Despite the authorities' attempts to present the Capoeiras as a threat to public order and as enemies of society, the masses admired their skillful mastery of the game, played in the squares on festival days and in religious processions, which made fun of the authorities, turning them into objects of scorn and derision.

Chapter 3, covering the period from the 1870s to the 1930s, examines the characteristics of Capoeiras, who split into two major subgroups based on ethnic and socioeconomic rivalries. The circumstances that made Capoeiras an influential factor in local politics and their suppression after the fall of the monarchy are discussed. The second part discloses some secrets of capoeira, the use of the occult, and the growing influence of Yoruban culture and the Catholic Church on beliefs, customs, amulets, and rituals.

Chapter 4 discusses the shift in the focus of capoeira from Rio de Janeiro to Bahia in the 1930s and the change in the authorities' attitude toward it—from treating it as a crime punishable by law to declaring it the national sport of Brazil. Two quite different capoeira styles developed: Capoeira Regional in the 1930s and Capoeira Angola in the 1940s. The second part of the chapter presents the spiritual aspect of capoeira, including rituals, music, and musical instruments and shows how new traditions evolved as a result of the encounter, clash, and integration of the diverse cultures, mainly Catholic Christianity and Yoruban. It is evident that various spiritual aspects are still preserved in local memory, although explanations of and insights into their meanings have faded with time.

Chapter 5 deals with the increasing tensions arising from the different philosophies of life, values, traditions, and customs that led to the changing expressions, goals, and characteristics of capoeira in the 1940s and 1980s.

An examination of the original myth, the essence, goals, and teaching methods, as well as the kinesthetic aspects of capoeira and the major changes in perception of aesthetics, time, and space sheds light on the historical and social processes that capoeira and the Capoeiras have undergone. Despite all attempts to effect uniformity and impose the image of capoeira as a national sport endemic to Brazil, the conflicting outlooks of rulers and subjects, of Brazilians and African-Brazilians have not disappeared.


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