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Capoeira, Deadly Martial Art or Performing Art?
The crowd is on their feet chanting loudly as music blares. They encircling the two performers who are striking back and forth with kicks and they swirl around and jump before the crowd who dance along with the music. The two dancers are performing Capoeira the Afro-Brazilian dance-martial art created in Brazil by African slaves and Indians centuries ago. Capoeira looks more like gymnastics or samba then martial arts styles like boxing and judo. Engrained in the Brazilian culture Capoeira moves to the beat of traditional instruments like berimbaus and drums and moves at a fast pace. While Capoeira is a fun cultural martial art, but can it be classified as deadly or even effective form of self defense.
Capoeira is as popular as soccer in Brazil. Believe it or not, in Brazil more people practice Capoeira then Brazilian Jiu-jitsu. Capoeira's exact origins are shrouded in mystery, but what is know is that it was first practiced by slaves who were brought from Western Africa to work sugar and tobacco plantations. Like other martial arts forms Capoeira's moves were hidden within the slave's dance so their masters would be unaware they were practicing a fighting style.
There were slave rebellions in Brazil and perhaps Capoeira was used to fight slave owners and soldiers, but none of the rebellions were organized or extremely successful. The slaves that managed to escape hid in the mountains with the Indians, but there are no real indications that this martial art made a difference beyond keeping people in shape and entertained.
The Portuguese who had colonized Brazil ruled the country from 1500 to 1822 and put down every rebellion. In fact while the French occupied Portugal itself the King lived in Brazil and continued to rule. Even after Brazil became independent slavery continued until 1888 and ended because of an act of parliament not because of the effectiveness of the slaves' style of martial arts.
On record, the next reference to Capoeira was in 1890 when the art was banned by the government because gangs were using it in street fights. Though there is evidence that the Brazilian police studied Capoeira they studied it, to better understand what the gangs were doing rather than use it themselves in combat. Because it was fun and impressive looking people continued to practice. Over time, Capoeira lost its association with criminal behavior.
In 1910 martial arts instructor Mitsuyo Maeda traveled from the Kodokan in Japan to Brazil to educated people about Judo. To promote his style he took on many local fighters who used Capoeira and other martial arts and defeated them all in hand to hand combat. The Gracie family was so impressed they asked to learn Judo and Jujitsu from Maeda. What they learned would later evolve into Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. Though the Gracie family had many dedicated students, Capoeira remained more popular until the Gracie family began competing in mix martial arts events around the world.
Like all cultural fighting arts, they are great for conditioning and keeping a culture's heritage alive, but many people confuse them with self defense training. Sure slaves used Capoeira to fight with their repressors, but they didn't win their freedom with it. Capoeira is a dance with elements of martial arts, but it just isn't combat effective. During a match fighters strike at each other with kicks, but never actually make contact. The reason given is that it is to test opponents and if they can't dodge a slow blow they can't dodge a fast one and shouldn't be made too until they're ready. This can hardly be considered conditioning for a street fight.
As an instructor you will have many students that start off slow, but at some point you have to bring them up full speed or they won't learn anything. In a street fight things are fast and brutal and dancing around an opponent will look good until they decide to run you over or hit you with a chair. Like all cultural martial arts, Capoeira looks good until you get hit (not to mention any type of edged weapon defensive tactics). Those who practice Capoeira say it is not an aggressive martial art which goes against the basic martial arts principals; always keep attacking and always take ground.
If you watch a performance of Capoeira you will be impressed by the kicks, jumps and the agility of those who performed them. You must realize it all comes to an end if you simply charged them and lay into them with flurry of strikes. The flips and jumps and rolls make them extremely vulnerable and off balance.
Make no mistake, if you get it with a kick that has a lot of velocity behind it, you're going to feel it. But at the end of the day, Capoeira is a great form of dance, but it's not a combative martial art. Anyone practicing Capoeira is a great way to stay in shape and celebrate your culture but add some real self defense training for a little piece of mind.