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Capoeira: The Muddied History of Brazil's Other Martial Art

Updated: Nov 27, 2023

For several years now, Brazil has skirted its heritage with capoeira. It has been overlooked, disregarded and dismissed. Historians battled against bureaucratic red tape. To find the clearing, some gaps in history had to be filled in.

A few years ago an 81-year-old Vicente Ferreira Pastinha— a Portuguese man and an eyewitness to the open gaps in history—told capoeira’s story. Descriptions aptly outlined by the old man attest to fast-moving arms and legs, battling against slave owners, and fighting the oppression only to be defeated. Capoeira had its most terrifying results in the slave uprisings against and owners who were in operation since the colonization of Brazil by the Portuguese.

With each suppression came more restrictions until at last the insurgent African slaves were defeated. As the white populous worked on the ledgers of history, they erased the black marks of capoeira, pretending it never happened. Vicente Ferreira Pastinha remained alive and brought the reality of the past into full focus. Kept alive, the martial art continued to be taught.

If movements were displayed, they were said to be a harmless native dance. This was the way capoeira survived the torture of time. Vicente Ferreira Pastinha revealed how the cultural aspects of capoeira seemed to vanish and how desperate students used its martial art techniques to break down the statutes that were placed in their way.

That they used capoeira for damage and destruction without rhyme or reason is also part of the haggard history. Again and again, insurgent blacks were put down in one bloody encounter after another. Capoeira’s heritage seemed to vanish for good.

Now, 81 years old and blind, destitute save for the income that has been secured from devoted followers of the art, Vicente Ferreira Pastinha is cared for by students who look at him with the same dedication that Japanese karate or judo students look toward their sensei.

He still partakes in capoeira, although the years and the disregard have taken their toll on his prowess. But as Vicente Ferreira Pastinha has revealed the past, a 68-year-old instructor known only as “Master Bimba” is advancing it to the future with his instruction in the martial art.

Five years ago, a group headed by Benjamin Muniz started to make a true and schematic study of the “kata” of capoeira, transferring what Vicente Ferreira Pastinha related into viable and teachable terms. Reluctantly, the nation began to recognize capoeira and accept it for what it was although they have staunchly refused to accept it as a national sport. Today, it has been “washed down” as a cultural, native dance. In this manner capoeira is, to the Brazilian hierarchy, “acceptable.”

Capoeira’s International Prestige

Benjamin Muniz and his group, the Olodum, are performing demonstrations wherever they can find an audience. Their efforts at folklore festivals have garnered them international prestige, despite the backhanded help given them by national officials. In 1968, the Olodum represented Brazil at the Third Latin American Folkloric Festival staged in Argentina and took second place after finding themselves winners of three gold medals and one silver.

This year, they garnered a first place win at the Latin American Festival held in Peru. Their performance, supported by musical instruments, was so commanding that the Brazilian Ministry paid homage to the art by including capoeira demonstrations on its “official” schedule of national demonstrations. How strange it was for the heritage to start in Brazil and seemingly end there, because slaves were traded and deposited all over the world.

Quite possibly, had there been instructors in the martial art in the United States, capoeira might have changed the face of history in North America. This is not a treatise on civil rights; it is a testimony to an austere and legitimate martial art that identifies with all of the traditions of the other martial arts forms. Just as the Okinawan populace sought an effective means of self-defense, slaves developed capoeira to fight against the tormentors of human dignity in Brazil.

Quick Capoeira Body Movements

Representatives of Brazil, those who wish to look with pleasure on the history of their nation, would like the demonstrations of the dance to continue and be treated as a dance. Indeed, capoeira—because of its potentially dangerous aspects—must be practiced as a dance, as a “kata,” but there cannot be a “kumite.” The practitioners know the law and are forced to accept it, but they earnestly believe that the art could be a dynamic sport if the reigns of government myopia were removed.

Admittedly, there have been many practitioners of the art who are working out with no punches or kicks pulled. It has resulted in some damaging effects, and even they recognize that the unleashed power of the art must be tempered somewhat for a sport in which the nation could take pride.

As Gichin Funakoshi tempered karate and Jigaro Kano tempered judo, the leaders of capoeira, perhaps Master Bimba, are looking for that combination of sport-art. Capoeira emphasizes is on muscular strength, joint flexibility and rapid movements. All of these are calculated to subdue, and subdue fast, any threat, any battle.

Capoeira uses quick body movements as most of the martial arts do. But capoeira techniques place a greater emphasis on the power of the legs. A capoeira martial artists may meet a fighter face to face, but in a fraction of a second he can flip to the ground, shooting a strongly placed foot into a vital attacking area.

It has been said that capoeira martial artists, trained with a punch-power in his foot, can effectively destroy a man! That it whets the interest of those who see it has been fairly well documented. In Los Angeles to attend a folklore festival, the members of Olodum were besieged with requests from students to demonstrate at local colleges and universities. At every demonstration, there was much interest in bringing the martial art instruction to the United States.

Capoeira: Brazil’s Official Martial Art

In Sao Paulo, Brazil, Waldemar Dos Santos is the man in charge of making capoeira popular. Waldemar Dos Santos, a short, strong man with scarred hands and forehead, learned capoeira on the streets. He is the foremost teacher in this city where judo and karate have reached a new high in interest and attendance. At 37, the man is determined to have capoeira become even more important than these other martial arts.

“This is Brazilian,” he says with assuredness. “This fighting art is in the blood.” So pronounced is Waldemar Dos Santos about capoeira and its nationalistic ties that more than 100 students are studying with him. He learned the martial art in the beaten-earth clearings, which were to become “academies” for capoeira in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, but having now returned to Sao Paulo, the young man is determined to make the art “official.” Waldemar Dos Santos has suffered from the oppression of red-tape authority. He has titled his “course” a Brazilian folklore movement.

His students practice in what was once the parlor of a townhouse, its walls now smeared with dirty palms and feet. After six months of “dance” movements, which in reality is the “kata,” Waldemar Dos Santos instructs his students into the violent phase of the art. “I admit,” he says, not too proud of the statement, “that Brazilian capoeira is one of the dirtiest, formalized fighting styles known.”

Cleaning Up Capoeira’s Muddy Past

How dirty are capoeira’s techniques? The history books are not clear on this point, either. There are many legends surrounding the martial art and explaining how it was used by Brazilian sailors who picked it up and “adapted it” from the slaves before them.

According to some sources who reluctantly admit it, the sailors used capoeira to “fight for keeps,” taping knives and razor blades to their bare feet and hands before entering a fight. Waldemar Dos Santos shrugs his shoulders on this facet.

Perhaps that was how the art was “bastardized” by the Brazilian sailors, but he has enough confidence in “empty hand” and “empty foot” facets of the art to bypass that addition. Recent police records in Rio show what happens when capoeira gets out of hand. Military police tried to arrest a drunken capoeira fighter nicknamed “Master Satan.”

Satan took on a 24-man platoon and fought them to a draw. Seven policemen were hospitalized, two with broken arms and two with split livers. When Satan still stood defiant after a battering by 24 billy clubs, police had to decide whether to shoot him or let him sleep it off. They decided to try the latter. “The feet are man’s most deadly weapons,” says Paulo Romero, a Rio capoeira practitioner.

“The head is the weakest. Capoeira aims at bringing the strongest weapon to the point of weakness.” Master Bimba has defined the modern martial-sport and outlined 72 separate movements that have colorful names, similar to those given in tai chi chuan, such as “Daddy’s Scissors,” “Banana Plant” and “Tail of the Dragon Fish.” “Before World War II,” Master Bimba says, “capoeira was illegal.”

Police were called wherever it was practiced. Now, at long last, it is being appreciated for the thing of physical beauty that it really is. Speed, agility and multiplication of force is the key. Master Bimba knows that this definition is in conflict with the view taken by the capoeira fighters.

“Capoeira is as graceful as a ballet, but it was invented to kill,” he admits. “In a street fight in old colonial Brazil, capoeira was a fight to the finish. A knife, a razor, a broken bottle made a capoeira [fighter] the equal of 20 men.” Vicente Ferreira Pastinha, however, shirks the contempt against the martial art. Historically, it belongs to Brazil and it should be recognized, in his opinion.

“As a Brazilian,” he says, “I am proud of this friendly country. The capoeira [martial artist] meeting his adversary has the possibility by means of lightness and quickness of the art to disarm any opponent, either taking the weapon from him or vanquishing him by throwing the armed adversary to the ground.” Vicente Ferreira Pastinha is still the prime authority on the art, and he has seen it develop to a point of respectability. Master Bimba is the foremost practitioner and teacher in Brazil, and his students are as enthusiastic over the martial arts techniques as students anywhere.

There are some who are unhappy that it is locked into the demonstration aspect, colorful though it may be with its musical accompaniment and bright costumes, often times striped trousers that give off a garish and more “carnival” appearance than most.

At least the art is being nurtured and someday perhaps, if it continues to live and gain in popularity, capoeira may grow into a full-fledged martial art and a national endeavor. Right now, one university accepts it as part of its curriculum within its folklore program.

Moving it over to physical education may be a tricky accomplishment, but until that day does arrive, the followers of the art will continue to demonstrate it, allowing people to forget it is really an example of black power.

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