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Is Capoeira a Martial Art or a Dance? FAQ about Capoeira

Photo by Red CreaDeporte

There are many fascinating combat systems in Brazil, but Capoeira stands out as the most distinctive and intriguing. When observing Capoeira, you may question whether it is a legitimate form of combat or simply an acrobatic dance created for entertainment. Well, it is both.

Capoeira is a hybrid martial art that mixes martial arts techniques with aspects of dancing, acrobatics, music, and spirituality. The traditional form concentrates on self-defense, whereas the modern form is focused on demonstration and spreading Brazilian culture through martial art dancing.

Let’s further explore this Brazilian martial art. We will go deep into its history, techniques, and effectiveness in real combat.

History of Capoeira

The origins of Capoeira come from the Angolan tradition called “engolo”. It was further adopted by the enslaved Brazilians who lived under the Portuguese colonists and landlords in the 16 century in Brazil. Back then, the enslaved people had no weapons and relied on hand-to-hand skills to defeat armed colonists.

In the 16th and 17th centuries, Brazil became more urbanized, and the enslaved people were no longer under strict supervision. They had the right to move freely, explore other interests, and use their time off work for other activities. This is where they started to practice capoeira in their free time.

At first, training was tolerated by the colonists but would later become prohibited. They feared that the spread of capoeira might result in riots and rebellious behavior of enslaved people.

Many of enslaved people who managed to escape would gather together and form their own communities called “quilombos.” Since they lacked the weapons and armor, they would focus on improving capoeira and making it more practical on the battlefield. To be able to deal with armed weapons, they focused on fast movement and blitz attacks. And it worked.

The principle of constant quick and strategic movements made it hard for Portuguese soldiers to deal with their attacks. According to their testimonies, it was harder to defeat bare-handed quilombos than the armed Dutch invaders.

Brazil declared the end of slavery on May 13th, 1888, with a law called the “Golden Law.” At first, practicing capoeira remained illegal because it was associated with criminals, warlords, and assassins. It was present only in remote places, far from the government and police. This was up until the 1920s when people started working on standardizing capoeira practice and making it a legitimate martial art.

This was also a time when the entire concept went through many changes. Due to legal issues and its criminal connotation, the emphasis switched from self-defense to dancing with less and less practical application. They started adding more acrobatic and dancing moves, mostly from African martial arts, to make it a demonstration sport that would spread the Brazilian culture.

However, due to the perceived danger of the original practice, traditional schools known as “Capoeira Angola” were not legalized to teach at the time. Only the schools that adopted the “soft and playful” style got the green light to teach classes, and this is how traditional styles got suppressed by the less effective modern styles.

Is Capoeira a Fight or a Dance?

Capoeira can be both a fighting art and a dance. It cannot be confined to one absolute category.

To understand better why it can be both, you must understand the difference between traditional and modern practices. The traditional variation of Capoeira was designed for intense combat against the colonists. So the main objective of the training was to prepare a person for real combat scenarios.

The traditional style was present until the 1940s when they needed to eliminate all the dangerous aspects of training to make Capoeira legal in Brazil. This was when the colorful acrobatic and breakdancing elements came into play.

Modern Capoeira is more a demonstration sport than a self-defense system. Students train to perform in various festivals and other events associated with spreading the Brazilian culture. They don’t spar or do any fight simulations to learn how to fight in real life.

Most of the deadly self-defense aspects and teaching methods are left out of modern practice. As a result, training primarily revolves around the demonstration of martial arts techniques mixed with the elements of dancing and music for the purpose of entertainment.

This includes a mix of fluid movement, acrobatic flips, various types of inverted and jumping kicks, punches, knees, elbows, and many other techniques. Although visually impressive, it is now considered more of a playful martial art than a legitimate self-defense system.

The ideal description would be akin to “dance fighting.” Students gain a basic understanding of how to react in real combat and rely enough on their skills to face nontechnical fighters.

Modern Capoeira
Photo Credit: bongo vongo

In the end, they practice legitimate martial arts techniques. But their skills are quite limited due to the lack of realism, notably when it comes to sparring and preparing for real combat.

Capoeira Techniques Explained 

Following is a list of some of the basic capoeira techniques and moves. Bear in mind that each move has many variations, and the name of each technique may also differ.

Ginga — is described as the basic footwork. A continuous shift of the fighting stance where a practitioner is making steps in a triangular motion. In combination with upper body movements, this stance allows you to evade attacks and deliver fast and powerful counter-attacks using momentum.

The continuous shift between the stances also makes you a smaller target and harder to hit. This form of unique movement is also used in martial arts such as Taekkyeon and Pencak Silat.

 — is the capoeira variation of the famous cartwheel rotary movement of the body. This is a versatile technique that practitioners use for different purposes. In some situations, they rely on au to evade the attack by rotating to the side.

In other, you can mix it with kicks to catch the opponent coming in. These variations are also known as “Au Batendo,” “Au sem Mao,” “Au de Frente,” “Au Giro sem Mao,” “Au Batido,” “Au Aberto,” and many other.

Balanco — is a technique of moving the torso from side to side. The key is to stay off the centerline to make yourself a smaller target and harder to hit. This also interrupts the opponent’s timing and enables you to use angles to create an opening. As with all other capoeira techniques, this one is also combined with leg and hand strikes, headbutts, and others.

Hand strikes — are rarely used both in traditional and modern capoeira. Some of the hand strikes used are straight punch “Asfixiante,” karate chop or knife-hand strike known as “cutelo,” elbow strike “cotovelada,” strike to the eye “dedeira,” backhand strike “godeme,” and many others.

Kicks — are the main weapon in capoeira. There are dozens of different kicks used, each with more variations. Some of the most common ones are the roundhouse kick (Armada), frontal push kick (Bênção), straight kick with the foot (Chapa), and front snap kick (Ponteira). The kicks are often mixed with evasive maneuvers, which make the execution more acrobatic.

Capoeira strongest kick

Takedowns — are usually used during ceremonies or when a master is testing students’ skills. Since kicking is so important, sweeps are the most common takedowns in capoeira, and there are dozens of different variations.

Headbutts — are also commonly taught in capoeira but, of course, is not used during demonstrations. However, this specific technique is very effective in real-life and self-defense scenarios.

Floreios —is a mix of dynamic movements such as ginga and various types of flips and kicks. For example, a capoerist would do a cartwheel and follow with a flip to the side. Floreios techniques are very complex, as most require a high level of skill and athleticism.

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Is Capoeira Difficult to Learn?

Capoeira might seem playful at first glance and easy to learn. But do not make mistakes about it; it takes many years for a person to become proficient. First, you must spend a lot of time doing various exercises to improve core strength and flexibility and reach a high level of athleticism. Without it, you can’t even think about moving to intermediate or advanced levels.

Next, most Capoeira techniques require high body awareness, coordination, and balance. And you need to spend years training hard to develop these skills. Capoeira is not about executing one technique at a time, like a kick or punch. It’s all about chaining complex moves like cartwheels, spins, and kicks together in harmony, paying close attention to the rhythm music, and establishing a connection with other players.

Though modern practice mostly revolves around the demonstration, Capoeira can be more challenging than most other combat systems. For instance, it takes more than a year of training before a student can attend the first grading. It may take another 2 or 3 years to make further progress.

Overall, learning the basics of Capoeira is relatively easy and achievable for most people. However, as you progress to more intricate techniques, the difficulty level increases significantly.

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Can Capoeira Be Used in a Fight? (fully explained)

Capoeira is rooted in self-defense and the practical application of techniques. Being a skillful practitioner certainly makes you superior to people not trained in martial arts. You will understand self-defense well enough to protect yourself and stay out of trouble.

However, you have to accept the fact that capoeira, especially the modern practice, is quite limited when it comes to actual fighting. Though this varies between schools, students rarely do self-defense drills. They do not test their skills in sparring or do other fight simulations where you can practice self-defense. No, it all revolves around practicing difficult and complex combos that visually look impressive but are not practical in real combat

Still, capoeira teaches legitimate techniques you can use in real life, such as footwork, kicks, and punches. For example, the emphasis of the system is on anticipating the attack and using various types of movements to evade/slip/dodge strikes, and even how to combine them with direct and simple kicks and punches. These are all legitimate martial arts techniques.

On top of that, capoeiristas have great timing, are in great physical shape, and have the ability to quickly confuse the opponent because their style is unorthodox. And this element of surprise is also very important. A person who charges at you with the punch won’t expect you to do a cartwheel, move to the side and come back with some wild kick or flip. Even if you miss, this element of surprise will destroy their confidence and momentum.

As previously stated, capoeiristas do not test their skills against fully resistant opponents like boxers or kickboxers do in their training. As a result, capoeiristas may have severe limitations in their ability to apply these skills effectively in real fights.

Can You Use Capoeira in MMA?

Capoeira is present in modern MMA but not as much as in other, more practical martial arts. You can see fighters, notably the ones from Brazil, utilizing its elements in freestyle combat. However, you can’t rely solely on Capoeira and expect to succeed in cage fighting. In fact, this system is not considered practical or effective for MMA due to its limitations. Other systems, such as boxing, Thai boxing, wrestling, and jiu-jitsu, work much better.

First, the concept doesn’t fit well within the rules of the sport. For example, capoeira moves such as headbutts are not allowed according to all MMA rules. Next, the capoeira learning curriculum lacks realistic teaching methods, as there is no sparring. In fact, modern practice does not really teach you how to apply techniques in combat situations. Training for demonstration and fun does not transfer well into the brutal concept of cage fighting.

Watching capoeira experts do all of those flashy acrobatic moves look great. But the reality is that most of these techniques won’t work in MMA if you rely solely on them. To make certain capoeira techniques work, you must combine them with techniques from other martial arts listed above.

Capoeira Fighters in the UFC

Throughout UFC history, some fighters who trained in capoeira have used capoeira techniques in their UFC fights. However, most of them are well-versed in wrestling, BJJ, and Muay Thai. They use only specific elements from capoeira to make their game more dynamic and unpredictable. The most popular are:

Michel Pereira uses Capoeira techniques in the UFC.

Final Summary

Capoeira is one of the most impressive martial arts, and watching skilled practitioners perform is breathtaking. However, remember there is a clear difference between the traditional and modern variations. The traditional practice is rooted in self-defense and the practical application of techniques in real combat. The traditional style is not as present in modern times, and you will have difficulty finding a traditional school to train in.

On the other side, modern capoeira focuses on the demonstration of acrobatic moves and spreading the Brazilian culture all across the world. It is a mix of traditional techniques, dancing moves, and music, mostly performed for fun. Though playful, capoeira remains one of the hardest martial arts to master, and students often spend many hours training just to execute one specific technique. And above all, training is safe, as the risk of injuries is quite low and very beneficial to your overall health and fitness.