What is capoeira?

Capoeira is a Brazilian martial art which combines (and develops) agility, flexibility, balance, stamina, strategy, music and singing. It is a comprehensive sport but above all it is a state of mind, a philosophy; a window on the world with each roda providing opportunities to meet new people. There is no age limit to start capoeira. Every one has their own specificities and style which they will develop along its learning curve.

Origin and history of capoeira

  It all started in 1500 when Portugal took over Brazil. Agriculture quickly developed, notably the sugar cane culture. To be able to farm successfully and profitably, wealthy settlers enslaved Indians but the latter were particularly vulnerable to European diseases.
16th century: in the New World, European colonizers started the deportation of enslaved Africans. Portugal traded slaves mainly from Angola and Guineatowards Côte sous le Vent / Leeward coast in Guadalupe, and from the so-called Slave Coast, from the Volta estuary area in eastern Ghana to the Niger estuary.

Today still the names of those peoples are being remembered by in Brazil: Bantu, Gêge, Nagô. For slavers, slave trading was considered as an ordinary commercial activity but Negro slaves never accepted captivity or the fact of being sold and purchased as a mere commodity. Like animals, they were picked up based on their teeth quality and their physical strength, forced to work without rest, beaten with sticks and slept in “senzalas”. They attempted to win back their freedom at all times but they could not get hold of any weapon of the time. Therefore, drawing on their traditions they developed a defence art which rested solely on the body’s resources. So as not to show their fighting intentions when they were training, they were hiding their movements under the guise of a tribal dance called “zebra dance” or “N’golo”. With their hands tied, they only used their feet. Watching them, masters and supervisors could not figure out the danger behind such dance and that it was concealing slaves’ upheaval and despair. This is certainly how capoeira was born; clapping hands, singing songs with vague lyrics; dancing. By depicting the prospect of flight, revolt and freedom, capoeira helped Negro slaves of Brazil uphold their dignity. 
Slaves who had managed to escape clubbed together to create “quilombos”. The quilombo of Palmarès is amongst the most famous ones. It resisted the army until mercenaries assassinated their leader “King Zumbi” (1655-1695). Zumbi was the most legendary leader. In the refugees’ camps, slaves of all origins met and a whole new population of exiled people started bonding and uniting to defend their freedom. Different cultures were mixed and capoeira developed as a fight made of punches, kicks and violence.

History of capoeira

1822: independence of Brazil
1871: the Brazilian parliament passed the Law of the Free Womb which freed the unborn children of all slave women
1888: abolition of slavery by Princess Isabel and the Golden Law. The process of abolition of such lucrative trade took over 280 years and Brazil was the last country in the Western world to abolish slavery. Two years after abolition, most documents were burnt down by Minister Ruy Barbosa with a view to erasing a “black stain on the country’s history”. As a result, most sources regarding the origins of the former slaves and even on the exact number of Africans brought to Brazil were lost.
1890: capoeira became prohibited (until 1937). Following slavery abolition, thousands of people were free but left to themselves, without any place to live, without any food, work or money, and therefore in misery and poverty. To survive, criminal gangs called “maltas”, and made of capoeirists, formed and spread violence. They looted and attacked the wealthiest people using capoeira. They were hunted down by the police and were liable to over 300 whiplashes, sectioning of the tendons, imprisonment, death or exile. It was during this period that legendary figures appeared. They were the terrible “jogadores”, very dangerous fighters such as Besoura, Manganga, Nascimiento, Grande or Manduca da Praja who are still sung today in capoeira’s circles. It was also at this time that capoeirists started giving each other nicknames so as not to be arrested by the police. Other manifestations of Afro-Brazilian identity - Candomblé, Samba, Afoxé, etc - were prohibited at the time.
1930 : following the revolutions of the 1930s, the government of Getulio Vargas sought the support of the people. The country’s leaders showed a spirit of openness towards popular traditions. A Master of Capoeira, Manoel Dos Reis Machado, Mestre Bimba, requested and got the authorisation to open the first capoeira academy in Salvador under the name of Association of Regional Fight of Bahia (because capoeira was still illegal in name). Mestre Bimba created his own style, combining some movements from Batuque and other popular entertainments of Brazil, with movements from foreign martial arts: jiu-jitsu, judo, savate, leaving aside parts of the traditional legacy which he considered fit for slaves but not for free men. The style developed by Bimba is called Capoeira Regional or regional fight from Bahia.

  Shortly after, Vicente Ferreira Pastinha opened his school using the word capoeira openly and advocating a capoeira for men, children and women. He wanted to keep the characteristics of concealment, sneaking and tradition instead of a capoeira that would only be accessible to the most trained athletes.
Mestre Pastinha developed what is called Capoeira Angola, which attaches great importance to executing movements near the floor.The difference between the two styles, which was amplified by the schools’ rivalry, should however not overshadow the inherent consistency of capoeira, especially at the most advanced level of knowledge.
The ginga (its basic step), the core of its rituals and its courtesy, its music instruments, the singing, the potential danger in the circle and a large number of its technics are common to all trends.
1993: the movement of acknowledgment of Capoeira as an integral part of Brazilian culture continued, masters and teachers organised themselves and teaching developed in schools. The first federations of capoeira of the States of Sao Paulo, Parana and Rio de Janeiro were integrated into the Brazilian Confederation of Pugilism. In 1993, the growth of federations enabled the creation of an organisation specific to capoeira, the Brazilian Capoeira Confederation. This confederation allowed taking care freely of traditional rules and music which were neglected within the framework of the Pugilism confederation. Capoeira was indeed recognised as being more than a mere sport activity.
Nowadays: today, as always, capoeirists enrich their art through movements they create while playing, pushing the boundaries of their bodies and their imagination. Some seek a more attractive shape, focusing more on artistic effect, while others seek martial effectiveness. In Brazil, learning capoeira is often the only education street children receive. The academy provides a kind of socialisation which they could not find elsewhere. Capoeira academies are established at the crossroad of wealthy neighbourhoods and favelas, and have become places for groups otherwise separated to meet and exchange. Today in Brazil capoeira is a martial art and national sport that has more than 10 million practitioners, placing it second right after football. In Europe as well as in other countries capoeira is also a means to bring together young people from different cultures around music, singing and playing. With its cultural heritage and its own declared values, capoeira today represents a people’s history. Worth knowing, groups’ rivalry still exists in Brazil as well as in Europe.


The art of capoeira is governed by a grading system. Capoeirists follow a grading hierarchy based on students' practice and level. Once a year (or every two years depending on the group) an event called "batizado e troca de corda", literally "baptism and change of rope", takes place. During that ceremony, new students are officially welcomed into the group and receive their 1st grade while others are being challenged to get a higher one. The grading system is colour-coded and represented by coloured belts (ropes, actually; this is equivalent to the belt-based system in other martial arts), a tribute to former slaves who wore silk scarves around their necks to protect themselves.
The batizado e troca de corda itself is a test, but above all it is a culmination for students who have been practicing fervently all year long. Professors and Mestres from all over the world come to the event to share their knowledge and capoeira skills throughout various workshops. These professors are accompanied by their own students, who attend the grading ceremony of the host students. This event provides a great opportunity to exchange on, and mix different styles, technics and experiences as well as to make new friends.

Below, you'll find the grades of the CBC (Confederação Brasileira de Capoeira), of the FICA (Federação Internacional de Capoeira) and of the Jogo Vivo capoeira group.

Level Color Name Translation
1 Grey Aluno Iniciado Beginner student
2 Green Aluno Batizado Baptised student
3 Yellow Aluno Graduado Graduated student
4 Blue Aluno Graduado avançado Advanced student
5 Green-yellow Aluno Graduado avançado Advanced student
6 Green-blue Estagiário Trainee
7 Yellow-blue Estagiário Trainee
8 Green-yellow-blue Formado Formated student
9 White-green Monitor Monitor
10 Blue-white-yellow Instrutor Instructor
11 White-jaune Professor Teacher
12 White Mestre Master
* White-gey Corda de adaptaçao Adapted student