RIO DE JANEIRO – Night is falling over Rio, and under a full moon in a Copacabana park, Omri Breda gathers a group of students for what appears to be singing and dancing.
Capoeira is a Brazilian martial art which mixes elements of acrobatics, dance and theatre to create a very rhythmic and unpredictable combat system.
Capoeira is rooted in the slave trade of colonial Brazil and is traced back to the African slaves who were brought to the colony by the Portuguese in order to work on the massive sugar plantations.
The slave masters forbade the slaves from doing any sort of fighting, and any form of resistance was punished harshly by the overseers. In order to protect themselves, the slaves developed a system of fighting which was disguised to look like dancing. The slaves would practice in their quarters at night. Slaves who escaped into the jungle established their own settlements called quilombos, and as the communities grew larger capoeira was taught to the inhabitants to ward off attacks from the Portuguese.
Breda, a middle aged Brazilian with thinning and graying hair, is a university professor in early childhood education in the daytime. But tonight he goes by the name for which he is known in the capoeira community – Mestre Ferragura, or Master Horseshoe. He has spent his whole life using capoeira as a teaching tool for children and a way of connecting people of all ages and backgrounds.
“For us it’s a culture of peace, it’s a culture of non-violence,” he said. “It’s a culture of accepting the differences; of learning from each other … it’s a means of education for us.”
For Dafne Gonzalez, who has been practicing capoeira with Breda for the past year and a half, the philosophical aspects of the art drew her in. She views it as a physical demonstration that people are connected to each other for everything, and that no one goes forward by themselves.
“Everyone needs each other in order to do capoeria,” she said. “So in that sense I think it’s a way to express myself in a community.”
While capoeira does provide its practitioners with a sense of community, its relationship with the larger Brazilian community has been complicated.
After the abolition of slavery in Brazil, many of the freed Africans found themselves homeless and lacking economic opportunities as an influx of Asian and European immigrants left the former slaves with no employment options.
So they turned to using their capoeira skills for criminal activities in order to survive. In the 1890s capoeira was outlawed by the government and many Brazilians were jailed or killed for practicing the martial art.
It wasn’t until the 1930s that it was brought back into acceptance in society. In 2014, capoeira was granted special protected status as an “intangible cultural heritage” by UNESCO in order to preserve the culture and traditions of the master capoeiristas and slaves that created the art.
“(You) can trace the movements back to Africa,” Breda said. “The way we perform, it’s very similar to a lot of African dances.”
Today, capoeira serves as a kind of sport that capoeiristas, the term for capoeira practitioners, play amongst themselves for fun and relaxation.
It is usually done in groups where capoeiristas face each other in the middle of a roda, a circle formed by capoeiristas who sing and play capoeira musical instruments, like the berimbau, a kind of string instrument made with an arched timber rod, wire, and a gord.
The music is used to set the rhythm and pace of the roda. Two capoeiristas enter the roda and practice different moves like kicks and leg sweeps, according to the style required by the instruments’ rhythm.
The game finishes when the musician with the berimbau determines it, when one of the capoeiristas decides to call the end of the game, or when another capoeirista interrupts the game to start playing.
More than just a sport
For many practitioners, capoeira is more than just a sport, dance, or art.
The movements and music all tell a story about the history of the Africans, who lived on through the horrors of slavery despite the attempts to erase it by the Portuguese.
It serves as a reminder of Brazil’s past, of its creators’ strength and perseverance in the face of oppression and links its students back to the African continent.
Breda believes this connection with the past is important for the Brazilians of today, especially in communities of African descent.
“Capoeira is…a very strong tool for the children to have, something that links them (to) their identity,” he said. “Especially the black kids in Brazil that have a need for having (a) good reference of black people.”