What is Capoeira?

Explaining capoeira to the uninitiated is a singularly daunting task for any capoeirista. Beginners, eager to share their new-found sport with others, have clumsily compared capoeira to everything from breakdancing to gymnastics to kung fu, as though any of these bore more than a passing similarity to our art of choice. Honestly, comparing capoeira to breakdancing is like comparing a classical symphony to bass fishing; it’s wildly inaccurate and border-line insulting.

The crux of the problem is that the average American has neither the cultural perspective nor the necessary historical background to understand the game of capoeira without experiencing it first-hand. You can’t expect someone who’s never seen purple to understand it after having it described. “It’s kind of like red, but not.” doesn’t cut it. Not that that stops us capoeiristas from trying.

Relatives, friends, the curious and the ignorant will all ask a new capoeirista about his art. What is capoeira? What’s that thing that looks like a bow and arrow with a bowling ball nailed to it? Especially in American society where capoeira is still exotic and strange, confined for the most part to the fringe, the general populace has no frame of reference for understanding our game. To them it looks like a blurry, twisting hybrid of dance and gymnastics.

Another obstacle is that English doesn’t really have the proper vocabulary to explain capoeira. You could call it a non-choreographed dance, at least until a ‘dancer’ takes a martelo in the face and leaves the roda bloody and bruised, with a nose like a hockey veteran and teeth like Steve Buscemi. You could call it a martial art, until you see two ‘fighters’ flip through the air and throw a hundred kicks without ever landing a blow. Next time you’re in a bar fight, try doing a handstand and you’ll quickly see how martial your art really is.

More experienced capoeiristas than I have tried to clumsily force capoeira into categories and words an American would understand. Nestor Capoeira’s book Capoeira: Roots of the Dance-Fight Game comes to mind. Dance-Fight Game, how’s that for an elegant turn of phrase. Imagine a book titled Carpentry: Roots of Tool-Assisted Wood Arrangement for Buildings and Furniture. Or Baseball: Roots of the Stick-swing Balltossing Field Competition. Even if “Dance-Fight Game” wasn’t the ugliest trainwreck of a phrase I’d ever heard, it still overlooks huge swathes of capoeira’s essence; things like music, community, tradition, and acrobatics to name a few.

We poor American capoeiristas are left with few alternatives when it comes to addressing this problem. We can either fumble along with our graceless and inarticulate explanations, confusing our audience and contradicting ourselves at every turn, or we can do what the high cords do, which is skirt the problem by never associating with anyone who doesn’t also play capoeira.

Years ago, a few days after I was baptized and my parents were first exposed to this weird, cultish, violent art their son had become so taken with, I heard my mom trying to describe capoeira to one of my aunts. Listening to a middle-aged woman from Idaho try to explain capoeira brought to mind the singularly apt parable of the blind scientists describing the elephant.

So where do we go from here? How does one distill the complexities, vagaries, and subtleties of the roda into something palatable to the average clueless layman?

Since everyone else has, I’ll give it my best shot.

First and foremost, capoeira is a game, a game set to music and played by two people. It’s a game with few rules and regulations but rife with convention, etiquette, and tradition. The objectives of the game vary; it can be aggressive and combative, focused on dominance and physical prowess. It can be fluid and flashy, as much an aesthetic performance as a contest. It can be tricky and mischievous, humorous and childish at times. Capoeira is a game of ritualized combat, of attack and escape, of strength and agility, of strategy and instinct.

Don’t listen when sneering martial artists call it a dance, or when cow-eyed dancers call it a martial art. It’s neither, and yet so much more than both. Those who say otherwise can’t see the forest for the trees.

Bring the genuinely curious and confused to the roda. Their first game will give them a more complete understanding than words, charts, and illustrations ever could. Maybe, with luck, one of them will be able to sum up capoeira more elegantly than you or I have.

And then we can plagiarize the hell out of that person’s words, and life will be easier for us all.


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