The Capoeira Blog


Why is Capoeira an Art Form and Not a Martial Art?
June 19, 2007, 9:05 pm
Filed under: Capoeira Life

Most people hear capoeira and they think “breakdance fighting” or some other simplistic definition because they associate capoeira with high kicks and backflips. My friends always tease me and ask if I would “dance around someone” if I ever got in a fight. I laugh. They don’t understand.

Whenever I explain capoeira to someone who has never heard of it, I always begin by saying “it’s a Brazilian art form.”

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Photo by andrealex (Flickr)

The capoeira that people see in the media is flashy capoeira: a spin kick here and a flip there in some cell phone commercial, or a fancy way to maneuver through security lasers in a big budget movie. Fancy tricks are an important part of capoeira, but not the only part. The reason capoeira is an art form (and not merely a martial art) is because it is more than a fight; it is a form of personal expression.

Capoeira cannot be defined solely by its martial applications. Capoeira combines fighting, dancing, music (singing and instruments), creativity, into one beautiful result. Will you find that in the UFC?

Without music, capoeira is nothing. Without the rhythm of the berimbau or the call the lyrics, capoeiristas are not at home. Sure, you can bust out an amazonas here or an au solta there, but you would not be doing capoeira. You would be doing fancy tricks. Capoeiristas let the music flow through them, it influences their actions and directs the game. The emphasis on music alone is enough to disassociate capoeira from other pure martial arts, but there is more.

The goal of capoeira is not to fight an opponent, it is to play a game with a friend. There are certainly times when a roda will become violent, but these times are rare and, in my opinion, should be avoided. The capoeira game is expression. Capoeira does not exist without the music, the people in the roda, and the capoeirstas playing the game. The best capoeira happens in lively rodas, when the music is loud, the onlookers are excited, and the capoeiristas are having fun.

Sure, martial arts practitioners may put on performances for spectators (tae kwon do demonstrations, UFC matches, for example), but the focus of their specific disciplines is not personal expression; it is training to overcome an adversary. The focus of capoeira is personal expression and creativity through movement, music, and community.

The game is an integral part of capoeira. It’s fine for people to be introduced to capoeira in movies or video games, but they will never know true capoeira until they see it in the roda. As I said before, if you do a parafuso on the street, you are not doing capoeira. You are doing a cool trick. This trick can be imitated by anyone. Breakdancers may steal many capoeira movements because they look cool, but they cannot call themselves capoeiristas. Aerobics instructors may focus a workout around capoeira moves, but they are not teaching capoeira. Without the game, there is no capoeira.

The difference between capoeira as a martial art and as an art form can be summed up in two sentences: Martial artists fight. Capoeiristas play. If you can understand the difference, you can understand capoeira.

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9 Comments so far
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My 8-year-old and I watch copoeira videos on YouTube quite often. I’ve also gotten to see it “live”, which was an incredible experience. I am in awe.

Comment by michelle

Yeah, the first time I saw capoeira I was in awe too (hence why I started doing it!). I’m still awed by more experienced capoeiristas.

Comment by faisca

Your blog post here is one of the best summarizations of what capoeira is I have seen yet. I am pretty new to capoeira (practicing less than 6 months), but I have come to enjoy the energy and the feeling I get when I play in a roda or even when I practice on my own. I often read/hear arguments about the particality of capeoria as a martial art, when it is more than that. That said, I do believe that a person who knows how to use capooeira effectively can win a fair number of fights because of the spontoneity and explosiveness of many of the movements. Good blog post.

Comment by James

James,

Thanks for the kind words about my post =)

I agree with you, a capoeirista’s fighting skill is not to be taken lightly. But that’s one of the great things about capoeira, it was created as a way to disguise fighting, and the effect is still carried to this day.

People think we’re just dancing, that’s fine with me. I don’t go around telling people I can kick their ass, but I know that I could handle myself in a fight, even if nobody else does.

Comment by faisca

I like it man, one of the best explanations i’ve seen and it’s hard to explain capoeira sometimes when people ask…..

though there is one part I didn’t agree on “There are certainly times when a roda will become violent, but these times …..should be avoided.”. I don’t beleive fights should be avoided in the roda, because regardless of what people say they do help you learn to play better and how to defend yourself in times of need…

but what is wrong is when somebody plays just to fight. Always looking for an opportunity to attack the other person, with the intention of hurting them….and also when you let fights get out of control. Another thing is that the fight should stay in the roda and die when the roda ends with no hard feelings…

You said capoeira’s a conversation, some conversations have arguments in them….

theres alot of discord and arguments of wether fights are bad or good or whatever I’m just giving my view on the subject….. I never go looking for fight, but if someone else is I’m forced to give my response, even if I know I’ll get stepped on.

Comment by Rapadura

You make a good point about the violence. I did make sure to note that it was just my opinion that violence in the roda should be avoided. I know that there are situations when it is called for and even necessary (to defend yourself, etc). Capoeira IS a martial art after all, we’re learning to fight.

I just don’t enjoy capoeira when it just turns into two guys throwing punches and doing nothing but trying to throw kicks and takedowns. It interrupts the flow and beauty of capoeira, and that’s not how I like to play.

You’re right abuot the fight staying in the roda though, and about defending yourself if someone tries to fight you.

Comment by faisca

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In my opinion, Capoeira is a martial art, ie. an art to do with martial (warrior) activity. The separation between “dance” and “fight” into two separate categories seems to be a western european concept (ie. dance is feminine, fight is masculine). There are many other martial arts that involve music and dance; Cossack martial arts and Silat for example.
Where I agree with the article is that these days “martial art” has come to mean “martial sport”. I mean, I love watching UFC, but where’s the art in “Mixed Martial Arts? It’s not about personal development, its about winning in a one on one situation under specific rules. The beauty with our art is that you can win and lose dozens of times within one game, and sometimes the only person who knows you won or lost is you!

Comment by Futa

Reading through your article I have to disagree on several points. However as not to be rude and to show my respect for your opinion I would like to review the points that I agree on.

FIrst Capoeira is All that you say it’s a fighting art, a dance art, a musical art, and a form of personal expression. I say this after only witnessing and discussion combat and tactics oc martial arts with Capoeiraistas (I believe that is the correct term). However as a practitioner of several martial arts and even an instructor I have to say that your view of other arts seems to be severely limited.

Every Martial Art is an art that is why they are called martial ARTS. I know for me at least to be an something must be capable of expressing emotion. Martial arts do this with emotion. A good martial artist will be able to purpose his or her movements for a variety of movements. Remember the Shaolin monks appearing on “America’s Best Dancer Crew” a while back? all that was kung fu! Now I agree that what may people call Ultimate Fighting, UFC, or MMA (mixed martial arts) cannot do this. because UFC is a sport not an art. In UFC people are only taught 1 meaning for the forms, they are never encouraged to think about others, while I with training in Kenpo, Ninjutsu and some Kung Fu can create a dance with the movements, or turn a technique designed to disable into a killing technique with no discernible difference in movements visible to the naked eyes except my demeanor.

In closing I would like to say I thought your article was well written and relatively well thought out, and from what I know of Capoeira it is an excellent martial art (ART as in art form like all martial arts) which is definitely worthy of your time. Please in the future however don’t belittle other arts because you haven’t looked into them thoroughly enough. If you would like a better, more comprehensive example feel free to E mail me back, and I will send you no less than papers that I have written explaining how nonverbal communication works in elation to martial arts.

Comment by Travis




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