The Capoeira Blog

The Ways We Describe Capoeira
October 8, 2007, 2:00 pm
Filed under: Capoeira Life, Questions

Photo by Andreas (Flickr)

How many times have you been in this situation? You tell someone that you do capoeira and the only response is a blank stare that asks “what in the name of God are you talking about?”

There are numerous ways to describe capoeira, and one of the best ways is to say “go look it up on YouTube and see for yourself” because you really have to see capoeira to know it.

I know that I’ve resorted to “you know, that ‘karate stuff’ that I do” in many situations when you can tell people don’t feel like sitting there listening while you explain the intricacies of the game.

My canned response is usually, “It’s an art form from Brazil that incorporates martial arts, dance, gymnastics, and music.” Which sums it up pretty well, but still leaves much to be desired.

In any news story, the author needs to give a compact description of capoeira in usually as few words as possible. Here are some examples, both good and bad. My commentary follows each quote.

Good Ones:

“[C]apoeira, the spectacular Brazilian martial-arts-dance game.” – The Los Angeles Times

The copywriter inside me loves this snappy description. It’s short and to the point, and really sums it up well.

“A martial art form disguised as a Brazilian fight-dance, Capoeira, features sinuous acrobatic play, sweeps, dodges, jumps and kicks. Other characteristic moves include body throws, punches, slaps and elbow-strikes.” – The LSU Reveille

I really like this description. First of all, it pulls at your senses with the word “sinuous,” which is a really good word that provokes an instant idea. It also mentions throws and strikes other than kicking, which I’ve never seen before in an article.

“Brazilian martial arts performance with musical arrangements…” – The Miami Hurricane

Not the most impressive or fleshed out, but it gets the basic point across.

Bad Ones:

“Originating from Brazil, Capoeira is a fight-dance and martial art sequence originally created by enslaved Africans during the 19th Century. A major difference is that Capoeira does not focus on injuring the opponent, but emphasizes on skill.” – ADOI Magazine

I don’t like it when people use this kind of description while talking about capoeira; the “it’s not full contact/they don’t hurt each other/purposely miss eachother” line. It’s not true, and it only spreads misinformation. Not to mention the line “created … during the 19th century.” Um… No it wasn’t.

“University’s capoeira club, which practices Afro-Brazilian ‘dance fighting.’

Though capoeira is a method of fighting, the actual practice does not involve hitting the opponent, said sophomore Zak Vaudo. Rather, the two “fighters” purposefully miss each other. All this is done to music, which makes the “fight” look more like a dance.”

Again, we see the “purposefully miss each other” take, which is not good. The excerpt also says “Afro-Brazilian” which many articles leave out, for better or for worse.

As we can see, there are good descriptions and bad ones.

One of my favorite descriptions comes from Dias Gomes, a Brazilian playwrite:

“Capoeira is a fight for dancers. It is a dance for gladiators. It is a duel between pals. It is a game, a dance, a struggle, a perfect mixture of strength and rhythm, poetry and agility. The only one where music and singing command the movements. The submission of force to rhythm. Of violence to melody. Sublimation of antagonisms.

In Capoeira the opponents are not enemies, they are comrades. They don’t fight, they pretend to fight. In a very ingenuous way they try to give an artistic view of combat. Above the spirit of competition there is a sense of beauty.

The Capoeira player is an artist and an athlete, a player and a poet.”

Do you have any suggestions for the best way to describe capoeira? Do you have certain examples of things that you like/hate to read or hear?


5 Comments so far
Leave a comment

i like the last one…. even though it would probably be a little too poetic to use to explain capoeira to normal people that dont know what it is…..
it’s a really good explanation of what capoeira is without going to in depth into the subject….

Comment by Rapadura

Been there. The worst is when you come across someone who thinks it’s a quaint folk dance. Especially when there’s a language barrier and you have no idea how to say “gangs” “guerilla warfare” or “plantations” in Japanese. Let alone words like “malandragem” which I have trouble explaining in english.

Capoeira might be beautiful now, but it has origins bloodier than a shark attack. To explain the philosophies, histories, theories, applications and insights of Capoeira to someone lacking a rudimentary understanding is like swimming up a freaking waterfall.

One time, though, I suceeded. It was with this dude in the Martial Arts section of a Barnes and Noble in New York City. I like to strike up conversations with other people in that section. Some people just ignore me, but every now and then I get someone who wants to talk as much as I do.

This was a cool guy. Warehouse worker who painted in his spare time, and did Baguazheng to help his knee problems. I was in the city in the first place to go to a class at Capoeira Angola and had it on the brain. I explained how it was used on plantations, the quilombos, the Maltas, Bimba and Pastinha, the origins (my personal theory is that someone out there knows the origins of Capoeira. They just don’t say because that would kill some of the mystique. Like actually finding where the Giant Squids are). And he asked me questions (mostly about the berimbau).

So, my personal theory is that it’s not a hard task with someone who has free time, an interest in the martial arts, dance or something else relevant, and absolutely no silly preconceptions.

As for being relevant to the question, my standard explanation is “Capoeira is a martial art, a dance, a game and a hundred other things that are hard to explain in English. It’s also murder on my knees and so fun that I do it anyway.”

But as for explaining it to some people… bleh, Youtube.

Comment by Mike Saudino

Hey Mike, it’s cool that you met some random guy who was that interested in capoeira. I’ve also been in similar situations, and it’s always cool when you can take some time out of your day and talk about something you love for a while and educate someone about it in the process.

I hear the “murder on the knees” part too, haha. I always joke about how I’ll be a cripple by the time I’m 40. It’s never fun to hear “click click click” when you’re bending the knees. But oh well, all for the good of the game.

Rapadura, I agree with you about the “too poetic” thing, but it is a great explanation. Though, you could probably shorten it to one part, like, “It is a fight for dancers and a dance for gladiators.” I like that line.

Comment by faisca

LMAO; Youtube !!!

No one in my university knows capoeira (not exactly popular in Egypt) so unless they played Tekken…i have no way of explaining to them what it is

One time I posted a status update on Facebook and got a ton of comments simply saying “WTH are you saying dude ?!” mostly from girls
I just posted some Youtube videos and said: See that ?, that’s what i play lol

@faisca: i love the “Fight for dancers…” line too; i can almost see myself in Hollywood cinematics and gladiator soundtrack playing 😛

Comment by Fouda

Bought a cool-ass cellphone; first thing i did was to convert half a dozen capoeira videos

No one’s yawning now, eh ? xD

Comment by Fouda

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