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History of Capoeira

Capoeira was developed during the 16th century in Brazil by slaves from West and Central Africa. In the senzalas, people from various African cultures intermingled and began to form a unique Afro-Brazilian identity. They practiced Capoeira as a means of unarmed self-defense, concealed beneath the cover of dance and music as slaves were prohibited from openly practicing fighting.


Captive slaves rebelled and escaped to freedom in “quilombos”, settlements such as Palmares in remote locations away from European colonial oppression. In these quilombos Capoeira was practiced by militias and evolved as an art of empowerment and liberation.


In 1888 slavery was ended by law in Brazil. Some capoeiristas offered their skills to gangsters and the corrupt as enforcers or hitmen. As a result of this association with criminal mischief and violence, capoeira was officially outlawed in 1890 by the Brazilian government, so capoeira practitioners moved to further out of public view to conceal their martial art despite its illegal status and severe physical punishments (including death) levied against those caught using capoeira.


Capoeira was oppressed and struggled while it was banned, yet out of the shadows emerged glimmers of hope and renewal. During this outlawed period, capoeiristas assumed nicknames to identify one another without disclosing their legal names; the use of nicknames is still practiced today.


In Salvador, Manoel dos Reis Machado known as Mestre Bimba demonstrated the cultural significance and popularity of the art and received permission to open the first capoeira school in 1932 called Academia-Escola de Cultura Regional. Mestre Bimba systematized capoeira’s training methods, highlighted its fighting effectiveness, instilled discipline, implemented white uniforms, a ranking system and in 1937 he earned official board of education certification and registered the first capoeira academy.


By the 1940s capoeira was legalized. Mestre Bimba is recognized as the founder of contemporary Capoeira Regional, a faster counterpart to more traditional Capoeira Angola.


Capoeira Angola seeks to practice more closely to the art’s original roots. In 1942 Mestre Pastinha (Vincente Ferreira Pastinha) founded the first Angola school in Bahia, the Centro Esportivo de Capoeira Angola. Today Angola and Regional are recognized as equally important primary styles of Capoeira.

Painting depicting Capoeira

Historical painting depicting Capoeira

"Capoeira or the Dance of War"

Capoeira or the Dance of War by Johann Moritz Rugendas, 1825, published in 1835


Historical painting depicting Capoeira

Roda antigua

Historical capoeira photograph, photographer unknown

Mestre Bimba, photographer unknown

Historical Capoeira Photo

Historical Capoeira photograph, photographer unknown

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