The distinctive twanging of a metal stringed long bow sounds over the din and bustle of everyday life and as if by magic, a circle begins to form. More and more people are drawn together by the strange-sounding instrument. A drum joins, and suddenly, two people are dancing in the middle of the circle – or are they fighting? Their movements are fluid, easy, and friendly – or so it seems. In an instant, one of the players is on the ground, caught off guard, and exposed for a second to the sly, cunning, almost gentle attack of his opponent. But the moment is over before anyone can blink and the two bodies continue to flow, laughter in their eyes as they move and intertwine. Pulsing with the beating rhythms of the drum and the warm metallic twanging of the longbow.
This scene could have taken place anywhere; in a square in the centre of Tokyo, in the sports hall of a secondary school in Cape Town, or in our very own Norwich. However, not long ago, this dance-cum-fight-game was still confined to the cities, towns and countryside of Brazil where it is said to have begun. In fact the history of Capoeira is one of secrecy and confinement. Born in the oppression of the colonial period in Brazil amongst enslaved Africans, the art developed as a way of practising fighting whilst appearing to be merely dancing or ‘playing’: the calm and graceful actions disguising powerful moves of attack and defence. Escaped slaves are reported to have been using a ‘strangely moving fighting technique’ that was nevertheless very effective and thus also feared – perhaps partly due to its ‘strangeness’ and unpredictability.
The bustling international port towns of ninteenth century Brazil also formed another key scene in the evolving art of Capoeira. In the midst of the turmoil of social life where aristocrats, merchants, slaves, and tradesmen all crossed paths. There emerged the cunning, streetwise character archetype, closely associated with the practice of Capoeira. The Malandro, as it is referred to in Portuguese – the sly, charming scoundrel, with his ability to effortlessly navigate the dangerous streets and alleys of the city – is still a symbol in the philosophy of Capoeira today. This has made the practice less about strength and more about the ability to watch and read one’s opponent, emphasising skill and playfulness rather than open attack and competition.
Whilst this art of dancing and fighting is a ritual that goes back many hundreds of years, Capoeira is becoming increasingly popular throughout the world today, due to its unique philosophy and approach to combat, and with this the inclusion of music as a central part. In schools, it has been included as a practice that helps build team spirit and enables children to ‘fight’ or ‘play’ in a non-aggressive, non-competitive way, whilst in Syria it is being taught in refugee camps with a similar purpose in mind. Whether in Tokyo, Syria, or Norwich, Capoeira exists as a positive force, with its spontaneity, unpredictability, and its ability to reconcile what are often seen as opposing elements; dancing with fighting, playfulness with wisdom, and war with peace.
If you fancy giving Capoeira a go this new year, you can join up for a year’s worth of classes on the SU website for £5. The classes run in SportsPark two times a week, so why not give it a go?