The basic aesthetic elements of capoeira were brought to Brazil by enslaved people, primarily from west and west-central Africa. These elements were recombined and reinterpreted within the diverse enslaved community of Brazil to create a unique means of self-defense, both driven and disguised—as merely a dance—by its musical accompaniment. Slavery was abolished in Brazil in 1888, but capoeira continued to flourish within the Afro-Brazilian population, particularly in the northeastern state of Bahia. The government, however, recognizing the physical and spiritual potency of the art form and considering it a threat to society, continued to outlaw the practice until the early 20th century.
Capoeira is best described not as a dance but as a sport in which the participants—historically, sometimes with blades strapped to their ankles or held between their toes—swing their legs high in attack, perform aerial somersaults, and pass within a hairsbreadth of each other’s knees, head, groin, or stomach. Flexibility, stamina, rapidity of movement, and malicia (deception) are more important than sheer muscular strength. Although marked by the use of graceful, fluid, and often acrobatic movements as a means to escape rather than block an attack, the “game” of capoeira, as it is called by its practitioners, can nonetheless be lethal when contact is actually made with a well-timed, well-placed blow.
In current practice, two opponents face each other within the roda—a circle of capoeiristas (practitioners of capoeira)—emulating in a stylized manner the strikes and parries of combat, in time with the rhythms of a small musical ensemble. Music is indeed integral to the practice of capoeira. The ensemble typically consists of one to three berimbaus (struck musical bows), one or two atabaques (single-headed, standing, conical drums), a pandeiro (tambourine), an agogô (double bell), and sometimes also a reco-reco (scraped bamboo tube), all of which accompany call-and-response songs, usually led by one of the berimbau players.
Since about the 1930s in the state of Bahia and somewhat later in Rio de Janeiro, clubs have trained students in precise kicking, passing, and strategic deception. In the late 20th century capoeira began to gain an international following, and by the early 21st century active clubs existed in many cities throughout the world. Moreover, the art had gained many highly skilled female practitioners, though in its early years capoeira was an exclusively male domain.