Does the gym bore you? Get into capoeira, the Brazilian martial art disguised as a dance

Capoeira moves

At first glance, it looks as if a strange cult has descended on the streets of Madrid.

In the circle, we all work very hard, and we all learn to respect each other.

Figures in white are formed in a circle, singing tribal songs accompanied by drumbeats and exotic instruments. Inside the circle, two players are engaged in a fierce fight – or not exactly, as it also resembles a graceful dance. It’s a human expression of yin-and-yang, a dialogue of kicks and evasions, punctuated by headstands and gravity-defying acrobatics. This is Capoeira, Brazil’s unique martial art.

Although it arguably puts an emphasis on “art” today, Capoeira’s history is a long and brutal one. It traces its roots back to the 16th century, when slaves from West Africa were imported by Portuguese colonizers to work in the sugarcane plantations of Brazil. Under harsh and inhumane conditions, the slaves developed their own fighting style, disguised as a dance in front of their masters so as to avoid punishment.

Capoeira musical instruments

Capoeira musical instruments

That musical aspect has survived to present day Capoeira, lending it that unique dimension that sets it apart from the other martial arts. Players spar to songs of freedom, love of nature and victorious battles.

Capoeira’s global popularity has grown in the past decade and in Madrid these days you can catch Capoeira Nagô on Sundays in Plaza del Sol and in Parque Retiro during the summer months from June to early September. Capoeira Nagô, based in Goiânia in Brazil, has chapters all over Spain, as well as in Rome, London, Malta, New York and all over Latin America.

Profesor Chicao leads the Nagô Madrid branch, with over 20 years of training under his purple belt. He arrived in Spain in 2005, and has been giving classes almost every day in Madrid, describing his life as “living Capoeira each day.”  His feisty assembly includes students from all over the world.

Back in Brazil, he taught Capoeira in poor barrios to help educate and rehabilitate the youth, and to give them a life away from violence and marginality in society. Here in Europe, the needs are visibly different, and yet Capoeira is just as transformative, capturing people’s interest in different ways.

“Different people are interested in different parts. Some like the fighting or martial arts, some the exhibition part, some like the music and the instruments. So Capoeira wakes a different curiosity in each person. That’s what makes me proud also as a teacher, to see how people here take interest in Capoeira in spite of the different needs. That’s my own pago mensual,” shares Chicao.

Capoeira Brazilian martial art

Brazilian martial art

“Awakening curiosity” is something Chicao likes to emphasise. “Capoeira awakens students’ curiosities not just of the sport but also another culture, another language, music. Learning Capoeira gives you the opportunity to learn many different things.”

Now comes the inevitable question – can anyone learn Capoeira? Including us slow-moving mammals whose main sports include bar-hopping and marathon siesta?

“Capoeira is a fight, a dance, an art that requires a lot of training. People who don’t know anything about it see it as something very difficult,” he says. “True, the physical training is hard, but you can come to train slowly, respecting and knowing the limitations of your body. I have students who are 3 years old and 60 years old. It’s about respecting the physical potential of each one.”

And then there is another aspect of Capoeira that goes beyond the physical to something deeper, the philosophy of “Axé”, akin to The Force if you will. The belief of shared energies, that everyone in the circle is connected, from the person doing the awesome somersaults to the one singing and clapping in the circle.

“In Capoeira, you learn respect for everyone,” shares Chicao. “I have classes of doctors, lawyers, immigrants.  Outside we all lead different normal lives. In the circle, we all work very hard, and we all learn to respect each other.”

Natalia Diaz

About Natalia Diaz

Longtime journalist turned speechwriter. Once in a while I delve into writing children´s books. I moved to Spain in 2008 for the wine, food, and football.

Image Credits: Jean-Christophe

Talk Back