When I lived in Rio, I went to watch my roommate play capoeira. It is beautiful to watch, and it too has an energy that is like a drug. Capoeira was created by the slaves of Africa, and was brought to Brasil where it was used to resist oppression and to sustain the culture of their roots. Even after the end of slavery, people continued to play capoeira. But without work, many individuals turned to gangs and the practice of capoeira became closely associated with crime. For this reason, capoeira was outlawed in Brasil in 1882. Thus, people were forced to disguise their fighting as a form of dance, and modern capoeira was born. It was not until 1918, when Mestre Bimba demonstrated the art in front of President Getúlio Vargas and developed a moral code to be practiced along with capoeira, that the ban against capoeira was lifted. Bimba later opened the first school of capoeira in 1937, and it finally became recognized as a national Brazilian sport. He is also held responsible for the differentiation between the two main types of capoeira, Angola and Regional.
During your time in Rio, I truly recommend watching, if not participating in, a capoeira class. If you want to learn a little more about capoeira in the context of today’s Brasil, I recommend watching the movie “Slums, Drums, and Capoeira”, which shows how the dance is used in the favela of Rocinha as an means of providing alternatives to the life of violence normally found in the favelas. Axe in Capoeira means the connection with the roots, a special energy to be developed the Capoeirista. The team plays an instrument called the berimbau (which I tried to play but am terrible at, my hand is just not strong enough) along with a bateria. Players form a “roda” or a circle in the middle of which two players fight while the beat of the music and the singing of the teammates fill whatever space you are in. Songs tell stories of life and love, give inspiration, tell histories, or even make jokes. The style of the dance will depend strongly on the tone of music being played.
For hours I watched my roommate and his fellow Capoeiristas flow back and forth, molding themselves to the movements of their teammates, concentrating on each other’s eyes while they flipped and kicked and swayed. Even in that short time, I felt how something like this could help to sustain a people during times of suffering, just as the chanting and movements of davening gave strength to my people, the Jews, during their times of struggle.