Once outlawed in its origin country, capoeira is beautiful to behold. Melanie Cooper takes a look.

Capoeira is captivatingly full of contradictions. To the casual observer it appears to be a martial art (with a catchy soundtrack) but it is known by its practitioners as a game. Originating in Bahia it is quintessentially Brazilian, created by African slaves shipped into the country as part of the slave trade.

Perhaps most paradoxically, while capoeira's international popularity is flourishing, in Brazil it retains a lingering stigma from the more than four decades it spent as an illegal activity.

Luciana Carmargo began learning capoeira 12 years ago as a teenager in the small town of Palmares Paulista in Brazil.

"When I began learning capoeira I was the only girl in the group and in the town it was definitely something to talk about."


Despite being legalised for "indoor academies" by Brazil's Vargas government in the 1930s, it wasn't until the 1950s when restrictions on the practice of capoeira were fully removed. In 1953 President Getulio Vargas declared capoeira Brazil's "only truly national sport".

Capoeira has different schools of practice but they all fall under the broader description of "an art form that combines martial arts, acrobatics and dance-like movements performed to the beat of Brazilian instruments". The "game" of capoeira involves two opponents challenging each other to a rhythmic dual of well-practiced movements. Winning requires you to out-manoeuvre your opponent, but, depending on which style of capoeira is being practiced, the victory might involve minimal contact.

"It's about both defending and attacking but it is more about getting away without being attacked. You use your feet, not your hands and the main thing is not to get hurt and not to get dirty - never put your bum on the ground." says Carmargo.

"Capoeira was a way the slaves found to train their bodies and their minds, to strengthen their ability to cope with what they were going through. It is disciplined."

Traditional capoeira dress also reflects these roots. "We wear white pants and a white tucked-in shirt and shoes. In capoeira Angola we make a point of looking tidy and neat just as the earliest practitioners did. They wore beautiful attire - suits, belts, shoes - because they wanted to take it out of its marginal context."

If its origins and history didn't already set it apart, capoeira is notable for drawing together different disciplines. When you are not part of the two-person game, you play the instruments that provide the music. Learning the instruments isn't an optional extra.

Carmargo spent two months honing her skills at New York's Capoeira Angola Centre under Mestre Joao Grande, now in his 80s. Now she learns at Auckland's Capoeira Mandinga Aotearoa under Grant Cole known as "Mestre Brabo" to his students.

Cole, who practices the traditional-style capoeira Angola, came across capoeira while living in the US and was drawn to the "fluid movement of the two people together and the dialogue that you can actually see".

Cole began teaching locally in 1992 and today his classes attract around 50 students a week. Carmargo estimates there are about 400 students nationally with the schools coming together once a year for the Easter Encounter.

"Capoeira is the perfect choice for people who are not drawn to gyms and machines. It's a very dynamic art form that keeps you fit and it's good fun. Whatever level you are you can sweat your soul out," she says.

Brazilian sampler

More of Brazil's arts, stories and tastes are on show at Auckland Museum today between 11am and 2pm as part of the Saturday River Lives series.

To celebrate life along the Amazon River there will be live music, artist discussions, stories of the river, acai berry tastings and theatre based on the Brazilian legend of Boto the dolphin.

Click on the link for more information on capoeira.