Joined: 02 Apr 2005
Styles: Capoeira Angola
|Posted: Tue Nov 30, 2010 2:00 pm Post subject: Capoeira Explained
|I was at one point recently asked if I could write an introduction to what Capoeira is really about.
Among the martial arts available in the English-speaking world, Capoeira is among the less understood arts, and the only art many martial artists will encounter with African roots. Capoeira has a number of elements which render it very different from the Asian and Euro-American arts most are familiar with, and even within the art, many points which would help practitioners translate what they are doing are insufficiently examined.
Capoeira has elements of dance, of performance, of informal game informal in the fashion that it fills a social role more like footbag/hackeysack than a formal sport like tennis and of fighting art. Friendly competition, music and "showy" acrobatics can be seen in it's most visible form alongside it's kicks, unique floor techniques, evasions and sweeps.
How Does it Work?
One of the common features of all Capoeira styles, one which is all but unique to it, is the heavy use of floor stances and techniques. In these, the practitioner moves and fights standing opponents using strikes and takedowns from extremely low levels, typically with at least some of their torso below the level of a standing person's knee.
These techniques can be important in self defense as a response to losing or needing to sacrifice one's footing. Jujutsu or wrestling style ground fighting is tactically problematic under many situations, and the ability to be mobile and continue to fight even after one's footing and ability to stand has been compromised can be profoundly useful.
Of the arts I have seen or read of, only two other arts I am aware of appear to offer similar skills in combat from the floor at any similar level of intensity. These are Harimau Pentjak Silat and Dog style Kung Fu; both of are likely inaccessible to the typical martial artist due to sheer rarity.
A number of basic positions learned at the start of a Capoeirista's training are floor based, with various amounts of weight placed on the hands; in this way, if a Capoeira stylist loses their footing or is knocked down, they will land in or near a trained stance from which they are skilled in moving, or launching kicks and takedowns. All Capoeira stylists are proficient in these, though Angoleiros train this aspect much more than Regionalistas, as a rule.
Capoeira is predominantly a striking, evasion style, best known for it's kicks and acrobatic techniques. Some hand techniques are taught, as well as the use of the head and a variety of throwing techniques.
The base "stance," known as "Ginga," is actually a continual transition between a stance similar to the bow and arrow stance with your back foot on the ball of the foot (toes forward) and it's mirror, connected by a position similar to a horse stance. The footwork, as with most other positions found in the style, is based mainly on right angles and, as such, is highly mobile laterally, as well as forward and backward. Hand positioning, unlike most martial arts, is typically opposite the feet; when the right foot is forward, the left hand is forward, rather than the right. The right hand would in this case be near the hip, partly as a chamber but mainly to make it available as a post.
These are deep stances by most definitions, but Capoeira stylists are utterly accustomed to the transitional footwork involved; for them, it is extremely mobile. They have no trouble darting back and forth, changing direction rapidly, going from upright to the floor and back again and generally running circles around people.
While many think that a Capoeirista must swing in Ginga continually and rhythmically, Ginga is actually best viewed as a response to an external rhythm found in either their opponent or an outer cue. Capoeiristas are fully able to use a more typical ready stance as an on guard position.
Hand techniques are not commonly drilled, primarily as an artifact of the training methodology and certain points of philosophy. When seen, hand techniques tend to use the open palm or elbows. Closed fist techniques are less common; if nothing else, because knuckle conditioning takes some effort to perfect, while a Capoeirista's palms are already conditioned to some degree by the use of their hands on the floor as a foot.
Cabeηada head butt is trained as well; this is most commonly used as a mid-level attack with applications similar to that of a stomp kick, however, rather than the head to head banging most associate with the term.
Blocking is rare; protective guard positions in stances are used heavily in order to keep vital targets covered, but defenses focus instead on "Esquiva," or escapes. Esquiva techniques consist of footwork used to evade attacks, combined with transitions including floor stances and other dramatic level changes. In Esquiva, the one learns to change their shape to accommodate attacks without blocking them with one's own body. Capoeiristas learn to duck under and beyond techniques, using the movement as an opening to footwork to place themselves in more tactically advantageous positions and they train this skill to a high level.
Power generation is generally circular, heavily driven by wringing and coiling with the hips in isolation from the upper body. My teachers, and others I have worked with, teach students to perform kicks with a mostly or fully limp leg, deriving power from core and hip movements and lateral "step-by" travel from footwork.
Primary kicks in most schools I have seen are the two crescents, two 360 spinning kicks one upright, the other a reverse spinning heel kick involving twisting the body to place the hands on the floor as an expanded base a roundhouse kick and a front heel thrust kick. Several variants are adapted for use from the floor, at high targets; with hands on the floor, the angling of the body often makes high kicks the most natural and low-flexibility option. Targeting varies somewhat from school to school, but is typically either the floating rib or the head.
- Conservation and storage of momentum energy is kept in the body and in motion, to be used and directed as desired rather than grounding the force into a solid root or using it in a war of attrition against the opponent's strikes.
- Use of the trunk of the body the hips and shoulders are isolated, and the trunk is used to help move the hips for power generation.
- Use of falling and tumbling a number of techniques differ from Asian equivalents in their willingness to drop to the hands in cartwheels or hand standing techniques, quite often using the energy generated by the fall as a significant part of the technique's power generation.
- Constant movement some vector of movement, or significant potential movement is normally kept at all times, rather than dropping into a fixed single stance; continual use of transitions.
- Use of rhythm as a tactical tool many martial arts advise against motorset rhythms; Capoeira stylists at moderately advanced levels learn to recognize, encourage and capitalize upon them.
- Deceptive movement techniques should have common entrances and exits, so that the technique and direction of attack can be changed to unexpected angles as situations change or openings appear.
Where is it From?
To say that one practices Capoeira is similar to saying that one studies Kung Fu. There are many styles of Kung Fu with varying ends and philosophies; however, in general, Kung Fu practitioners roughly share stances and core techniques on which the rest of their art is based. It is similar with Capoeira; details vary from one lineage to another, but the core has vast similarities.
Capoeira is often referred to as being divided between the schools of "Angola," or "Regional." The equivalent within Asian martial arts would be found in the division between Northern and Southern styles of Kung Fu. Angola schools tend to emphasize a slower, more tactical style with much higher emphasis on floor movement than Regional lineages. Regional schools in turn tend to focus on physical ability, fitness and speed more heavily with a more upright style of movement.
Capoeira hails from Brazil; specifically, from the African enslaved peoples brought to Brazil from western Africa, mostly in the vicinity of the region now known as Angola. Without a doubt, its lineage places it as an African martial art to some extent. Its development was shaped by the skills brought by the African slaves. Some of the enslaved peoples shipped to Brazil had likely been African warriors, prisoners captured in intertribal conflicts within Africa and sold to Portuguese slave traders.
Early in the 1900s, Capoeira was illegal to practice. In order to preserve the art, highly respected Capoeirista Mestre Bimba essentially re-packaged the Capoeira he knew, promoting it in the NHB fights of the time and marketing it to the government as a way to generate national pride. He collected many students, as well as colleagues of his and set down a specific curriculum and guidelines to follow in order to be within his organization. Bimba's style is more representative of the conditions in which Bimba learned in and preferred. These tend to be upright, more aggressive and faster, more innovative, with a strong fitness element. Lineages who were aligned with him are known as "Regional," a shortened form of the name of Bimba's organization.
In response, some of the Capoeiristas whose style did not fit within the theme of Bimba's play style remained independent. Many would rally around the banner of other influential masters such as Mestre Pastinha, whose style was quite unlike Bimba's. From these teachers came the school of thought which characterizes "Angola" styles. Angola players tend to play slower, more strategic games, spending far more time on the floor than Regional stylists.
"Old man" techniques and thinking is more predominant, where the practitioner trains under the concept that their opponent will always be stronger and faster, rather than by focusing on increasing their speed and strength. Many of these seem to have lineages from wetter and more slippery parts of Brazil, which would have more treacherous ground; admittedly, this is only my personal theory.
Within these divisions are various lineages; usually, this can only be found by looking at organizational affiliations and asking directly. These can be thought of as having differences equivalent to the many ryu of Karate.
What Do People Usually See?
One aspect which is most often seen by observers is the Roda. This is a specific, multiple-purpose activity integral to the art, which can be viewed as competition, performance or a type of sparring drill.
Capoeiristas surround a circle of limited size. On one side of the circle, the head instructor stands holding a berimbau, a percussion instrument similar to a bow. Other Capoeiristas with other instruments typically are arranged beside the instructor.
The head instructor opens, playing a certain rhythm corresponding to the type of play that is to be done, to which the other musicians join. They then open with a formula song, not unlike a haiku, then continue with call and response songs around the circle. This renders the entire assemblage the appearance of a dance or celebration, rather than fighting training; important at many times in the past of the art.
Capoeiristas pair off in front of the head instructor, crouch and shake hands. At the prompting of the instructor, they move to the middle of the ring. What technique is used varies from school to school, but I have generally seen mutual mea lua de compasso (inverted floor reverse turning heel kick) and escapes in Angola schools or cartwheeling techniques known as "Aϊ" in Regional.
At this point, they begin using techniques on each other. The speed of the match is outwardly moderated by the instructor through the rhythm of the berimbau. Tactical advantage can be found in relatively small adjustments in rhythm while still following the outward pace, which makes paying attention to and adapting to the opponent's rhythm important.
Hand techniques, blocking, and ground fighting are generally discouraged by most schools in this venue, as are snap kicks. The focus is on dynamic flow of esquiva and tactical movement rather than on aggressive contact.
Scoring is informal and ultimately subjective; however, there are certain ways to "lose."
To leave the designated area in any way is a loss. The Capoeirista is expected to have control of their own movements and tactics and being forced out of bounds is a demonstration of inadequate skill. The size of the circle can vary from one Roda to the next, sometimes to exceptionally restrictive sizes. The smallest I have seen was two meters in diameter.
To walk into a kick is a loss. By this I do not mean that a kick is thrown too fast to avoid, but rather that the Capoeirista has attempted tactical esquivas or other techniques in a manner which their opponent has predicted and chambered an attack to counter, into which the victim moves into.
To lose balance and integrity to the point where one places something other than their hands, feet or head on the ground is a loss, though some schools permit the forearm. In the past, slaves likely did not have clothing to specifically train in and dirtying their clothing was an inconvenience or worse. They might have only been able to slip a short practice in, in the middle of some errand for which they needed to be dressed well.
This serves to demonstrate that stance integrity has been maintained. This aspect makes throws, sweeps and takedowns particularly useful. The break falling training, however, tends to train Capoeiristas to be able to flip or cartwheel in any direction without falling, rather than rolling.
In some schools, outwardly showing anger is a loss, as well.
The Roda does not look like a fight. It has many elements alien to a fight, but it does train angling and maneuvering at a very high level against a resisting opponent. As such, it avoids many of the pitfalls of more common sparring practices seen in Asian and European arts which may breed bad habits in their practitioners along with false confidence, while giving the Capoeirista a venue to test their movements, awareness and tactics.
Thanks to all these factors, the study of Capoeira can be a deep, rewarding and practical endeavor. Studying it will turn heads and turn the practitioner on his or her head in training to see the world in a whole new way. Within, the standard answers to many questions in the martial arts also can be found, themselves turned on their heads in new ways. If you need a fresh point of view, get role-ing and see what it has to offer.
Armada basic 360 spin kick.
Aϊ cartwheeling technique, used as an esquiva, to cover distance, to grab an object off the ground or as part of an attack
Bananeira handstand position.
Bencao front thrust kick.
Cabeηada head butting techniques.
Cocorinha/Resistenηia Squatting stances.
Cutelo knife hand.
Cutevelhada elbow strike.
Esquiva Escape, general term for evasive footwork and body shifting techniques.
Galopante a slapping technique, similar to a hook with a more extended arm.
Ginga Swinging upright footwork pattern used as a base stance.
Joelhada knee strike.
Jogo "to play," an individual match, usually within a Roda.
Martelo roundhouse kick.
Mea Lua de Compasso basic reverse turning heel kick with torso inverted and hands on the floor.
Mea Lua de Frente (I've heard it called Passa-pι by one teacher) inward crescent kick.
Negativa floor stance, sitting on one foot and the opposite hand with the other foot extended.
Palma straight palm strike.
Queda de Quatro "Fall on four," a crab-walking position. Favored in some Angola lineages.
Queda de Rins common transitional position, essentially a sideways handstand with one elbow resting on the hip.
Queixada outward crescent kick, using a twist from a side-facing stance to a forward-facing one for power.
Rasteira foot sweep.
Roda the common "game" form of training usually seen.
Role Transition from negativa, a rolling "step."
Tesouras scissor kick.
"Anything worth doing is worth doing badly." - Baleia