Capoeira is an Afro-Brazillian martial art which combines fighting with performance art. It's a very recognizable style with its emphasis on acrobatics, ground combat, and spinning kicks frequently all at the same time. Its usage dates back at least to the 18th century. Capoeira as practiced today stems primarily from two Mestres in the 20th century and their respective schools: Mestre Bimba, founder of the modernized Capoeira Regional in the 1930s, and Mestre Pastinha, founder of the more traditionalist Capoeira Angola that strove to keep closer to the art's roots.
Its origins are hazy and debated, but it emerged as a fighting style among the slaves of Brazil. The elements of dance existed partly so that the slaves could mask it as a cultural activity unrelated to fighting. It evolved to be a favored fighting style among criminals, and at various times in Brazilian history, it has been declared illegal to practice. As a result, much of the known history is based on stories and legends.
The art spread first throughout Brazil, from poor blacks to wealthier classes, and throughout the world in the later part of the 20th century.
Tropes associated with capoeira
Armed Legs: A common misrepresentation is that some early capoeiristas performed with razor blades clenched between their toes as a hidden weapon. In actuality, razors were used, but generally in the user's hands. There are videos on YouTube showing people playing with razors held in their feet, but these games are very slow and cautious.
Awesome, but Impractical: How it is seen among many people, at least those who don't see it as Difficult but Awesome. The reality is that capoeira is a legitimately versatile fighting style, but requires an unusually long time and effort to master compared with other martial arts.
Badass Grandpa: Some of the founding mestres are still around and at the age of 70-80, they're still happily flipping around the roda and schooling students at the promotion ceremonies.
Combat Pragmatist: Capoeiristas outside the roda or other sanctioned fights can easily become this with techniques like Telefone ("Telephone"), in which you clap your hands on either of the opponent's ears to disorient them and potentially permanently ruin their hearing, or Arpão de Cabeça ("Head Spear"), in which you throw your whole body into a headbutt aimed at the enemy's head, chest, or groin. When in the Roda never accept if the other person offers you a "blessing". Just to elaborate, the Blessing (or, in portuguese, "Benção") is an unbalancing pushing kick that is one of the most basic (and effective) moves in capoeira.
Confusion Fu: Part being constantly in motion and the dance-like movement is to make you hard to predict.
Dance Battler: A traditional capoeira roda (sparring circle) is performed to music, and is as much about looking impressive and showing off how clever you are as it is about landing blows.
Dangerous Forbidden Technique: An obscure capoeira style was taught by Mestre Sinhozinho in the 1920s, and it was called Capoeira Carioca. It worked without music and involved a heavy emphasis in street fighting, with weapons training and brutal hand techniques. Traditional capoeristas deemed it as blasphemous and immoral, and as unfortunately Sinhozinho never created a teaching system, his capoeira was lost when he died. However, Mestre Bimba was Genre Savvy enough to integrate some of its techniques in his own style after seeing two of his students getting made crap by Carioca alumns, so Sinhozinho's style is not completely forgotten.
Disguised in Drag: An interesting strategy, used back when capoeira was forbidden in Brazil, involved several capoeiristas disguised as women standing around the rodas to act as camouflaged watchmen. If their pals didn't evacuate the roda in time, they sometimes even pretended to plead with the soldiers to attack them off guard.
Everything's Better with Spinning: Multiple spinning kicks are frequently linked together, building up momentum and, again, looking impressive. The spinning kick exchanges may also be used by one player to lull the other into a false sense of security before dumping him or her on his butt with a sudden sweep. All part of the fun of the game.
Extremity Extremist: The basic dozen or so kicks are pretty much always the first thing new students will learn, and probably 80% of the attacks in the roda are kicks. Takedowns account for another 10% or so, and the remaining 10% is left to acrobatics and feints. Hand strikes are usually reserved for illustrating to your opponent that they're conspicuously dropping their guard. Elbow strikes and full-force takedowns are generally reserved to more experienced practitioners, but can become fairly frequent in games between skilled capoeiristas.
Genius Bruiser: Cisnando Lima, who helped Mestre Bimba to found his capoeira academy and get it legalized, was a renowned psychiatrist. He was just a puny medical student when he met Bimba, so the mestre naturally thought of him as unsuitable to master the art, but Lima turned out to be a hardworking student and ended reaching the rank of contra-mestre later in his life. He was also an avid practitioner of other arts, and also learned primitive Brazilian jiu-jitsu from a Mitsuyo Maeda colleague.
Knife Nut: In old times, capoeiristas used to carry knifes and straight razors, as stabbings in street rodas were a real posibility. Mestre Pastinha was said to never forget his knife when going to play.
Kung-Fu Clairvoyance: Despite the many flips and acrobatics, a capoeirista is instructed to never take his eyes from his opponent(s) and maintain the situational awareness at his maximum, all while doing its complicated moves. True capoeira is not called one of the most difficult martial arts for nothing.
Martial Pacifist: According to Mestre Bimba, "The best way of self-defense is not getting into fights at all". Facing off in the roda is referred to as "playing" rather than "fighting", and it is always the duty of a more skilled player to look out for the safety of the less skilled opponent.
Mood Motif: The music played during the roda determines how the game is played. Slower music results in a slower, more strategic game, typically with a lot of ground fighting, close fighting, and elaborate reversals. Faster music results in a more acrobatic and high-flying match and usually involves more distance so as to not harm your partner.
One-Hit Kill: Mestre Bimba once defeated fellow martial artist Henrique Bahia with a single, devastating kick to the chest. He was also known as "Tres Pancadas" ("Three Hits") because that was how many he needed to knock out his opponents.
One-Man Army: Capoeira was conceived to fight in extreme conditions, as evidenced in its emphasis on moving unceasingly and using wide attacks. There are stories about capoeristas who fought overwhelming numbers of opponents at once, and while many of them are probably exaggerated, some have historical records.
A bohemian capoeirista named Madame Satã was said in police reports to have once neutralized twenty-four policemen in a street brawl, hospitalizing seven of them and forcing the rest to fly away. Coincidentally, Satã was a homosexual who often dressed in drag. Badass Gay indeed.
Again Mestre Bimba has a crazy story about his badassery. Supposedly, he was once ambushed in the strets by six men armed with sabers and led by a rival capoeirista, who also carried a gun. Bimba then disarmed and knocked all them out, dumped the gunman into a nearby garbage container, and finally left in the streetcar, all without losing his straw hat.
Roundhouse Kick: The style actually focuses more on the less practical full spin roundhouses, especially to chain spinning kicks, but the shorter arc ones are also used. Unlike taekwondo and other kick-based arts, in capoeira emphasis is made in not to leave the ground while kicking, and thus jumping kicks are rare.
Rule of Cool: The roda where capoeiristas play is not so much about beating your opponent as both practicing and showing off your own techniques as well as giving the opponent opportunity to show his own. Also, did we mention that it looks really impressive?
Use Your Head: A fairly standard move. Unlike most martial arts, headbutts are almost always done with the top of the head in a spearing movement.
With My Hands Tied: Capoeira was developed to fight effectively while handcuffed or in shackles. This is the reason that it comprises techniques which involve the lower body and can be performed without separating the hands.
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Anime and Manga
L in Death Note, as well as the Action Girl who taught him in the manga, Naomi Misora. Actually, the capoeira element was accidental, as Takeshi Obata did not know it when he created the character. It were the fans who identified a particularly twisty kick which L throws in the anime as capoeira, and Obata was happy to make it Ascended Fanon. Yes, that single kick is all the capoeira L shows in the anime.
The unnamed capoeirista in Tom Yum Goong - known as The Protector in the United States, again played by Lateef Crowder. The fight was cut short due to an injury on-set, but it was still one of the coolest-looking fight scenes in the whole movie.
In Hellboy II, Abe employs some capoeira evasions, among them a negativa/rolê combination, to evade Wink's attacks.
The Fox from Oceans Twelve uses capoeira to get past a laser security system, as seen here.
Thomas, the Tourette's boy from Film/Chocolate, uses several capoeira moves as part of his Confusion Fu. It's not actually formal capoeira, as he is played by a breakdance champion.
In the direct-to-DVD sequel of Never Back Down, boxer Zack learns capoeira.
A episode of Kung Fu features a capoerista called Isaac Montola.
Força of the Whateley Universe is a capoeira practitioner. As noted by several characters, using a fighting style employing handstands makes less sense when your hands are the only point from which you can discharge your energy blasts.
Mexican luchador Zumbi's wrestling style is 90% based in capoeira.
Eddy Gordo and Christie Monteiro of the Tekken series, possibly the best reproduced example in non-Brazilian media.
Fatal Fury and The King of Fighters feature several: Soiree Meira, Momoko, Richard Meyer, and Bob Wilson. Yashiro has some acrobatic kicks that resemble capoeira, and while Duck King's style is stated as "Breakdance Martial Arts", he uses several capoeira moves.
In Street Fighter, Elena uses capoeira as her style, being an Extremity Extremist who did kicks even when the punch buttons were pressed. Also, Blanka occasionally had capoeira listed as his fighting style, but it was in name only.
In Eternal Champions, Trident uses capoeira despite its existence being an anachronism in his given time period.
An episode of Bob's Burgers focused on Tina trying to learn capoeira. "Capoeira" in this instance consisted primarily of the dreamy instructor hitting people in the face with his ponytail while yelling "Ponytail! and tripping people while saying "Brazil."