How Capoeira classes have changed (1900-2020)

After reading half a dozen books on Capoeira and listening to some of the older teachers talk about the glory days, it’s become clear that the way Capoeira is taught has changed dramatically over the years.

In the early 20th century, and possibly beyond, instruction was a very personal thing from teacher to pupil. After the rise of the Capoeira academy, brought on by Mestre Bimba the structure of instruction shifted in a way that we still see to this day. This change included standardized movements, drills, and lessons to churn out high quality Capoeiristas at a rate not seen before. Now with the advent of online classes, Capoeira instruction looks ripe for change in a direction that is exciting, albeit, not all that clear.

Below I’ll explore the different eras of teaching techniques and their implication for the art of Capoeira. As a disclaimer, the thoughts below are my own, which I built from a combination of reading and listening to others with far more experience than me.

Late 1800’s to 1930’s (Spontaneous learning)

Feel the music. Feel the music. Feel the ginga

These loose set of instructions are commonly heard even today, and are holdovers from the early days of Capoeira instruction. Today, Capoeira instruction is much more objective, but there is a reason for this nebulous set of instructions that the old masters used.

In the late 1800’s there were no Capoeira academies, and if you wanted to learn, you would have to find someone who would teach you. The old masters found Capoeira teachers by luck or their own initiative. They asked to be trained, and if the capoeiristas allowed it, they would receive some lessons.

These lessons were spontaneous – well described by M. Leopoldina, who met a local tough guy, Quinzinho. After meeting Quinzinho, Leopoldina asked if he could teach him Capoeira. Leopoldina would get him drinks at the bar and hang around him in exchange for his time and instruction. There was no payment like monthly student dues. Quinzinho would give instruction from time to time, but there was nothing regular or planned about these lessons.

Mestre Leopoldina 1933 – 2007

Besides the occasional lesson, a young Leopoldina would attend rodas and watch the capoeiristas of his day to learn what they knew. Any young capoeirista who wanted to learn needed to know how to observe and learn on their own. Due to the sporadic nature of lessons given by your teacher, the only way you could improve was to observe others (a movement or a song for example) and practice what you saw on your own.

Here is an example of Capoeira Angola from 1950.

What we can observe from these games is that they although they do require a fair amount of physicality, they are nowhere near the level of capoeiristas today. This system of disciple and apprentice produced a modest number of students who, mostly by intuition, were able to learn the art.

This desire by many older teacher for Capoeira to feel “natural” may be a product of a similar cultural identity. For example, the capoeiristas who lived in Salvador, Bahia were surrounded by the Afro-Brazilian culture that produced Capoeira. These men would have some notion of music from samba and candomble, and would see Capoeira being played in the streets around town. “Feeling”, would simply mean to have a grasp on the world around you, where Capoeira and the Afro-Brazilian culture behind it, already existed.

Benefits of Spontaneous model

  • Strong connection to Capoeira roots
  • Learn from many Capoeiristas around you

Cons of Spontaneous model

  • Loose and subjective instruction
  • No clear progression of ability or skills
  • Works best when well connected to the culture

The academic period (1930 – Today)

Mestre Bimba is the man who started the academic period of Capoeira. Today we take for grated the innovations he brought to art, and the resistance he met from his contemporaries. Here are some of those changes.

  • He created a standard model for instruction based around 8 sequences
  • He created a graduation system with scarfs to designate your qualification
  • Monthly student fees supported M. Bimba to teach full time

These changes worked well in courting the wealthier parts of society. With his booming academy and student fees, M. Bimba became the first person who made a living teaching Capoeira. He was said to ride taxis everywhere he went and owned several houses (if that is any indication of wealth).

Here is an example of M. Bimba’s students when M. Bimba taught in Pelourinho, Salvador, Bahia.

This didactic approach exploded. And with it, the level of physicality in the game of Capoeira grew. You can see that the movements at Mestre Bimba’s academy are much more dynamic that those of the traditional Capoeira roda. This exponential improvement in the physical conditioning can be seen in Senzala, a large Capoeira group founded in Rio de Janeiro. Nestor Capoeira’s account of the birth of this group is a great example of how Mestre Bimba’s teachings influenced the next generation of capoeiristas.

Senzala and the growth of Capoeira around Brazil

In the 1950’s and 60’s, Capoeira began to migrate out of Bahia and to other states in Brazil. Rio de Janeiro was hope to a group of youths who took Mestre Bimba’s teachings and used it to become one of the biggest Capoeira groups of the 20th century.

Senzala started as a group of young upper class kids from Rio de Janeiro who began training Capoeira with one another on the roof of a building. When one would go visit Mestre Bimba’s academy over the summer, they would bring those lessons back and teach their friends.

This group of kids took Mestre Bimba’s training style to another level with gymnastic style conditioning and drilled movements non-stop to solidify their technique. Their method was on full display during a competition called “Berimbau de Ouro”. In 1967, 8, and 9 they won Berimbau de Ouro, which shot up the recognition of Senzala and validated their method of training – which many groups adopted. The style of training was so effective that the majority of teachers still train their students in the militant style of Senzala.

Here is a video of a presentation by Senzala in 1984

According to Nestor, the Capoeira of Senzala developed fast, but they lacked the philosophical roots of Capoeira from Salvador. This comment speaks to the degrees of separation between more modern Capoeira groups and the old mestre who descended from the core of Salvador, Bahia. Many of the old guard note this lack of understanding and see it as an affront to the origins of the art.

Capoeira explodes around the world

By the 1970s Capoeira reached the United States of America and Europe. The methodologies pioneered by Mestre Bimba were adapted by many other groups. In time, some groups grew so big that they resembled fast food franchises; cranking out high level capoeiristas by the dozens. ABADA, a group that broke off from Senzala, is considered to be the largest group in the world. They regularly hosted events with close to 1,000 participants.

Nestor describes the criticisms the old guard had for Senzala as everyone having the same style of Capoeira. This was a sad sight for the old guard who were accustomed to everyone having very distinct ways of moving. This is another way of saying that everyone in Cordão de Ouro, plays like Cordão de Ouro. And everyone from ABADA plays like ABADA. There is widespread uniformity amongst groups. This is of course one of the strength and weaknesses of a franchise. You know what you are getting – for better or for worse.

An example of a massive ABADA event

Today, Capoeira can be found all over the world. However this has not been without some growing pains. As groups were born, rivalries began to form, creating animosity and distrust amongst nearby groups. Although this is not universally the case, for many years, nearby schools would see each other as competition, rather than partners. This sentiment has been waining over the past 30 years, however it can still be felt in some groups.

Benefits of the Academic model of teaching

  • Standardization creates models for quality and schemas for effective learning
  • Expansion of Capoeira all over the world through replicable instruction
  • Franchising of groups (CDO, ABADA, Senzala, etc.) provides better infrastructure
  • Capoeira teacher have better ability to sustain themselves teaching

Cons of the Academic model of teaching

  • Potential for groups (especially large ones) to become insular
  • Perceived competition between groups in nearby areas breeds resentment
  • Standardization of instruction offers less creativity and originality to new students
  • Focus on physical abilities drown out musicality and knowledge of the roots

Digital Capoeira training in the 21st Century

Technology has been disruptive in every industry, and Capoeira is no exception…

Many people’s first experience with Capoeira outside of Brasil is through technology of some kind. For some people that may be a movie like “Only the Strong” or a game like “Tekken”. Today we have the option of watching rodas online and having online classes. This has sparked a debate as to the validity of learning Capoeira through the internet.

Learning from a source that is not your mestre or teacher is nothing new. There are more than a few books, DVDs, and manuscripts on how to learn Capoeira without a mestre. There is even a book called “Capoeira sem mestre”. Or in English, “Capoeira with no mestre”!

As with anything new, there are up sides and down sides that we can mull over while we take our fancy online Capoeira course.

Having a digital presence today means that more productive and instructive teachers have a much larger reach than they normally would. This has shown itself to be the case with people like Mestre Ferradura and Mestre Negoativo doing music related classes and courses. These are teachers with a vast amount of experience and they are now able to reach a much larger audience than they could with an in person workshop.

The unfortunate truth is that not everyone is tech savvy or has the mindset to approach a digital academy. The old school teachers who want to keep things as they’ve always been will no doubt struggle and may not benefit from this wave of technology.

The benefit for students is that they can attend classes and learn from people that they might never have the option to learn from otherwise. The downside is that you lose the interpersonal connection to the teacher and to the greater community. During the Covid-19 pandemic, creating an online presence has been a necessity for almost all teachers. It seems clear that online classes will continue to play a role after the pandemic has ended. The question is what this will look like and if the greater Capoeira community will accept this.

Explosion of Capoeira Talent

Youtube has played a massive role in the development of new talent. Similar to the old mestres, new students have the ability to watch some of the best Capoeirisas of their day and learn from them. You can go on youtube now and see rodas straight from São Paulo. Something you’ll see is that the Capoeira is orders of magnitude better than in Mestre Bimba’s day. Clearly the methods of Mestre Bimba, in addition to technology are advancing the level of Capoeira to new heights.

Roda from the Praça da Republica in São Paulo

Does the internet change what it means to be a mestre?

“Mestre” in the way we use it today is a very new concept. Great Capoeiristas like Manduca da praia and Besouro were champions, but they were not mestres in the way we would use the term today. Mestre Nestor defines the use of the word mestre as part of the “educator” period of Capoeira (~1930s to today). The “educators” are people like Mestre Pastinha, Mestre Bimba, and the many mestres that came after them.

Here is a video of Mestre Ferradura talking about this point. It is in portuguese only, but you can add translations on the bottom.

Today, the internet is the greatest educator for every subject imaginable. Capoeira is no different. You can find hundreds or thousands of youtube videos that provide instruction on music, movements, and conduct. Knowledge is becoming so abundant that Mestres are not the sole fountains of knowledge that they used to be. Of course mestres will have their place in the Capoeira world, but it will be interesting to see how they adapt to the new world they find themselves in.

Another limit that technology is helping us surpass is the limit on class times. Class times today are highly regulated, usually just an hour long. Having an online presence gives teachers the chance to create guides, exercises, and introduce concepts (on their websites for example) that they would not normally given their time restrictions in class. This could work really well for things like music, history, culture, etc. And if the teacher is unable to provide this information, it’s even possible now to direct them to someone who may have a course or lessons available on that subject.

Losing the Community Online

My mestre said once that technology brings close those who are far, and brings far apart those who are close. This was a beautiful point. One of the potential losers in the wave of technology is the friendships created by meeting up to train and play together in person.

Culture and community is something very integral to Capoeira. Even just hanging out with other Capoeiristas has a big impact on your understanding of small nuances that you might not get from class. Understanding the community behind the art is as important as training the art itself. The movement to “online” may make it more difficult to get that exposure if to things like music, culture, etc.

They say if you’re not in the roda, you’re not doing Capoeira, you’re simply practicing Capoeira movements. It’s true. You need a group of people to make Capoeira happen. This includes the people playing the instruments in the bateria, the crowd, and the two players. It’s unlikely that in-person events and rodas will disappear, but it’s unclear if the advent of technology-infused Capoeira will increase or decrease the number of in person events available.

Pros of digital instruction

  • Effective teachers have now a global reach
  • Students have a larger pool of teachers to choose from
  • Information is more easily accessible

Cons of Digital Instruction

  • As dissemination of good information becomes more widely available, so will low quality or incorrect information
  • Some aspects of Capoeira will be difficult to understand online. Mostly pertaining to culture
  • Can’t play Capoeira online!