Before the introduction of a belt system, Capoeira had only two ranks, student and mestre. Mestre Bimba was one of the first Capoeira teachers to use a graduation system in the 1930s. Mestre Bimba’s colored lenços(scarves) signify progress in the art of Capoeira. Future groups abandoned the scarves for chords, which are still used today in the majority of Capoeira groups.
Today, There are many belt systems, but they all follow a similar schema. The belt systems in Capoeira represent a linear progression from Student, Teacher, and Mestre. Each title can have several progressions and with each new chord, the practitioner is expected to know more about the art of Capoeira. Different groups will have a different number of chords, number of years needed to progress, and colors to their chords.
The Original Belt System: Lenços of Mestre Bimba
Mestre Bimba, the creator of Capoeira Regional, used a system of progressing at his academy with his famous “lenços” or scarves. These scarves were given to students to show their competence in several aspects of Capoeira. The scarves were made of silk. This paid paid homage to the old days when capoeiristas would use these scarves to protect themselves against knife attacks. There were four lenços: white, blue, red, and yellow, each one representing a new advancement by the student in their capoeira training.
The Blue Lenço
After the basics course, created by Mestre Bimba, a student was awarded the blue lenço and a medallion. The blue lenço was given to students after about 6 months to a year of training. Receiving your blue lenço meant performing all eight basic sequences and playing a game where you would demonstrate the balões. Here is an example of the balões. Students who reached this level were known as “graduados” or advanced students.
The Red Lenço
The red scarf was for those who wanted to deepen their knowledge of the fight elements of Capoeira. It was optional to sign up for this course, which required perfecting basic movements, sweeps, throws, and damage dealing blows (traumatizantes). Students were taught how to defend themselves on the streets vs multiple opponents. This multiple attacker training was called “Bumba meu Boi”. The last part of the training was the “emboscada”. The embuscada challenged a student’s ability to ward off multiple surprise attacks as they made their way through from one point to another. Emboscadas were often held in the jungle, meaning your opponents could pop up from any direction as you made your way. This exercise caught the interest of the military, who used it as a part of their training program.
The Yellow Lenço
After receiving the red lenço, students could take a second specialization course, where they would receive a yellow lenço. In this course, participants were taught to defend themselves against knife and gun attacks. Students would learn how to handle a switchblade, a knife, and how to disarm opponents with these weapons. Knives in particular were very common during the 1930’s,40s, so it makes sense why this was included.
The White Lenço
A common misconception was that the white lenço was the “mestre” lenço. Meaning that once you received this lenço you were given the title of mestre. This is not true, however the title of “mestre charangueiro” is used and could be the cause of this confusion. The white lenço was a recognition of a Capoeirista’s ability with music, which included the berimbau, pandeiro, and singing. These were the only instruments used in the roda of Mestre Bimba.
If you look at a modern Capoeira video, you’ll notice that scarves are not being used. Instead of scarves, people use chords made of yarn. These chords came after Mestre Bimba created his lenços and is often attributed to being rooted in Grupo Senzala. Grupo Senzala is one of the oldest Capoeira schools that grew to a global scale. Their graduation system is one of the oldest and helped lay the foundation for what you see used today.
There was no lenço to become mestre
According to Mestre Nenel, Mestre Bimba believe that the rank of mestre was something bestowed by the Capoeira community. This was not a title that could have been given with a lenço, belt or anything else. Mestre Bimba never graduated anyone to mestre during his lifetime. However, before leaving to Goiânia, Mestre bimba left a handful of blank certifications with Mestre Decânia (a student of his). These certifications were meant to recognize the name placed on them as a Mestre. Mestre Bimba even signed these documents so that they would be seen as legitimate once used. They were used, and to this day, the following people were awarded the title of mestre with these certifications. Mestres Itapoan, Luizinho, Acordeon, Camisa Roxa, Fauzi Abdala, and Decânio.
Modern Chord Progression
Aluno – Student (6-12 months experience)
Aluno means student in Portuguese. The number of student belts differs amongst groups, however the aluno will be expected to know more and more with each chord they unlock. Chords are a sign of your hard work and are given during a troca de cordeõs (changing of the chords) . The event is usually done once a year and is hosted by your school or the headquarters in your area.
The very first chord usually takes six months to a year to receive and is unique because Capoeiristas refer to this event as the batizado. Your batizado is your introduction into the world of Capoeira. It’s a symbolic transition to being a capoeirista and starting on the path to one day becoming a mestre.
Responsibilities of an Aluno
The aluno’s main responsibility is to train the lessons that their teacher shows them. Students are always encouraged to ask their teachers how to do certain moves, what things mean in Capoeira, and how to continue improving. In the beginning, it might seem overwhelming, but you learn Capoeira with persistence and patience. One hack to getting better faster is to keep some close Capoeira friends that you can hang out with and train with at the park or over someone’s house.
Graduado/Monitor – Advanced Student (5-7 years of experience)
Many groups have a chord that represent an advanced student who is an example to the beginners. After about 5-7 years of training, this student may graduate to monitor/graduado. These are titles for an advanced students, although not all schools use these names. These chords are also given at the troca de cordoes.
The responsibilities of an advanced student varies depending on the student and the teacher. The graduado/monitor may be asked to run the warm ups, provide demonstrations of movements during class, or teach some classes. Many people consider this as the stage where a student begins to develop a level of independence and ability to teach. This means being able to play all the instruments, as well as playing good Capoeira, and teaching. Teachers hold a lot of responsibility, so the advanced students likewise will carry a part of that responsibility.
At this level newer students will confide, trust, and look up to you. Make sure you’re an example to new students like a big brother or sister. Train harder than before and welcome new responsibilities, because new students will benefit from the work ethic you show.
Instructor/Professor – Instructor / Professor (8-12 years of experience)
All schools have a teacher rank and lies somewhere at the half-way point of a Capoeiristas journey to mestre. After about 8-12 years, most people reach the rank of Instructor and beyond that professor. Instructor is a widely used title name, but other names that are used for this or similar ranks include formado among others.
Receiving this chord is a big deal and a sign that you’re ready to start teachers others the art of Capoeira. But keep your ego in check because instructores and professores must continue learning and develop their craft. This is why even though you might start teaching, it’s more important than ever to stay close to your mestre and continue learning from them. Once you receive this rank and start teaching you’ll likely have more questions that you thought possible. Keep you teacher close and learn from them all the little things about Capoeira that you forgot to ask about when you were a student.
Get Ready to Be Tested!
People will play you much harder when they know you’re a teacher. Many students, teachers, and mestres will test you or test themselves against you so be ready for this. Not only will you be playing higher level capoeiristas, you’ll also be playing for much longer. At the higher levels, Capoeira games can last longer and if you might be requested to play by a mestre or another teacher. Meaning that you better be ready to play, play, and pay some more!
Contra Mestre – Right-Hand of the Mestre (~15 years on the low end)
The belt right before mestre. Historically, the contra mestre was the right hand of the Mestre. In a lot of ways, this is still true. The contra mestre is the most advanced student that the mestre has and is at the doorstep of becoming a mestre themselves. Therefore, a mestre knows that they can depend on this person to take their place whenever they need. Sometimes this means teaching classes, and other times it means acting as an ambassador to other groups.
Today, the amount of time it takes to become a mestre, contra mestre, teacher, etc. is a lot longer than before. People say that it is because there is so much more to learn, but this is also due to the academy-ization of Capoeira.
Some of the responsibilities done by the contra mestre are now done by Professores, Instructores, and advanced students. And this is just an evolution of Capoeira over time. Today, the contra mestre is a high rank with a lot of experience and prestige in the world of Capoeira. Many people train for 20+ years to receive this rank and a lot of the respect given to them because of this.
Mestre – Master (25+ years of experience)
The highest rank in Capoeira. I really like a line given by Mestre Acordeon, student of Mestre Bimba. He recently graduated a student of his in California to the rank of Mestre and that new mestre told me the following. Mestre Accordeon gave him a shot of liquor, took one himself for a toast, and said, “Today, you start from the beginning again”. As if to say that now that you are a Mestre, there is a whole new world out there for you to explore and learn about.
There is no “end” to Capoeira. There is always something new to learn. A song I like by Mestre Suassuna says “I’ve never met a Capoeirsta who knows everything”. And this makes sense because there is so much to learn. A lifetime is not enough, but I think this is part of the reason that Capoeira is such a worthwhile pursuit. You’ll never be bored, because you’ll always be pushing towards something new.
Grao Mestre – Grand Master (???? experience needed)
A grao mestre is not really a “chord”, it’s a designation given to you by the Capoeira community. By the work that you’ve done for Capoeira, some people are revered as a Grao Mestre. This is usually someone very old in the community with 30, 40, or 50 years of experience training and teaching Capoeira. Not everyone reaches this title. It’s extremely rare and is the sign of a unique person who has influenced the world of Capoeira in a special way. Again, there is no belt for this, the only thing you “receive” is respect and admiration of the community that you are a part of.
Two Main Chord Systems in Capoeira
Currently, there are a few popular belt systems with a few more sprinkled in, and I’ll go over two of the most popular. The first one stems from the colors of the Brazilian flag, while the other has colors that take inspiration from the orixás. Orixás are gods of Candomblé, an Afro-Brazilian religion that has roots in Africa. Both use color to distinguish a student’s level, similarly to in Karate or Tae Kwon Do schools.
Chords Inspired by the Brazilian Flag
One of the most popular chord system stems from the colors of the brazilian flag. As you can see, the brazilian flag from the outermost color to the innermost color is Green, Yellow, Blue, and White. This is also the progression of chords from beginner level to mestre. The first belt is green and the last one is white.The below image is an example of the adult chord system.
Chords inspired by the Orixás
The other chord system is inspired by the colors of the Orixás. Schools will use colors such as yellow, orange, red, Green, blue, and purple in different orders. Another major difference is that the last (Mestre) belt can be Black or Red. The black in some schools represents the transition of a clean white belt to one that is black from so much use. Other explanations refer to the black color of Zumbi dos Palmares, the leader of a runaway slave settlement.
The red chord is an invention of Gupo Senzala, which some other groups adopted. The origin of the red chord goes back to the 1960’s when the young group participated in a presentation and used a red rope to distinguish themselves. It’s not clear how much thought went into this decision, but the red chords laid a foundation that was adopted by a number of groups.
Difference between a Corda, Cordel, and Cordão
In English we only have one word to represent a belt in Capoeira: chord. However, in Portuguese, there are several ways of translating the word. Chord can be translated into corda, cordel, and cordão with the main difference being in how the chord is made.
The corda is typically a much thicker piece of cotton rope that loops around the waste twice and is tied to the side. Which side you ask? That depends on your group and the head instructor. Some prefer on the right side, and others prefer the left. I’ve only seen one person with any kind of chord that goes down the middle like in karate… and it’s pretty weird. The corda can usually be purchased at a convenience store and is died to given the color of the person’s graduation.
After the introduction of the corda, the cordão or cordel was introduced by several groups. Where and when these concepts were introduced is difficult to pinpoint, but there are records of cordões being used in the 1960’s. Cordões (plural of cordão) created by braiding four sections of, which are much lighter in weight than the corda and are also tied on the right or left side. Cordões are purchased in the color of the graduation and hand braided by the teacher, who eventually presents the chords to their students.
The definition of a cordel can differ between groups. Cordels that are braided, are done so using three groups of string. The baid is similar to a hair braid with three groups of hair. Some cordels are not braided and instead twist. Like the cordão, the cordels are purchased in the colors of the graduation and braided or twisted by the teacher.
Kids Chords and Upgrading to Adult Chords
Kids also have a chord progression system like the adults. Chords for children are usually the same as the chords for adults, but lighter in color. Once the child has gone through all the kids chords, they usually switch to the first adult chord. Depending on when a child starts training Capoeira, they switch to the adults chords around the beginning of their teenage years. A child’s transition to adult chords and classes varies depending on the number of chords in their system and the discretion of the teacher.
Kids who hold a higher rank than others in their class are sometimes given small responsibilities. They can help the classroom and are held to a higher degree of accountability than their peers. However, the “hierarchy” of a chord system is much less pronounced with kids than it is with adults.
Bimba: Um Seculo da Capoeira Regional by Mestre Nenel
Capoera: The Jogo of Capoeira from Luanda to Cyberspace Vol. II