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You've seen people doing it at Venice Beach, Central Park... and you couldn't tell if it was a martial art or a dance. Capoeira is a mixture of both. It's practiced in groups, to the beat of atabaque drums, and a berimbau - the instrument that resembles an arrow with a coconut shell in the end.
The group forms a circle, or roda de capoeira, and chants. Two or three capoeiristas take turns practicing inside the circle. Men, women and children are welcome to participate. Some of the movements are quite radical, and may even remind you of street dance. The sequence of photos will give you a better idea of what it's all about.
Though our jiu-jitsu fighters often take all the glory, Capoeira is Brazil's contribution to the martial arts. It was developed by African slaves, with roots in Angola. As the Portuguese masters obviously would not be very keen on the idea of seeing their slaves turn into ninjas, it was disguised as a dance. Capoeira does not exist without music, and the basic step, the ginga, is not so different from what people did in the discos in the early 80's.
The two basic styles of Capoeira are Angola (more traditional) and Regional (developed by Mestre Bimba from Bahia). There are dozens of different movements, and attacks have colorful names like martelo (hammer), and coice de mula (mule kick).The defenses are also quite spectacular, as are the ground movements. Better gyms in Rio sometimes offer capoeira lessons, so you could give it a try.
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