The Unrulyness of Capoeira

The only weapon of self-defense I could use successfully was that of deception

Henry Bibb, a slave in the United States


Besides being an IDS master student, Capoerista is a new addition to my identity. Six months ago I quickly got trapped into the movements, the music, the people and the energy of Capoeira Angola.

What is Capoeira Angola?


Capoeira Angola is a “blurred genre”[1], a mixture of dance, martial arts, folklore, ritual and music. It originated in Brazil when slaves where brought from Africa to work in mines and sugar plantation during the 17th and 18th century. The oppression and constant vigilance of the slave masters on the plantations forced the slaves to create innovative mechanisms of resistance. Just like the chain gangs[2] in Southern U.S used singing, Angolero slaves would use dancing as a form of resistance. Why was dancing a form of resistance? Angoleros would use dance as a discrete way of teaching each other contact fighting techniques. While the masters though they were just a bunch of slaves having some fun dancing, they didn’t realize that the moves were really martial arts moves. Meanwhile, the capoeira music that accompanied the dancing was not only used to create a rhythm, but to transmit resistance and African traditions. Understanding the context in which Capoeira Angola emerged allows a deeper understanding of its lyrics:

Areia do mar
Areia do mar
O que você tem
Para me contar?

A onda que quebra na praia
Quebrava no casco do navio
Navio que trouxe de Angola
O negro para o Brasil

Sand of the sea
Sand of the sea
What do you have
To tell me?

Wave breaking on the beach
Broke on the hull of the ship
Ship that brought from Angola
The negro to Brazil

In this way, I consider Capoeira Angola, as a whole, to be a form of hidden transcript. Scott[3] explains that within oppressive relationships (such as that between the master and the slave) there is more than meets the eyes. The oppressor and the oppressed maintain a dialogue that resembles a performance, or in Scott’s words, a public transcript based on necessity. However, along with the public transcript there are hidden transcripts that the oppressed and the oppressor withhold from one another in order to obtain power. These hidden transcripts may be visible and in the public domain, but they remain hidden because they are constructed through codes of trust and freedom that only the inner group can understand. The capoeiristas used hidden transcript through their bodies, communicating notions of resistance amongst each other.

Capoeira Angola is also a perfect phenomenon to understand Biopower and Necropolitics.  Biopower[4], proposed by Michel Foucault, suggests that the Modern State uses discipline and punishment to control the bodies of a population. Elements such as birth, death, illness, sexuality and reproduction of the population are controlled by the state though Biopolitics. In this sense, the State has power over the LIFE of its citizens. However, Achille Mbembe argues that Foucault concept of Biopower doesn’t always apply. There are cases when the State creates exceptions, in which it decides to have power over DEATH. Examples of these “States of Exception” are terrorism, wars, colonialism and slavery. When the state has the power to choose over the death of people, Mbembe calls this Necropolitics[5]

In the case of slavery, Mbembe explains that the State’s power was based on their ability to control the death of the slaves, whom were seen as inhumane, linked to nature and dis attached from reason. By having lost their attachment to home, to the rights over his or her body and to political status, the Slave life was basically a “death-in life susceptible to domination, natal alienation and social death”.

Therefore, the slave is a bare life, and his or her body becomes the only weapon that he or she can use. While the body of the slave is seen by the master as a productive possession, the slave sees his or her own body as a resistance against dispossession and inhumanity.

After realizing the political implications of dance through Capoeira Angola, I completely agree with Emma Goldman, an anarchist feminist who coined the phrase “If I can’t dance, it’s not my revolution”.


by <Toto>

[1] Clifford Gertz in Downey, G. “Listening to Capoeira: Phenomenology, Embodiment, and the Materiality of Music” in Ethnomusicalogy, Vol. 46, No. 3 Fall, 2002.

[3] Scott, J (1990) “Behind the Official Story” in Domination and the Arts of Resistance: Hidden Transcripts. New Haven: Yale University Press.

[4] Michel Foucault, 1975, Discipline and punishment: the birth of the Prison, Random House.

[5] Mbembe, A., 2003, “Necropolitics” in Public Culture 15 (1): 11-40.


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