Capoeira is a combination of dance, ritual and martial arts that developed out of the Portuguese trade of African slaves to Brazil the 16th century. Capoeira was illegal in Brazil until the 1930's.
The ritual game begins with two players squatting in a circle, or roda, of spectators. The players rest at the feet of a single-stringed instrument, or berimbau, and one player sings a commencement song.
The other player can sing in response or remain silent to allow the first player to sing the announcement that the game has started. The musician at the berimbau then picks up the song as the players move to the center of the circle. The lead berimbauist is the Mestre, or master of the capoeira game. The roda chants, sings, and drums under the direction of the Mestre.
The players and the Mestre carry on a dialogue during the game; the music sets the tempo for the tricks that a player can use. A player may also improvise his movements according to the musical commentary the Mestre gives to his performance. The Mestre in turn may play music that reflects the players' attitudes, reactions and strategies.
The goal of the game, or jogo, is to catch the opponent off-guard using guile, technique and gymnastics. Players can fake each other out using rapid kicks, cartwheels, handstands, leg sweeps, flips, jabs, dodges, and turns. The base movement, and the one most often used by beginners, is a side-to-side motion in a semi-crouched stance called ginga.
Unlike most martial arts, strikes are admired most when there is no physical contact. A player gains the most applause when the other player has been skillfully baited into a vulnerable, off-balance position, but has not actually fallen or been hit.
Although there is no point system, and no official winners or losers, players can be disqualified for falling into a seated position or, in some forms of capoeira, using their hands to strike. Some speculate that the lack of hand use in capoeira harkens back to an ancient Kongo saying: "hands are to build, feet are to destroy."
Modern martial artists have two main choices for capoeira techniques and philosophy. Angolan capoeira is the more traditional form, with slow, dance-like steps while Regional capoeira relies much more on high-energy acrobatics.
Capoeira today is truly a global phenomenon with schools teaching Angolan, Regional and dozens of fusion styles in major cities all over the world.