Capoeira began in Angola as a ritual fight to gain the nuptial rights of women when they reached puberty; since then it has evolved into a graceful semi-balletic art form somewhere between fighting and dancing. It did so because African slaves were denied the right to practice their ritual fighting, and so disguised or changed it into the singing and dancing form seen today. Displays of capoeira – often accompanied by the characteristic rhythmic twang of the berimbau – in Salvador are plentiful and usually take the form of a pair of dancers/fighters leaping and whirling in stylized “combat”; with younger capoeiristas, this occasionally slips into a genuine fight when blows land by accident and the participants lose their temper.
The capoeiristas normally create a roda which anyone may join. It involves a circle of spectators including drummers, berimbaus, singing and clapping to encourage the two “playing” inside the roda. A spectator may take the place of one of the capoeiristas by exposing the palm of their hand towards the person they would like to “play” with and a new game begins. The basic method of moving around the roda is the ginga, a standing, stepping motion that includes the role (rolling) and au (cartwheeling) movements, respectively. These are not set moves, so capoeiristas can adapt them to their own style. The players then attack each other and defend themselves using these basic methods, along with a range of kicks such as the spinning armada. To avoid the kicks, players fall into various stances like the queda de tres, a crouching position with one arm raised to defend the head. Only the feet, hands and head of the players should touch the floor during the game.
There are regular displays – largely for the benefit of tourists but interesting nevertheless – on Terreiro de Jesus and near the entrances to the Mercado Modelo in Cidade Baixa, where contributions from onlookers are expected. You’ll find the best capoeira, however, in the academias de capoeira, organized schools with classes that anyone can watch, free of charge. All ages take part, and many of the children are astonishingly nimble; most capoeiristas are male, but some girls and women take it up as well. The oldest and most famous school, the Associação de Capoeira Mestre Bimba, named after the man who popularized capoeira in Salvador in the 1920s, is still the best and may have classes open to tourists. Other schools are at the other end of Cidade Alta, at the Forte de Santo Antônio Além do Carmo. The Grupo de Capoeira Pelourinho has classes on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday from 7pm to 10pm; and the Centro Esportivo de Capoeira Angola is open all day until 10.30pm on weekdays, though you have to turn up to find out when the next class is; late afternoon is best, as afternoon and evening sessions are generally better attended. Saturday is the best bet to catch a class in most schools, but stop by any early evening or late afternoon and just ask.