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Professionalizing and Regulating Capoeira: A Brazilian Dilemma

Professionalizing and Regulating Capoeira: A Brazilian Dilemma
André Reis | June 2015

While recognized around the world as a distinctively Brazilian cultural practice, capoeira has long had an ambiguous relationship with the state. A bill that has been working its way through the Chamber of Deputies since 2009 (Draft Law No. 31/2009), has recently sparked lively debate in the country. Sponsored by Deputy Arnaldo Faria de Sá (Brazilian Labor Party - PTB), it proposes to designate capoeira as a profession and a sport and to establish regulations for its practice. Versions of this bill have been discussed since 2002 in Congress, but the debate has recently heated up, for it deeply threatens traditional cultural practices and understandings of the place of this sport and martial art in Brazilian society. What is at stake in this discussion? Why does a seemingly innocuous measure prompt so much opposition from the people whom it is supposed to benefit? To answer this question, it is necessary to understand the cultural meaning of capoeira to its Brazilian practitioners.

Capoeira has more than six million practitioners in Brazil and it is present in 152 countries worldwide. This cultural dance-fight and sport activity combines elements of dance, fighting, acrobatics and play. The game of capoeira is played inside a circle formed by musicians and players, who arrange themselves in a certain order. The two players meet under the berimbau (a single-stringed shaped as bow musical instrument), where they exchange greetings and move to the centre of the circle. This is called the jogo de capoeira (the game of capoeira).

The history of capoeira begins with the slave trade from Africa (1500s- 1850s) and the growth of cities in Brazil – from its colonization to the proclamation of the Republic in 1889. Bira Almeida, a former capoeira master, explains that the expansion of cities without adequate economic and socio-cultural planning led to the social exclusion of large populations of former slaves and their descendants, members of the lower classes, and other poor sectors of the population who did not have the resources to adequately integrate into society. The jogo de capoeira offered its practitioners powerful means of attack and defence, and for many, a weapon for their survival.

The Brazilian government officially criminalized capoeira in its 1890 criminal code but, throughout the nineteenth century, capoeiristas, or A Latin American Research Centre publication those who practiced capoeira, had already been persecuted. The Republic formalized this repression and many capoeiristas were imprisoned and tortured. The first capoeira masters were capoeiristas themselves. They were generally poor and marginalized from low-income classes with no formal education, yet they possessed wisdom, knowledge, and experience in the art of capoeira. After all, the teaching and learning of capoeira did not start in schools or in universities but rather was learned and taught in the streets, slums and poor neighborhoods , with much of the knowledge transmitted orally. This knowledge remains in the memory of many capoeira masters.

Getúlio Vargas’s lengthy first presidency (1930-45) marked a significant turning point for capoeira. With his government’s populist ideology, he established the socalled Estado Novo (New State, 1937-45), which promoted a strong sense of national identity. The culture of the masses was used as the ideology in the formation of this new national identity, which needed to include the people of so-called “mixed” race and their traditional cultures, especially Afro-Brazilians and their cultural practices. This appropriation of popular culture became a way of promoting the new Brazil touted by the regime.

At this stage, a new teaching model for capoeira developed that was contrary to its traditional roots in the streets, parks and markets. Capoeira began to follow a regulated and formalized model that brought the art indoors, with structure, students and organization.

The military government (1964- 85) saw the Brazilian people part of its project to represent and defend the homeland. Through sport, the government wanted to train athletes to internationally represent the nation and win medals, and therefore, the athlete was also seen as akin to a soldier. In this sense, sport became focused on the training of athletes and their participation in competition, including capoeiristas. To formalize this process, the regime organized sports into official federations and confederations. Understood as a style of fighting, capoeira was included in the Confederação Brasileira de Pugilismo (Brazilian Boxing Confederation) in 1972 and thus became officially recognized as formal sport by the Brazilian government. As the appropriation of capoeira continued, many traditional masters and their fellow capoeiristas opposed these changes, rejecting the state’s official recognition of capoeira as a sport. Masters continued to develop associations called capoeira groups, which have become much stronger than any confederation or federation and have remained independent from the state.

The creation of capoeira groups was a way for masters to establish their business without interference from the state. These independent organizations were mainly characterized by a master and followers. Thus, the importance of each capoeira group came to be defined by the number of followers and their recognition in Brazilian and international markets. During the last seventy to eighty years, capoeira groups have greatly expanded, leading to the increased internationalization of the art. Europe and the United States have been the major markets for capoeira masters who, through what I have identified as a form of self-exile, have sought better conditions for compensation and recognition of their professional expertise abroad. Unfortunately, this has happened due to the lack of support for capoeira in Brazil.  Brazil’s military regime ended in 1985; a democratic republic was established and civil society regained the rights that had been curtailed by the dictatorship. Democratic presidential elections took place in 1989. With these changes, Brazilian society demanded reforms. Brazilian education and culture were identified as important instruments for social change, and as such, the physical education curriculum underwent significant review. But the question of how this would impact the lives and work of capoeira masters remained.

The Ministry of Education and Culture established new directions for national education. Regarding the teaching of physical education in Brazilian schools, the ministry recognized in 1998 that “capoeira [and] samba, among other manifestations, are present in Brazilian culture. Physical education has disregarded these productions of popular culture as a subject of teaching and learning. This is inconceivable.”

This proposal gave an opportunity for the inclusion of capoeira masters as capoeira teachers in Brazilian schools. However, their participation was limited by legal and juridical restrictions. The vast majority of capoeira masters did not have diplomas or any other degree or certification to legitimize them as school teachers. A 1998 law regulated physical education teachers in Brazil and established national and regional councils of physical education and sports. A 2002 resolution raised concerns about the “unqualified” teachers and masters who were already working with physical activities and sports in the community. The resolution defined the qualification, competence and tasks of physical education professionals and assumed that only certified physical education professionals had the qualifications for teaching physical activities and sports to the public. Gymnastics, exercise, sports, games, wrestling, martial arts, dances, rhythmic activities and capoeira would be exclusively taught by physical education teachers.

Many capoeira masters felt the pressure of these new regulations and a few of them enrolled in undergraduate physical education programs. The national and regional councils offered pedagogical courses for teaching capoeira. However, many masters could not afford to pay the course fees nor did they meet the entrance requirements. Therefore, while many capoeira practitioners were unable to meet the standard required to work within the new system, the majority were opposed to the new regulations imposed by the councils and refused to comply.

The National Institute for Historical and Artistic Patrimony (IPHAN), part of the Ministry of Culture, designated capoeira Intangible Cultural Heritage of Brazil in July 2008. This designation required the Brazilian government to implement measures to encourage the practice of capoeira and to protect its cultural matrices. It was in this context that Draft Law No. 31/2009 was presented in Congress, with its goals of professionalizing capoeira and designating it a sport.

Senator Lidice da Mata (Brazilian Socialist Party - PSB), with support from Senator Paulo Paim (PT-Workers Party) and the Senate Commission for Education, Culture and Sport, organized public hearings to discuss this bill in July 2014. The Brazilian senator argued that the public hearing would be an opportunity to discuss and analyze complex aspects of the bill. To enhance the “practical world of capoeira”, she explained that the idea was to hear the capoeiristas’s views to draw up an opinion in accordance with the thinking of the majority.

After those first public hearings, a seminar was organized in the city of Salvador, Bahia, to hear the Brazilian leaders of capoeira. The commission heard numerous demonstrations against the requirements for minimum education and against the need for membership in a professional association. For participants, these requirements threatened the autonomy of groups and associations and deprived them of the right to professionalization of capoeira masters who are the most responsible for communicating historical legacy. During the debate, the concept of capoeira as a sport was strongly opposed by most present. Proponents of this view argued that sport as it is does not include the roots in all its artistic and cultural dimensions.

For historical reasons, many capoeira masters have little confidence in the State’s initiatives to regulate their art form. Indeed, the regulation of any profession can be a serious and complicated matter. The Brazilian sociologist and specialist in public policy and cultural sociology, Luiz Renato Vieira, pointed out in a seminar, 2013, that Brazilians need to discuss which professional model should be adopted in the case of capoeira. Capoeira masters should be able to continue educating students and the public in a dignified and respectful professional environment.

Vieira warns that supervisory actions against the professional work of capoeira masters do not suit the diversity of capoeira culture, and he argues that this process of professionalization must preserve the plurality of capoeira and the freedom of the masters of this art. According to Alexandro Reis, the director of the Palmares Foundation, a government-funded institution charged with promoting the preservation of cultural, social and economic values of the African influence in Brazilian society bill 31/2009 needs to ensure, among other things, social protection and labor rights to all capoeiristas; and the implementation of the capoeira practice in public and private education. Discussions on regulating the profession of capoeira have been intense, and remain inconclusive. 

Dr. André Reis is a teacher at the Universidade de Brasília, Brazil. He is currently a visiting professor and scholar at the Department of Anthropology and Archaeology, University of Calgary. He has studied the culture of soccer along with social programs. He took his MA in Brazil and his PhD studies at the University of Bristol, England, studying the phenomenology of capoeira (a Brazilian sport and dance-like a fight) as cultural practice for social well-being and health promotion.