Traditions Field Note: Capoeira and Candomble

Candomble and Capoeira


While I was in Salvador, Bahia, in the north of Brazil, I watched a candomble ceremony. Unfortunately, I was not allowed to take pictures of this event since it is a religious ceremony. However, there are pictures and videos available online that can give you a better image of what I describe here.

Candomble is an Afro-Brazilian religion that started way back with the slave trade. When African priests were brought over to Brazil, they also brought elements of their own tribal religions.

They believe that every element in nature has a spirit. They worship these spirits, which are called orixas, (pronounced like oh-ree-sha).

The ceremony I attended was a mass gathering located inside of a favela. There were many people there crowded into a plain room. There were no decorations except for a pole in the center of the room, which the participants danced around. All of the spectators wore white, which is the traditional garb of candomble ceremonies. There was a high priest who controlled the ceremony. There were also many participants wearing traditional colonial outfits.

When the ceremony began, they chanted and began to dance around. Over the course of the hour, more and more of the participants became full of the spirit of the orixa they were worshipping that particular night. They danced like crazy! This event went on for a couple of hours. It was extremely interesting to see it. I won’t ever forget it and highly encourage looking up videos of the ceremony!

Since candomble is an oral tradition, it is in danger of becoming extinct if people stop practicing it and forget. However, it thrives in the poor communities of Bahia. Since it was a “slave” religion, there was some stigma associated with it in the past, although that no longer exists.


Another Brazilian tradition is capoeira, or the art of dance fighting. Outside of Brazil I don’t believe that Capoeira is given enough credit. It also originated with the slave trade. It started because slaves wanted to know how to defend themselves. They created this form of fighting that resembles dancing.

I have attempted to practice this in Rio! I also went to a show in Itacare, Brazil. I have attached a video of younger kids doing capoeira. They were around 11 years old. One of the adults there had a very young daughter who was eager to participate.

It was beautiful to watch. The purpose is not to hit each other. In fact, unless you are actually defending yourself against an attacker, you are not allowed to hit, even if you are sparring. When you begin it looks confusing and clumsy, but the very advanced people are incredibly impressive. They can launch themselves into back flips as naturally as if they were breathing.

Capoeira has become very, very popular in Brazil and in Portugal. Many people travel long distances to practice with the masters. When I took a class here in Rio, I did not realize I was practicing with one of the best instructors in the world. We called him “Mr. Miyagi”, just like in the Karate Kid. He told us to form a circle with our partners and “crawl like cats”. We did this for a while and felt extremely silly. However, later when we were actually practicing sparring, we realized the importance of this exercise. In capoeira you always fight within an imaginary circle, and are on all fours for much of it. Watch my video to understand!

Click here to watch my video on Vimeo:

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