'Danced Defense': A Story of Capoeira

Scholar discusses history of boxing through capoeira

T.J. Desch-Obi leading Dance Program students in a master class on Capoeira Angola at Duke on Sept. 25.
T.J. Desch-Obi leading Dance Program students in a master class on Capoeira Angola at Duke on Sept. 25.

Today's boxers, with their arsenals of short punches and graceful dodges, can trace many of their tactics to 17th- and 18th-century Brazilian slaves.

Earlier this week, TJ Desch-Obi, a professor of African Studies at Baruch College, visited Duke to discuss the history of the Brazilian martial art capoeira, its origin in Angola, and its modern significance. Wearing a suit at a well-attended presentation in Perkins Library Monday, Desch-Obi, a capoeira practitioner himself, switched gear to teach a master class on Tuesday at the Hull Avenue Dance Studio.

Theater studies professor Claire Conceison, who organized both the lecture and the master class, brought her Theater Studies class on Sport as Performance to Desch-Obi's Monday presentation. He also taught a workshop for the class on Wednesday.  Conceison said capoeira tied in well with her class's focus on the intersections of art and athleticism.

"Capoeira is the perfect synthesis of sport and performance," Conceison said. "It's a wonderful way to look at religion and dance and sport all together."

Although much of West Africa used wrestling as an indigenous form of combat, a region in southern Angola practiced angolo, or a martial art known for inverted attack movements, including frequent handstands and arm-propelled kicks. Unlike Asian martial artists, angolo fighters do not employ blocks during combat. Instead, the angolo masters use artful dodges and dramatic spins to avoid kicks and blows.

"Defense should be danced," Desch-Obi said.

This "danced defense" helped southern Angola avoid colonization well after European muskets had defeated other parts of the continent. Even with superior firearms, Portuguese soldiers were "never able to have any major victories in Southern Angola without African allies," said Desch-Obi.

Once Portugal successfully colonized southern Angola, it began importing slaves to Brazil, its largest colony. The slaves brought their unique martial art to Rio de Janeiro and formed communities called maltas, where enslaved men developed angolo into the game of capoeira.

According to Desch-Obi, the capoeiras in Rio quickly became known for their confidence and courage, standing up to both police officers and their masters. Although capoeira was never used to start rebellions in Brazil, the movement spread across the Americas, eventually reaching its northern "epicenter" of South Carolina.

Desch-Obi said it was famed prizefighter Bill Richmond, an 18th-century former slave of uncanny ability and trained in capoeira techniques, who taught his capoeira-inspired form of boxing with an emphasis on defense to the English.

Richmond's quick dodges and masterful inverted kicks helped him escape most fights with nothing more than a few bruises. Through his influence, the practices of boxing shirtless, fighting on a raised stage, and dodging punches during a match were all introduced, Desch-Obi said.

Thomas DeFrantz, professor of dance and African American studies, said capoeira forces its practitioners to become comfortable in a variety of positions, which is what makes the game a valuable source of inspiration for many choreographers.

"Capoeira is an exquisite martial art form that helps practitioners understand how to organize energy and shift the outcome of velocity, weight, and impulse," DeFrantz said. "It's an approach to movement, so it can be incorporated [into] theatrical choreography."

Break dancers and contemporary choreographers have embraced capoeira moves, DeFrantz said.

Two hundred years after Richmond's retirement, capoeira is the "unofficial cultural ambassador of Brazil," Desch-Obi said. Street performers, athletes, and academics alike continue to be fascinated by the game and its impact on Western culture.

The fellowship was co-sponsored by Theater Studies, Duke Dance, Cultural Anthropology and African and African-American Studies.  To find out more about the Dance Program's Backstage Fall 2012 Series, including upcoming lectures and master classes, click here.