Starting in the 1500s, Brazilian plantation owners trafficked in enslaved Africans for free labor. In this brutal system, enslaved people worked to death on plantations that benefited of the Portuguese crown. Some of the enslaved people were able to escape and find refuge and freedom in the interior jungles of Brazil, sometimes fighting their way to freedom using a complex martial art they developed: Capoeira.
The slavers saw this practice as a threat, and soon capoeira was criminalized. The fighters obscured the martial art with music, drums, singing, and choreography that made the fight look like a dance to the untrained eye. Because the practice looked like a party, complete with signing and drumming, practitioners were left to develop their capoeira skills while safely hidden in plain sight.
After centuries of criminalization, in the mid-twentieth century, capoeira was embraced as a legitimate martial art and more mainstream schools started to open in Brazil. Bahia State was the epicenter of the modern spread of capoeira, and according to a Smithsonian Magazine article, Mestre Jelon Vieira was one of the first teachers to spread capoeira to the United States in 1975.
Master Yara Corderiro said she started learning capoeira when she was in school in Brazil in the 1980s. Her physical education teacher was a capoeirista and brought his group to the school. She joined the group with her brother as an extracurricular activity and hasn’t stopped since, saying, “It was supposed to be my hobby, and here I am.”
Modern practice incorporates all elements of capoeira; the berimbau is the signature one-stringed instrument, a bow attached to a gourd that dictates the rhythm of the fight, or game. Capoeiristas in the circle, or roda, play drums and sing during the game. Capoeiristas also give themselves nicknames. Yara’s birth name was already the name of a mermaid who protects the waters of Brazil, so that is her capoeira nickname. Yara said a nickname for her apprentice, Ruthie Lezama of Reston, wasn’t immediately apparent, so she called her Charada, or charade, because her style is hard to pin down. A capoeirista is also expected to practice every aspect of the art form.
Yara is an instructor at ABADA Capoeira DC, where Ruthie has taken classes for years. ABADA DC is a strong community of Capoeira practitioners in the Northern Virginia and Washington D.C. metro area with members of all ages and backgrounds.
Ruthie, a physical education teacher, is learning how to develop her own capoeira programs from Yara. At a batizado (baptism) in October 2021, Ruthie achieved her green cord, the graduate student rank, which signifies the forest and that the capoerista is strong enough to teach a class.