Like any martial art, capoeira’s efficiency for self-defense depends on the skill level of the practitioner. When used well by an experienced player, capoeira is extremely useful in a fight. Capoeira highly increases one’s ability to react quickly and dodge blows; it also contains numerous effective kicks and trips as well as nasty blows with the head, elbows, and knees. Finally, capoeira is an art geared towards survival by any means possible. A good capoeirista will run away from a fight or talk his enemy down so that the fight never even occurs.
In the 19th century, capoeira was much more violent. It was illegal, and capoeiristas had to practice in secret because they were actively persecuted by the police. Fights among different bands of capoeiristas, or between capoeiristas and the police, were frequent and often ended in serious injury and death. The typical capoeirista of that era was very street smart and usually proficient with weapons such as the navalha (straight razor). The Brazilian government used to recruit capoeiristas to fight in wars, start riots, act as bodyguards or hitmen, and intimidate voters at the polling places.
Capoeira has changed since then, and there are several reasons that the art today is perceived as ineffective for self-defense. First of all, capoeira in the roda is not a fight when it is played between friends and training partners. Sometimes the objective of a capoeira game is to hit or take down the other player, but at other times the goal is simply to create a beautiful dialog of movements. In performance rodas, groups often aim for the second goal rather than the first, so people get this perception of capoeira as being completely non-contact (it’s not).
Also, some capoeira groups focus more on the martial art side of capoeira than others. Some groups train takedowns and encourage their students to make contact in rodas, while others focus more on the dance/aesthetic side of capoeira. Finally, capoeira has a very tough learning curve. New students are usually not taught takedowns and other fight-effective moves immediately; they must first master the basics of dodging and of controlling their movements. As with any martial art, it takes much training in order to be able to use capoeira well if attacked.
I believe that capoeira is definitely a deadly martial art, and serves for personal defense in a much wider sense than that in which people usually think about it. It’s far more than the technical details like the ability to trip someone or dodge a punch. As I mentioned in the first paragraph, capoeira gives its players a unique understanding and perception of the world: it teaches cleverness, awareness, the ability to perceive danger early and deal with the situation calmly and cunningly.
Thus, an expert capoeirista may have never even faced a physical fight – not because he was lucky, but because he was intelligent enough to outsmart his opponents, seeing their evil intentions and defeating them before they even knew it. Perceiving a fight a mile away and managing to avoid it is the ultimate system of self-defense.