By Kate Feinberg Robins, Ph.D.
At Find Your Center, our teaching is informed by research on learning and movement, as well as our many years of intensive training in the arts that we teach. For the next several blog posts, I'm putting on my cultural anthropologist hat to look at some of the research that helps us understand learning, movement, and the history of capoeira.
This post looks at anthropologist Greg Downey's 2014 lecture "Dance of the Disorderly: Capoeira, Gang Warfare & How History Gets in the Brain," presented at the Latin American Studies Center of University of Maryland, December 4, 2014. Quotes are from 41:00-45:00. Video from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SJXc6yMXBnM.
The first time I saw a capoeira game was in the summer of 2000 in northeast Brazil. As a ballet dancer who could accomplish amazing feats that most people don’t imagine possible, I had never seen anything like this—people who were as agile & powerful on their hands and heads as my ballet colleagues and I were on our feet. They could balance in improbable positions, moving from one to the next with total control.
Anthropologist Greg Downey describes the capoeira headstand or bananeira na cabeça as:
...a dynamic movement. It's not a static position like you do in yoga. You move around in it. You jump into it.... While yoga and gymnastics involve various types of headstands, in capoeira training practitioners are asked to jump into headstands, ...place the head on the ground and then pivot around it, ...spin on your head, ...slide on your head....
Downey describes one particular headstand that epitomizes the improbable positions of capoeira:
[Mestre Valmir] was doing a headstand where the weight was sort of resting just above his ear, his head was sort of flopped over on one shoulder, he was vertical, and he picked his arms up... and I couldn't imagine how his spine just didn't pop out the back of his body. It just looked like it would break your neck.
In contemporary US society we think of the neck as fragile:
When I first saw [bananeira na cabeça] I sort of saw it through the eyes of my mother, and the first thing I said was, "Oh, my God, you're gonna break your neck." ...That was what I assumed. Your neck is fragile, and if you put your head on the ground, you're gonna break your neck.
Downey goes on to describe the process of un-learning the culturally conditioned reflex to protect our heads & necks in order to train the capoeira headstand:
When students are first asked to train in this, they're given minimal instruction. They're just told, "Do it. Vamos. Vamos embora. We're gonna do it. Let's go." And so you do it, and new people are always in the back of the room, and you start hearing the "thunk," you know, the head on the ground. And nobody even pays attention when you first do it, unless you really hear a loud "thunk." And then you only turn around to laugh, because you know it's part of the training.
Downey argues that when capoeira students learn to use the head as a fifth limb, they are embodying the very history of capoeira. In 19th century Brazil, like in many parts of the world today, the head was used to carry things. Old photos show Mestre Bimba carrying sacks of concrete on his head and Brazilian porters carrying pianos on their heads. In training bananeira na cabeça, we can come to imagine ways of life different from our own, where things that we assumed were impossible or dangerous are a normal part of everyday life.
At Find Your Center, we value the rich history of capoeira and the power of capoeira movements, music, and songs to teach our students about different ways of living and being. We invite you to explore capoeira's rich history and culture--and maybe try some headstands of your own--through our music and movement classes for all ages.