By Dr. Kate Feinberg Robins
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'll put 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 Greg Downey’s 2008 article “Scaffolding Imitation in Capoeira: Physical Education and Enculturation in an Afro-Brazilian Art,” published in American Anthropologist 110:2, pp. 204-213.
Based on research with Mestre João Grande’s Capoeira academy in New York City, anthropologist Greg Downey identified 3 characteristics that set expert Capoeira teachers apart. João Grande spoke little English and his students spoke little Portuguese, yet his teaching was highly effective. How did he do it?
Downey found that Capoeira, like many other forms of physical education, is learned largely through imitation—and that effective learning through imitation requires not just an attentive student, but also an expert teacher. A good teacher facilitates imitation by:
In learning theory these techniques are called “scaffolding,” because the teacher provides extra support for novice students and gradually takes that support away until students can stand on their own (just like the scaffolds used for building construction).
In these videos from Capoeira Vibe, you can see Mestre Parente demonstrating these teaching techniques with the macacão (big monkey) movement. His use of scaffolding makes the Portuguese video easy to follow even if you don’t understand the language!
The teacher concludes the video by demonstrating the movement in context with a partner. In this final demonstration, the macacão is no longer part of a set sequence, no longer carefully positioned and slowed for the student to observe. At this point, the teacher has removed the scaffolding so that more advanced students can imitate freely and perform the movement in context on their own.
Next time you come to class, notice how your capoeira and ballet teachers at Find Your Center place the movements we're teaching in a sequence. Notice how we position ourselves, our students, and the mirrors so that you can see from various angles. And notice how we break down each movement into its component parts. If you're confused about something, ask us: How would this movement be combined with others? Can I see it from a different angle? Can you slow it down?
By Kate Feinberg Robins
My beginning adult ballet students often ask what they should practice at home. One challenge in practicing ballet is that there is so much, it’s hard to know where to start when you don’t have a teacher to guide you. Every class I teach is different, because an important part of dance training is putting steps together in different ways. This is why even professional ballet dancers take company classes, where the company’s ballet master or ballet mistress gives practice exercises.
A company class at the Royal Ballet
Once you’ve been studying ballet for a few years, or even a few months, you’ll start to understand the patterns of ballet exercises, which we call “combinations.” At that point, it will be easier to make your own exercises to practice at home. But if you’ve just begun and everything is new, then where do you start? Or maybe you understand how to create a combination, but you just want to focus on doing it, without the extra complication of also putting it together. You just want a simple way to practice at home between classes, without putting too much thought into it. So where do you begin?
These three ballet barre videos offer good practice routines for beginning adult students.
I chose them for 3 reasons:
How to use these videos when you practice at home:
And most importantly, have fun!
By Kate Feinberg Robins
Lazy Dancer Tips is one of the most thorough and well produced Youtube channels demonstrating how to use ballet exercises for general fitness. Here is my list of pros and cons:
Overall, the pros far outweigh the cons, so I encourage you to take a look at these videos and add them to your fitness routine.
By Kate Feinberg Robins
This one is for all of you out there who are getting your small businesses off the ground, keeping them going and growing, and trying to stay centered in the process. It's for those who are raising your kids, working your jobs, going to school, pursuing your dreams, and feeling overwhelmed by it all.
The past few months have been a whirlwind for us. We started renting our studio space in November, and spent the holiday season painting, renovating, learning to do bookkeeping, and finalizing our course catalog. On January 15, we worked from 4am to midnight installing our dance floor so we could teach our first classes the next day. Needless to say, there were countless moments of exhaustion, doubt, and frustration.
When it all seems overwhelming, when there's too much to do, when we feel defeated--those are the moments when it's most important to pause, sit, and meditate. It's this daily practice of meditation that gives us the confidence and the energy to keep pushing through. It helps us to remember why we're doing this, to center ourselves, and sometimes just to observe that we're not centered and why.
There are many kinds of meditation and I think the best kind is the kind that works for you. DeShawn and I approach it in different ways, but the important thing is that we help each other remember to do it every day--especially on the days when it seems like we have the least time.
The guidance that I've found most useful comes from Jack Kornfield's book Meditation for Beginners, where he guides you through simple Vipassana, or Mindfulness, meditations. Like many people, I've always had trouble with the idea of clearing my mind. I also struggle with guided meditations that are filled with instructions. What I like about Mindfulness Meditation is that instead of trying to clear everything out of your mind, or put something else in your mind, you focus on observing what's already there. Instead of judging yourself for feeling angry or distracted or disappointed, you observe and acknowledge how you feel. If your mind wanders, you bring it back without judgment.
You can find Jack Kornfield's Meditation for Beginners at jackkornfield.com/meditation-beginners/ and browse his website for more resources.
Whatever your project is, whatever your dreams, whatever your state of mind, we've found meditation to be a powerful tool in bringing us to the next level and moving forward with confidence. We hope that you will too.
By Kate Feinberg Robins
As an adult ballet dancer, I am continually working to find that balance between correct technique and the joy of dancing. I’m always worried about protecting my lower back. Like many dancers, I spent years training to bend in all different directions, without always doing it correctly. As I got older, the flexibility stuck, but the strength to hold my posture in alignment did not.
Then there was pregnancy with its joint-loosening hormones, all the extra weight my body had never carried before, and my pelvic floor and ab muscles moving into new positions. Nearly two years after childbirth, it’s still a constant struggle to keep my knees, ankles, feet, and pelvis all safely warmed up and in safely aligned positions.
But the secret of ballet is that correct technique is what allows you to find a place of calm strength where you can confidently center yourself, feel the music, and let the joy of dancing move you.
Ballet technique is incredibly complicated. If studying ballet is new to you, or if you've never trained at a professional studio, this might come as a surprise. If you have been training for a while, you're probably painfully aware of how hard it is to simultaneously do the million and one things that make the most basic of steps look both correct and easy.
On his website A Ballet Education (aballeteducation.com), former professional dancer and ballet teacher David JoongWon King has written a series of blog posts with detailed notes and drawings explaining how to perform ballet steps correctly. He covers basics like second position and tendu devant, as well as more complex steps like pirouettes and attitude derrière.
For beginning students, these "Notes" on ballet technique will feel overwhelming and abstract. I encourage you to take a quick look anyway, for these reasons:
When we look at all A Ballet Education’s drawings of perfectly proportioned people performing ballet steps with perfect technique, it’s easy to lose sight of the joy of dancing. But hidden within this complexity are basic principles of alignment that can keep you dancing safely and confidently through all kinds of challenges.
Sometimes to rekindle that joy, we need to pause, re-center ourselves physically, become one with the music, and just dance.
By DeShawn "Quiabo" Robins
Difficult moments in life we all have to go through. Life of course can be a flower, but it's full of spines. You have to know how to do it, how to hold the flower. -Mestre Xuxo
I have always believed that great capoeiristas are defined by their dedication and contribution to the art and by the examples they set in their lives and their practice. Mestre Xuxo is a capoeira master who embodies these ideals. He grew up training with his father Mestre Sampaio, left Brazil to teach in Europe when he was 18, and has since dedicated himself not only to training his students and sharpening his skills, but to breaking boundaries within the capoeira world by bringing together practitioners of all styles and levels.
In his YouTube channel and his 2014 documentary Enjoy Yourself, Mestre Xuxo imparts words of wisdom, shares training exercises, and gives inspiring performances. Here are some of the gems from the video “Mestre Xuxo – Enjoy yourself movement”:
You are the one that we need to make a better world. -Mestre Xuxo
Only one person can stop you. Only one person can hold you back, and that person is yourself. -Mestre Xuxo
The secret of life is to live. -Mestre Xuxo
Capoeira itself, and dance, music, art—it cannot change the world, but it can change people, and people can change the world. -Mestre Xuxo
By Kate Feinberg Robins
Mikhail Baryshnikov is widely considered to be the greatest male ballet dancer of all time. The strength and power of his dancing embody all of the reasons that ballet training can be such a powerful tool for athletes, artists, and all kinds of others.
If ever you thought that ballet was only for little girls, Baryshnikov’s performance in the 1985 movie White Nights will change your mind. If you want to see the whole movie, you can rent or buy it on YouTube. If you just want to see the most amazing dance scenes, you can watch them for free. Remember that it’s rated PG-13 and be prepared for some mature content. Here are my recommendations:
If you know a little girl who finds inspiration in pink tutus, good ballet training will teach her to channel that excitement into power and strength. If pink tutus aren’t your thing, check out Baryshnikov. You won’t be disappointed.
By Kate Feinberg Robins
My rediscovery of ballet after retiring from a pre-professional performance career at age 18 has been gradual, to say the least.
During my last couple years of high school, I was dancing lead roles with the Cuyahoga Valley Youth Ballet and preparing to audition for professional companies, or to continue my training at professional schools if I wasn’t yet good enough to be hired. At 5’ 1”, good enough to be hired meant good enough to be a soloist. No one would hire a dancer my height for the corps.
I auditioned for American Ballet Theatre’s Studio Company, and unsurprisingly, didn’t make it. I made the second cut at Julliard, but didn’t quite get in. I finished high school prepared to enter Butler University’s ballet program on a merit scholarship. There I would stay, perfecting my skills until I could finally get paid to do what I loved—or so I thought.
But during that summer between high school and college, I discovered that I no longer loved it enough to give up everything else. I wanted to reach beyond the walls of the dance studios and theatres, to do all those things I had always had to say no to. I wanted to study philosophy and travel the world.
It would be another ten years before I could enjoy a ballet class again. I was afraid to set foot in a studio and see how terrible my dancing had surely become. I was embarrassed to be seen at less than my prime. I feared that a ballet class would only bring frustration over what I could no longer do.
In the years after I stopped performing, I was occasionally asked to teach ballet—first to young gymnasts in Indiana, and later to professional flamenco dancers and amateur folk dancers in Chile. Eventually, I began seeking out opportunities to work with students who didn’t see ballet as a serious career option, but enjoyed and appreciated it alongside their main interests and pursuits.
I taught middle and high school students who cared more about orchestra, drama, academics, and athletics than ballet. I taught children who were enjoying their childhoods. I taught adults who were finishing their PhDs, building their careers, and raising their children. Through these students, I rediscovered my own love for ballet and discovered that it could be part of my life—and so many other people’s lives—without giving up everything else.
Ballet study as a casual pursuit has traditionally not been taken seriously by professionals. No one likes to see their profession cheapened by amateurs claiming to know it all. Yet, like with all fields, I think there is a happy medium. Students with a passing interest in a subject can learn from professionals with the awareness that their growing knowledge and skills will only ever scratch the surface.
Ballet study has a great deal to offer to adults and children of all ages with all kinds of goals and interests. The website balletforadults.com, while aimed primarily at adults, offers practical tips for any casual student who is serious about doing their best in ballet class, even if their best will never be good enough for a professional career.
What I like most about this site is that it clearly explains things that tend to be taken for granted in ballet classrooms. When young people train intensively, they are socialized into the norms of ballet study. For casual students who take the occasional class or start learning later in life, this socialization doesn’t happen. They enter the studio unaware of where they should stand, what they should wear, or how they should address the teacher. Balletforadults.com breaks down these norms, kind of like a guide book for tourists who don’t expect to pass for natives, but do hope to get by and enjoy themselves.
This website is also a great example of the kind of high quality work that can be accomplished when professionals from a variety of fields put their energy into promoting ballet. The blog’s creators are graphic designers, photographers, writers, and teachers. Their skills in all of these areas shine through in a beautifully presented and accessible blog.
My main critique of the site is that despite its posts encouraging all kinds of people to study ballet, the photographs portray almost exclusively slender young women. If you don’t see yourself on this site, don’t be deterred. Just take it as a useful source of information, so that you can go into your next ballet class a little better informed.
By DeShawn “Quiabo” Robins
The first time I saw capoeira performed, it looked like magic. I saw people moving in ways that I didn’t think possible. But they were doing it, so it was somehow possible. I felt like it was the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen.
I was 17, growing up in inner city Detroit. I was used to seeing negative images of African Americans in the media. As an African American kid, to see that such a beautiful art existed and was created by Africans really impacted me.
That first class was extremely difficult. I could barely walk after it was over, but it was fun. I think the most exciting thing about it was the roda, when I got to see the older students play. That was just amazing.
In a capoeira roda, you have a circle of spectators or players. We call the activity a game and the participants players. The game represents life, so when players practice capoeira they’re practicing life. The master or teacher usually leads the music, and the music tells the players what game to play. The rest is up to the players. As in life, there are many different situations. Some are fun, some are scary, some require you to defend yourself. There’s a game for every situation.
An essential part of the roda is song. Capoeira songs are sung in Portuguese. For Brazilians, it’s easier to learn new songs because you recognize the words. But if you don’t speak Portuguese, they’re just sounds. I find the site Capoeira Song Book really helpful because if you learn what the words are and what they mean, then the songs start to make sense.
Capoeira songs sometimes tell stories of great masters who have long since died. Sometimes they tell us about the struggles and triumphs, the heroes and the villains of capoeira. The songs are important for understanding history. When we understand the history of capoeira, we understand the circumstances that have contributed to the art. We can see situations, choices, and outcomes. We can learn from the past. And the history of capoeira is not just a history of Brazil, but also a history of Africa, a history of oppression, and a history of triumph.
One really popular capoeira song is called “Paraná ê” or “Paranuê Paraná.” When I hear and sing this song, I feel comfort. It’s one of the first songs I learned, and virtually everyone in the capoeira community is familiar with it. When you search for “parana e” on the Capoeira Song Book website, you can hear it performed, and read the lyrics in Portuguese, English, and French. The site also has a glossary, where they explain some of the common words that aren’t translated.
The songs of capoeira are an essential part of the art. You can’t have a roda without them. If you know the most common songs, you can join a roda, singing along while watching the magic of the game.
By Kate Feinberg Robins
I first encountered Spanish dance when I was 10 years old and studying at Ballet Hispánico in New York City. It was my first summer intensive ballet program--I was a small-town girl from Ohio lucky enough to have a ballet teacher with connections to New York City Ballet and Steps on Broadway, and a grandmother who lived in Queens and was willing to drive me back and forth every day to Manhattan.
I remember eating my packed lunch between classes, listening to the chatter of Spanish around me. I remember putting on my dance shoes, thrilled, intimidated, and mystified by the idea of dancing in heels. And I still remember perfectly my favorite step from that summer: tacón-planta-tacón, tacón-planta-tacón, over and over across the studio, moving faster and faster, clicking heels and toes against the floor in a sharp crisp rhythm.
As I’ve gotten older, I’ve come to appreciate Spanish dance more and more. It has much in common with ballet, particularly in its upper body movements, but is less physically strenuous and more accessible to dancers with a variety of physiques.
At Find Your Center, I’ll be teaching Spanish dance as a supplement to our ballet and capoeira classes. The wrist movements make it excellent training for weight-bearing movements done on the wrists in capoeira. And--it’s just fun!
Probably the most famous form of Spanish dance is flamenco. Thanks to youtube, you can give it a try in your very own living room--just try not to irritate your downstairs neighbors with your stomping.
For an excellent introduction to flamenco, I recommend the youtube series Flamenco Class Andrea del Conte. The videos are succinct and informative, beginning with a brief explanation of where flamenco comes from and then moving through the basics of technique (including tacón and planta foot movements), complete with exercises to learn and practice on your own.
With this solid base, you can come to Find Your Center next year ready to dance with your fellow students—and maybe even invite those downstairs neighbors!