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 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 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.