About the Author
Greg Downey is a professor and the head of the Anthropology Department at Macquarie University in Australia. He completed his MA and PhD at the University of Chicago, focusing on how skill acquisition leads to biocultural modifications to the nervous system and body. He spent several years in Brazil doing field research as an apprentice in capoeira, which led to his book chapter Balancing between Cultures: Equilibrium in Capoeira.
What is Capoeira?
Capoeira is a Brazilian martial art form that combines elements of fighting, dancing, rhythm, and music. It is sometimes played as a game, a ritualized form of combat that is a constant flow of movement between the two opponents as they react to each other. No matter what the reason, someone training in capoeira must have or develop a good sense of equilibrium, for this fighting form includes a great deal of flips and inverted postures such as a bananeira (handstand). The dynamic flow of capoeira, where practitioners must focus on their opponent’s face, is in stark contrast to the static forms of gymnastics, where gymnasts use other visual cues to help them hold each pose perfectly. The training methods used to obtain balance in these different styles highlights how the human equilibrium system can become enculturated.
Sense of Balance
Over the years, scholars have labeled the vestibular system in the inner ear as the organ of balance. However, equilibrium is really more of a “sensory system” of many other sensations, such as vision, proprioception at ankles and joints, and pressure perception of feet, which helps maintain equilibrium.
Just knowing where you are in your environment will make you better balanced. It is an elaborate synthesis of conscious and unconscious perceptions and compensatory behaviors. My compensatory behaviors aren’t always up to par, though. I don’t seem to have a very good vestibulo-ocular reflex, because whenever I go jogging my field of vision bounces as I move, making me have to stare at the ground and possibly run into people. While some athletes have amazing equilibrium senses, I have a hard time walking without tripping.
The Brain in Balance
The plasticity of our equilibrium system allows for it to become encultured. Not only can we find many solutions to a single balance problem, we can adaptively react to novel stimuli, such as the lack of gravity in space or Dr. George Stratton’s inverted glasses. This plasticity leaves our equilibrium system open and flexible, allowing it to be trained into different arrangements. However, long term extensive training, along with cultural and unconscious conditioning, are required to change someone’s equilibrium system. One change that learning causes in the brain is the ability to ignore irrelevant sensory information and focus on what is important. A gymnast may focus on a visual point, while one trained in capoeira may focus on proprioception.
While training directly changes the body’s physical ability to move, more subtle influencers also occur. Forms of training for skills involving equilibrium include social and cultural influences like coaching, aesthetic preference, and specific training drills. Olympic gymnasts on the balance beam who are penalized for extraneous movements use small ankle based righting techniques, while an untrained individual is more likely to use larger hip movements. In contrast to gymnasts, capoeira practitioners are not restricted by specific technique forms, and so utilize a wide range of righting behaviors such as curling the body or flailing the legs. While these techniques would be abhorrent to any gymnast, in capoeira it enables dynamic movement and different reaction patterns. Training behaviors can also enable practitioners to cope with disorienting sensations, such as spinning at high speeds.
In my dance classes, we used the “spotting” technique, which involves focusing the head on one point while rotating the body. This was supposed to help me maintain balance by substituting visual orientation for vestibular information. I can attest to this technique being a cultural factor that is not inherently learned, for after years of dance classes I still had trouble with pirouetting in a straight line. I never quite got the hang of spotting, so my dance career did not go very far.
Balancing while inverted is undeniably harder than balancing right side up. The upper body has to support the physical burden, the inverted form is more unstable, and the neural system has to cope with the head being upside down and closer to the ground. To keep a handstand steady, gymnasts often focus on a visual anchor, a stable position on the floor in front of their hands. Capoeira practitioners cannot utilize this technique. They have to keep their eyes on their moving opponent while in a bananeira or even while flipping. Instead of visual cues, they use righting behaviors to maintain balance. The differences in these strategies makes it very hard to transfer balance ability between these two forms. As a result, the two disciplines have distinct skill sets and perceptual-motor strategies. The process of acquiring a sense of equilibrium is malleable and culture-specific. The aesthetic preferences of a culture influences which movement forms are utilized, which then influences neurological development. The nervous system is always training to best suit our needs.
After reading this chapter, I would love to try capoeira myself. I feel like that style of training the equilibrium system might actually be better suited to my predisposed make-up than the formal dance training I have had that relies on visual cues (or I could just be all around clumsy). I have a bad vestibulo-ocular reflex, a hard time with the “spotting” technique, and to top it all off a horrible sense of vision in general. One correlation I have to the flowing action-reaction equilibrium system of capoeira is my experience in white water kayaking. I paddle down rapidly moving rivers, so there is no static visual anchor for me to focus on. Instead, my body almost automatically responds to the motions of the current as I fight to maintain upright. When I am inverted in the water, I rely heavily on proprioception so I can get my arms in the proper position to roll up. In any case, capoeira seems like an amazing showcase of physical prowess.
Here is a video of some of the equilibrium challenges that face the members of the Alabama Kayak Club, courtesy of the Wasser Bruder (Water Brothers).