A Balancing Act

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.

Greg Downey

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.

My sense of balance is not all that great.  I don't know how many times I fell down while in the mangroves of Florida.
My sense of balance is not all that great. I don’t know how many times I fell down while in the mangroves of Florida.

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.

Training Equilibrium

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.

My brother and I posing at our dance studio back in the day.
My brother and I posing at our dance studio back in the day.

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.

Inverted Balance

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.

My Thoughts

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).


psych table
A section of the psychtable for this article.

6 thoughts on “A Balancing Act”

  1. I guess I am more interested in the participants’ lives and why they choose this activity and what competition looks like, and how training effects their personal lives. The biological stuff seems interesting, but of secondary importance to me.

  2. I’ve always struggled a bit with my vestibular system. As a child I tried ballet, karate, and figuring skating (all activities requiring a high level balance). Unfortunately, I had recurrent ear infections from the time I was a child through my teenage years that left fluid in my ears that effected my vestibular system and balance. I was unable to progress very far in any of those activities and ended up quitting after it was clear that I was more adept at falling than anything else. I ended up in cross country in track in my teenage years but I still fell a lot. One of my worst injuries ended in torn ligaments in my elbow that took six months and a huge arm brace to heal. I had fallen because I lost my balance. I thought the implications of this article were interesting because perhaps people who have injured vestibular systems in one way or another can be taught to overcome those injures through the type of training Capoeira incorporates.

  3. I’d never truly considered the fact that our sense of equalibrum can become enculturated. It is something that seemingly comes so naturally to all of us. I feel like you can see those cultural differences percolate into dance and music. For example traditional Indian music has a much faster beat requiring dancers to move in a different pattern that does not sink up with our common 4:4 beat. In Turkey, this is a style of dance whose beat is so irregular that the moions that it inspires are akin to a limp, which also happens to be the name of the style in Turkish.

  4. I never thought of balanace as being an encultured aspect of one’s life, but it totally makes sense. I wonder if one could learn two types of balance/equilibrium if he/she was intentional about it. Would being taught two different types of dance or dance and another sport at a young age make it possible to switch between equlibrium systems?

  5. The power of perceptions: Imagining the reality you want, by Amanda Enayati was a very interesting read and I thought about this blog post while I was reading it. Viktor Frankl, according to Enayati, is a Jewish psychiatrist who spent three years in a Nazi concentration camp during WWII, and through the power of perception, was able to survive the horrors that went on in these camps. Frankl claimed he got through this terrifying experience with the one single freedom he had left – imagine. He imagined things like seeing his wife again and teaching his students about how he survived the concentration camps. Frankl wrote in his book, Mans search for Meaning, “A human being is a deciding being.” Viktor Frankl, was able to place himself somewhere else in his mind and block out the reality around him, which in the end, helped him live to see another day and to not go insane. Perception, according to the article, can also help in the power of healing. The role of perception in helping patients get better is through a phenomenon known as the placebo effect. The placebo effect is, by definition, a simulated or otherwise medically ineffectual treatment for a disease or other medical condition intended to deceive the recipient. Researchers, according to Enayati, attribute some aspects of the placebo effect response to active mechanisms in the brain that can influence body processes such as the immune response and release of hormones. The next time I’m feeling sick, I’m going to try and think myself better. Beau Lotto, a neuroscientist and artist, on his TED talk perception presentation, stated that, “The brain did not evolve to see the world the way it really is – we can’t.” We can only see things according to our history because we are defined by ecology, not our biology – but our history of interactions. This way of looking at the world makes me question reality.

  6. Again, couldn’t find my original comment but I remember that I really enjoyed and ran with the idea of encultured movement and equilibrium. I think it could lend a lot to normal discussion about things that laymen talk about all the time. For example, a big query for many people, albeit often jokingly, is why can black people dance so well. Maybe it has a lot to do with Downey’s concepts surrounding the enculturation of equilibrium . African Americans often grow up learning how to move in a way that many other cultures do not. I think that would be an interesting topic to explore.

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