Capoeira has had a turbulent history. From its beginnings in slavery, to outlawed activity and its contemporary form, played all over the world, the art has grown and developed in ways no one could predict. This seriesis to reflect a little on how Capoeira is being taught, and how we can learn from modern research and ideas, and develop the teaching of this mesmeric art form.
My own introduction to Capoeira was at the end of 1990s, where after seeing the art on film I began a 9 month search for a teacher in England. Demonstrating how little Capoeira there was outside of Brazil 20 years ago, in London at this time, there were just 2 groups.
I came to Capoeira as fresh as is possible. 20 years old, with no experience in any related fields of movement. No background in dance, gymnastics or martial arts. There was not one iota of musicality that emanated from me. My Capoeira Top Trump card would have been the one you picked up and groaned to see. It would have read as something like; co-ordination 0, flexibility 0, rhythm 0 (is it possible to have a negative score in Top Trumps??), strength 0. Fortunately if effort or determination were a score, then this may have fared a little better. I was determined to learn wherever I could, and over the years travelled the world searching out academies and teachers.
Many teachers often say that Capoeira gave them so much, and indeed this is true for me. However I have to be truthful, and say that though my Top Trump scores improved with time, I also had persistent pain and injuries, with visits to doctors and physios becoming the norm. I would often think I just need to get over this latest injury, then I can restart my training. My mission. It took ten years and a hip arthroscopy before I began to truly reflect on whether this was a good strategy (spoiler - it wasn’t).
It’s at this point that I should be clear that this article is not a criticism of any teachers or groups. This is my experience, with what is hopefully some helpful research and suggestions for any teacher of movement to reflect upon, debate and perhaps incorporate in their own way. We’re all constantly learning over time, so this is a point in time opinion on current training methods, with a look over some useful research.
So what became my inspirations for my more recent, and successful, training in Capoeira? And what is ‘success’ anyways?? Well for starters, despite entering my 40s, my funding of the medical profession has pretty much ceased, yet I still train every day. My Capoeira has gone in a direction that I love, and I get more joy from the art today than ever. My Top Trump scores are personal records too (ok, enough of that analogy), and I know more about my body now than ever before. I have never been happier in Capoeira, and teaching my students and playing in the roda feels comfortable. Years ago, I could never have said that.
In truth it wasn’t just my injury record that caused me to question some of Capoeira’s methods. When my teacher, Mestre Papa Leguas of Cordao de Ouro, advised me to start teaching, I had some moments of panic. He had given me a wealth of information of what to teach. But how should I teach? What kind of teacher did I want to be?
My Mestre can be a mesmorising teacher. His skill level is elite, and his lifelong passion and enthusiasm for the art, alongside his attention to detail, shine through in his lessons. I did not want to be a poor copy of him, and trying would have felt like fraud. So I reflected, and searched for other sources and ideas.
It’s some of these sources and ideas that this article is attempting to share. In short they come from:
Sport science research
Track and Field coaching
Experience from Movement Researchers, Contact Improvisation and Feldenkrais
Research on Skill Acquisition
I have already touched on my experiences with Physical Therapy, and working with Pure Sport Medicine in London certainly got me on the right path to healthy, long term improvement. My progress as a track & field coach in recent years has proved to be a fantastic developmental tool. With track being the foundation to much in sports performance (run, jump, throw – many top sports coaches come from a track background for this reason), it has developed my ‘coaching eye’, as well as exposing me to sports science research in a way that would not have happened had I stuck solely to my Capoeira world.
Until a few years ago I didn’t even know Skill Acquisition existed as a field of research. Finding this world through books, podcasts and other coaches has been nothing short of mind blowing. I’ll touch on this more later in the article, as well as how this is impacting other sports and activities.
I have also spent the past few years training with different movement practitioners. Dancers, martial artists, gymnasts, yogis or simply people with no defined background who like to move. The field has exploded in recent years, and there are now many groups bringing people together from different fields to learn from each other. Bringing some of these teachings to a daily practice, and then to the Capoeira roda is constantly challenging and rewarding.
I intend to structure this article in 6 parts, beginning with a summary at how Capoeira is being taught today. I’ll then bring in some of the ideas from my experiences and research of the above, before bringing it back to Capoeira, with how these ideas can be applied. In my view this latter topic is only just beginning to be explored, and this should be exciting to everyone teaching this beautiful art.