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3 Characteristics of an Expert Capoeira Teacher

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:

  • Placing movements in carefully selected sequences;
  • Positioning learners and demonstrators so that particular aspects of a movement are easy to see; and
  • Slowing movements down to emphasize particular moments that would otherwise be obscured.

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).

The macacão movement is named after the monkey.

The macacão movement is named after the monkey.

In this video from Capoeira Vibe, you can see Mestre Parente demonstrating these teaching techniques with the macacão (big monkey) movement.

His use of scaffolding makes the video easy to follow even if you don’t understand Portuguese!

The teacher places the macacão in a sequence that begins and ends with a gingaThis forces the student to begin and end the movement with correct placement of the feet and arms, and makes it harder for the student to make mistakes while imitating.

The teacher positions himself first with his back to the camera, then in profile, then directly facing the camera, and finally in profile on the other side. This reduces confusion and makes it easier for a student to imitate the movement. When performed in a roda, the positioning of this movement would be random in relation to roda participants, which would make it difficult for a novice to imitate.

The teacher slows the movement in two ways. First, he pauses at the end of each ginga, which emphasizes correct placement and forces the imitating student to start and end in a well-balanced position. Second, he uses video editing to slow the movements further so that students can observe details that would be difficult to catch at full speed.

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.


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(Research cited: Greg Downey’s 2008 article “Scaffolding Imitation in Capoeira: Physical Education and Enculturation in an Afro-Brazilian Art” in American Anthropologist 110:2, pp. 204-213)

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