The Capoeira Headstand: Discovering the Fifth Limb
Do you remember the first time you saw a Capoeira game?
For me, it was in northeast Brazil. As a ballet dancer who could accomplish amazing feats that most people don’t imagine possible, I had never seen anything like this—these men were as agile & powerful on their hands and heads as my colleagues and I were on our feet. They could balance in improbable positions, moving from one to the next with total control.
In a 2014 lecture at University of Maryland, anthropologist Greg Downey describes the Capoeira headstand bananeira na cabeça:
…It’s a dynamic movement. It’s not a static position like you do in yoga. You move around in it. You jump into it…. While yoga and gymnastics involve various types of headstands, in Capoeira training practitioners are asked to jump into headstands, …place the head on the ground and then pivot around it, …spin on your head, …slide on your head….
He describes one particular headstand that epitomizes the improbable positions of Capoeira:
[Mestre Valmir] was doing a headstand where the weight was sort of resting just above his ear, his head was sort of flopped over on one shoulder, he was vertical, and he picked his arms up… and I couldn’t imagine how his spine just didn’t pop out the back of his body. It just looked like it would break your neck.
In contemporary US society we think of the neck as fragile:
When I first saw [bananeira na cabeça] I sort of saw it through the eyes of my mother, and the first thing I said was, “Oh, my God, you’re gonna break your neck.” …That was what I assumed. Your neck is fragile, and if you put your head on the ground, you’re gonna break your neck.
Downey goes on to describe the process of un-learning the culturally conditioned reflex to protect our heads & necks in order to train the Capoeira headstand:
When students are first asked to train in this, they’re given minimal instruction. They’re just told, “Do it. Vamos. Vamos embora. We’re gonna do it. Let’s go.” And so you do it, and new people are always in the back of the room, and you start hearing the “thunk,” you know, the head on the ground. And nobody even pays attention when you first do it, unless you really hear a loud “thunk.” And then you only turn around to laugh, because you know it’s part of the training.
And the first time you do it, it hurts, and your head feels sort of soft the next day, and you think, “Oh, my God, I broke my skull.” And then you go to the thing and people say, “No, it’s normal.” And then chunks of skin come off, with little follicle holes, and, “No, that’s normal. You need callouses.” And you keep doing it and in about two weeks you’re fine. And then you find out that not only can you do a headstand like that, but in fact, suddenly, this whole world of movement has opened up to you that you didn’t know existed, all because your head could be used as a fifth limb.
Downey argues that when Capoeira students learn to use the head as a fifth limb, they are embodying the very history of Capoeira. In 19th century Brazil, like in many parts of the world today, the head was used to carry things. Old photos show Mestre Bimba carrying sacks of concrete on his head and Brazilian porters carrying pianos on their heads. In training bananeira na cabeça, we can come to imagine ways of life different from our own, where things that we assumed were impossible or dangerous are a normal part of everyday life.
When did you first see Capoeira? Share your memories in our blog comments!
Downey, Greg. “Dance of the Disorderly: Capoeira, Gang Warfare & How History Gets in the Brain” (presented at the Latin American Studies Center of University of Maryland, December 4, 2014). Quotes are from 41:00-45:00. Video from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SJXc6yMXBnM.