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Educating the Eyes

Biocultural Anthropology and Physical Education

Greg Downey

Diverse forms of physical education form in their participants' skills, perceptual abilities and physiological adaptations that distinguish them from practitioners of other activities. These traits, many unconscious, are little studied in sociocultural anthropology in spite of their widespread prevalence. This article specifically explores how practitioners of capoeira, an Afro-Brazilian dance and martial art, learn to do a bananeira, a form of handstand. Its form, practical demands and training techniques make the bananeira a radically different exercise than other forms of handstand, such as that done by gymnasts. Capoeira practitioners develop a distinctive sense of balance—a dynamic assembly of perceptual skills and motor responses—that they use to keep upright while inverted. Across all cultures, forms of physical education and apprenticeship assemble distinctive physical skills, forms of cultural difference that should be defended as ardently as other forms of distinctiveness.