American Journal of Dance Therapy

, Volume 38, Issue 1, pp 41–62

Aesthetics of Hyperactivity: A Study of the Role of Expressive Movement in ADHD and Capoeira



In the established classification of attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), the symptoms of inattention and hyperactivity are primarily interpreted as neurodevelopmental disorders connected to a set of behavioral symptoms or traits. In this construction, behaviors or actions are understood in terms of a fundamental dualism between the acting body and the regulating or executing mind, which expresses a representational model of the mind. As an effort to challenge the representational description, this article addresses the expressive aspects of movement and behavior in ADHD. Based on a qualitative study combining ethnographic and phenomenological methods, the article focuses on a relationship between aesthetic or expressive bodily movement and behavioral awareness in children diagnosed with ADHD, and draws on the experimental and expressive aesthetics of capoeira to propose a rethinking of the role of movement in ADHD behavior. Capoeira’s perpetual movement is shown to transform the general traits of hyperactivity into a medium for expression and experimentation. When practiced by diagnosed children, capoeira helped them to gain expressive release, rather than to feel imprisoned, victimized, or even categorized by the hyperactive events that happen to them. Capoeira thus seems to afford a therapeutic potential for change immanent to the hyperactive movements associated with ADHD.


ADHD Aesthetics Capoera Deleuze Expressive movement Phenomenology 


It is a regrettable characteristic of the Western mind to relate expressions and actions to exterior or transcendent ends, instead of evaluating them on a plane of consistency on the basis of their intrinsic value. (Deleuze & Guattari, 1987, p. 22)

The diagnosis of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is associated with inattentive, overactive, and impulsive behavior. In the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders: DSM-5 (APA, 2013) the ADHD diagnosis1 is categorized as a neurodevelopmental disorder manifested in a set of behavioral traits. Although most scholars agree that ADHD is a multifaceted construct that includes neurological, genetic, sociocultural, and psychological factors (Harvey & Reid, 2003; Tannock, 1998), the dominating theory of ADHD is based on a neuropsychological model that interprets the behavioral symptoms of ADHD as external markers of an internal problem of the mind and, in turn, a neurodevelopmental issue. Accordingly, the theoretical assessment of ADHD immediately lends itself to a reproduction of the classical Cartesian dualism separating the acting body from the regulating or executing mind, and also endorses a Kantian account of cognition as the harmonious accord of the faculties’ total relation to the given object. In neurological terms this dualism is expressed in a representational model of the mind exposed through an ontological distinction between external bodily behavior and internal (mental) representations.

In the neuropsychological literature, ADHD is often associated with problems concerning sensorimotor skills, coordination, and movement control (Barkley, 1997, 2003; Gillberg, 2003; Harvey & Reid, 1997, 2003; Harvey et al., 2007; Piek, Pitcher, & Hay, 1999). From this perspective, the sensorimotor problems associated with ADHD are mainly considered expressions of impaired executive functions (Pennington & Ozonoff, 1996; Willcutt, Doyle, Nigg, Faraone, & Pennington, 2005), that is, the cognitive processes necessary to plan and perform goal-directed tasks. By diagnostic definition, certain body movements are seen as signs of underlying cognitive or neurological problems.

The conception of ADHD as an embodied phenomenon raises a question of the fundamental relationship between body, movement, and the structure of the mind or cognition beyond the Cartesian dualism. Within phenomenology, there is a long tradition of addressing the body and self-movement—i.e. the bodily capacity to move oneself—as a constitutional aspect of consciousness and cognition, as opposed to a representational one. This constitutional aspect of consciousness, connected to the body and self-movement, is sometimes referred to as the ‘pre-objective unity of the body,’ or the pre-reflective consciousness. In recent decades, the work of Merleau-Ponty especially has been identified as coupling phenomenological perspectives to traditional cognitive science, biology, and neuroscience (e.g. Gallagher, 2005; Petitot, Varela, Pachoud, & Roy, 1999; Thompson, 2004; Varela, Thompson, & Rosch, 1991). However, as I have argued elsewhere (Levin, 2015), these contributions generally neglect the role of art and aesthetics in the conception of perception and movement, or consign it to a representational model of embodied cognition.2 Considering cognition as embodied, embedded, and enactive implies that there is always an expressive element immanent to the formation of experience, in the sense that perception is shaped through movements that are part and parcel of sensation, or, in Merleau-Ponty’s terms, between the act of sensing and being sensed. In other words, movement is not only considered a medium of language or gestural meaning making; it is also the immediate event of emerging language or pure expression. More recently, phenomenologist Maxine Sheets-Johnstone (2011a) has expressed this notion in the proposition that “movement forms the I that moves before the I that moves forms movement” (p. 119). What Sheets-Johnstone suggests is that asserting the primacy of expression in movement amounts to an affirmation of the primacy of self-movement and a primordial kinesthetic world. Expression in this perspective is closely connected to the process of coming to terms with the experience of self-movement.

Although Merleau-Ponty and the phenomenological school have explored this expressive aspect of self-movement through the exploration of pre-reflective bodily consciousness and self-movement, it can be argued that expression is at the fringe of what a phenomenological perspective can address (see Fóti, 2013; Lawlor, 1998). Symptomatically of this expressive limit of phenomenology, Merleau-Ponty (2002) refers to self-movement as a magical or an incommunicable quality, but he also relates the body in movement to style and art. He stated, for instance, that “the body is to be compared, not to a physical object, but rather to a work of art. In a picture or a piece of music the idea is incommunicable by means other than the display of colours and sounds” (p. 171). The present study addresses this deep affinity between self-movement, expression, and art.

The current study critically adds to the phenomenological perspective, Gilles Deleuze’s notion of aesthetics, which resonates in some ways with Merleau-Ponty’s ideas, but more fundamentally privileges art and aesthetic practices. As Deleuze critically argues with Felix Guattari, “phenomenology needs art” (Deleuze & Guattari, 1994, p. 149). In other words, Deleuze and Guattari contend that phenomenological analysis cannot ignore the question of art and aesthetics without distancing itself from the emerging quality of sensation as the pre-condition for perception. Here aesthetics should not be understood in the traditional sense associated with Immanuel Kant’s dualism between the theory of sensibility, in which sense experience is produced by the transcendental forms of possible experience (i.e., the transcendental aesthetics), and the theory of art as a reflection of real experience (i.e., aesthetic judgment). On the one hand, Kantian aesthetics constitutes a general theory of sensibility, as the conditions of possibility for subjective experience; on the other hand, it also refers to a theory of art (aesthetic judgement) by which we can reflect on our actual experiences with different material forms of expression. In simpler terms, Kant’s aesthetics are founded on the dualism between a transcendental and an empirical level of sense experience, which according to Deleuze and Guattari results in a separation of sensible being and the being of the sensible. One of Deleuze’s (2004) main contributions to the critique of the Kantian dualism is a rethinking of aesthetics as a unified and non-representational theory of sensation. In this conception, sensation is understood in terms of expression, or rather as that which forces us to think (Deleuze, 2004, p. 176), in which “the two senses of the aesthetic become one, to the point where the being of the sensible reveals itself in the work of art, while at the same time the work of art appears as experimentation” (Deleuze, 2004, p. 82). In other words, in sensation there are no general conditions of possibility given for an object of sensation, only a mutual determination of an object in the expressive encounter between contradictory forces of sensation. According to Deleuze, these differing forces of sensation are fundamentally produced and explored through artistic or aesthetic experimentation with the emergent qualities of sensation. Sensation in this image of thought is, moreover, something associated with a field or territory rather than a pre-established constitution of the transcendental subject. Thus, to explore the emergent quality of sensation is to immerse oneself in the question of expression as an event that happens to us, or the result of the expressive field or territory from which subjectivities emerge. In this view, coming to terms with the expressive aspect of sensation, movement, and perception requires addressing what Deleuze—through Gottfried Leibniz’s monadology—describes as a world that does not exist outside its own expression (Deleuze, 1993; Massumi, 2003). This move to consciousness or subjectivity as an expressive field or territory, rather than a representational state, has implications for how the symptoms of both inattention and hyperactivity are addressed. Although the ADHD diagnosis combines these symptoms, this article will focus on hyperactivity.

In relation to hyperactivity in ADHD, the emergent quality of sensation or the expressive dimension described above immediately addresses the question of bodily movement. The fact that hyperactivity is considered a symptom of a mental disorder observable in bodily behavior implies that the body may express a disordered or impaired mental state. Expressions in this sense are associated with communicative behavior through representational and categorical signs, or something that is already available to be expressed by the body due to its neurocognitive constitution. This corresponds to a general idea of an expression as a meaningful act or thought communicated through representational language. In the case of the ADHD classification, such meaningful expression is categorized as a lack or absence of a particular set of bodily and mental abilities that are collectively considered prerequisites of normal behavior. Accordingly, the expressions of hyperactivity in ADHD are predominantly described as secondary expressions of cognitive deficiencies, which in turn are interpreted as representing neurological “soft signs” (Barkley, 1997).

Contradicting this representational view, the current study finds its point of departure in the ADHD symptoms of hyperactivity as an expressive quality that overspills or adds to what we already know about a body. Paraphrasing Deleuze’s (1990) famous reading of Spinoza, a fundamental hypothesis informing this study is that we “do not even know what bodies can do” (p. 255). Another way of saying this would be to acknowledge that sensation does not only belong to a body of perception and affective states; it also surpasses the body in the sense that there is always something that goes beyond what is recognizable in the sensible being. As Deleuze (2004) states, “It is not a sensible being but the being of the sensible” (p. 176).

Aligned with this move from the sensible as a representation of a being of “natural perception” to the notion of sensation as an expressive field or territory, this study’s empirical exploration of ADHD is not predicated in a question of whether or not children with ADHD are hyperactive by “nature,” but rather in how hyperactivity is experienced and expressed, given different or divergent aesthetic conditions. Informed by the conceptual framework described above, “aesthetic conditions” here means the expressive modes of being a body beyond the purely representational notions of cognitive bodies in mind–body and cognition-sensation dichotomies. Given this theoretical outline, the present study’s primary aim is to investigate the role of aesthetic or expressive movements among children diagnosed with ADHD practicing the Brazilian martial art, capoeira.

Capoeira as a Thinking in Movement

Capoeira is relevant to the examination of hyperactivity primarily because it revolves intensely around perpetual movement. As the dance scholar Barbara Browning (1995) asserts, “Capoeira is both fascinating and elusive. The difficulty of fixing capoeira in descriptive writing is that its strategy is one of constant motion, both literal and figurative” (p. xxiv). At once a dance, a fight, and a game, capoeira exists in between clearly determined categories of movement, action, and intentionality. For this reason, capoeira eludes most of the general categories that apply to other martial arts, games, or sports. There are no fixed rules in capoeira, and, even though players compete to outperform each other by means of acrobatic, aesthetic, and martial techniques, there are neither winners nor losers. In this sense, it could be argued that what is martial about capoeira is not reducible to a question of self-defense, but is immanent to movement as an art of escaping categories.

Thinking in movement in these terms is profoundly connected to the cultural history of capoeira and the leading narratives about its origin (Almeida, 1986; Capoeira, 2002; Dumoulié, 2010; Lewis, 1992; Merrell, 2005). Having emerged among African slaves in colonial Brazil, capoeira is generally seen as an expression of resistance against the state’s repressive organization of the slave body. The two main types of capoeira are associated with different narratives that emphasize either the art’s African roots (Angola style) or its Brazilian history (regional style). Accordingly, capoeira’s subjective movements are knotted with larger movements of social and cultural identities.

Anthropologist Downey (2005), in his ethnographic field work among capoeira practitioners, has convincingly documented the phenomenological ramifications of this process in pointing out that “[t]rained adepts accumulate an array of dispositions, habits and sensitivities that make up their way of being in the world, or at least one of the ways that they might be in the world” (p. 154).

In the current study, it is this potential for change that is explored in relation to children diagnosed with ADHD. Dance/movement therapy has been shown to be a promising area for future research in terms of improving motor functions and reducing behavioral and emotional symptoms among ADHD diagnosed children (Grönlund, Renck, & Weibull, 2005). In the current study, I am not hypothesizing that capoeira may serve as a general therapeutic intervention for resolving ADHD symptoms. Instead of a focus on therapeutic effects, based on given premises in the classification of ADHD and its symptoms, the current study investigates the more fundamental question of the relation between bodily movement and consciousness. More specifically, I am advancing a hypothesis that the aesthetics of movement play a central role in the way children experience and enact what is considered characteristic ADHD behavior. In this light, this investigation may afford valuable insight in support of further development of therapeutic approaches incorporating movement and dance.

Below, I will briefly present the study’s methodological framing and approach, followed by empirical analysis and, finally, discussion of this investigation’s theoretical ramifications in relation to the general understanding of ADHD.

Methodological Milieu: Look Only at the Movements

Perception will no longer reside in the relation between a subject and an object, but rather in the movement serving as the limit of that relation, in the period associated with the subject and object. Perception will confront its own limit; it will be in the midst of things, throughout its own proximity, as the presence of one haecceity in another, the prehension of one by the other or the passage from one to the other: Look only at the movements (Deleuze & Guattari, 1987, p. 282).

The primary methodological challenge of this study has been the question of how one explores movement. As proposed in the introduction above, a central assumption of the study is that the aesthetic or expressive serves as a central productive aspect among the relations of material, subjective, and sociocultural movements. In this sense, aesthetic or expressive movement falls in between material, phenomenological, and structural perspectives. As Merleau-Ponty (2002)—and before him Henri Bergson—has argued, the moving body reanimates the Zeno’s arrow paradox, which problematizes studying movement as such from any perspective, since the nature of movement is inherently in opposition to the positional fixed state of a given perspective. As Bergson (1965) indicates in The Creative Mind:

For the whole length of this movement I can imagine possible halts: they are what I call the positions of the mobile or the points through which the mobile passes. But with the positions, were they infinite in number, I shall not make movement. They are not parts of the movement; they are so many views taken of it; they are, we say, only halt suppositions. (p. 181)

In other words, a body’s movement cannot be considered a succession of positions. In fact, when a body is moving, it can be argued not to have a position at all. As Massumi (2002) states, “to think the body in movement thus means accepting the paradox that there is an incorporeal dimension of the body. Of it, but not it. Real, material, but incorporeal” (p. 5). In cognitive terms, this dimension is described within theories of the embodied and extended mind. As an analogue to this more than organic dimension in movement, philosopher Andy Clark (1999) gives the example of the bluefin tuna, puzzling to biologists because its body seems objectively too weak to turn sharply, to react quickly, and to reach the high speed for which it has shown itself capable. Eventually research at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology suggested that the fish used bodily movement to manipulate and deploy water’s naturally occurring currents to gain speed, and used tail flaps to create additional vortices and pressure gradients within the water for quick take-offs and turns.

As Clark notes, the bluefin tuna’s phenomenal swimming capacity derives not from the species’ corporeal physique but is a function rather of the fish as embedded in, and as actively exploiting, its surroundings. As Gibson (1979) points out in his book, The Ecological Approach to Visual Perception, water is not a substance for the fish, but rather a medium. In other words, water as a medium for a swimming body can be considered an expressive condition immanent to the corporeal being of the fish. In terms of ecological psychology, for the tuna’s physically invisible swimming capacities to come to expression depends on the action potentials or affordances available through its medium. Mentioning the bumblebee as a terrestrial example of the same phenomenon, psychologist Reddy (2008) contends that:

If we talk about the abilities as lying within the fish or the bee, if we look at the organism in isolation from its environment and analyze its capacities without looking at what it does with the environment, we have to conclude that the bee can’t ‘really’ fly and the fish can’t ‘really’ swim. And that is absurd. (p. 3)

It is this absurdity that Reddy finds in most psychological understandings of the relation between mind and behavior. Accordingly, the mind is often considered as an isolated organism disembodied and disembedded from its ecology. In my view, to include the ecological aspect of the mind is automatically to address Massumi’s paradox of movement as an expressive aspect that belongs to a material, but incorporeal dimension of the body. The explorations of the embodied, embedded, or extended aspects of the mind’s relation to its medium and surroundings all point to the fundamental paradox that movement is both essential to perception, but in itself imperceptible. As Deleuze and Guattari (1987) argue:

Movement has an essential relation to the imperceptible; it is by nature imperceptible. Perception can grasp movement only as the displacement of a moving body or the development of a form. Movements, becomings, in other words, pure relations of speed and slowness, pure affects, are below and above the threshold of perception. (pp. 280–281)

In other words, as opposed to more obvious qualities of, for example, visual or auditory perception, the quality of bodily movement is not identifiable to us through irreducible corporeal or perceptual conditions. It is in this sense that Massumi points to movement as an expression of an incorporeal dimension of the body. Incorporeal here means that movement is imperceptible from the point of view of any pre-established subjective or objective organization of the body. This does not mean that movement should be considered a magical or spiritual force. Quite the opposite, like thermodynamic forces, movement is both real and material. When I look out of the window, I cannot see the wind blowing unless its force is actualized on the matter of a tree’s leaves or a flag. As Massumi (2002) argues:

One way of starting to get a grasp on the real-material-but-incorporeal is to say it is to the body, as a positioned thing, as energy is to matter. Energy and matter are mutually convertible modes of the same reality. This would make the incorporeal something like a phase-shift of the body in the usual sense, but not one that comes after it in time. It would be a conversion or unfolding of the body contemporary to its every move. Always accompanying. Fellow-traveling dimension of the same reality. (p. 5)

Corresponding with Massumi’s description of movement as an incorporeal materialism, and inspired by Foucault and Deleuze, is my previous suggestion that this movement in between the body’s phenomenal, structural, and material conditions can be conceptualized through Deleuze’s and Guattari’s notion of a "Body without Organs," which they linked primarily to creative artistic and aesthetic experimentation with forces escaping established organization (Levin, 2014).

This study addresses a similar aspect of aesthetic or expressive resistance to ADHD’s diagnostic organization. The Body without Organs is at once the disassembling of the body-subject through experimentation and that which forces a production of new possibilities of subjective sensibility; “It is not at all a notion or a concept but a practice, a set of practices.” (Deleuze & Guattari, 1987, pp. 149–150). According to Deleuze, in order to engage in practices of creating, inventing, or finding forces of sensations still to be sensed, the challenge is to overcome the already given subjective ideas of sensibility. In this context, the Body without Organs can also be termed the body of sensation in the sense that it is a process of freeing the body’s percepts and affects from the actual or already established perceptual and affective organization. The methodological challenge in seeking to fix in place this dynamic dimension of the body is that setting up representational, axiomatic, or referential systems or grids does not capture it. As Erin Manning (2007) argues in her book, Politics of Touch, which rethinks the notion of touch through the expressive forces of tango: “To identify a body as such would be to tame movement” (p. xvi). In other words, to explore movement in between phenomenological, material, and sociocultural aspects demands not only thinking something about the expressive forces of the body at work, but also to think with it. Similarly, the swimming capacities of Clark’s tuna are not to be grasped by thinking about the fish’s organs in the substance of water, but rather by conceiving the relations of movement as an environment or medium within which the capacities emerge contemporaneously with the body. Movement as the incorporeal dimension, or the Body without Organs is neither prior to the body nor something added to it; rather, it is a process coinciding with the body’s every move, its emergence or expression. As Deleuze and Guattari (1987) remark on the Body without Organs, “it is perfectly contemporary, you always carry it with you as your own milieu of experimentation, your associated milieu” (p. 164).

The current study echoes these discourses in an attempt to rethink movement in ADHD behavior through the experimental and expressive field of capoeira. Borrowing from Deleuze and Guattari the expansive meaning of the French concept of "milieu"—which means at once middle, surroundings, and medium—this approach to the body of sensation entails becoming sensitive to capoeira as the milieu of experimentation from which the body emerges. Just as understanding the swimming capacities of the tuna demands that we think of water as more than matter, but as medium or surroundings, understanding the expressive aspect in behavior demands that we consider movement as a milieu rather than a physical sensorimotor capacity or individual condition. Deleuze and Guattari (1987) also describe thinking with or through the milieu as "rhizomatic"—a terminology that does not contemplate knowledge, concepts, or subjects as reducible to roots or essences; “[i]t is composed not of units but of dimensions, or rather directions in motion. It has neither beginning nor end, but always a middle (milieu) from which it grows and which it overspills” (p. 21). Proceeding from this image of thought, we may begin to look at movement, and thereby explore perception as an expressive limit of the subject-object relation rather than a representation of it.

Allowing capoeira to become the milieu of ADHD exploration for the current study meant primarily examining experiences of hyperactivity through the expressive and creative movements of capoeira. Like ADHD, capoeira is a multifaceted phenomenon that also comprises material, phenomenological, and sociocultural circumstances. Approaching the relation between such disparate aspects cannot be reduced to a single method, perspective, structure, or position, but must rather be an account from the middle, moving in the surroundings and medium—its milieu.

Accordingly, this study’s analysis of the movements with and through the surroundings and medium of capoeira is based on applying several qualitative methods, selected to capture subjective experiences. However, a significant condition for understanding the limitations and prospects of the approach is not to be found in the results of each individual method, but rather in the procedure (process and duration) of moving with or through the milieu. This study’s approach is thus founded on the composition of methods into a distinct mode or style.

In this context, my own background in the capoeira environment functions as a methodologically tacit but essential procedural qualification for my phenomenological analyses. As a father of two children (ages 13 and 7) practicing capoeira, I have been observing what could be called normal or "neurotypical" children doing capoeira for more than 6 years, two to three times per week. Just as significantly, I have been practicing capoeira myself for around five years and through the current study have intensified my training. Exploring the milieu in this sense is what scholars recently have termed "carnal ethnography" (Sánchez García, 2013) and what Loïc Wacquant (2004) has expressed as an approach “not only of the body, in the sense of object, but also from the body, that is, deploying the body as tool of inquiry and vector of knowledge” (p. wiii). In the phenomenological framing of the study, these circumstances served as a vital mode of immersion into aspects of the children’s perceptual world. Frequently, my own capoeira practice made me attentive to particular matters and situations in my observation of the children. Likewise, in the other direction, things that caught my attention or puzzled me when observing the children would sometimes crystalize or be reflected later in my own experience of playing capoeira. It is in this sense that capoeira can be said to be the study’s milieu—middle, surroundings and medium.


For about 16 months, I regularly followed a group of children, between 7 and 12 years old, practicing capoeira once each week for 1 h as part of their obligatory activities as pupils in a school for children with special needs and associated learning disabilities. The group consisted not only of children diagnosed with ADHD, but included autistic children, as well as children described by the teachers as subjects of general parental child neglect. Out of the total of some 20 children who attended the capoeira classes during my observation period, I conducted semi-structured interviews (Kvale, 1996) with seven boys and one girl who all matched the criteria of hyperactive and inattentive behavior or ADHD, the youngest being 7 and the oldest 11.

Since the capoeira practice took place about 1 km from the school, during the first seven months I would begin my observations at the school 90 min before capoeira practice and walk with the group to the capoeira class site. This allowed me to observe the transition from a regular school situation to the capoeira setting, but it also gave me opportunities to engage in more informal conversations with the children and the teachers escorting them.

My observation did not give direct access to classical phenomenological, introspective, first-person perspectives of the children’s experiences. Nonetheless, the observational second-person approach was fully compatible with the overall framing of a study dealing with embodied and embedded aspects of experience. As phenomenologist Shaun Gallagher (2005) argues: “[I]n most intersubjective situations we have a direct understanding of another person’s intentions because their intentions are explicitly expressed in their embodied actions, and mirrored in our own capabilities for action” (p. 224). As a rare but valuable aesthetic perspective on the question of "knowing other minds," Reddy (2008) compares the question of second-person methodologies within psychology to the question of novelists’ methods for drawing themselves or their readers close to fictional characters. Keeping with what I have already argued, I would maintain that this immersion into the experiential field is more a question of the milieu of the phenomenon than a method applied to it—that is, the procedure as the composition of different approaches in a style or mode that allows the researcher to grasp the phenomenon in its process of becoming. As an aesthetic system, or rather a production of sensation, art is always produced from conditions immanent to its own cultural formation, which to a certain extent necessitates that a description of art must emerge from within the process of production. As Clifford Geertz (1976) asserted on the question of Art as a Cultural System:

The artist works with his audience’s capacities—capacities to see, or hear, or touch, sometimes even to taste and smell, with understanding. And though elements of these capacities are indeed innate—it usually helps not to be color blind—they are brought into actual existence by the experience of living in the midst of certain sorts of things to look at, listen to, handle, think about, cope with, and react to […] Art and the equipment to grasp it are made in the same shop. (p. 1497)

In this spirit of immanent formation, my observations were explorative in my aim to foster a familiarity with the children’s different modes of experience through capoeira, which came to expression through different styles of engagement or participation.

After establishing the primary focus of my observations during the first three months, I would occasionally bring a video camera to capture exemplary capoeira practice situations.


The video clips helped me to obtain a concrete practical frame and focus during the interviews. To interview children is a challenge in itself; to motivate and obtain focus during interviews with children categorized as hyperactive and inattentive called for methods of enhancing concentration and attention to singularity during the conversations. As Reinhard Stelter (2000, 2010) suggests, to transform pre-reflective bodily experiences into language requires that the interviewer help the interviewee to attend to what Eugene Gendlin (1981) termed the "felt sense," which is not a mental state but rather “a bodily awareness of a situation or person or event” that “doesn’t come to you in the form of thoughts or words or other separate units, but as a single (though often puzzling and very complex) bodily feeling” (pp. 32–33). Interpreted with Deleuze’s (2004) terminology, "the felt sense" concerns the being of the sensible or “what forces sensation and that which can only be sensed” (p. 182). As Deleuze argues, “that which can only be sensed (the sentendium or the being of the sensible) moves the soul, ‘perplexes’ it—in other words forces it to pose a problem” (p. 176). To this end, the video clips were to serve as concrete points of departure for activating the children’s ability to view their own specific movements in capoeira as a source of perplexity and wonder.

As it turned out, this interview strategy was successful only among the older children. During some of the younger children’s interviews, the introduction of a computer screen was more a distraction than an aid since they associated screens with other parts of their experiential life (gaming, technology, movies etc.). This sometimes forced me to use other ways of obtaining focus and singularity in an interview. In such situations, I would ask the children to do a capoeira move, which then could serve as a concrete experiential springboard for my questions.

The interviews were semi-structured in the sense that they were designed to help the children construct a language related to their concrete subjective experiences with capoeira, and animated by either questions that referenced the video clips or their performed capoeira movements. Within such an open structure, the interviews were explorative, examining the described phenomena, how they appeared, and in what ways they related to other phenomena or experiences.

The questions would take as point of departure the sense experience of a specific movement, act, or situation within the capoeira game. Typically the interviews were framed around such opening questions as: “Can you describe your experience of doing that movement in that particular situation?”; “Where was your attention when doing this movement?”; or “Describe how you felt in that situation.” In accord with the central aspects of the study’s fundamental hypothesis, follow-up questions gradually pursued clarification, nuancing, and exploration of the interviewees’ descriptions.

Analytical Approach

On several occasions, as researcher I reviewed the interviews and field notes, structuring them theoretically in relation to the study’s main hypothesis. In my analysis, I paid primary attention to the children’s modes of structuring their experiences through bodily movement. Central to the analysis was the already-mentioned oscillation between first- and second-person perspectives. This paved the way for abstractions of the individual interview accounts into what I came to refer to as refrains of movement across interviews and field observations.

Framing the Tension

When I presented my project proposal to school staff representatives during our first meeting, their immediate response confirmed the relevance of my hypothesis, namely that aesthetics do play a role in understanding behavior. Apart from once-weekly capoeira training, the children also had obligatory karate practice. The staff explained that while the children with ADHD symptoms generally preferred capoeira training, those diagnosed with autism generally liked the karate practice better. As I would soon find out, the preference of capoeira did not mean that the children all loved it and could not wait to go to class every week. In fact, the departure from school was often an occasion for conflict; some children even tried to negotiate a way to avoid going to training. This reticence was also reflected in many of the interviews, as many of the children expressed a preference not to be forced to attend capoeira class. My observations intensified this apparent contradiction or tension even more.

Once the children would find themselves in the capoeira setting, even those who had expressed animosity to capoeira practice appeared to have forgotten their dislike, and gave into it. Part of the reason for this tension was obvious. All of the children had been transferred to this special education school from other schools, most often because of bad experiences with the regular school system. Accordingly, the fact that the capoeira practice was not voluntary, but rather a mandatory part of everyday school activities, obviously contributed to these children’s expressed animosity. What the staff had identified beneath the surface as resistance to capoeira training among some of the children was an affinity between capoeira movement aesthetics and the children’s behavioral patterns, characterized as inattentive and hyperactive. Even so, the general resistance toward the stratified structure of school activities and the eventual surrender to expressive bodily movement was, collectively, more than a structural ambiguity; instead, it was central, or rather, immanent to the children’s embodied experience of capoeira. I will give some empirical examples below of how this played out in the capoeira classes.

The Roda: A World of Movement Before the I that Moves

Much of the capoeira training’s orientation was structured in a way common among many other sporting or athletic activities—with exercise drills aimed at developing specific movement skills and building particular muscle groups, flexibility, and balance in general. The specialization involved in attending to specific skills of unimodal or multimodal attention, and sequencing repetitive movements in discrete sections, which generally activated among the children chaotic situations of ruptured dialogues, overflow movements, and disruptive behavior. Such behaviors correspond to the criteria associated with children categorized as hyperactive. The children would often be distracted by things irrelevant to the dedicated goal of the exercise or the verbal instructions of the capoeira instructor. By contrast with these situations, the exercises that were more aesthetically specific to capoeira clearly instated another form of dialogue, attention, and movement. This came to expression in some of the early exercises, but most clearly in the so-called roda at the end of each class.

The roda is the most central event of capoeira. At the most basic level it can be described as a circle of people, including a percussion band, which surrounds two people simulating a fight. In some aspects, this fight displays more the aesthetic qualities of an acrobatic dance than those of actual hand-to-hand combat. Beyond the elements of fight and dance, the roda is also a musical event. Everyone in the circle actively claps in rhythm, and one person sings a song, subsequently repeated by the rest of the participants, and establishing a continuous musical call-and-response pattern. In Portuguese the word roda means circle or wheel, and beyond its associations with the participants’ circular formation, it can also be linked to the process of setting things into motion. Thus, in capoeira terminology, making a roda is not just forming a circle; it implies the playing of the different percussive instruments, singing, clapping, and all the other activities that go into creating the capoeira event. In this sense, the capoeira roda animates movements in a process completely different from the specialization of the goal-oriented repetitive exercise drills at the training’s start.

When prejudicially reflecting upon the staff’s experience of children diagnosed with ADHD preferring capoeira, my initial thought was that the element of a staged fight might be the principal attraction, but when I observed them, the children were just as eager to be lead singer as to be one of the combatants in the middle of the roda. Remarkably for children categorized as hyperactively disruptive and inattentive, they would transition smoothly from being lead singer to entering the roda in a fight or sitting in the circle clapping. As the staff had noticed, something in the capoeira setting had an immediate appeal to the children diagnosed with ADHD. This appeal is associated with the cross-modal attention that is immanent to the capoeira event and predominantly produced through the pre-individual movements of rhythm or music. Like most other physical activities, the exchange of kicks and dodges in the capoeira roda undoubtedly requires bodily strength and flexibility, and in particular kinesthetic adeptness. However, because the capoeira roda does not have a clearly defined goal, but moves seamlessly between expressions of dance, fight, and the game of tricking each other, being kinesthetically adept only helps to express oneself within the roda if one is able to become attuned to movement as a pre-individual force. Correspondingly, rather than focusing on a predefined goal for the exchange of movements, most of the children described how their attention when moving in the roda would be distributed between the music, the people forming the roda, and the opponents. With the overall attunement to the materiality of sound from the instruments and the group’s collective movement, subjective movement was primarily described as an inter-corporeal relationality. As 11 year-old Adam3 described it, when asked how he experienced this allocation of attention:

Well, everything has to sound together and that is where you have to focus on those three parts [music, group and opponent]. You have to think about what the opponent is doing, because if the opponent appears bad [unskilled] you will become bad as well and stuff like that. Therefore you have to try to get the other one going. Like if you do some really difficult things and you can see that it is not going well [for the opponent], then you have to take it down to another level or hope for a new opponent.

As Adam expresses here, subjective movement potential in the roda is not only a question of knowing his own movement capacities, but also of attuning to his opponent’s movement qualities. Outperforming someone in the roda is successful only if accomplished on the plane of the roda’s collective movement composition. This pre-supposes inter-corporeal attunement, or moving with one’s opponent. As John describes it, with reference to a video clip of him and Simon performing in the roda, this “moving with” requires attunement to both an opponent’s physical and affective conditions.

If we take Simon as an example [points to the screen], if he appears a little dismal in his performance and has stiff legs and tired and stuff, then perhaps you should just relax a bit and let him do his things and then just add a little bit to it. But if he, as an example, has a good day and is happy and feeling good and stuff like that, then you can turn it up and up and like do it a little faster and more precise.

Adam’s description above proceeds from a game that did not work, or one whose elements were inharmonious. He thus searches for subjective or reflexive tools to become co-creator of a more shared experience in movement. As anthropologist Downey (2014) indicates, such a process requires building or developing elementary psychological tools for performing.

To understand capoeira aesthetics requires not merely learning to judge a performance visually based on local values and standards, but also coming to perceive the internal state of players through the way that they move and respond to each other. The inseparability of internal state and external performance make capoeira training a form of psycho-physical discipline, a shaping of oneself and one’s reactions over time, and makes capoeira aesthetics a judgment of a person’s developing character (p. 254).

For didactic purposes, capoeira instructors often refer to this intersubjective attunement in the roda as a dialogue consisting of calling and responding to the opponent’s movements. We tend to think of a dialogue as a conversation between two individuals advancing different points of view;4 however, the capoeira dialogue is one of moving through or in between positions—a process which perpetually suspends the possibilities for any subjective point of view, as such. At the perceptual level, this means that any subjective consolidation of sense modalities results in the body falling out of its inter-corporeal and cross-modal attunement of moving with an opponent. Eleven-year-old Simon, a capoeira novice, experiences this in the roda through attempts to dodge his opponent’s kicks. While he and I watched a video of him performing in the roda, I asked him to describe how he experienced attentiveness to his opponent.

Hmmm… yes. When he kicks I have to go down, but I forget to do that. That happens often. Even though I see the kick coming I forget to go down. So it’s like when I have too much attention on what the other one is doing I forget to move.

In this account, Simon displays a tendency to experience movement in terms of positions, or of holding a point of view on his opponent’s body in movement. Simon experienced the challenge of not slowing down or stopping the inter-corporeal movement because of his dependence on visual actualization of the other as an object in motion.
Capoeira master and author Almeida (1986) has described a like experience as “playing in water,” a phrase he uses to designate a stage of capoeira apprenticeship in which the practitioners

… progressively gain a clear perception of their own movements as they begin to apply different variations for kicking and body positioning according to their personalities and the need of the jôgo [game]. They become aware of the blows that could have taken their heads off, and can feel the defense against their most effective attacks. Although seeing the game, students at this level do not yet have sufficient experience and physical skill to use Capoeira movements properly… because the lack of knowledge and skill at this level constricts the possibility of constant flow and consistent effective action. (p. 144)

Because Simon still depends on having an observable stance on his own body in order to “see the game,” his movements are restricted to a range of body positions that prevents him from being in the flow of the game. Thus, borrowing from Almeida’s categories, Simon experiences “playing in water.” In the phenomenological terms of Legrand (2007), Simon does not yet possess the performative body of capoeira that would allow him to embody its movements. As Legrand explains:

When a beginner learns to dance or when a dancer learns a new choreography, he often needs to control consciously the position and movements of his body. This attitude implies to take an observational stance on the body. In other words, this involves what has been called above the “opaque body.” The situation is different with an expert dancer who knows his choreography or who improvises a skillful dance. In these cases, the expert dancer embodies the dance. Observational consciousness is not necessary to control actions and would even be counterproductive. This skillful and fully embodied dance involves what is called here a pre-reflective experience of the body. This form of experience has been adequately named “performative awareness” (p. 501).

Thus, freezing the movement into a visual image of his own and his opponent’s body in order to “see the game” actually prevents him from moving through it or with it in a way that could be said to involve embodying it. The same goes for actualization of other modalities. As I experienced in my own capoeira apprenticeship, if you immerse yourself too much in your own kinesthetic sense so as to gain control of the motor intentionality, or if you synchronize your own movements to the measure of the beat, you will inevitably find yourself lost in the roda’s overall perpetual flow. The children’s capoeira instructor frequently referred to their classes as a form of “chaos training” precisely because mastery entailed learning to cope with the undetermined and perpetual movements of the capoeira event. Accordingly, Almeida (1986) describes the first experiential stage of capoeira learning as “playing in the dark,” in which apprentices “jump into the jôgo [game] without knowing exactly what is happening. They are lost in space; they see nothing. Not only do the movements of the opponents seem to materialize by magic, but their own movements are beyond control” (p. 144). Almeida goes on to identify a total of five stages of experience in capoeira apprenticeship. Although no further analysis of the individual stages is to be shared here, it should be noted that these stages could be considered actualizations of what Almeida (1986) experiences as specific subjective skills that make up capoeira’s performative elements.

Indeed, Almeida emphasizes that to progress in capoeira requires occasionally returning to “playing in the dark” (p. 144). In fact, as most scholars and practitioners attest, the core of capoeira aesthetics is in this domain of undetermined chaotic suspension of actualized gestures and the surprise that emerges when a kick, an otherwise seemingly impossible acrobatic move, or a sudden sweep of the opponent’s legs, appears out of nowhere—out of the dark. Furthermore, Deleuze and Guattari (1994) emphasize that “chaotic” must not be linked to notions of disorder, chance or the accidental, but rather as “a void that is not a nothingness but a virtual[ity], […] which spring[s] up only to disappear immediately” (p. 118). In this image of chaos, the capoeira roda’s constant movement can be understood as an experimental practice of exploring potential or virtual movements as a form of resistance. As the literary theorist Dumoulié (2010) noted:

To avoid the actualization of the gesture, to keep the dynamic unfulfilled in act, and therefore as pure potentiality, is the supreme resistance of capoeira. Hence the essential continuity of the fight and dance, which takes a movement initially configured for conferring a blow and turns it into graceful arabesque. (p. 13)

In other words, it is from the chaotic experience of “playing in the dark” and resisting goal-oriented, actualized, or gestural movements that capoeira is brought to expression, emerges, or happens to you. In this sense, the phenomenological notion of a subjective performative awareness that could be said to embody capoeira aesthetics still falls short of capturing the pre-individual aspect of moving in the roda. The body in capoeira aesthetics is closer to Deleuze’s and Guattari’s (1987) description of a Body without Organs, because, as they declare, “You never reach the Body without Organs, you can’t reach it, you are forever attaining it, it is a limit” (p. 150). Although capoeira requires embodying a repertoire of movements and recognizing an opponent’s significant movements, it is not possible to embody the roda’s collective or global movement. Rather, as Deleuze and Guattari assert with regard to the Body without Organs, “[I]t awaits you; it is an inevitable exercise or experimentation, already accomplished the moment you undertake it, unaccomplished as long as you don’t” (p. 149).

To make your body expressive with or through the capoeira roda requires experimenting with the undetermined, chaotic domain of encountering movement before the I that moves. This aesthetic feature clearly resonated among the hyperactive children in my study. The children’s tendency to constantly move around within the setting of the roda, both in terms of moving between the different disciplines involved in a roda (singing, playing instruments, clapping) and spontaneously trying out new movements in the game, generally contributed positively to the event. In short, the roda’s perpetual movement transformed the general traits of hyperactivity into a medium (milieu) for expression and experimentation. Thus, my study confirmed the staff’s observation that capoeira appealed more to the children diagnosed with ADHD.

With the preceding in mind, the following paragraphs return to an examination of ramifications of my central observations, relative to certain neurocognitive explanations of hyperactivity in the ADHD diagnosis.

Overflow Movements and Exploring What Happens to You

In the neuropsychological literature on ADHD, the problems of sensorimotor skills, coordination, and movement control are often associated with so-called “overflow movements,” defined as unconscious or involuntary co-movements not specifically needed for the completion of a task. Usually motor overflow is evaluated through asking subjects to perform such goal-oriented tasks as sequential finger-tapping with one hand while observing for extraneous or mirror movements in other non-tapping body parts. Several studies indicate that these overflow movements can be considered predictive markers for ADHD (Barkley, 1997; Macneil et al., 2011; Mostofsky, Newschaffer, & Denckla, 2003). As mentioned above, problems with sensorimotor skills, coordination, and movement control are primarily considered to be expressions of impaired cognitive processes necessary for planning and performing goal-directed tasks—that is, so-called executive function and self-regulation.

As detailed in this paper, the conceptualization of capoeira aesthetics as a dance-fight-game inherently resists the notion of movements as goal-directed acts. Perhaps underscoring the association between this perpetual suspension and ADHD, overflow movements in capoeira apprenticeship are considered essential experimental pre-conditions to learning and developing the art form. As semiotician Floyd Merrell (2005) describes the experience of entering the roda as a novice:

You throw your body around apparently with reckless abandon, and with neither inhibitions nor fear. It is as if there were nothing but you and your partner and the Roda. In a manner of speaking, both of you are suspended within the Roda, outside normal time and space. It is as if there were no mind reminding the body that caution must be exercised, as if body were exploring its limit, as if somebody else, some other ego or alter ego, had occupied the space and time of your ordinary body and mind. (p. 81)

In this sense, the movements of capoeira apprenticeship resonate closely with the language used in the DSM-5 diagnostic criteria for ADHD of behaving like a body “driven by a motor” or as if “the mind is elsewhere” (APA, 2013). In the capoeira context, overflow movements are not expressions of behavioral, cognitive or neuronal deficits, rather they generate new sensations through experimentation with self-movement.

One example of this experimentation was 10-year-old Jim’s attempt to do a one-handed cartwheel, a typical capoeira movement. The instructor broke the movement into smaller steps of sequential body positions and the children attempted to follow these steps. Like most of the children, Jim mastered the regular cartwheel, but he was not able to perform the one-handed cartwheel simply by following the step-by-step instructions. After trying to complete the instructions only a couple of times, he stopped and approached the instructor impatiently to ask for another exercise. The instructor was occupied with helping another child, and Jim’s hyperactive and impatient body soon began impulsively doing and overdoing the cartwheel movements. Given his oppositional attitude, he finally managed to complete a successful one-handed cartwheel. His success was not the result of following instructions. Instead, his hyperactively overflowing movements led to several variations of cartwheels in a row, the last of which involved using one hand only, which came as a surprise to Jim himself. In our interview I asked Jim to describe his experience, and he replied:

Well, I couldn’t do an au [cartwheel] on one hand, but now I can, so… yes. But it’s because I use what I … well, it’s sort of a home-made word; some kind of rotation-force or something like that. So, if you for example make a wheel turn, and then you get it turning faster and faster and it’s the same up here [points to his head]. If you think about your whole body being inside a wheel, and then wait to do it [the one-handed cartwheel] on the second turn and so on …

What Jim expresses through his conceptualization of his movement being inside a wheel and with movement as a force exerted on his body rather than from his body reflected a particular characteristic that I observed in most of the hyperactive children in the capoeira setting. While they generally had difficulties with translating instructions into movements, sequences, or adequate behavior, when these children experienced immersion in the force of the roda “wheel” they became positive co-composers of the capoeira event. To experience and think of movement as being inside a wheel obviously relates to what I have described above as encountering movement before the I that moves. In this sense, the capoeira roda functioned as a dissolving movement in terms of the diagnostic symptoms.

Examining capoeira aesthetics in relation to ADHD diagnostic criteria allows for a revised mode of thinking of the body in movement, which counters the prevailing scientific discourse that considers movement predominantly in representational terms of goal-orientation and thereby neglects the expressive dimension immanent to self-movement. However, this neither means to suggest that we should reject the neurological and cognitive aspects of ADHD nor that capoeira necessarily works as a therapeutic tool that resolves the problems associated with hyperactivity. Rather, what I have tried to point out through this exploration of the diagnosed children’s experiences of the aesthetic movements of capoeira is that there is an expressive element that is omitted from the scientific classification of the body in hyperactive behavior. In simple terms, this aesthetic and expressive element should primarily be considered to be a call for attention to the productive role of movements immanent to behavior. Thus, the relational nature of movement invites us to rethink the differential element or diversity of what a body can do—what it expresses, rather than what it represents or cannot do in relation to the ideal of a neurotypical or harmoniously mindful body.

Just like roda movements, beyond subjective embodiment, hyperactivity in its neurodevelopmental and cognitive understandings is fundamentally something that happens to the subject. In this sense, capoeira as an artistic or aesthetic practice potentially enables exploration of the creative force of hyperactive and overflowing movements, which challenge the scientific mode of thinking in representations. Children with ADHD, rather than being victimized through the diagnostic categorizations associated with the hyperactive events that happen to them, may find in capoeira a capacity to operate expressively. Although capoeira is not a therapeutic system, the aesthetic and expressive aspects of its movement system inherently afford a therapeutic potential for altering the meaning of the hyperactive movements associated with ADHD.


Since most research in hyperactivity disorder takes its point of departure in the classification ADHD from the American Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) the European equivalent of hyperkinetic disorder will not be considered here.


Such phenomenological scholars as Nöe (2000, 2012), Sheets-Johnstone (1980, 2011a, b), Legrand (2007), Legrand and Ravn (2009), and Krüger (2009, 2010, 2014) have all included discussions of art, aesthetic experience or different artistic practices in relation to phenomenological issues. However, all of these theorists more or less introduce art or aesthetic experience as paradigmatic or exemplary for perception in general. In Alva Nöe’s words, “what is true of the experience of the work of art is true of human experience quite generally” (Noë, 2012, p. 2). However, in this image art or aesthetic experience is proposed as an expression of lived experience or “perception in general,” and thus remains within a representational image of art in the sense that art is described as a representation of a presupposed “natural” activity of perception—in essence presupposing a fundamental nature behind “natural” perception. What is often missing in these phenomenologically embodied notions of art and aesthetics is an account of the genuinely creative or expressive aspect of art (for a more in depth treatment of this see Levin, 2015).


To secure the anonymity of the children all their names have been replaced by pseudonyms in this article.


This tendency is associated to the etymological mistake of confusing the word-forming element of dia- meaning “through” with di- meaning “two”.


Copyright information

© American Dance Therapy Association 2016

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Psychology, Faculty of Social SciencesUniversity of CopenhagenCopenhagenDenmark

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