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How We Play: Play as a Form of Cultural Resistance

Photo Essay by Jarrel Phillips

Editor’s Note: How We Play is a photography exhibition curated by Jarrel Phillips (featured at the City College of San Francisco earlier this year), focusing on three art forms—Acrobatics (Circus), B-Boying (Break Dance), and Capoeira—that are a culmination of art, culture and resistance. These art forms are brought to life through play, a universal phenomenon as innate to life as breath. All three began as forms of resistance in response to oppressive environments. If play were given the cultural significance it deserves, civilization as we know it would allow us the much needed opportunity to review and reimagine our cultural values, traditions and processes in reference to what we do and how we do things.

"Ritual grew up in sacred play; poetry was born in play and nourished on play; music and dancing were pure play... We have to conclude, therefore, that civilization is, in its earliest phases, played. It does not come from play like a baby detaching itself from the womb; it arises in and as play and never leaves it." -- Johan Huizinga

Featured artists, organizations and teachers in this exhibition include: Capoeira Ijexa, Project Commotion, Circus Center, Mestre Urubu Malandro, Zanzibar Stone Town Capoeira, Prescott Circus, B-Boy Blakk (Cloud9Tribe/All Tribes SF Zulu Nation), B-Boy Iron Monkey (Renegade Rockers), B-Boy Finesse (SF CR8IVE), CCSF’s Child and Family Development Department, Fleeky (Circus Automatic), Inka Siefker, Serchmaa Byanba, Dominik Wyss (Suns of Cayuga/AcroActive), Rice and Beans Cooperative, Xiaohong Weng, Veronica Blair, and the Uncle Junior Project.

Prescott Circus Theater © Jarrel Phillips

“The opposite of play is not work. It’s depression.”1

—Brian Sutton-Smith, Play Theorist

When was the last time you played?
Play, which in its purest form, extends beyond the innate intelligence of our biological processes, raises two intriguing questions: How does play work in our lives? Why are we born with this ability?

Studies show that play is paramount to the development of young children and its lack can be the catalyst for many social, physical and cognitive disorders throughout childhood, adolescence, and even adulthood. Research has proven that play is the way children learn about the world around them. As an adult, I find myself asking: Does play serve a purpose outside of childhood and adolescence? Why do some of us stop playing as we get older... or do we really?

I am an artist who thrives off creativity and a practitioner of capoeira, an Afro-Brazilian ritualized martial art form that is described as “playing” not “fighting.” I have also been a teacher for 13 years, spending most of my days with the master players I refer to as young people. So it’s no exaggeration to state that play has consumed me my entire life. From the San Francisco Bay Area to East Africa, my interactions with young people have ranged from homework assistance and outdoor supervision, to basketball coaching, circus acrobatics, and of course, capoeira. My lifestyle is centered around the things that I most enjoy: photography, film, children, capoeira, circus, and travel. I make a living through work that is my recreation. I don’t have one without the other. How I Play—is How I live.

The purpose of this exhibition is to display how play takes shape in our lives. Through the personal and cultural experiences of children, adults, artists, and scholars, this exhibition explores the existence and significance of play beyond childhood to adulthood; the stage of life where society often deems play unnecessary. However, play is all around us. How We Play—is How We live.

What is your play personality?

“The main characteristic of play—whether of child or adult—is not its content but its mode. Play is an approach to action, not a form of activity.”2

Play Personalities3

The Collector: Coins, cars, wine, bugs—you like to gather things.

The Competitor: In sports and games you are in it to win it.

The Director: A planner and organizer of great parties or vacations.

The Explorer: You are into exploring new places, feelings, or emotions.

The Joker: Your fun typically revolves around some kind of nonsense.

The Kinesthete: A mover—dancing, biking, swimming, not necessarily for competition.

The Artist/Creator: You enjoy creating and making things.

The Storyteller: You thrive through imagination and anything can be play for you.

Pyramids with Coach Jarrel at Rice and Beans Cooperative preschool ( © Luis Lopez

“The playing adult steps sideward into another reality; the playing child advances forward to new stages of mastery.”4

--Erik H. Erikson, American Psychoanalyst

About Play
Imagine yourself at play as a young child. What are the first images that come to your mind? Are you laughing... connected.... engaged... happy... present? Where are you? When we play, our brains are alight with activity, present in the moment as we feel, predict, act, and react. We build social skills and learn ways of being flexible in the world. Children learn complex skills through playing, which our culture seems to have forgotten.

Jarrel teaches capoeira to youth in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia © Jarrel Phillips“Play enables children to sort through conflicts and deal with anxieties, fears and disturbing feelings in an active, powerful way. Play provides a safety valve for feelings. When they pretend, children can say or do things that they can’t do in reality,” says Janet Gonzalez-Mena, an early childhood education practitioner.5 Learning academics through play, engaging children’s interests, and providing the time and space to learn and work through things by playing—this is the study of life. We hope this exhibition gives you an opportunity to re-imagine play for yourself and for the children in your life. This is what children truly need us to do. The Child Development and Family Studies Department is grateful for the chance to support such an important and thoughtful exhibition!

—Tracy C. Burt, Child Development & Family Studies Department Professor, City College of San Francisco.

Playing Capoeira, Mestre Urubu Malandro (right) © Raul Soria

“Culture arises and unfolds in and as play.”6

--Johan Huizinga, Dutch Historian

Jogo De Capoeira (Game of Capoeira)
Capoeira is an African Brazilian art form, developed by African slaves in Brazil about 400 years ago. Capoeira is self-defense disguised as a dance because slaves needed to hide it from their slave masters. The combination of body movements, trickery, music, and songs make it not just a martial art, but a ritualized way of combat. Two capoeiristas (capoeira players) must follow the traditions and rules of the art. They must play capoeira, not fight.

—Samoel Domingos, Mestre Urubu Malandro, Capoeira Ijexa

Mestre BimbaManoel dos Reis Machado, Mestre Bimba
Known for his innovative approach to capoeira, Mestre Bimba is the father of Capoeira Regional—a style of capoeira known for its Afro-Bahian culture, folkloric dances, berimbau (musical instrument) rhythms, fast kicks, acrobatics, and fighting aspect. In 1937, Mestre Bimba opened the first capoeira academy in Brazil. He was key to capoeira’s expansion and global presence.

Mestre PastinhaVicente Joaquim Ferreira Pastinha, Mestre Pastinha
Founder of the first Capoeira Angola school in 1942 in Bahia, Brazil, Mestre Pastinha wanted his students to understand the practice, philosophy and tradition, which emphasizes the art’s roots in African culture while maintaining its traditions, rituals and training methods. Pastinha’s school can be considered the most influential in shaping Capoeira Angola as it is today.

Project Commotion, Capoeira Ijexa Kids Batizado 2013

Project Commotion
Capoeira is considered a “game” that evolved as a fight, a method of self-defense and a means of self-preservation. We say, “Vamos jogar capoeira, vamos tocar berimbau,” literally, “Let’s play capoeira, let’s play berimbau (musical instrument).” We don’t say, “Let’s fight” or “Let’s spar.” Capoeira can be used as a learning tool for children to increase gross-motor, social, cognitive, and language skills. Most importantly, capoeira provides children and adults with an opportunity to learn through play.

Practice of capoeira includes applying what you learn from class exercises in the roda, which is the circle where two players enter to exchange movements. The game that follows is created by the spontaneous exchange of movements between players. It is not choreographed, but created in the moment. This exercise, which is what playing capoeira really is, reinforces new patterns that the child has learned and builds the idea of these movements into the brain by forcing the child to use their adapted responses in an instant. Thus learning is strengthened and taken to a whole new level. Play in capoeira is just like play in life.

—Susan Osterhoff, “Professora Formiguinha,” Child Development faculty member and co-founder of Project Commotion, CCSF (

“Jogo De Facao” (folkloric game) with Mestre Urubu Malandro and Contra Mestre Fabio. © Africano Fotografia

“What we play is life.”—Louis Armstrong

Capoeira: Music and Ritual in the Roda of Life
Like rhythm and harmony, play is captivating, temporarily lifting us to an extraordinary realm where order is supreme. There are rules, or a way to play, and any deviation from this order spoils the game and robs it of its character.7

The order within the game of capoeira allows its players to preserve culture and traditions while building community that exists outside of the game. The roda where the game takes place starts and ends with music. Capoeira music is made up of rhythms and songs characterized by call and response. The bateria (battery) is found at the base of the roda where capoeiristas sing and play instruments like an ensemble. At the foot of the bateria is the source of the axé (energy). The full circle consists of other capoeiristas who encompass and amplify the energy by singing and clapping their hands to the rhythm. The two players in the middle actively engage themselves and each other by applying their knowledge of the movements to the cadence of the music. It’s as if they are dancing. In capoeira, music is a life force. In life, music is “played.”

Zanzibar Stone Town Capoeira Crew (Zanzibar, Tanzania) © Jarrel Phillips

“To the art of working well a civilized race would add the art of playing well.”8

—George Santayana, American Philosopher

Are you too busy to play?
I met the Zanzibar Stone Town Capoeira (ZSTC) crew in 2010 during my first visit to Tanzania. This group of self-taught individuals (ages seven to 25) practice and perform what I like to call the ABCs of Play: Acrobatics (circus), Breakin’ (b-boying/break dancing), and Capoeira—the three cultural art forms that embody the essence of play.

In circus, the magic happens in the ring or on the stage; b-boys and b-girls get down in the cypher; and in capoeira, the roda (circle) is where I play. These are our playgrounds. As artists, we thrive in our own little worlds and realities, within communities that are unique to what we do. Our lives are consumed by our passions and our world becomes one giant playground.

Through the personal experience of artists who live what they do, How We Play explores circus, breakin’ and capoeira. Culture, community and play are essential to their very existence and though what they do demands discipline, they are not too busy to have a little fun. How they play, is how they live.

Inka Siefker © RJ Muna

“The beauty of sports is that it embraces the paradox of seriousness and play.”9

—Stuart Brown

Circus Arts: Stage Magic
Traditionally, people identify the circus with nomads—traveling menageries of eccentric performers, wild animals and vendors who transform empty spaces into giant, magical canopies of entertainment. The modern urban circus has evolved away from ringmasters and animals in captivity, focusing instead on circus artists and their phenomenal gravity-defying skills on flying trapezes, aerial hoops and tight wires, along with clowning, juggling, hand-balancing, acrobatics, and contortion.

Circus artists create magic, blurring the lines between real and pretend, possible and impossible by utilizing the body, imagination and object manipulation. They push limits, including their own, through great discipline in their work and play ethic.

Play is serious business. “Every child knows that she is only pretending,” says Dutch historian Johan Huizinga. “Play turns to seriousness and seriousness to play.”10 Dramatic play, also known as “pretend play,” allows us to practice what we are learning by imagining and performing various acts to discover what works and what does not. Circus artists are serious about their training, which involves imagining, exploring and playing around with ideas to create their next act.

Clowning Around
A clown stumbles and falls but always gets back up—no harm, no blame—because an acrobat falls on purpose! Clowns can say and do anything because there are no limits in their world—as long as there’s heart. Clown shows us how to joke, laugh, pretend, and play with our world, make up our own rules, change our names, and be the person we want to be. When we laugh together, we are open to learning together, taking chances together, and tackling really hard physical and emotional challenges as a group. Circus training is about exploring what’s physically possible. Clowning is about exploring the creative self emotionally, with personality and character. When audiences see our children perform in this spirit—being so free with themselves in such a giving way—it makes them happy.

—David Hunt, Prescott Circus Executive Director and Circus Bella Co-Creator (

What is Prescott Circus?
Prescott Circus Theatre (PCT) is a nonprofit organization that works with youth in Oakland, California. PCT’s social development emphasis helps youth cultivate character, presentation, culture, community, teamwork, body awareness, and playful spirits. They are reminded that they are the stars and the world is their stage. One Drum. One Sound. One Circus.

Breakdance Project Uganda (Gulu, Northern Uganda)© Jarrel Phillips

“Young children, especially, have enormous creativity, and whatever’s in them rises to the surface in free play.”11

—Erik Erikson

Breakin’: Cypher, Creativity and Freestyle
B-boys and B-girls are notorious for their creative, mind-blowing movements that are always changing and being reinvented. Breakin’ (break dance) emphasizes qualities of improvisation (freestyle) and self-expression (style).

A key characteristic of play is that it’s something you choose to do. Play is voluntary and is therefore free.12  This freedom breeds style and creativity, which in turn breeds innovation. Our impulse to express allows us to create, innovate, and create again. This process of recreating allows us to freely reshape ourselves and our world through play. Recreation can come in the form of work, leisure and hobby, or as an outlet for one’s creative and physical energies. It can provide satisfaction and pleasure to the individual while helping to fulfill the needs of society.

BBoy Edwin "Blakk" Johnson  © Jarrel Phillips

What is Breakin’/B-Boying?
B-boying stands for “Break Boy” and was created in the Bronx by youth who were looking for an outlet to express themselves while dealing with the harsh life in their underserved communities. B-boying allows hip-hop practitioners to create their own ways of communication using their bodies. They create a character within themselves, which is why most b-boys and b-girls have aliases. Pioneers, such as Crazy Legs and Prince Ken Swift, created movements that are used even today by the new generation of b-boys who embrace hip-hop and contribute to its scene and community. The cypher is the circle a b-boy uses to express himself or to battle another. For one to thrive in this art, one must be an active part of the hip-hop community as a whole. You have to live it.

—Edwin Johnson, B-Boy Blakk, Renegade Rockers


Courtesy of SFCR8IVE


Our Cypher is our community. As b-boys we inspire our cypher to move freely and explore endless possibilities. We crash, create, build, and destroy. As we advance our knowledge, wisdom, and understanding, we commit ourselves to carrying on tradition.

—Robert Vicario, B-Boy Finesse, SF CR8IVE and Renegade Rockers

SF CR8IVE was founded in 2007 to share knowledge through hip-hop’s original dance form, breakin’. Founded by Robert “Finesse” Vicario, SF CR8IVE prides itself on having assembled a team of instructors who are not only effective teachers, but contributors to their dance community—competing, performing and organizing, locally and abroad. Their mission is to provide a fun, safe and exciting environment for students to learn, grow and flourish with a hip-hop arts curriculum.

BBoy Iron Monkey, 2014 Challenge Cup Finals. Photo Courtesy of Challenge Cup Finals

Iron Monkey
My life as a b-boy didn’t start out like where I am now. I had to learn a lot in the beginning. There are two ways a b-boy freelancer’s life can turn out: fun or stressful. It can get overwhelming when it’s too much like a job. The fun depends on whether or not you can stay cool, have confidence, pride and joy. You have to know your worth, spread knowledge, uplift, relate to people, and most importantly, keep smiling. Be yourself. If you live like that you will always be happy with what you are doing.

—Shawn Hallman, B-Boy Iron Monkey, Renegade Rockers

Shawn Hallman, better known as Iron Monkey (Shawn Supreme), is a legendary break dancer from the Renegade Rockers Crew. He has earned his reputation as a b-boy/master performer and is sought after for his artistic talents worldwide. Originally from Alabama, Iron Monkey has been a mainstay of the breaking scene for the past two decades. Iron Monkey was first introduced to breaking at his San Diego junior high school in 1992, where he was captivated by the performance of legendary West Coast b-boys, Barmack and B-boy Ivan. Under their guidance, he quickly progressed to become one of the greatest b-boys of all time. Iron Monkey is an innovator of power moves, known for his speed, agility and dynamic style.

Elegant double hand-to-hand acrobatics with Jennings McCown (left) and Xiahong Weng (right). © Acey Harper

Circus Center
Circus Center is a nonprofit founded in 1984 by Wendy Parkman and Judy Finelli as a project of the world-renowned Pickle Family Circus. For over 30 years, Circus Center has inspired passion for the circus arts with programs and classes at all levels in acrobatics, flying trapeze, hand-balancing, contortion, juggling, teeterboard, wire-walking, clowning, and anything in the air, upside down, backwards, and seemingly impossible.

Xiaohong Weng
Xiaohong Weng started training in gymnastics at the age of seven, before he joined the famed Nanjing Acrobatics Troupe. He learned many traditional Chinese acrobatics acts, such as Chinese Pole, Chair-balancing, Hoop Diving, Chinese Lion Dance, and Partner Hand-balancing. As a skilled tumbler and hand-balancer, Xiaohong has performed extensively in China and internationally. For the last decade, he has been a senior instructor at Circus Center where he runs the youth circus. Currently, Xiaohong performs with Jennings McCown.

Veronica Blair
Regardless of whether you are privileged, poor, young, or old, circus speaks to the dreamer in all of us, forcing us to deny ego and evolve into better human beings.

—Veronica Blair, Aerialist and Founder of The Uncle Junior Project

An aerialist of elegance and true excellence, Veronica Blair has performed with world-renowned groups in various productions around the world, including UniverSoul Circus, AntiGravity, Universal Studios Japan, and AFRIKA! AFRIKA! Blair’s first performance was at age 17, which made her one of the youngest professional African American trapeze artists in the U.S. She started her training at age 14 at Circus Center’s Youth Circus where she now teaches on staff as an aerial specialist. Blair is currently working on The Uncle Junior Project.

The Uncle Junior Project
The Uncle Junior Project follows Blair as she amazes audiences around the country. This film project unveils an important legacy in the long history of the American circus—the African American circus performers who paved the way for her and so many others under the Big Top. Central to Veronica’s inspiration is the legendary circus performer, Emanuel “Uncle Junior” Ruffin who has never been properly honored or acknowledged for his extraordinary contributions. Ruffin played a pivotal and historic role in the social and artistic revolution that brought entertainers of color into the mainstream.

Jarrel “Chumbinho” Phillips is an Arts and Culture Correspondent at Reimagine RP&E, curator of How We Play and founder of AVE ( All photos in this essay were taken by him, unless otherwise noted. Christine Joy Ferrer did the original design and layout of How We Play, which has been condensed for RP&E.


  1. Kane, Pat. What is ‘The Play Ethic’? The Play Ethic. Web. 27 July, 2014.
  2. Else, Perry. The Value of Play. New York: Continuum International Publishing Group. 2009. Google Books. Web. 27 July, 2014.
  3. Brown, Stuart. Play. New York: Avery, Penguin Group. 2009.
  4. “Play Quotes.” The Strong National Museum of Play. Web. 27 July, 2014.
  5. Gonzalez-Mena, Janet. Child, Family, and Community: Family-Centered Early Care and Education. New York: Merrill Publishing Company. 1993.
  6. Huizinga, Johan. Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play-Element in Culture. Boston: Beacon Press. 1955.
  7. Ibid.
  8. “Play Quotes.” Strong Museum of Play.
  9. Brown, S. Play.
  10. Huizinga, J. Homo Ludens.
  11. Erik Erikson Biography (1902-1994). Kendra Cherry. About Education. Web. 27 July, 2014.
  12. Huizinga, J. Homo Ludens.
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