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Interview: Mestra Edna Lima

Aikido Today Magazine #40 by Susan Perry

For 20 years, Edna Lima has followed the paths of Brazilian Capoeira and Japanese karate -- both martial arts with deep traditions of spirituality and of struggle against oppression. A 4th dan in Shotokan Karate, she also holds the title of Mestra in Capoeira -- the art's highest rank. Three years ago, Edna founded the Axe Capoeira Foundation. This year she was a featured instructor at Annual Capoeira Encounters in San Francisco, Hamburg, and Rome.

In Karate, Edna has won five Brazilian National Championships, three gold medals at the Pan-American competitions, and three US National Karate Championships. She competed in the World Shoto Cup Championships in Tokyo, Philadelphia, and Malaysia, and was inducted into the Karate Hall of Fame as Female Competitor of the Year.

ATM: Would you start by saying a few things about the history of Capoeira?

Mestra: Capoeira, it seems, was developed in the 1500's by people who had been captured in Africa and brought to Brazil to be slaves of the Portuguese. After a while, these people said, "Why should we be slaves?" -- and they tried to develop a martial art that they could use to fight against their masters.

Because the slaves often were shackled, they developed many foot techniques -- kicks. They didn't want the masters to know what they were doing, and so they would camouflage their martial art with dance and music. Basically they were training and developing the martial art, but, when the masters would get close, they would change what they were doing and just dance. In Capoeira there are many circular kicks, and you can see a lot of dance movement. Practicing the art, people turn and spin. Music is part of African cultures. That is why Capoeira looks very much like dance and why it is practiced to music.

ATM: I have heard it said that break dancing comes from Capoeira.

Mestra: Yes, I've heard that, too. Break dancing was around in the 80s and that was when Capoeira came to the United States. If you watch break dancing and Capoeira, you see many similarities.

ATM: Would you say that Capoeira comes from African culture?

Mestra: The Portuguese would mix the slaves so that, in each group, there were people from several African cultures. For example, they would not make up a community of people from Angola; they would take the people from Angola and split them up. That way, the people in the slave groups would not have a common language or common customs, and rebellion would be harder to organize. But, even doing this, the Portuguese couldn't break the spirit of the slaves' bodies. The slaves could get together in the music and movement.

ATM: You don't need to talk to others to do Capoeira?

Mestra: That's right. To do Capoeira, the slaves didn't need to speak. They just used body language. If you travel to many different places and look at babies when they are starting crawling, you will see that they make similar movements. And some of those movements are similar to the movements of Capoeira. All over the world, the body is the same, and this means that we all make similar movements.

The difference is the intention. You can do one movement with many different intentions. Intention is the main difference, for example, between an ordinary cartwheel and a cartwheel in Capoeira. They are almost the same movement, but different intentions make them completely different things.

ATM: I know that you have had some experience in Aikido. Would you say that Aikido and Capoeira are similar?

Mestra: In some ways, yes.

In Capoeira, we don't block kicks and strikes. We go with the flow of the motion, very much as in Aikido.

Also, in both arts, the motion is continuous. In fact, in Capoeira, the motions are so smooth that you can't say exactly when they start or stop. Most important, all the movement in Capoeira happens in circles -- circular motions and circular kicks. In Aikido it's the same thing.

The circle is a very primitive figure. The Earth is a circle. The mother's womb is a circle. We have a very strong connection with circles. In my opinion, if you are in the center of a circle, you have equal energy to any point on the circle. That makes being in the center of a circle very different from being in the center of a square.

Why do we do everything in a circle? Because of centrifugal force. Everything goes out, on a line away from your center.

ATM: It seems that, when two people are practicing Capoeira, others stand in a circle around them.

Mestra: That's right. The people standing in the circle have musical instruments like the berimbau, Capoeira's central instrument.

The berimbau is a very simple instrument made of a piece of wood, a wire, and a gourd. We string the wire on the wood and hit it with a little piece of stone. The gourd is for resonance.

We also have a drum we call atabaque -- a very rustic, very beautiful instrument. We can add all the small percussion instruments, like tambourines and angogo (bells). Those of us in the circle sing songs and clap hands. Someone leads the songs, and everybody in the circle responds in chorus.

ATM: Some Aikido teachers say that Aikido technique is a dialog between two partners. Would you say the same about Capoeira?

Mestra: Yes, When the circle has been set up, two people go inside it, face each other (usually near the berimbau), and shake hands. Some people make a cross for protection -- those who are Christian. I just knock on the ground to get the earth to wake up, to give me energy, and to keep me safe while I am playing. The two people in the circle start the game by doing cartwheels (au) -- and that starts the dialog.

In Capoeira, this is The Game -- the jogo, in Portuguese. The dialog goes forward by attack and counterattack. The dialog is very fluid; if one person kicks and the other ducks and responds with another kick, the first person has to duck. It's very connected. In fact, it's so interactive, so connected, that when people first see it, they think it's choreographed, but it's not.

ATM: Besides the dialog between the people in The Game, there seems to be some sort of dialog between the people in The Game and those in the circle around them.

Mestra: Yes. For example, if someone enters The Game who is not known to the group, the leader might sing a song about that person. In the song, the leader might be asking, "Who has just arrived?" And, if the new person understands, she may respond, for example, by saying, "I'm Edna Lima, just arrived here. I came here to play Capoeira because it's a lot of fun, and to challenge myself."

ATM: Then the person playing the berimbau is in control of The Game?

Mestra: Right. The song can be about The Game. For example, if two people are playing and one takes the other down, the leader might just change the song and sing, "The banana tree fell down." Or, the leader might sing a song to urge the one who was taken down to get back up.

When the feeling changes and the players seem to want to fight each other, we sing a song to calm them down: "Hey, friends - we don't want any trouble here. Just play it cool."

Some songs are just a syllable or two, like "Aye, aye, aye, aye." There is a lot of very intense energy there.

ATM: What does "Aye, aye, aye, aye" mean?

Mestra: Suppose I ask you, "Susan, did you like class last night?"And suppose that you say "What class?" I might say, "Aye, aye, aye, aye," meaning, "Jesus, Susan - don't you even know what I'm talking about?"

In the Capoeira game, if someone misses an obvious opening, everybody might say, "Oh, my God - aye, aye, aye, aye."

ATM: Does the leader always start the song?

Mestra: Anybody in the circle can set the tone; anybody can sing. But usually the one who starts is the one playing the berimbau. Or sometimes, while people are waiting in front of the berimbau, they sing songs to one another - "I haven't seen you for a long time. It's my pleasure to see you here. Let's go play Capoeira and have fun." People can make the songs up right there. And people can also cut in and play with someone. For example, if two people are playing and I want to play with one of them, I just step between them - safely, of course - and "buy" the game.

There is a hierarchy to this. You cannot buy a game if you are lower in rank than the two people who are playing. For example, if two Mestres are playing, nobody except another Mestre is allowed to buy that game.

ATM: How safe is The Game?

Mestra: There are different types of games. Some are very slow, like warm-ups. Some are middle speed. And some are really spicy. These are very fast, and there is some danger. You have to pay attention, or you can get hurt. People say that Capoeira - or Karate or Aikido - can be dangerous. But it's not the art that is dangerous. It's the people who are dangerous. In the tradition of Capoeira, anybody is welcome to join in (unless he or she has a very bad reputation). But some people just want to show how good they are - to show off - and sometimes they become physical. So, people sometimes start fighting. One person touches another, the other gives something back, and the fighting starts. In these situations, the master or the advanced students have to take control. The person playing the berimbau may point the topmost part of the instrument toward the floor as a sign for the players to return to the berimbau. Most of the time, the players just stop what they are doing and come, because the berimbau is considered very important. And, when the players do come back to the berimbau, the master changes the rhythm
and lets them start again. Different rhythm, different energy. If they keep getting into a fight, anybody can go into the circle and buy the game.

This is all part of Capoeira. Everything goes without stopping the rhythm. When you need to stop the rhythm, that's because things are going very badly - because someone doesn't understand that the foundation of the Capoeira attitude is respect for others.

ATM: Are there competitions in Capoeira?

Mestra: In Brazil there are some competitions. The Brazilian federations hold tournaments. Most of these tournaments are very bad. Sometimes points are awarded for taking somebody down or for touching. So, in these tournaments, people don't often do kicks or get close to their partners because they don't want to lose points. I would say that what they are doing is not Capoeira.

When I studied Aikido in Brazil, I was told that there are no Aikido tournaments. But here, in America, I hear about Aikido tournaments and Tai Chi tournaments. I don't believe in that stuff for Aikido or for Capoeira. For me, Capoeira is simply playing The Game. People can tell whether they did well; they can judge themselves. There is no need for tournaments.

ATM: You have uniforms in Capoeira, right? White pants and colored belts?

Mestra: Yes, but in Capoeira it's not a standardized thing. In my school, we use the same system as the Brazilian group called Abada Capoeira. We start with an off-white belt, then yellow, orange, blue, green, purple, brown, and red. A red cord is the belt of a master - a Mestra. After ten or twenty years, you get a red and white belt. Then, after another twenty years, you get white. The white cord is not for the active master, but for the one with experience who no longer
has the ability to play as fast as the young people.

ATM: Are there tests in Capoeira, like belt tests in Aikido?

Mestra: In Capoeira, we don't call people up and test them. Every day we keep track of how much each student has improved. Once a year, we have a "graduation ceremony."

ATM: You have studied Karate in addition to Capoeira. When you compete in Karate tournaments, do you ever use your Capoeira?

Mestra: I don't use Capoeira technique, but I do use the feeling and intention that I have learned in Capoeira. I use the Karate technique, but with a different intention.

ATM: What is that intention?

Mestra: Karate is changing, but its technique is still very linear. Capoeira is much more circular. There are many fakes; you show some intention, but you have another real intention.

Competing in Karate is like playing chess. If you know your partner's intention, you're going to cut it short or stop it. But if you don't have the eyes to see the intention, you don't see what you have waiting for you. In Karate tournaments, all my opponents come with the same intention in their techniques. But, because I have studied Capoeira, I come with a different intention in my technique. The same move, different intention.

ATM: When did you come to the U.S.?

Mestra: Six years ago.

When I came to the US, I had a funny feeling. I began to understand the situation of the slaves back in the 1500's, when they didn't have a common language. They couldn't communicate by talking, but they had body communication. That was my feeling. I didn't speak English, but I had the language in common with the people that I met: Karate.

ATM: You must have started studying Karate and Capoeira in Brazil when you were very young.

Mestra: Yes, about 21 years ago. I started in Capoeira when I was 12, and I began to study Karate about eight months later. I would practice Karate three times a week and Capoeira on the alternate days. It was very intense. People told me that I was going to get mixed up, lose my flexibility - or my femininity. But I was a kid, and a kid doesn't think like that.

ATM: Do you think that it's important to keep your Capoeira separate from your Karate?

Mestra: I think so. If your technique gets mixed up, you're going to lose the essentials of the art.

But there are mental connections between the arts. When people who know two or three different languages start to learn a new one, they can use their past experience and background to help them learn. And this is also true about martial arts.

ATM: Have you had a hard time in the martial arts because you are a woman?

Mestra: When I was 12, a man came to my school and explained that he was going to start teaching Capoeira. It sounded really interesting, and I started the class. But I didn't tell my parents. Every week I wanted to do something new. So, I thought that, if I told them I wanted to do one more thing, they would get upset.

After a week in the class, I realized that there were no girls there. I got a little confused and thought that maybe Capoeira wasn't for women. So, I talked to my mom. I said, "Mom, I asked you for money to buy some books, but I didn't use the money for books. I used it for Capoeira." I thought she had never heard of Capoeira, but she had. When I told her that I would stop, she said, "No, it is beautiful!"

My mother was very supportive. After that, she would take me to class and stay there until it ended.

Eight months later, my teacher had to go to Rio for some personal reason. He said to my mom, "Edna is very young, but she's my best student. Can you allow her to take over the class for one week?" She agreed. I started leading the class. I waited for my teacher, but he never came back! I was the only girl, 12 years old, with a bunch of teenage boys. They were very respectful and very
supportive, but I was just a kid. And I wasn't learning anything. So, after two months, I told my mother that I didn't want to do it anymore. My mom called a friend of my teacher, and he took over. Then my mom took me to a different teacher, Mestra Tabosa. I was very lucky with Capoeira teachers - and also with Karate instructors. In Karate, I trained with Testa Sensei, whose students were often the Brazilian and Pan American champions.

ATM: So your being a woman didn't hold you back in Capoeira?

Mestra: The discrimination came when I was about 20 years old. I was the first female to graduate with a red cord. When I got it, some men got very upset. People would come to check me out. They would play tough, and (for reasons I still don't understand) my teachers and other friends wouldn't "buy" me; I had to take care of business by myself. But I had trained a lot, and I always trained among men. Also, I didn't grow up a spoiled child; I'm the youngest of seven kids, and I had learned to take care of myself. So, when people came to check me out, they got checked. Then, afterward, they would support me.

ATM: Later you introduced Capoeira into Brazilian schools?

Mestra: Yes. When I went off to the University, I wanted to study academic subjects. My Karate teacher thought I was crazy, because I wouldn't have any time for my training. This disturbed me very much; I was in so much conflict! In the end, I decided to go for a degree in physical education. At 20, I graduated from college. I wanted to work with kids, and so I applied for a job teaching physical education. The school to which I applied was so poor that it didn't have courts, or balls, or any other equipment. Maybe the kids could have played soccer, but most of them didn't even have shoes. So what could I do: I asked the kids - there were about 400 in the school - "What would you like to do in physical education - Capoeira, Karate, track and field, basketball, soccer?" A hundred percent of them raised their hands and said they wanted Capoeira. I was so happy! The school was in a very, very tough neighborhood. Kids 10 or 12 years old carried knives. Some had police records. The teachers had no hope for these kids. But, in my class, they were wonderful. After playing Capoeira, they would smile and be happy.

Off the school grounds, there was a community court for basketball. I decided to take my Capoeira class there. The principal said, "Edna, you don't know what you're talking about! This neighborhood is horrible. People get killed here every day." But I said, "Give me one week." I was like a kid - no fear, just good, pure feelings in my heart. I didn't really know what I was doing, but I had the confidence and the feeling.

I started teaching outside the school. Bad guys, smoking marijuana and harassing people, would say, "Hey teacher, how are you?" I was very active in martial arts, and they had seen my picture in the newspaper. We became friends, and they would take care of my kids. They would say, "It's nice that you are teaching this for the kids. If you need help, we are here to help you." On my way to the bus station, they would walk with me and talk. The teachers would tell me that the same guys had tried to attack the teachers and rob the school. I replied, "You have to change their attitude. You are the ones with the power and the wealth." I showed these guys that I respected them. For example, I actually asked them if they would mind my using their court as a place to teach the kids. And they were great. They were also very smart. They had been kicked out of the school because they didn't accept the system, and the system was very bad.

I taught Capoeira through the school for two years. Then I was asked whether I would like to pass my experience on to other schools. I said, "I would love to - but I don't want to teach a quick workshop for physical education teachers and then tell them to teach Capoeira. I would like you to give the jobs to other Capoeiristas." That created a very big problem: the physical education teachers wanted to kill me. But eventually the schools did hire some Capoeiristas.

ATM: What made you decide to come to the United States?

Mestra: I came to compete in the Pan American Karate Championship, to represent Brazil. After that, I stayed because I wanted to learn English. Many of the books I wanted to read were in English. I thought I would learn in six months, and I asked my job for a six-month leave. They gave me a year. Right away, I got in contact with Jelon Vieira who has the Dance Brazil company. I came to New York to visit a school, and Jelon invited me to be part of his company. I agreed and traveled all over the U.S. doing Capoeira. My English didn't improve much, because almost all the people in the company were Brazilian. So, eventually, I decided to quit the company. I started studying and supporting myself by working - cleaning apartments, baby-sitting, all that stuff. I had a lot of determination.

ATM: Now you teach in New York City at Hunter College and you travel all over the world doing Capoeira and Karate.
Mestra: Yes. I have been to Italy, Germany, Malaysia, Japan, Venezuela, and Canada.

ATM: To what do you credit your remarkable success?

Mestra: My mother has been one of the most important people in my life. If she had said "No" when I asked to study martial arts, I would be someone else today. She was very supportive and open, and she didn't listen to the crazy neighbors. My parents, my brothers and sisters, they always gave me support.