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Edna Lima: Brazil's little weapon
December 2000,
by Keith Loria

Manhattan's own Edna Lima may look small, but don't let her size fool you into thinking she isn't dangerous. The 38 year-old native Brazilian is a fourth dan in Shotokan Karate and holds the title of Mestra (or master) in Capoeira. She is a formidable force armed with a battery of complicated kicks and evasions.

Capoeira is a martial art form created out of dance moves from the Congo and Angola by African slaves in Brazil in the 1600s. Remarkably beautiful, it combines dance, acrobatics and combat in a unique way. Like karate, it is a martial art with deep traditions of spirituality and of struggle against oppression. Although it looks more like a dance than battle, Capoeira is a deadly force.

"Trickery was needed because it had to be camouflaged as a dance by the slaves so their masters didn't know they were preparing for a fight" Lima says. "Because the slaves were shackled, they developed many foot techniques and kicks. They used the dance and music to fool their masters. They were basically training and developing a martial art., and when the masters would get close by, they would change what they were doing and just dance."

Once slavery was abolished, the sport was banned in Brazil, but by the 1970s, Capoeira was considered an art form and was being taught all over the country. Lima began taking lessons at the age of 12, something that girls never really did.

"The class was 20 boys and me," she says. Lima lied to her mom that she needed money for books and used the money to pay for the class, and I thought my parents wouldn't want me to do it because I was always trying new things. I told my mother I would stop, but she supported me fully.

"I started with Capoeira and then did karate a few months later," she says, "I would practice each for three days a week; it was very intense. People used to tell me that I was going to get mixed up and lose my flexibility, but I was a kid, and kids don't think like that."

That never happened, and Lima believes that knowing the two can be very helpful. "Of course if your techniques get mixed up, you're going to lose the essentials of the art, but there are mental connections between the arts that are helpful," she says. "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 that is also true about martial arts.

When she was 19, Lima became the first woman ever to achieve the "red chord" of a Capoeira Master. "That was a great honor," she says. The ceremony, called the master graduation, was held in Brasilia in 1981. "People came from all over to check me out. People wondered who this girl was who was getting a Mestre in Capoeira. The guys freaked out, but they always accepted me."

It was about 11 years ago that Lima moved to New York and quickly started teaching Capoeira to anyone who was interested.

"She gives New Yorkers a rare opportunity to see the legacy of Brazilian slavery and resistance up close," says Chris Nutter, a recent student to the art. "It's something that interested me from the first time I heard about it."

Nutter is now involved with promoting Lima's annual batizado, which is a celebration of the martial art, and expects it to be a big hit in the city.

"I started taking classes with her about six months ago because I was amazed that you could get so much strength and power from a dance," says Laura Sandal, an NYU sophomore. "Hearing her talk about Capoeira and the emotion behind it really adds to the learning experience."

Lima teaches Capoeira at Hunter College, at an East Harlem Elementary School and in her studio on Broadway in lower Manhattan. Being the only person in the city to teach it, she sometimes feels isolated.

"We need in art, as in life, an exchange," she says. "When there are a lot of people in the same art doing different things, they progress further. Sometimes I feel alone. Teaching American people is not the same as teaching Brazilians. Capoeira isn't like the discipline of karate where everyone does the same thing together. Capoeira has a discipline and respect that isn't as obvious. It's much more organized than it might seem. Students don't always know how far they can go or how they should treat the master, but they are learning."

Lima also boasts an impressive resume in the sport of karate. She has won five Brazilian National Championships, three gold medals at the Pan-American Games and three U.S. National Karate Championships. Lima also was inducted into the Karate Hall of Fame.