Notorious 25: Notorious Martial Artist
An insistent drum beat makes the room pulse with life, mimicking the rhythm of the human heart. A group of people stand in a circle, watching the two fighters stalk one another. One, her eyes blazing, snaps a tawny leg upward and outward missing her opponent's teeth and nose by inches as his head suddenly swivels and ducks out of harm's way. The fighter is Edna Lima, and the entrancing series of movements is an Afro-Brazilian system of unarmed combat called capoeira. But is capoeira a martial art or a dance? Actually, it's both.
Devised by 16th-century slaves in Brazil as a way of disguising their martial training from the wary eyes of their rulers, capoeira combines music, dance, and potentially deadly punches and kicks into a beautiful and highly energetic swirl.
Lima became the first female master of capoeira in the U.S. when she transplanted herself from Brazil to New York City eleven years ago. "If I didn't have capoeira in my body and my blood, I wouldn't have the chance to expose this African/Brazilian art form to the rest of the world," says Lima, 37, who also holds a 4th degree black belt in Shotokan karate. "I've competed and taught workshops all over the world."
For years, because capoeira was perceived as a potential instrument of revolution, the art was illegal in Brazil until 1932. If some of capoeira's acrobatic leaps and dazzling spinning movements look familiar, it may be because the style had a formative impact on the development of breakdancing; today it's pervasive in gyms, performances and competitions.
Edna Lima's master status eliminates her from competing, but she teaches classes at New York City gyms like Chelsea Piers, Equinox, and Revolution Studio. "I teach the rich and the poor and all in between to bring the dichotomy of the mind and body into one unit," says Lima, who opened a Abada Capoeira school in Manhattan. "Capoeira is a way of life to me. It is a way to teach and learn about people at the same time."