The sun is setting on Union Square, and there's a ruckus going on. It's the sound of summer: bongos, singing and rhythms that aren't North American yet are very New York. The small circle that started the revelry has grown to include curious passersby who join in the the clapping, heightening the excitement of the two people sparring in the center, head-to-head, with speedy handstands and cartwheels, leg sweeps and kicks.
Leading this outdoor capoeira class is the inspirational Mestranda Edna Lima. Dreadlocked and youthful, she's one of two female capoeira mestrandas (masters) in the world, a five-time Brazilian National Champion in Shotokan karate and a member of the U.S. National Karate team. She's also responsible foe inaugurating women's divisions in martial arts worldwide.
Lima, 37, began studying capoeira (ca-po-EH-ra), the Brazilian martial art that fuses fighting and dance, when she was 12 in her hometown of Brasilia. Even though a girl practicing capoeira was unheard of then, she spent her schoolbook money on classes behind her mother's back. Luckily for her, she was a natural. "My teacher said, 'She's very flexible. She's to be one of the greatest capoeiristas on earth,' " Lima recalls. "Earth? I had never even been outside Brazil!"
The neighbors snickered that capoeira was for men and "street people," because of its renegade reputation. Developed over 350 years ago by African slaves in Brazil, capoeira was deadly guerilla fighting style often used to retaliate against the government, and it was subsequently outlawed. But the tradition continued underground: Fighting was disguised as a folk dance, performed to the beat of a twangy one-stringed gourd instrument called the berimbau, as well as to drumming, singing and other percussion.
Now dubbed the Brazilian national sport, capoeira was legalized in the 1930's and revived, mixed custom and modernity. It's still practiced with traditional instruments, but it has been updated as a form of exercise and self-defense, complete with colored cords representing levels of advancement. Aggressive and acrobatic, spiritual and strenuous, capoeira is exploding worldwide. In the 80's, breakdancing borrowed a lot from capoeira - the circle, the rhythm, the grace, the playful battles. These days, capoeira is sometimes seen in nightclubs and street-fighting video games. But the discipline encompasses more than just combat - it's an attitude and, to some extent a lifestyle.
"The spirituality in capoeira is very loud - a lot of music, young energy," Lima explains. "In capoeira, finding harmony and peace in a chaotic situation is not by meditating, but by getting hot in the fire."
Getting hot in the fire seems to be Lima's specialty. She began studying Shotokan karate in elementary school, soon after learning capoeira, and earned her black belt by the time she was 20. Two years later, she caused an uproar in the martial-arts world when the Brazilian Karate Nationals barred her from competition because of her sex - even though she had won the state championship competing against men. She spoke out against sex discrimination at the nationals and later while competing for the US National Karate team at the Pan American games in 1991. Due to Lima's persistence and activism, both organizations established women's divisions. Meanwhile, she continued to play tough capoeira, if only to prove she deserved her red cord, the martial art's highest level.
"The pressure was tremendous," she remembers. "People said, 'Oh, you play like a man!' No, I play like a strong woman."
In 1997, Lima was recognized as a mestranda by Abada Capoeira, the world's largest capoeira organization, with 30,000 members. "You go with elegance, femininity, a positive attitude, and you get it," she says of her achievements.
A New York resident for 10 years, Lima is happy teaching an aerobic adaptation of capoeira at Chelsea Piers and a more traditional class at Revolution Studios. She's positive about the future of the sport. "I listen to my heart and feelings and try to be a patient leader," she says. "Twenty-five years ago, a 12-year-old kid had never heard of capoeira in Brazil. Now I see 3-year-olds and 72-year-old women in capoeira around the world. It's great. I feel like a winner."