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Circle of Liberation: New Yorks first Female Capoeira Mestranda
February, 1998,
by Thad Dunning

"I asked my mother for money to buy schoolbooks and used it for capoeira," says Edna Lima, the only woman teaching the form in New York and the Ūrst to become a master. Developed by 16th century African slaves in Brazil who trained in secret to Ūght, capoeira was banned for centuries. A native of Brasilia, Lima has practiced it for more than 20 years, the last 10 based in New York City. Her life is almost an allegory for the transformation of an illegal "folk" activity, once dismissed by authorities as street Ūghting, into a modern egalitarian, and celebrated practice; in the 1970’s and 80’s middle class Brazilians, wealthy students from universities, and citizens of all ethnic backgrounds began to study the form.

The only girl in her Ūrst class, Lima had never seen capoeira on the streets; though popular in the northeastern region of Brazil, it was just reaching Brasilia in the early 70’s. "I was afraid my mother might not let me enroll. But when I confessed later, she knew about capoeira and liked it, and after she told me not to lie to her again, she encouraged me to continue." Lima spent her formative years training with men and teenage boys. "Once in a while, other girls appeared, always for short periods of time , but then they moved away, lost interest or got into drugs. So eventually I would say to myself, whenever a girl came into class, ‘Okay, let’s see how long this one lasts.’

Historically, women did not "play capoeira" at all. According to Lima, the famous Mestre Bimba — the Ūrst of the old masters to teach openly after capoeira was legalized in 1937 —allegedly taught some women, but they did not play in public.

Creative masters, such as Lima’s current Mestre Camisa, later developed theories of the roda, the capoeira circle, as a model for values of citizenship and equality. They promoted pride in capoeira as simultaneously a uniquely Brazilian cultural products and a symbols of Africa’s contributions to Brazilian culture. The new egalitarian politics encouraged women to move, to play the instruments of capoeira, and to give voice to its soulful songs. (Nonetheless, Lima says, music is one area in which women, even when playing roda, still take part signiŪcantly less than men).

Lima perfected the songs, instruments, sweeps, headbutts and acrobatics of this elegant dance of physical strategy, but her growing reputation inspired both disbelief and jealousy in far ßung places. When she was about 16, a large event brought visitors from Rio de Janeiro to Brasilia, including two girls known for both talent and toughness. A third less experienced and almost in tears, asked Lima to protect her. Uncertain of how her skills would match up, Lima nonetheless promised to do what she could. "I used to train a lot you know," she explains laconically. "Buying the game"— entering the roda to play with the visitors — she dominated the ßow, freezing her opponents with a well-timed hook kick. Winning didn’t exactly make her happy though. "I felt like a little dog in the park, who gets excited to see another dog but is instead attacked."

Today, "Mestranda [junior master] Edna" is one of about 15 women teaching capoeira around the world. At Tribeca’s White Street Studio, her classes are roughly balanced between men and women. Last August she was awarded her group’s symbol of mastery, the red cord, and has felt the satisfaction of a greater level of respect from the world of capoeira. "My feelings were very strong when people played tough," Edna remembers now, "but Mestre Camisa encouraged me to keep going, to keep training. Now I am teaching capoeira, using this Brazilian art to promote Brazilian culture.