Mestra Edna Lima

NY Newsday

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NY Newsday | 22 March 1995 | Laura Italiano

Attack, Defense, and Trickery: Alive and Kicking

Capoeira e defesa — “Capoeira is defense,” begins a song sung by the city’s capoeiristas. E ataque, e ginga de corpo – and attack, and rhythmic movement of the body, the song continues.

It’s a song sung in schools and studios across the city by the 700 students of Capoeira, a danced martial art from Brazil. The song is sung in a circle, to the music of percussive bows and drums struck hard and fast with the hands, while in the circle’s center, pairs of dancer-fighters spin, and crouch and kick.

Never heard of Capoeira – pronounced “cop-way-ruh?”

Listen, then, as the world’s first female Capoeira master finishes the song while standing in line recently at a Broadway copy center -stopping to joke that a worker there is a “copier-ista,” like herself.

Edna Lima is waiting to make copies of a leaflet advertising an exhibition this weekend, during which she hopes to turn others on to this graceful art form created 400 years ago by Brazil’s African slaves.

“E malandragem,” she sings. “That means trickery.’ Capoeira is attack, and defense…and trickery.”

Part of the trickery is that Lima, like Capoeira, doesn’t look dangerous. At 33, the native Brazilian has been a “mestra,” or master, for 14 years. Her students include 200 people at Hunter College, a class at an East Harlem elementary school and those at her studio on Broadway in lower Manhattan.

Lima seems harmless enough. But, like every Capoeira master, she’s a formidable force, armed with a battery of complicated kicks and evasions and, just as important, the disguise of a smiling attitude.

Capoeiristas never talk of fighting. Capoeiristas “play,” she said. With the spinning and handstands, the African music and swing, the
martial art looks more like dance and acrobatics than battle. This is an intentional deception. This is where the trickery comes in, Lima
explained.

“This move here is called macaco,” Lima said, pointing at her leaflet to a drawing of a stick figure that seems to be leaping for joy into a headstand. “It means monkey.’ Say, if I’m standing here, I can flip backwards and kick you, very hard, there.” At that moment, she demonstrates with an unsettling push to the shoulder, adding, with Capoeira’s characteristic smiled threat, “It looks very happy, very casual, very relaxed. But you’re dangerous.” At the studio, 27 waiting students are warming up. “Go fast! Go fast! Play it hard!” she shouts at them during the drills. It is hard work: the students seem exhilarated, yet exhausted.

Capoeira was created by African slaves on Brazil’s Portuguese plantations, she explained. Its movements and songs are still taught in the original Portuguese.

“The trickery comes from a time when Capoeira had to be camouflaged as a dance,” Lima said. “The slaves’ masters didn’t realize they were doing martial arts. They never realized the slaves were getting ready to fight.”

After the abolition of slavery, Capoeira was periodically outlawed in Brazil, classified as a “social infirmity” there as recently as the 1930s. “Capoeira was, like, for outlaws, even into the 1970s, but by then Capoeira had become and established art form being taught at Brazilian universities, its masters traveling and teaching throughout the world.

It was also at that time that a 12-year-old Lima, living in Brazil’s capital, Brasilia, was taking her first lessons – “Twenty boys and me,” she said.

Lima is a part of Capoeira’s folklore now. In 1981, at age 19 while still living in Brazil, she became the first woman to earn the red “cord” of a Capoeira master.

She moved to New York six years ago and also is a fourth-degree black belt in Shotokan karate. She cross-trains in aerobics, karate, Capoeira and African dance, and lives with her husband, John (Coqueiro) Loeber, a personal trainer, in Washington Heights. “I love her!

She makes me laugh, she makes me cry, she pushes me to my limit,” said Rossella Fabbri, 29, of Washington Heights, after a class last week. She has been a student for the past 14 months.

On Saturday, from 3 to 5 p.m., Lima will host a batizado at the Friend’s Meeting House, Rutherford Place at 15th Street between Second and Third Avenues. It is a graduation ceremony for students like Fabbri, who is hoping the masters she plays will graduate her from the beginner’s white cord to the yellow cord that is her next step up. “Batizado” means baptism, but for the new students, it is baptism not by the water of Christians, but by the fire of capoeiristas. The ceremony is open to the public. Tickets are $15.

“Capoeira e malandragem,” Fabbri said, explaining again the art of these warrior tricksters. “You want to set up that you’re going to give one move, and then you give another, and you do it with a smile on your face,” she says with a smile, then turning suddenly serious. “So that the other player doesn’t know you’re going to give a death blow!”