What kind of scientist were you before you decided to devote your life to capoeira?
My Ph.D. is in cell biology and anatomy, so I was really interested in the formation of organs. I've done work on the kidney for my graduate work and heart development for my postdoc. And then I got a faculty position working at the Arizona Cancer Center. I'd been working in research for 30 years.
When you left science, were you doing capoeira on off hours and weekends?
Actually, I was doing it a little more than that. I had trained for about 10 years in San Francisco, and when I moved here, there really wasn't much of a capoeira community, so I started teaching it at the UA in 1996. Initially, I just wanted to get some people good enough that we could train together, but then people got really excited about it.
Had you done martial arts before?
I used to do modern dance. I've always done science, but I needed a movement and creative outlet. When I lived in Philadelphia, I did modern dance. And when I moved to San Francisco, I discovered capoeira, and I actually haven't danced since.
Music is important to capoeira, right?
Yes. The (musical) instrument played during games is called a berimbau. ... The berimbau really controls the (tempo) of the games. (There are also Portuguese) songs that a person sings with the music that tell people to (move) more inside, play more aggressively and give them direction. In this country, it's a little harder since ... most of the students don't understand Portuguese fluently enough.
How is it a marital art, rather than just a form of dance?
It really is very directed at throwing an attack and having someone need to escape. It is a martial art that is focused on escapes rather than blocks. Because of that, you can escape from someone kicking you by doing a cartwheel. That gets you away from it and also gives you the flexibility to come behind the person, and now you're set up to counterattack. Historically, it was developed by Africans brought to Brazil as slaves. The story goes that they wanted to train to fight for their freedom, but they wanted it to look like a dance, because obviously, there are a lot of rhythms.
Do you ever regret giving up your career in science?
Sometimes (I miss) the intellectual aspect of science. I thought I was going to miss it incredibly, but what I really discovered is that capoeiristas think a lot about life. So they're not focused on biochemical mechanisms or what happens inside of a cell, or how that relates to an organ, but they are very interested in the whole web of how people interact and what drives people to try to challenge themselves. I find that in science these days, the whole crunch for funding put an emphasis more toward curing a disease rather than what really interested me, so I guess I haven't missed it.
You mentioned that you feel that capoeira celebrates differences and community. How do you think you fit into that?
I really feel like I'm part of history, being a woman in capoeira. The first women started being involved in the 1970s. During my first trip to Brazil in 1989, it was odd that a white, educated woman from the United States was interested in capoeira. ... I met up with some scientists, and they said, "Why would you do capoeira?" because, from their viewpoint, it was part of the black culture in Brazil. That has changed in Brazil the past 25 years ... and when it came to the U.S., it didn't have any stigma attached to it, so anyone interested got involved--including me.