most passersby, the small yellow-and-blue storefront in South
Encanto might not stand out. But to Dennis Newsome, the new tenant
of 6429 Imperial Avenue, this small corner is a slice of paradise.
HOWARD LIPIN /
newly-opened South Encanto studio, martial artist Dennis
Newsome (center, rear) plays a stringed instrument
called the berimbau as he leads his students in
capoeira, an acrobatic, ancient African dance, fight and
game popularized in Brazil.
It is where Newsome recently set up shop to teach capoeira – a
centuries-old dance, fight and game that originated in Angola and
was brought by African slaves to Brazil, where it remains intensely
popular. Newsome gave the new capoeira studio the same name he
collectively calls his students, Os Malandros de Mestre Touro
("Master Bull's Hustlers"). Newsome – the first African-American to
earn the capoeira title of mestre ("master") – named his students
and the group after his own Afro-Brazilian master.
"I'm in heaven," said Newsome, a 46-year-old martial artist,
about his opening the studio and its location. "I want to be part of
culturally revitalizing the African-American community. Culture is
for the soul and the spirit – kids and adults, from young to old."
It took Newsome more than a decade to find and secure a permanent
home for teaching the art. The grand opening was held earlier this
month and the classes – Monday and Thursday evenings and Saturday
afternoons for $10 an hour – also recently began.
"He's one of the pioneers of African martial arts," Darrell
Sarjeant, an Oklahoma City-based martial arts master, said of
Newsome. Sarjeant recently presented Newsome with a "Living Legend"
award at a ceremony held by the Masters Hall of Fame, a Southern
California martial arts organization.
"I deal with people's understanding of the art – that's the thing
about being a master, knowing the mental and spiritual aspects of
Since childhood, Newsome has been fascinated with martial arts.
Newsome's father and grandfather taught him a type of leg wrestling
passed down from African slaves in the Americas. He was riveted
watching European sword fighting and Asian martial arts films. Then,
a friend of Newsome's stepfather – an Ethiopian immigrant – taught
him a head-butting martial art from that country, called reisy and a
stick-fighting art called dula meketa. Newsome has also learned and
taught kalenda, a kind of Congolese stick fighting.
Newsome was a technical adviser for martial arts scenes in the
films "Lethal Weapon" and "Secret Agent Double-0 Soul."
But more than his martial arts mastery, community leaders admire
Newsome's commitment to teaching.
"He's giving an opportunity to African-Americans to learn about
their culture and history," said Gale Wilson, board president of the
Bronze Triangle Community Development Corporation, a nonprofit,
neighborhood revitalization organization that serves the Logan
Heights, Grant Hill and Stockton communities.
"He's a father figure who is supportive of the families he works
with. He gives the people something very creative and artistic to
One young man Newsome has mentored is 23-year-old Melcom Jones,
whom he has trained for 11 years.
"He has sacrificed so much," said Jones, who in October will
travel to Brazil to take the test to become a mestre.
"He went to Brazil to find us a master who would correctly teach
us capoeira. He's like a father to me. He gave me the morals and
ethics I have now. Before I met him, I had no clue there were
African martial arts."
Today, Jones helps Newsome teach to students as young as 3 and as
old as mid-50s.
"My student is my signature calling card," Newsome said.
"I get my joy out of their development and growth. My objective
is to make them better than I was at their age."
As capoeira tradition dictates, Newsome was issued his capoeira
name by the masters that trained him. Newsome's nickname, Preto
Velho ("old black") is a homage to a bearded, African traditional
medicine man immortalized in the Brazilian state of Bahia.
Newsome said his mission with his new studio is to help heal the
socially fractured and economically disadvantaged community he
"We can use things from our own culture to heal ourselves,"
"We've been damaged. We have assimilated other people's cultural
norms. Gangsters are not part of African culture. There were no
pimps and prostitutes on the slave ships. Culture defines the
parameters of a people's behavior."