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The San Diego Union-Tribune

He wants to ready many for life's battles


August 29, 2004

HOWARD LIPIN / Union-Tribune
At his 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.
To 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.

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 it."

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 do."

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 serves.

"We can use things from our own culture to heal ourselves," Newsome said.

"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."

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