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Mind, body, soul and dance

Ron Wood combines them and martial arts, too.

FIT AND FINE at 44, Ron Wood has seemingly accomplished the impossible. The Philadelphia native is a master of capoeira contra, a third-degree black belt, a choreographer, entrepreneur and hip-hop artist.

But all that accomplishment hasn't gone to his head.

"I'm never the best, there's always something to work on, and I still feel like I'm just learning my body," he told me.

Born and raised in West Philadelphia, the humble Wood overcame poverty and escaped the street's many traps. Today, the South Philly resident passes on what he's learned to students at the Community Education Center (CEC), 3500 Lancaster Ave., in West Philadelphia, and other locations in the area. He hopes one day to open his own school.

Wood has been dancing for more than 30 years, ever since he was introduced to the rhythms and movements of the street. He is a former member of Rennie Harris Puremovement. "Hip-hop culture is what I identified with, it gave me confidence," Wood said.

He also discovered early on that he had a passion for the martial arts. "I was one of those kids who watched a lot of TV and went to the Capital movie theater to see martial-arts movies. But, like a lot of poor kids, there was never any money for me to get lessons," he said.

He held onto his vision, though, and after he finished high school and started working, he was able to pay for lessons in kenpo karate. He credited Tom Updegrove, Miyo Kamihira and Ed Parker for starting him on his martial-arts journey.

"Always a student and sometimes a teacher," Wood said of himself.

In 1996, he fell in love with capoeira, a Brazilian martial art that combines elements of dance, acrobatics and music. It is similar to break dancing but, as Wood said, "Capoeira is like writing in cursive, whereas breaking has a lot of starts and stops."

Capoeira was developed by enslaved Africans in Brazil who cleverly disguised a forbidden martial art to make it look like a dance.

In addition to the distinctive music - featuring the single-string percussion instrument the berimbau - and singing, the discipline is characterized by low sweeps to the ground, cartwheels and flips. It offers a challenging workout and is also entertaining to watch.

The students I saw in Wood's class last week at the CEC came from a variety of backgrounds, but all were fully engaged and putting in some serious sweat equity.

Wood creates a supportive family atmosphere in his class while simultaneously challenging students to reach beyond their comfort zone.

Wood also tries to encourage parents to plant the seeds of healthy habits with their children early and often. Always paying it forward, he'll offer free summer capoeira classes to kids from June 20 to Aug. 30 at the CEC.

"Kids need to grow up comfortable in their bodies," said Wood, "and know, 'I can do this.' "