I’m often inclined to speak on issues I’ve seen in my time as a student and now instructor with Kizomba Harmony. Last time, I spoke on the lack of respect for follows and following in the Kizomba scene. This time, I feel inclined to speak on another issue in the community: the different “styles” and “evolutions” of Kizomba I’ve seen marketed these days.
Often these days, you will see folks refer to the way they dance Kizomba as a “new style” or “evolution” of Kizomba. And although I support people finding their own personal style and flavor to add to their dancing, sometimes these labels can be misleading at best and an irresponsible offense at worst. So I will give my thoughts on this matter, in hopes that potential students out there will not be misled by all the labels and marketing terms flying around in the Kizomba scene. First I will speak on one of the most widely labeled styles of dancing Kizomba, and then I will speak on the difference between an “evolution” and a “mutation”.
There is a popular style of dancing Kizomba to Ghetto Zouk/Tarraxinha/instrumental music commonly referred to as the “French Style” of dancing Kizomba. The term is actually a misnomer, since as you might guess, not everyone in France dances this way. In fact, the term actually refers to the way a certain few well-known instructors in France dance. I will not mention them here, as they do not dance exactly the same and would resent being lumped together. I honestly do not like using the term “French style”, but I’ll use it in this blog post for the sake of clarity.
So, what then, is the “French Style” of dancing Kizomba? In an effort not to overgeneralize, I will describe it as dancing with a slightly more upright posture, with more emphasis on playing with varying tempos, steps/tricks, technicality, an “elegant” attitude, and tarraxinha elements. There has been much discord and discussion by those who love dancing this way, and also those who strongly dislike it, preferring to dance Kizomba as it is traditionally danced. Although I love dancing Kizomba to Kizomba music (not to be confused with Ghetto Zouk, etc.), and when I do, I dance Kizomba as it is traditionally danced, I personally like dancing in this different style to certain types of music, such as Ghetto Zouk and instrumentals. I consider this style, done correctly to be an “evolution” of Kizomba that fits well with certain music, but with certain caveats as I will explain in further detail below.
You might be wondering, “Well what the heck does he mean by evolution”? For purposes of this blog, I will define an “evolution” of a dance as a style that keeps the fundamentals of the original dance intact, while adding something new. Although this style may seem like a totally different dance depending on who is dancing, the style (when done well) is at its core a combination of three Angolan dances, Semba, Kizomba, and Tarraxinha. If you look at the most talented dancers of this new style, you may find that many of the tricks and steps look much like Semba. This is not a coincidence. In fact, I sometimes describe this style as “slowed down Semba, with elements of Tarraxinha mixed in”. Although I don’t think this style of dancing is suitable for Kizomba music (as opposed to Ghetto Zouk, etc.), this style of dancing fits nicely with music such as Ghetto Zouk and instrumentals, with their generally slower beats and electronic elements. You might also be surprised (or not) to find that most of the elite dancers of this style have a very solid grasp of the fundamentals of dancing Kizomba (and Semba) as they are danced to Kizomba (and Semba) music. The reason these dancers are able to dance in the “French style” so well is that they FIRST mastered the basics and fundamentals of Kizomba. So though for purposes of this blog post I call this style an “evolution”, this style isn’t really anything completely new and a 180 degree turnabout, it’s still Kizomba, just with a different flavor to match the different types of music that developed in the scene. When dancers do not first master the fundamentals of Kizomba (such as being circular and walking), the way they dance cannot truly be called an evolution or even a “new style”, but rather a “mutation”, which brings me to my next point.
I cannot stress this enough, so I will put it in all caps. This is particularly important for instructors, as we are in a position of influence, and must take care not to misinform our students. IF YOU HAVE NOT PUT IN THE WORK TO GET A SOLID GRASP OF THE FUNDAMENTALS OF KIZOMBA AS IT IS TRADITIONALLY DANCED, AND DO NOT RETAIN THE CORE ELEMENTS OF KIZOMBA IN YOUR DANCING, THAN YOU CANNOT IN GOOD FAITH CALL YOUR STYLE OF DANCING A “NEW STYLE” OF KIZOMBA OR AN “EVOLUTION” OF KIZOMBA. This is not something most people will learn in six months, or a year, or even two years in my humble opinion. It takes quite a while to really get the “feel” of Kizomba right. It takes hard work, dedication to learning and perseverance. Period.
Why then, are people throwing around terms like “new style” so much? Well, for one, I believe it is for marketing purposes. As in modern times everyone is about “something new”, portraying your product or service as something “different” or “fresh” helps set you apart. Also, by framing their style as something “apart” from Kizomba, the hope is that they can sidestep criticism from those more experienced in the dance. If a master-level instructor comes up to me and says “your fundamentals are lacking my dude!”, wouldn’t it be convenient if I could say “well… no I actually dance a new style I call Billy Kizomba so it’s just my own genre of dance and the fundamentals aren’t the same as in Kizomba”. But then I’d be lying, because though I do have my own personal style, I am still dancing Kizomba and I certainly didn’t invent the dance. The other issue is that people still use the term “Kizomba” because it is good for marketing, even if what they do is completely unrecognizable as Kizomba to those that know it best. It is my sincere hope that this kind of marketing will be become discouraged as more and more students become well-informed on the fundamentals of Kizomba.
So why is it important to get a solid grasp of the fundamentals of Kizomba first before adding things? Well, for one, It is totally acceptable to dance Kizomba as it is traditionally danced to any music, be it Kizomba, Ghetto Zouk, etc., but it is not appropriate to dance in the “French Style” or other styles (many of which favor Tarraxinha, tango, bachata, and other moves) to Kizomba music. Alot of people, particularly in the US, aren’t familiar with Kizomba music and therefore will often clear the dance floor when Kizomba is played, only to come back when Ghetto Zouk/Tarraxinha is played again. Learning how to dance to actual Kizomba music first would rectify this issue. Another reason is that at its heart, Kizomba isn’t about the steps or moves, it’s about how you MOVE, and that’s not something you can learn by watching YouTube videos, or taking a few privates and workshops and then thinking you’re ready to be a teacher and stop learning. You can learn a bunch of tricks on YouTube or wherever, but if your fundamentals are lacking, you won’t “feel right” to those who have a solid grasp of the basics. To use a cake analogy (I like cake haha), a dancer who has focused on learning moves and neglected the basics is like a “cake” but with no actual cake, only icing… it may look sweet, but there is no real substance, just fluff. On the other hand, a dancer who has mastered the basics but doesn’t know many tricks yet is like a cake with no icing… it may not look as pretty on the outside… but it will definitely give you a more satisfying experience. To put it another way, focusing on fancy moves or “evolutions” before getting a solid grasp of the basics is like putting the cart before the horse… you’re unlikely to get as far as easily as you would doing things in the opposite order.
So how can you know who has a solid grasp of the basics? This can be tough, because so much of the beauty of Kizomba is in what you feel, not what you see, and often on YouTube videos it’s easy to distract viewers with cool scenery, editing tricks, and female hip movements. But, in my experience, watching people dance to Kizomba (not Ghetto Zouk) is very educational indeed. As all the moves from Tarraxinha, Tango, Bachata, Zouk, etc. that many dancers fuse into their dancing is inappropriate when dancing to Kizomba music, dancers are left with just dancing Kizomba, and so it is easier to actually see how they move.
But don’t get me wrong people, I did not start dancing Kizomba and immediately have a solid grasp of the basics. In fact, the way I danced over two years ago when I first started Kizomba, or even a year or so ago for that matter, is MUCH different than the way I dance now. As the scene was very young back then, most of the dancers were brand new, and even the instructors hadn’t been dancing Kizomba for very long before they started teaching out of necessity. So we were all still learning, student and instructor alike. But there were two major turning points that really turned my dancing around. The first point was when my now-partner Monica Kay took over as director of Kizomba Harmony. I had been dancing for a little over a year at that point, and up until that time, I had thought that I was pretty frickin’ awesome at dancing Kizomba since I was considered one of the better leads in our local scene. But after Monica took over teaching duties and became my instructor and I danced more with her one-on-one, I realized that there was something sorely lacking in my lead. I found her very technical style of teaching and her focus on technique to be an excellent complement to my own extraordinarily detail-oriented method of learning, and though it was tough to start over and focus more on technique, I found that my lead started to exponentially improve as a result. In fact, our complementary view on learning and teaching is why we teach so well together now! And as she continued to go to great lengths to train herself up, she would in turn share all she’d learned with us, as would the talent she’d bring to Houston to train the students.
The second major turning point is when I started learning Semba. Semba is the parent dance and music to Kizomba. I guess you could say it’s the older, more playful and upbeat predecessor of Kizomba. Most of the basics and moves of Semba translate well to Kizomba, as the circular walking nature of Kizomba comes from Semba. The more I learned about Semba, the less my dancing sucked, as I started to focus less on Tarraxinha and staying in one place, and the more I began to actually MOVE. I took advantage of every opportunity to learn more Semba, and my partner and I still do. In fact, another way to see the level of someone’s basics is to watch them dance social Semba (meaning less emphasis on tricks as opposed to Semba “Show”). The better I get at dancing Semba, the better I get at dancing Kizomba, and that includes the “French style”.
For my last point, I will speak on “evolution”. As a way to illustrate my points, I will use a violin as a metaphor. Earlier I mentioned that for purposes of this blog, an “evolution” occurs when someone preserves the fundamental nature and core characteristics of something, but adds something new. But I must make it very clear that I DO NOT CONSIDER AN EVOLUTION TO BE SOMETHING SUPERIOR, JUST SOMETHING DIFFERENT. So to elaborate, if the violin was traditionally used to play classical music, you might say that using the violin to play a different style of music, such as bluegrass, is an “evolution”. You are still playing the violin, still using the same strings and bow, the same building blocks of music, just put together in a new and different way to express a different feeling and intention. This is how I think of the “French style”, when danced with the core characteristics of Kizomba intact.
On the flip side, let’s imagine a different scenario. Let’s say I find a violin and excitedly take it home. I take out the bow and I try to play, but I find that I cannot make two of the strings sound right. So because I can’t play those two strings, I break them off and their string pegs. Now I can more easily play my two-stringed violin, so I go and solicit students to learn how to play the “Billy Violin”, an “evolution” in violins. But in truth, is what I have an “evolution”? I think not. When you remove fundamental characteristics of something, whether it is because you cannot grasp them adequately or simply do not like them, and then add whatever you find convenient, what you have is not an “evolution”, but a “mutation”, plain and simple. When I say “mutation”, I am not referring to the cool X-Men sort, but the harmful sort that renders an inferior copy of the original. I believe that Kizomba “evolutions” are fine as long as they are appropriate to the music and aren’t misrepresented, but “mutations” are extremely harmful, particularly when instructors misrepresent said “mutations” as the real thing in order to take advantage of the (currently, but not for long) lower level of dance skill and knowledge about Kizomba/Semba in the US. I believe that as our dancers become more skilled and knowledgeable (and it’s happening!), this type of misrepresentation will become more and more difficult to continue without pushback.
So, in conclusion, I leave you with these final thoughts. To all the students out there, remember that the beauty of Kizomba is in the basics. Do not be taken in by all the flashy moves and other things you see on YouTube, and thereby succumb to the desire to put the cart before the horse. It is fun to do cool tricks, but if you get your basics under control, and get a solid grasp of the fundamental techniques of leading and/or following, then you’ll be able to more easily learn any move or trick you want, whether on YouTube, in pattern classes, group/private instruction, or just by watching dancers in person. Then you can focus on adding your own personal style to your dancing. To my instructors, please take care not to pass off a “mutation” as an “evolution” to those who place their trust and invest their resources in you. Keep working hard to hone your craft, and encourage your peers to do the same. And to those who enjoy dancing and teaching “evolutions” please also take care to FIRST inform students about Kizomba, both the music (Not Ghetto Zouk remixes etc.) and the dance (not Tangoxinhazoukchata), as a solid grasp and competent application of this knowledge is what differentiates an “evolution” from a “mutation”.
I lastly want to reiterate my opinion that although I do enjoy dancing in different styles to different music, I believe that real Kizomba is NOT “retro”, nor obsolete, but absolutely important, beautiful and fun in its own right, and does not require the addition of anything to make it so.
Thank you all for reading this, I hope you enjoyed the long read, and I’ll see you on the dance floor!