[Update: You can find Part 2 here: https://kizombaharmony.com/separatingthewheatfromthechaffpart2/]
As some of you might gather from my many rather longish blogs and posts, I’m very passionate about Kizomba (and Semba) and building a quality dance scene here in the US and abroad. A scene full of dancers who dance very well, yet are humble and welcoming to beginners. A scene in which everyone gets to dance and have a good time, not just the elite dancers and hot young thangs, in which dancers feel free to express themselves as the different music genres dictate , but while respecting the history, roots, and culture of Kizomba (and Semba). Where instructors are held to an ethical standard by their colleagues and the community as a whole so as to ensure that students have access to high quality instruction while being as insulated as possible from misleading marketing. I believe that this is the only way to create and maintain a sustainable Kizomba/Semba scene that will attract people from all walks of life and retain their interest for many years to come.
To this end, I have written posts about issues I believe hurt the development of a quality scene, such as dance etiquette, the unjustified arrogance and lack of self-awareness/humility in dancers and dance instructors with relatively low skill level, disrespect for follows and the art of following, and people trying to market “evolutions” and “new styles” when they haven’t even taken the time to get a solid grasp of the basics of Kizomba as it is danced to actual Kizomba music. In this post, I will tackle another important topic: what to look for in a great Kizomba teacher, and some potential red flags and misleading marketing tricks to look out for.
Often, many students of Kizomba in relatively young scenes tend to be largely uninformed on the history of Kizomba (both the music and the dance), and what to look for in an instructor. This is highly understandable, as there is a lot of confusing and contradictory information on the internet, and many different marketing terms being thrown around in an effort to capitalize on the growing popularity of Kizomba and the excellent marketing power of the word “Kizomba”. This blog post is designed to be a helpful resource for those new to Kizomba, or for those looking to find a good teacher to help them reach the next level in their dancing.
Although I am now an instructor, I have never stopped being a student, and I invest a great deal of time and resources (as does my partner Monica Kay) in continuing to learn and grow as a dancer and instructor to continue to provide value to our students. We have learned from many of the world’s elite talents, and look forward to continuing to do so. So, as a teacher and student, I feel I’m in a good position to give some advice to students looking for quality instruction.
The first thing to look for in a good instructor is, as you might have guessed, dance ability! Though it’s true that being an elite level dancer doesn’t guarantee similar skill as a teacher, it’s definitely important to choose an instructor with relatively solid dance ability. Ideally, a student’s dancing will look like the teacher’s at least until the student adds his or her own style, so definitely spend some time looking for a teacher who dances well and whose style you like.
You may be thinking, “OK Captain Obvious, but HOW do I know who has solid dance ability?” Fair question! One way is to dance with them. Beginners often don’t know what a good dancer should feel like, but here are a few tips. A lead should be very clear, responsive to the music, and considerate of their partner’s comfort and safety. If you dance with a lead that hurts you, bumps you into folks constantly, or completely ignores the music, those are red flags. It may be difficult for beginners to tell when a lead is clear or not, but if you find it relatively easy to follow their lead, then this is a good sign. A follow should be responsive to their lead (“light”) and relaxed, so if you have to use a great deal of muscle to lead a follow into simple moves, this is a red flag.
If you don’t often get a chance to dance with instructors, due to location, extreme popularity on the dance floor, etc., then another good way to gauge instructors’ dance ability is to watch them social dance. It can be very difficult for beginners to know what things to look for however, so I will point out a few.
If you are watching an instructor social dance, first look and see what music they dance to. Do they clear the floor when actual Kizomba music comes on, coming back when Ghetto Zouk/Tarraxinha comes on? That’s a potential red flag. For those who don’t know, actual Kizomba music is a product of Semba and Caribbean Zouk influence and has a very melodic non-electronic sound generally, often with lots of guitar and/or horns, whereas Ghetto Zouk has a more R&B/Hip Hop influenced electronic sound and, along with English remixes, are usually what people in the US hear first and associate with Kizomba. Semba is a dance and music, and many of the fundamentals of Kizomba (the dance) come from Semba (the dance). If you want a good example of what actual Kizomba music sounds like, Google Kyaku Kyadaff’s “Entre Sete Sete y Rosa” as it is a very popular actual Kizomba song from last year (it’s NOT retro, actual Kizomba is still being created today).
Although everyone has their right to musical preference, it’s important for any instructor who purports to teach Kizomba or uses any permutation of the word Kizomba (such as “kiz”, “nuvokiz”, “Billykiz”, etc.) in their marketing materials to be able to 1) recognize actual Kizomba music and 2) be able to dance competently and appropriately when it is played. Often these days, many dancers add elements of what I call Tangoxinhazoukchata (elements of Tango, Tarraxinha, lambazouk, bachata, etc.) to the dance and call it “evolution” or “fusion”. And while this is fine to some extent when certain types of music are being played (Ghetto Zouk, Tarraxinha, etc.), this extra stuff generally isn’t appropriate when dancing to actual Kizomba (or Semba) music. Sadly, there are too many instructors who either cannot recognize actual Kizomba music, or cannot dance well to it because they have not taken the time to learn how to dance Kizomba as it is traditionally danced (i.e., to actual Kizomba music), either due to lack of adequate instruction themselves (understandable in areas will little Kizomba presence), or in other cases, laziness, or because they prioritize other aspects of being an instructor, such as marketing and other commercial interests. Often these instructors will add elements of Tangoxinhazoukchata or just make things up to fill the gaps in their Kizomba repertoire, but as these new elements are not appropriate for actual Kizomba music, they will often seek to avoid dancing to it, saying they “prefer” Ghetto Zouk or have a “new style”.
Be very careful of those claiming to have a “new style”, particularly if they have been dancing for less than a few years, as “new styles” truly only work well when based on a VERY solid foundation, and that takes YEARS of hard work BEFORE even thinking of coming up with a “new style”. But in any event, if you want to see what someone’s dancing looks like without all the extra fluff, check them out when dancing to actual Kizomba (or Semba), and consider whether you like what you see.
Another thing to look at when watching an instructor social dance is their dance partner. Is the dance partner smiling or clearly having a good time? If so, that is a good sign. If the instructor is leading, is he/she navigating the dance floor carefully so as to not run the follow into other people/the wall/ etc? That is also a good sign. Is the instructor taking it easy at first to gauge the follow’s dancing level, and then dancing to his/her dance partner’s ability, taking it easy on beginners and turning it up a notch for more advanced follows? Also a good sign. But is the instructor paying no attention to floorcraft, carelessly flinging his/her partner across the floor, or immediately trying to force the follow into a bunch of moves that they clearly are not prepared for and do not enjoy? If so, that is a red flag.
If watching instructors in person is not an option, then you can sometimes learn much by watching YouTube videos of their dancing. This however, can be very tricky, as editing tricks and other marketing techniques in such videos can distract viewers from the actual dancing. But no worries, I will help you all navigate the murky waters of YouTube!
First, similarly to what I stated above, look for a video of the instructor dancing to actual Kizomba music (or dancing “social” Semba to Semba music, “social” Semba meaning less emphasis on tricks compared to “show” Semba). If you can find one, that will be helpful, since as I explained above, Tangoxinhazoukchata stuff is less likely to be involved when actual Kizomba (or Semba) is being played. So if you find a video with actual Kizomba (or Semba) music, and you like what you see, that’s a very good sign.
To be fair though, if you can only find videos of an instructor dancing to Ghetto Zouk, etc., it’s not necessarily a red flag. However, it’s easier to distract viewers with Tangoxinhazoukchata, cool tricks, etc. when making a video with these other styles of music, so try not to be distracted with the cool tricks, provocative female hip/body movements, etc. that are all too common on YouTube these days. Remember, it’s entirely possible to be able to do cool tricks but have very weak Kizomba fundamentals, and in fact, many instructors with weak fundamentals emphasize moves, tricks, and “new styles” to try and cover up their weak fundamentals . Also, try not to be distracted by cool editing tricks, exotic locales, impressive lighting, beautiful anatomy, etc. as these can also make it difficult to decipher what you are seeing in a video. Often, instead of a straight freestyle filmed in one take, instructors will film many takes and splice them together to make a demo. Though videos made this way often look cool and are fun to watch, they give little indication of the instructor’s ability to dance socially in the moment, without choreography. Looking at a video shot in one take is more helpful in this regard.
In addition, although the feet are very important in Kizomba, many of these videos often cut out the instructor’s feet, making it that much harder to see what they are actually doing. And even when the feet aren’t cut out, the focus can be directed to other parts of the instructor’s body. For example, for many people watching videos featuring elite level follows with excellent body isolations and/or ginga, leads with athletic frames, or either wearing revealing or sexy clothing, it can be difficult to unglue one’s eyes from certain areas to focus on the actual dancing, but it’s necessary to truly be able to analyze the a video. Look to see if the dancing (feet are a good place to look) matches the music, if it appears smooth and effortless, and if it “flows”. These are all good signs. If the dancing does not match the music, if there is an emphasis on tricks that don’t make sense with the music or if anything looks clunky or forced, these are all red flags. Admittedly, watching video isn’t an end-all-be-all indicator of dancing ability, but knowing what to look for will at least help to form somewhat educated opinions.
I also want to point out a marketing term that can be potentially misleading to students, “international instructor”. Often this term is thrown around in order to generate interest and credibility, but what does this actually mean, and what does it not mean? “International instructor” simply means that someone has either taught or is teaching in a country outside of their home country. And as people tend to be attracted to things that are “new” and “different”, or often believe that something “foreign” is of higher quality than something domestic, often the term “international instructor” is used to capitalize on this phenomenon. But it is important to remember that just because someone is an “international instructor” that doesn’t mean that they are necessarily a solid teacher or dancer. Even in places with highly developed scenes, such as Portugal, England, or France, where there are many solid dancers and instructors, not everyone is solid. For example, it’s completely possible to bring a low-skilled instructor from Europe to an event in US and bill them as an “international instructor” for marketing purposes. Just because a country or city is known for having a strong scene, this does not automatically mean that any dancer or instructor from said country or city will be a strong dancer or instructor. So don’t let marketing terms distract you from doing further research!
Another misleading marketing tactic is emphasizing how “well-traveled” an instructor is or how many “followers” he or she has. For example, although it does sound cool when an instructor can say they’ve taught in 237.5 different places, that doesn’t tell the whole story. 237 of those locations could be cities with little to no Kizomba presence and therefore full of students with an extremely low skill level and minimal lack of knowledge about Kizomba. It’s relatively easy to impress someone who doesn’t much about Kizomba, and therefore easier to get booked in places where there is not an established scene with highly-skilled instructors. So do not fall for the okey-doke on this one, look deeper than marketing hype!
Lastly, before I conclude Part 1 of my blog, I want to make it clear that I don’t believe that without exception all instructors must be super-advanced dancers before teaching. Particularly in areas with little to no Kizomba presence, often dancers will start teaching with less than a year of experience dancing Kizomba, because there is no one else teaching. I support this in areas without any Kizomba presence PROVIDED that the teacher continues to learn. Too many instructors take advantage of the relatively low skill level of dancers in young Kizomba scenes, believing they only need to be “a little bit better than their students”, and therefore stop learning themselves. At this point, many start making up stuff or add moves they already know from other dances, and then call it a “new style” of Kizomba. This I have an issue with. But I will save that for Part 2.
Thank you all for reading this far! In Part 2 of this blog I will point out other helpful things to look at when looking for a great instructor! Stay tuned!
[Update: You can find Part 2 here: https://kizombaharmony.com/separatingthewheatfromthechaffpart2/]