5 Lies You’ve Been Told About Kizomba

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5 Lies You’ve Been Told About Kizomba

Kizomba is a social dance that has really only begun to gain notice in the United States in the last five years; most people had never heard of it before the New York Salsa Congress and DC Bachata Congress of August 2012. So it’s no wonder there’s some confusion surrounding this wonderful dance. I’d like to set the record straight today – here are five lies you’ve been told about kizomba, and the truth!

1. Kizomba is a Latin dance.

I can understand the confusion. Most people encounter kizomba for the first time at a large salsa or bachata festival. Even for me, finding it for the first time in North Africa – it was my friends in the salsa scene that told me there would be a workshop happening in Casablanca that I definitely wouldn’t want to miss. The Latin dance community is truly global and very successful. So it makes sense that when kizomba began to spread from Africa to and through Europe (and from there around the world), people would use an existing platform with a huge following to win more interest.

In fact, kizomba is a dance from Angola. It is absolutely an African dance. The music we dance to, also called kizomba, comes from a long tradition of semba music that encountered influences from Caribbean zouk and new electronic sounds in the late ’70s and early ’80s. The motion and steps of kizomba are a clear descendent of semba dancing, but evolved to suit the music of kizomba.

2. Kizomba comes from tango.

We’ve already established kizomba’s origins, so let me explain where this myth is coming from. First, when introducing a new dance form, it can be helpful to compare it to something to give people a frame of reference. People often say “Kizomba is like African tango.” Indeed, kizomba has a very close connection through the torso, and couples wrap their arms quite far around each other. Also as in tango, the upper body is in some ways dissociated from the movement of the legs. Furthermore, kizomba doesn’t have one or two basic steps that are repeated throughout the dance. We teach “three basic steps” but this is more of a jumping-off point than a basic pattern. Instead, like Argentine tango, kizomba has a large vocabulary of steps that can have any number of counts (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9…) and which can be fitted together without having to look for a “1” or “2” to start on.

Beyond that, a newer generation of dancers, primarily based in Paris but with students all over the world, have taken inspiration from tango to add new vocabulary to their kizomba. It is possible to see a whole range of steps that are very similar to those in Argentine tango. Furthermore, many of these dancers have altered their technique to better suit this vocabulary, often dancing with a straighter spine or even sliding through their steps.

3. Kizomba is way too sexy to dance socially.

Maybe you walked into the kizomba room at a large dance festival and it was really dark and you saw people making out on the dance floor. Maybe you’ve been on YouTube and seen people grinding their pelvises against each other. Maybe you’ve heard some lyrics in English that were rather overt – “I want to make sex with you,” for example. Maybe you just can’t get over how much people are moving their backsides. I’ll give you this – kizomba absolutely can be sexy. However, that is not inherent to the dance.

Let’s think about another activity that takes place in the dark: watching movies. Imagine someone tells you “Oh, no, I can’t come over to watch a movie with you guys. Thanks for inviting me, but I have a significant other.” “WHAT?” you say. “What’s that got to do with anything?” “Well, my significant other doesn’t like the thought of me in a dark room, sitting pressed up against or on top of members of the opposite sex, watching provocative material. And let’s be honest, plenty of people basically use watching movies as foreplay. I just don’t feel comfortable in that sort of environment.”

I’m sure that sounds ridiculous, but I think the comparison is fair. We all know that SOME movies have makeout or sex scenes, and that SOME people get physically intimate as a movie plays. In the same way, SOME kizomba music is suggestive, and SOME people cross the line into sexy movement or even, unfortunately, unwanted advances on a partner. It would be a shame to place all of kizomba into this one category, however.

Kizomba is danced in very close embrace. However, the shape of the human body is such that when you stand normally, or even better when you stand with your weight forward as in kizomba, you will connect with your partner through your ribcage and/or belly (depending on your individual shape). It is IMPOSSIBLE to touch someone’s groin or grind pelvises unless you stop using kizomba hold. Think about bachata, for a moment. There are people who dance bachata in a way that practically ensures genital contact, but it is in no way the norm.

Note: There is a cousin dance of kizomba called tarraxinha that has a different hold and connection, and that dance is indeed usually meant for someone you are sexually interested in. It also requires consent! Stay with your kizomba position if you are worried about encouraging a sexual interest from your partner – or if someone makes you feel uncomfortable, just end the dance.

Kizomba is characterized by an undulating movement that does indeed include your rear. It isn’t about shaking or bumping or otherwise creating a sexy display, though. I always tell my students – the movement is functional and serves to create an aesthetic of continuous, controlled motion that remains relaxed. While it may be embellished or rendered sexual, we can obviously say the same about movement in salsa or bachata as well.

4. Kizomba is easy.

Well, in the sense that you can learn three or four steps and be set for a whole night of dancing, yes. With the right teacher, in an hour or two you can get enough understanding of movement and basic steps to dance through an entire night with a touch of musicality. Kizomba is totally accessible for beginners, so if you haven’t tried it yet, get started!

The problem is when people dismiss kizomba as easily mastered. Many people take a month’s worth of classes and then figure themselves for advanced dancers – after all, once you know the saidas and a couple tricks or dips, you’re set, right?

These people are missing out on the best part of kizomba: HOW you move while staying so closely connected to your partner. Or maybe they get stuck memorizing combinations, instead of learning to use their vocabulary to put together their own poetic movement. Kizomba has so much subtlety, and so many intricate possibilities.

Ground your movement and find the right alignment with your partner, and you begin to feel their every tiny isolation. Figure out pivot technique and every move you know can suddenly be opened to variations in position. Work on slow-motion, stop motion, and syncopation, and again the standards become almost unrecognizably new, and your feet can dance out the exact rhythms of a particular instrument. Dissociate your upper and lower body, your feet from your partners’, her hips from yours – This list could go on and on and on

As with any dance, the more you learn, the better you are able to appreciate the subtle differences that indicate mastery. In kizomba, each technique mastered is like an additional color palette for you to paint with, another supply kit for you to build from, another door to a realm of expressing the music with our bodies.

5. You can’t dance kizomba in the US outside major cities.

Not so long ago, that was absolutely true. If you couldn’t find kizomba in your area after going to a big congress, maybe it’s time to take another look!

At the beginning of this year, I started a project called Kizomba Community with the intent of making it easier for people to find kizomba all over the United States. I was frustrated with joining various Facebook groups, searching on Meetup, and sifting through irrelevant Google results. I had been complaining for some time about the lack of any resource that would make this easier, until finally I realized it would be better just to shut up and create a solution. www.kizombacommunity.com was the result.

It has been my privilege to add more and more cities with ever more classes, socials, and events to the menus on Kizomba Community. I’m always on the lookout for what is happening related to kizomba, and I do my best to keep the site as comprehensive as possible. While it’s certainly true that major metropolitan areas have the greatest concentration of kizomba, there are more remote locations growing scenes all the time. Even for those places without a regular scene, there are several traveling teachers (myself among them) that come to do special events so that kizomba can get some momentum there. Go see where you can dance kizomba today!

24 Comments

  • Guida Rei commented on Facebook that she always danced kizomba in the light in Portugal. Here’s a video she shared: http://youtu.be/Nzg7LVt5ywM

  • Serendipity says:

    What a great article!! I think the essence of Kizomba is very well expressed… well done. However, I don’t agree with the bit where Tarraxinha is described…

    “…called tarraxinha that has a different hold and connection, and that dance is indeed usually meant for someone you are sexually interested in.”

    I think that this is generalising. I personally have danced tarraxinha many times with men that I am not sexually interested in. That said, the men I dance tarraxinha with are usually men I know are respectful when dancing kizomba with me and I would usually know them from before.

    Any thoughts?
    Again, thank you for your article!

  • Hi Serendipity! Thanks for commenting.
    At the risk of making another generalization, I will say there does indeed exist a cleaned-up form of tarraxinha that many people are dancing in the more studio-centered scenes. I have also danced tarraxinha with many people I am not sexually interested in. I enjoy the isolations and having a skilled person leading them on my back. I have also taught “social tarraxinha” classes that help people explore the movement and connection while toeing the line of sexual propriety, explaining that the line can easily be crossed with a partner with mutual interest.
    However, I think it’s pretty clear that’s not the way that dance developed. Also, on occasions that I have been at a club with a large percentage of people from Angolan and Cape Verdean descent, it’s been pretty clear that the major points of connection are head and lower belly as well as the hands on the lower back. I would say more authentic tarraxinha is akin to going to an American club and getting your grind on with someone – you probably stick to people you consider attractive and won’t mind following you around a bit. I remember my first tarraxinha “lesson” was informally given by a lovely girl in a NYC basement club. I was early, just chatting to her while she worked the door, and had mentioned that I didn’t know what “tarraxa” was. She actually refused to demonstrate with her cousin, exclaiming “I can’t do that with my COUSIN!” I think the implication is pretty clear.

  • Marko says:

    Dear Rachel,

    Interesting read but there’s one error. Kizomba music is not coming from semba. Its coming from the Caribbean. Angolean musicians started to make kizomba music after zouk band Kassav from Guadeloupe performed in Angola. Still, at many parties you also hear lots of Zouk music from the Caribean, which is nowadays sold as Kizomba. Btw Kizomba means Party and so does Zouk.

  • Hi Marko,
    Thanks for your comment! I absolutely agree that the zouk band Kassav inspired Angolan musicians, but it’s a mistake to ignore the heritage of semba. Also, here I am describing the dance kizomba rather than its musical form – you would probably agree that the dance kizomba did not evolve from Caribbean dancing.
    I am not an expert in the evolution of kizomba music, but everyone I’ve spoken to that is passionate about DJing kizomba or who is coming from an Angolan heritage has confirmed that Kassav inspired the form but did not supersede African influences. I describe some of that in the latest “This Week in Salsa” http://www.thisweekinsalsa.com/#!Interview-with-Rachel-Cassandra-all-about-Kizomba/c218b/EDCF4DDA-DCA9-4D1F-8EB2-18D75906D564
    Don’t take my word for it, though – talk to a DJ, or just listen to the beat of kizomba. It combines the essential beats of semba and zouk to make that characteristic kizomba rhythm.
    Kizomba does indeed come from the Kimbundu word for party; some people think it was chosen to describe the dance because of zouk meaning party. Since zouk was so popular at that time, it was a good model to follow! Kizomba did exist prior to being given that label, though, and was often called “passada,” meaning steps.

  • DJ Manólis says:

    Rachel,

    Good job on a good intro to Kizomba for those who are barely finding out about it. Quick semantic comment about “Latin dance” category. Unless you are using common American stereotypes of what is Latino otherwise, any Portuguese-speaking culture is Latin; so far most Kizomba is sung in Angolan Portuguese. Angolan Portuguese culture is as Latin as Brazilian one. Agree ? Conversely, all popular Latin dance forms we know today, especially the Cuban forms (Son, Montuno, Guaguanco, Rumba, etc.) that gave birth to what we know today as Salsa all have a heavy African rhythmic and percussive foundation. Yes, you are right about French continuing evolving or adding to modern Kizomba. This is how I summarize evolution of these dance forms (including Salsa): Conceived and sometimes born in Africa, born (or brought as a baby) in the Americas (mostly in the Caribbeans), brought up and educated in the USA (or in Europe in the case of Kizomba) and, now traveling the world having fun, being popular, and being claimed by all who came in contact along the way. You get the general drift ?

    • Hi DJ Manolis,
      I absolutely agree that the term “Latin” has different connotations in Europe and in the United States. However, even if we confine ourselves to an international standpoint, to speak of Latin culture and Latin language is one thing. That would include not only Portuguese-speaking cultures but those of Italian, Spanish, and so on. However, internationally the term “Latin dance” refers to a particular group of dances, whose geographic origin is on the American side of the world. It is for that reason I protest the label being applied to kizomba.
      As to your comment about a dance being “brought up and educated in the USA or in Europe,” I find it perilously close to colonial/imperialist ideas of cultural evolution. Perhaps you didn’t mean to include the semantic connotations of those words, though?

  • NG says:

    Hi there

    Thanks for clearing this up. I am Nigerian and have Angolan friends and I always understood this dance to be of African origin so thanks for such a thorough explanation. Also I really appreciate you addressing the ‘too sexy for social dancing’ as I really want to learn Kizomba properly and the close contact I see all over YouTube was concerning. I will seek out a bonafide teacher.

  • Hola says:

    Hi there,

    Kisomba’s *musical* origin comes from Zouk which in turn comes from calypso. Calypso has African,Portuguese,French influence.. from Europe, Kingdom of Kongo & west Africa which was transferred to the Caribbean’s.

    The problem with Kizomba is it’s now a money making machine that’s being diluted with USA’s Rap & Hip Hop culture & the calypso style is disappearing fast.

    So is it Latin? yes. Will it be? No.

  • Hola says:

    Here are some examples of Calypso:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=st16Oxgi3F4

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VOVXbFD0KS8

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=q5yXCDw427w

    One last thing, sensualised & suggestive dancing is not the problem, the problem is the over sexualisation of anything.. like twerking why? because it destroys the actual purpose of a culture ( in this regard dancing – not for grinding/perversion).
    Why is kizomba getting over sexualised? sex sells. Good marketing.

  • Mario P. says:

    Hi ! I’m a lover of kizomba music and dancing but I love indeed semba and tarraxinha…
    Thank you Rachel for your extensive explanation about kizomba! I mostly agree with you
    and I have to say that I even though agree with several comments concerning to explain tarraxinha.
    I’ll like to share it all on my fb page: Music & Dance

  • remy vermunt says:

    Hi Rachel,
    of course it is nice when people encounter dance and get passionate. There are some details however not completely correct in your nice article. Indeed it is important to separate the history of the dance called Kizomba and the musical style called Kizomba, if that even exists. The dance style called Kizomba is indeed a slowed-down version of Angolan Semba. There is in an odd way an old connection to Tango (Argentino). Semba was taken into Brazil by Angolan slaves where it was translated to Samba, later called Maxixe and again later called Samba de Gafeira, which is Samba which you dance in a salon, as a couple dance. In Argentine dancers started to use the word Tango for ‘close dancing’ (couple dancing), Tango is Swahili for close… Yep. Oldest records of he word Tango to describe couple dance in Argentina is ± 1850 but it is possible this transition happened way earlier. So, Tango is an African word… But that is a side step. There is no such thing as historical Kizomba music. Kizomba is a translation of the Creole word for party: Zouk. Zouk being a dance form as well as a musical style in te west Indies: Matinique, Guadeloupe. Zouk spread over the world thanks to a tour done by Kassav in the 80s: in Africa this became Kizomba and in Brazil it became Lambada, Lambazouk and Brazilian Zouk. The music: nowadays called Kizomba music is either Portuguese-Creole zouk music (known as Getto Zouk or Cabo Zouk, often made by Cabo Verde artists), or more modern remixes with a (too prominent) Zouk-beat mixed to it. The dance: Taraxhina is not particularly something you dance with somebody you are sexually interested in, but as it is sensual, you dance it in with your partner. The popularized Kizomba we see in Europe mainly, is Kizomba mixed with Taraxinha moves. “The painting the wall behind you with your hips move” is a Taraxinha move. Indeed Kizomba is easy to get access to as a beginner, as most dancers at party don’t produce much more then 4-5 basic steps and patterns, like variations to the saida. In French style Kizomba, indeed dancers try to put moves from Argentine Tango to make it more funky, moves like Ocho’s, Boleo’s, Gaunchos and Barrida’s. To be honest in the eyes of real Tango dancers it looks terrible, that is their comments. Same as putting head movements from Neo-Zouk in Kizomba or the body movements of FlowZouk in Bachata Sensual, nice try, but please learn it correctly before you go on stage or, worse, teach it. Unfortunately because of the rising popularity you see teachers with 3 months experience teaching it. For those who are ok with a class or workshop here and there it is great. indeed the subtle chest leading and weightshifting as well as syncopation make it a bit more complicated dancers in a more developed dance style are often not so impressed. Kizombashows f.i. are boring, they quikcly put modern/ zouk/ acro/ tango in it for a reason. The music is nice though. If you want to actually move and fly, learn Brazilian Zouk. Here is a beautiful example of a Zouk-Contemporary blending. Thanks and enjoy dance! any kind of!

    https://youtu.be/ITRCYkFMqfk

    Ciao, Remy

  • Hanna says:

    I love kizomba and as a beginner in dancing, I feel it’s not a difficult dance to learn. I have been dancing for half a year already and here’s the result of my learnings: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lfGmHuAXBo4

  • I’ve heard all these myths. The Tango one gets to me. What people don’t realize is that with Kizomba, like other forms of popular dances, people mix different styles for the sake of creativity and expression. So you’d find people doing Tango moves in Kizomba as much as you’d see them doing them in Bachata.

    If people look at how Kizomba is danced in Angola, they’d get a better appreciation for how different dance couples have added their own unique spin to the dance.

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