It’s been 10 days since the last night of NYC Zouk Festival, but I’m still riding high. There was plenty to praise this event for: the teachers gave great workshops, the DJs played a wide range of fun music, the organizers chose venues that were spacious (for New York), and the air-conditioning did its very best.
What I most appreciated was the way the community (cultivated by the organizers and clearly represented in the people attending the festival) not only tolerated but loudly celebrated dancers performing and competing in roles not traditional for their gender. For me it was especially encouraging to see men dancing as followers, since there seems to be greater stigma or social inertia there.
I will limit myself to highlighting one performance and one competition that made this event truly memorable for me…although I could easily go on much longer!
Performing With Pride
One of the first performances on Friday night was a piece I knew nothing about going into. Two men walked out onto the performance area carrying gym bags and towels. They went to opposite sides of the floor, dropped their bags, exchanged glances, and checked their phones before pointing at each other in recognition.
In what was obviously the story of a locker-room hookup, they danced beautifully together. The performance wasn’t coy or comedic. The technique was fantastic. It was much like many other couple dance performances – showcasing incredible technique as well as the sensuality of the dance.
Luiz Varjão danced as the leader in the performance, but to be honest I barely saw him until the video came out the next day. I couldn’t take my eyes off the follower, Felipe Lara. His flawless technique and sense of showmanship would be reason enough, but I have to admit I was shocked (and delighted) to see a male follower in a partnered couple performance. Especially one of such high caliber – absolutely on a level to rival any of the female instructors at the event.
The audience expressed their enthusiasm from the moment the dancers appeared, cheering for each new feat of athleticism, clapping to the rhythm for a good minute in the middle, and exploding with appreciation while the pair proudly took their bows.
I discovered later the piece is called “GRINDR” – just in case there was any doubt as to how the audience should interpret the piece! I was fascinated to learn it was choreographed by the celebrated author and psychologist Pamela Stephenson-Connolly, who worked with Brazilian lambazouk dancer Braz Dos Santos to write and produce the musical Brazouka.
Check out the performance below!
Mixed Bag Competition
I stuck around after the workshops on Sunday to watch the Jack & Jill finals. After both the novice and intermediate rounds were complete, I was surprised to hear another competition announced: the “Mixed-Bag Jack & Jill Competition.”
The term was quickly explained: a competition for people dancing in roles not traditional for their gender. The competitors were randomly paired. Those who ended up in a mixed-gender couple had to have the woman lead and the man follow. Those in a same-sex couple could opt for each partner to choose only one role to dance, or to trade roles (also known as “switching”). The competitors and audience engaged with just as much intensity and joy as those in the previous competitions had. I loved it!
After the competition was over, I approached the MC, Chris van Houten. He agreed to speak with me later that week, so I could get all the details on this intriguing competition.
Chris is a zouk and West Coast Swing instructor based out of Chicago, who is perhaps best known for working at events as an MC. He was quick to give credit to others for the competition.
According to Chris, the Mixed Bag Jack & Jill was conceived by West Coast Swing dancer Doug Rousar. He often had such a competition at events he organized. “It was always my favorite part of those events,” said Chris. “I love to lead and follow, so it’s fun to showcase that.”
When he suggested having the Mixed Bag Jack & Jill at NYC Zouk Festival, the organizers Leslie Evangelista Tietjen and Ry’el Velandia were quick to approve the idea. I wasn’t surprised, since I have often seen Ry’el following (and his partner Jessica leading).
Chris explained: “There were people that came to NYC Zouk Festival who wanted to do the BZDC Jack & Jill, but are currently not allowed to do that under the rules. It was disappointing for them. That inspired me to suggest this additional competition, and Leslie and Ry’el were open to the idea.”
That brought to mind my interview with Larissa Thayane, founding member of the Brazilian Zouk Dance Council. When I asked about the restriction of the roles, she told me: “For now girls follow and guys lead, but we have already been talking about the change of roles. Possibly in the future we will add this option on a separate Jack and Jill division. Our worry is due to Brazilian Zouk having closer embrace, closer dance movements…some dancers won’t feel comfortable dancing with the same sex, which will impact their competition.”
Chris stressed his appreciation for all the work of the Brazilian Zouk Dance Council in bringing Jack & Jill competitions to the world of Brazilian zouk. He was understanding of this gender-role challenge.
“This was a struggle we had in West Coast Swing, and it’s not surprising for Zouk to be dealing with it since the rules from the BZDC were so closely adapted from WCS. For a long time competitions were limited to the traditional gendered role, because it was thought that people might feel uncomfortable dancing with a same-sex partner, or that people might not take the dance seriously. But eventually enough people started pointing out that this didn’t match their idea of the dance or the kind of experience they wanted to have. Enough organizers started saying they were going to do it anyway, so the council [World Swing Dance Council] had to adapt.”
I checked the timeline. The Brazilian Zouk Dance Council had their first competition at Caso do Zouk in July 2014, which meant they created their adaptation of the competition rules sometime prior to that point. The World Swing Dance Council posted about their updated rules a year later, explaining, “Many dancers have developed skills in both roles and requested to be able to compete in either role. Recognizing that competitors are dancers (with whatever skills they have developed), the WSDC’s latest change, as of 2015, has been to allow competitors to dance in either role.”
I wanted to know what the goal of the Mixed Bag Jack & Jill was, since it didn’t follow the normal competition structure or judging method. Competitors were assigned only one partner. Some competitors danced their traditional role some or all of the time. The finalists were determined by judges tapping four pairs in and then choosing the final two couples. Audience applause (or screams) determined the winners: Jerry Lai and Pablo Tommasi.
Chris acknowledged that it might be run differently if it was meant to be a strict competition; probably they would have competitors dance with more than one partner, and they would be restricted to dancing only one role per song. However, “the idea is to let everyone try it… I’m more interested in open expression and celebration of people being able to dance in the other roles.”
Leading And Following
I was eager to hear more about why he encourages people to explore outside their traditional roles. Chris told me, “It’s really important to me to de-gender the roles in social dancing overall. Our whole world has gender roles, and a lot of that is baked into our dance communities, but I think that the way those roles are gendered can be very problematic. For equality overall, it’s important to consider some other possibilities.”
I reached out to winner Jerry Lai, who is also a zouk instructor. He declared: “Learning the opposite role honestly was the most transformative for my primary role. It teaches empathy. You’re literally feeling what the other person might feel when you are leading.”
Of course, some of you are probably wondering how to go about this if your local scene isn’t promoting this idea. What will be the reaction in classes? Who can you dance with at socials?
Chris shared, “I find this [zouk] to be a really open community that embraces that, so it’s culturally equally easy for men or women to get into zouk as a follower, I think. At socials when there are more men than women in the room, I have no problem asking anyone in the room to lead me. Sometimes if I don’t know them I might say, ‘It’s totally fine if you say no.’ But usually there are more women than men at a lot of dance events, so there’s always a piece of me that’s going to feel guilty.”
Jerry had similar concerns about role balance. “Most of the time I feel bad because there are so many followers waiting to dance, and if a guy is leading me, that’s two leaders out of the equation. But when choosing a leader, I generally go for guys that I know also follow, or guys that I see leading other guys.”
Whether you’re interested in dancing both roles or not, I hope we can all support allowing everyone the full range of possibilities in their dance.
What events have you attended that have a similar culture of celebrating people moving outside traditional roles? What made you interested in learning a new role? How do you think competitions can accommodate people dancing in whatever role they choose?
Note: This article was updated to include the color video when it was released. The article originally shared this version in black and white.