Q: What is Neo Kizomba?
A: In a nutshell, it’s a teaching method, an umbrella term for new genres of kizomba music, and a way of categorizing the newer dance styles emerging as a result of the more modern music being produced.
How My Journey of Neo Kizomba Got Started
During my travels teaching Neo Kizomba in different cities, curious students would always ask me over and over, “What’s your style of dancing kizomba called?” This was typically asked by someone who had taken a workshop with another instructor teaching more “traditional/retro” kizomba (which is typically played with live instruments, see more on “traditional/retro” kizomba below!), though we all qualify as “kizomba instructors.” They noticed this and asked because Neo Kizomba looked and felt different than what they had experienced before.
I realized I was standing out as a dancer, and also as an instructor. I really had a genuine desire to get people to understand what was going on in my head and what my body was doing, in order to help spread the dance. I was inspired to dedicate myself to learning more and more kizomba by some of my first kizomba instructors.
The first kizomba festival I ever attended was the Summer Bachata/Kizomba Festival in Houston, TX in July 2012, hosted by Jorge Elizondo with classes taught by Ivan Ayuste of Kizomba Kingdom, Pablo Vilches of Kizomba Feeling, and Ricardo & Paula of Afro Latin Connection. I was immediately hooked, and was hungry to learn more anyway I could! My first two kizomba privates were with Albir & Sara and with David Campos & Guida Rei. These instructors really inspired me to keep learning and dancing kizomba. In December of 2012 I travelled to Spain to my first European kizomba festival, Sensual Dance, which was a total game changer!! My first European kizomba festival was unforgettable; meeting people from all over the world and being exposed to so much kizomba from the workshops to the socials was an amazing experience! I definitely started finding a bit of confidence with kizomba.
I did not learn kizomba with the intention of teaching it by any stretch of the imagination. Before kizomba, I had been dancing salsa and bachata socially for about 6 years, and was just starting to make it out to dance festivals and congresses. During those 6 years I never taught any dance classes, nor did I have the desire to. But I guess the universe had a different plan for me! My first year of teaching Neo Kizomba was in 2014, where I taught across 4 countries, 9 congresses, 23 cities in over 30 workshops! I have taught A LOT of kizomba, and I’m still learning and growing as a dancer and instructor. The quote, “When one teaches, two learn.” really resonates with my journey thus far as a kizomba instructor/pioneer in North America. As I danced and taught kizomba more and more, I found myself having to describe the differences of the style of dancing and teaching over and over again, which brings me to the first thing Neo Kizomba represents.
**Interesting fact! Neo Tango (derived from the dance of tango that has existed a lot longer than kizomba) is a term that exists to specify the newer styles of tango music and also the newer styles of dancing tango that the newer, modern tango music inspires. There are similar debates and discussions going on there as we are now seeing with kizomba as well: the true traditional tango vs. neo tango! Anyone else see the bigger picture and parallel with kizomba?
1. Neo Kizomba: A teaching method.
The Neo Kizomba method was born out of frustration. My initial kizomba workshops and learning experiences were pretty confusing. Most of what I was taught were random kizomba patterns of varying levels of difficulty. I got lost in distinguishing which parts of the pattern were the basic steps and counts and what a regular basic saida was versus a fancy elaborate saida. What was a core concept and what was individual flair of that instructor? Moreover, it was hard to find good instruction in English when travelling to Europe. There had to be a better way. The classes I took were labeled as beginner, intermediate, and advanced, but there was nothing really there to determine what level you were; you had to kind of self-analyze what you believed your level was. I really questioned if this is the best way to teach a dance as elaborate as kizomba.
I compare learning kizomba (or any dance for that matter) to learning karate or a musical instrument. In karate you have multiple belts that help guide your journey to a black belt. If I started to learn to play piano, there’s a big gap in skill to go from playing Chopsticks to Beethoven or Mozart. It’s not nuanced enough to just label the kizomba levels from beginner to intermediate to advanced, or level 1, 2, 3; it’s a lot more complex and elaborate than that. Especially with kizomba being a freestyle dance – meaning the leads don’t repeat a basic step to an 8 count as you do in salsa, for example. This opens the door to a lot of musical creative freedom on the dance floor, and adds an extra layer of difficulty as an instructor in trying to break the dance down to absolute beginners. Challenge accepted!
When I first started teaching kizomba (here’s a shocker: I started teaching kizomba 5 months after I started learning it! I will tell the full story of that in another blog!), I did what I saw other kizomba instructors do: random pattern of the day categorized as level 1, 2, or 3. After doing this for a few months, I quickly realized there was a lot more to teaching kizomba; my students were struggling with multiple things outside of the steps themselves (such as musicality, balance, posture, etc.) and they were struggling to remember what I was teaching them. Another issue was that while my students would get the step/move while in class, when they were social dancing, it all disappeared. There was no retention. So do you blame the student or the instructor? I chose to take responsibility as an instructor. I had to become a better instructor, but that meant creating a whole new approach to teaching kizomba from my eyes, different from what I saw others doing at the time.
In regards to my teaching style, I have a very unique approach to teaching kizomba that really breaks down the fundamentals of the dance. I take away the fancy styling and really hone in on the core, fundamental technique behind it. I don’t teach random patterns, I teach core techniques in families of similar moves/steps that make them easy to understand. I also give all of my steps, moves, and concepts names. As I got more and more positive feedback on the unique names I used, I decided to make them a permanent part of my teaching method, which is one of the defining characteristics of my approach to teaching kizomba. Yes, there are instructors who have been dancing longer than I have, and instructors who have been teaching longer than I have; however, my approach is valued by many kizomba newcomers and seasoned dancers alike across North America. I often hear comments like, “I love your style of teaching. I love that you give your moves/steps/intentions names. Kizomba makes so much more sense to me now!”
I’m creating my own approach to teaching Kizomba in English that differentiates itself from other methods through step-by-step breakdowns and clarifications of the mysteries of musicality, intention, concepts, and the mindset behind dancing kizomba. This unique approach towards teaching kizomba is what I have protected and trademarked as the Neo Kizomba™ Method.
2. Neo Kizomba, an umbrella term to help distinguish modern from “traditional/retro” kizomba music.
I studied the way I danced and I studied the way other more “traditional/retro” dancers danced, and the first thing I realized is that we definitely weren’t dancing to the same music.
For example: listening to “Kwanza Burro” by Matias Damasio
and then listening to “Uma Chance” by Djodje:
While these two songs both fall under the “kizomba” label, they inspire a whole different type of movement and feeling. Which brings me to the second thing Neo Kizomba represents: the more modern type of kizomba music that is being produced.
Distinguishing “Traditional/Retro/Authentic” Kizomba
To explain what I mean by Neo Kizomba, it’s helpful to first explain and distinguish “traditional/retro” kizomba. The term “traditional/retro kizomba” I’m using is to classify music that sounds more “Semba-ish”; Semba – meaning “a touch of the bellies”, a move that characterizes the Semba dance – is a traditional type of music from Angola that has a heavy influence on kizomba.
*It should be known that there are also “traditional/retro” kizombas and Sembas being produced today that reflect closely some older songs dating back to the 1970s. Such as this song produced in 2015!
Taking The “Ghetto” Out Of Neo Kizomba
Students would often ask me the difference between “traditional/retro” kizomba and the more modern R&B/Hip hop influenced music. I began calling the newer music “Neo Kizomba,” meaning more modern from the “traditional/retro” sounding music of Kizomba. I don’t like the term “ghetto zouk.” Ghetto zouk is a music genre used by many to classify non-traditional more hip-hop and R&B sounding kizombas. But the music that first started out of as ghetto zouk (almost 10 years ago) has definitely changed to what we listen to today. Ghetto zouk is not a dance style, nor do most people dance zouk to ghetto zouk at a kizomba social. In many of the kizomba festivals across the world people are dancing kizomba to “ghetto zouk”, which is confusing because zouk is a music genre and also a dance style with multiple styles from Caribbean zouk to brazilian zouk.
See two videos of caribbean zouk here:
See a video of Brazilian zouk here:
Yea I know, definitely not kizomba.
In fact, I wonder if the people who came up with this name really understand the meaning of “ghetto.” I’m still researching the origins of the word and am planning to devote another blog entry specifically to what I’m discovering. (**Interesting fact, to make things even more confusing: Nelson Freitas is the owner of a label called “Ghetto Zouk Music”.) You can’t really get new people into a dance class by calling it “ghetto”, the word ghetto as an adjective is defined as: “Slang: Often Disparaging and Offensive. Noting something that is considered to be unrefined, low-class, cheap, or inferior.”
Here’s an example of a ghetto zouk song by Johnny Ramos, one of the first artists to use the word Ghetto Zouk in his songs:
I definitely don’t feel low-class, cheap, or inferior when I dance to ghetto zouk or Neo Kizombas. There are also kizomba English remixes of Adele, Coldplay, John Legend, and of classical instrumentals, none of which are ghetto. There are some remixes that are eargasmic and others that sound horrible, but each day more and more songs are getting remixed to a very good level without feeling or sounding ghetto. I see a bigger movement of music and dance that can take an awesome hip-hop or R&B song and make it even more awesome with a Neo Kizomba beat that can now be danced at a social or a club with a partner, instead of just resorting to twerking and booty shaking with your partner to the original version of the song. It also makes beautiful romantic songs in English “partner-danceable”, which brings a whole new level of euphoria and connection to the dance floor that is completely addicting!
So, Neo Kizomba is not an “official” classification of a music genre. (Who knows what makes something official or not since there isn’t a governing kizomba body to declare what is classified as what.) However, for the person just starting to learn kizomba I feel it’s easier and less confusing to say that there’s more ”traditional/retro” kizomba, and then there’s more modern or “Neo” Kizomba. Some people are under the impression that anything that sounds like kizomba with more heavy bass is ghetto zouk. There are many rhythms that influence the Neo Kizombas we enjoy today and they are not so black and white. From its beginning, kizomba music has been crossing national borders and has been fused with the sounds and cultures of those nations over and over. This movement of newer more modern music is really being pushed by underground DJs adding their own flavors to create new sounds that we then enjoy at the kizomba socials and reach super high and wide levels of popularity from the dancers!
So the Neo Kizombas we are hearing today are a result of the history and the nature of this music. Moreover, in today’s world where technology allows us to share information in a matter of seconds on a global scale, it is virtually impossible to not “remix” styles of music, dance, food, and all other types of art. This is what’s happening with Neo Kizomba music, it’s being blended with other sounds, other cultures; it’s crossing borders and uniting people all over the world through the love of dance and the power of a hug. It’s a beautiful thing if you ask me. A hug is a genuine human connection and is a gesture we can all relate to. And that’s one of the things I teach in my Neo Kizomba classes and workshops: this dance is a musical hug. Similarly, Neo Kizomba is intended to be a term that embraces the different styles of kizomba that are coming out today; it is inclusive as a term, rather than divisive or negative like “ghetto.”
To summarize, the Neo Kizomba music “umbrella” includes, but is not limited to: songs that might be considered “ghetto zouk”; the newer, more modern sounds of kizomba instrumentals; and the English remixes that fuse R&B, hip-hop, Asian, Indian and Arab sounds, pop, swing music, classical music, dubstep (….and the list goes on and on) with kizomba! It makes sense to me and to the many many students I have taught across North America to refer to this more modern, eclectic selection of Kizomba music as Neo Kizomba. This is not a be-all and end-all answer, but being a kizomba music historian (which I fully disclose I am not) is not a prerequisite for getting on the dance floor and dancing to this beautiful and awesome music!!!
3. Neo Kizomba as a dance style, an umbrella term to help distinguish more modern from a more “traditional/retro” kizomba dance style.
The third thing Neo Kizomba represents is the newer styles of dance emerging to express the more modern Neo Kizomba music. You have dancers like Albir Rojas, Isabelle & Felicien, Cymeone, Ennuel Iverson, and Curtis Seldon who dance a modern style of kizomba, versus the more “traditional/retro” dancers of “traditional/retro” kizomba music. I believe the newer sounds and rhythms being used in the Neo Kizomba music inspire a different interpretation of music and movement.
See a video of Isabelle & Felicien (Neo Kizomba) here:
See a video of “traditional/retro” kizomba here:
In this sense, it is understandable that since Neo Kizomba is a different kind of music (see #2 above), you adapt to the music by dancing to it in a different way. This variety in music and its lack of categorization seems to be the culprit behind some of the friction and division in the kizomba community. I always teach my students that the music is king, that your steps and patterns don’t mean anything if it doesn’t flow with the music.
By way of example: I consider myself to be a chameleon on the dance floor not only with kizomba, but with dance in general. Let’s take salsa for example: my steps, my flow, and my energy will change according to the type of salsa I’m listening to, whether it be cuban salsa, latin jazz, salsa romantica, mambo, etc. (Salsa was my first love of partner dancing I started back in 2003!) This is the same for me when I dance kizomba. If I hear a more “traditional/retro” kizomba song the music doesn’t inspire fancy steps, syncopations, or body waves. If I hear a tarraxinha song I will not travel as much and I would use a lot more sensual body movement because the music calls for it; and if you put on Danca Kizomba by Stony, one of my personal faves, you can listen to it here:
You are going to get a different dance altogether. One thing I teach the leads is that the ladies follow us, but we must follow the music.
It follows, then, that newer styles of dance would emerge alongside the more contemporary kizomba songs that come under the Neo Kizomba umbrella described under #2 above. Music is king; in following Neo Kizomba music, the way I dance to a Neo Kizomba song has a different intention and feeling than the way I dance to a “traditional/retro” kizomba song. For example, the Neo Kizomba dance style incorporates slower basic steps on half time (2 counts) and super slow (4 counts) timings versus an on-tempo (1 count) step, and tasteful and musical undulations and hip movement, to name a few characteristics. Neo Kizomba also branches out to fusing other dance styles like hip-hop, tango, swing, and blues elements into the core dance of kizomba for the sake true musical interpretation.
A Matter of Passion and Respectful Preference
I do not condone being oblivious and/or ignorant of where kizomba comes from and not knowing how to recognize the more “traditional/retro” kizombas. The tagline for Neo Kizomba is “Respect for the past, passion towards the future.” Out of that respect, I always play Semba and “traditional/retro” kizomba for people who take my workshops so they can hear and know the differences between the music, which will then inspire a different feeling and flow. But my personal preference remains with Neo Kizomba. I love the English remixes (the ones that are well produced), the instrumentals, the R&B and hip-hop flow – hearing that music gives me eargasms and takes my soul to rhythmic heaven! I don’t expect everyone to share my preference, just like I don’t expect everyone to like cookies-and-cream ice cream (another one of my personal faves).
I, for one, don’t believe our musical preferences should cause division in the kizomba community. Since my open heart surgery I went through back in August of 2009, living from the heart has had a completely new meaning. I strive to dance and teach dance directly from my heart to inspire others to happier and better versions of themselves. Being true to my heart and what really gets me enthused, motivated, and giddy; it’s the Neo Kizomba music and dance styles that truly resonate with me and my spirit. That’s the positive and motivating energy I bring into my classes and workshops.
There is a lot of history and rich culture behind kizomba, as is the case with a lot of popular dances out there today. Kizomba as a music genre, and a dance, as well as the culture behind both, deserves to be respected for paving the way to what we are able to enjoy today. If there is any constant in life, it’s change – times change, cultures change, people change. New histories are written and kizomba is not an not an exception to this fundamental “law of life”. Throughout the history of music and dance, there have been multiple influences creating new sounds and new movements of the body, inspiring new musicians and dancers alike. To fall in love with any dance or music is a beautiful thing, as it gives us a means to express what we can’t with words. Dance and music come from the soul brought out by genuine love and happiness.
I have met some of the most beautiful, humble, and inspiring people from across the globe through dance. Regardless of their age, race, or the language they spoke, we found a common human connection in the joy of music and dance. I see myself as an ambassador of music and dance, inspired to live and share my journey in order to encourage others to step out onto the dance floor, take a dance class, grow as dancers and ultimately, discover themselves authentically. This discovery marks the basis for truly loving yourself, because you can’t love what you don’t know. I see myself as walking down the same path as those dancers who helped plant and nourish the seed of that dream in me, a dream that has become the reality I am living today. For this, I am forever grateful.
***Special thanks to the following individuals who took time out of their day to help proofread, tweak, polish this manifesto into existence: Agata Gardner, Emily Bartholomew, Elona Kalami, Lola Taylor, and Stephanie Gurnon! THANK YOU ALL SO MUCH!