5 Lies You’ve Been Told About Zouk

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Zouk – such a terse little word, yet so tricky to unpack. We’re told it means “party” in French Creole, but what does it mean to dancers? There is so much confusion surrounding it that when someone asked, “Rachel, have you thought about writing a ‘5 Lies About Zouk’ article?” I immediately started work on this very piece. I will admit right off the bat: I am not in the zouk scene, although I have appreciated my encounters with it. I spoke to dancers from several regions and different kinds of zouk scenes in order to put together this together. Particular thanks is due to Jerry Joseph (Montreal), Rachel Meth (North Carolina) Iliana Radneva (New York), and Kati Pan (Arizona) for their assistance.

So, let’s examine some common misconceptions about zouk!

1. Zouk is from Brazil

First off, zouk music is absolutely not from Brazil. It was born in the 1970s in the French-speaking Caribbean, beginning in Guadeloupe. It became a musical craze that swept around the world in the 1980s, thanks in large part to innovative bands like Kassav that played concerts internationally. Artists in several other countries were soon imitating and borrowing from the sounds of zouk – it is well beyond the scope of this article to estimate the impact of zouk on world music.

Zouk is also a Caribbean dance style that is, quite logically, danced to zouk music. This zouk usually features a belly to belly connection, with small steps and plenty of core movement. It is not a performance dance but a purely social one, and so has not received so much attention internationally. That being said, it continues to be danced not only in its home region but in every country to which francophone Caribbean people have emigrated, most notably in France, Canada, and the USA.

Zouk has also been used to label an entirely separate dance family that does come from Brazil, derived from their traditional dance of lambada but danced to zouk music. While in early years it was called “lambada zouk,” “zouk-lambada,” or “lambazouk,” these descriptors have started to be dropped from the scene as a new identity for the dance is created. Now people attend events simply called zouk festivals, in which lambazouk is used to describe the style of zouk that is closest to its orginial form, in contrast to the newer Rio style. Further confusion has arisen as new artists have been making all sorts of fusion with zouk, so dancers are often not dancing to true Caribbean zouk music at all, but R&B, hip-hop, electronica, and even acoustic contemporary. Braziliian zouk dancing involves larger steps, with connection opening into handhold, and includes much showier turns and styling. As this form has gained popularity internationally, huge numbers of people worldwide have come to associate this word “Zouk” solely with the Brazilian dancing.

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2. There are two kinds of zouk dance: Caribbean and Brazilian

All right, this is a hairy knot to untangle. In one sense, yes, we can talk about the zouk dances that come from the Caribbean, and the Brazilian dances that have also come to be known as zouk. In truth, there are more kinds of zouk than an outsider could possibly try to describe, although I will give you a quick sampling.

Zouk, the original form, is a festive dance shared with everyone in the community, first in Guadeloupe and later in other Caribbean countries. Family members old and young moved to this music, the closeness of the hold varying suitably by relationship. From this form evolved zouk love, a decidedly close dance done in nightclubs. You brought your sweetheart and danced all night with him or her, or you came solo and then found someone you hoped to make your sweetheart.

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Brazilian zouk is far from being a cohesive form, which can also be pretty confusing, even leaving aside the problematic use of the simple term “Zouk” to describe this family. Most people in that scene separate zouk, meaning Brazilian zouk, into two main categories: Puerto Seguro Style (now being used synonymously with lambazouk) and Rio Style, which includes many variations under its umbrella. These are not related to the zouk danced in the Caribbean.

Porto Seguro is the birthplace of lambada. Lambada music and dance experienced a resurgence of popularity in the ’80s and ’90s with the success of the band Kaoma. Thinking back 20 years, Brazilians remember the importance of lambada to the community, with large parties and well-attended competitions. However, the lambada music fad didn’t last, and soon there were few bands playing it. Afficianados weren’t so keen to lose their dance, so certain key people started to move the scene toward dancing to zouk music, whose popularity had proved longer-lived.

Rio style can be summed up as a fusion of lambada-zouk with a number of other dance forms, such as samba de gafieira, tango, contemporary, and even hip-hop. The fundamentals and technique differ some from lambada zouk, although it is the primary root. Each sub-genre within Rio style zouk (neozouk, vero zouk, mzouk, soul zouk, etc) has distinct characteristics, although few people dance only one exclusively.

3. Zouk is a sexual dance.

This one’s easier: no, it’s not, unless you make it so. I could easily just refer you to my movie-watching analogy from the kizomba “5 Lies,” but let’s consider the particular cases here. Both zouk from the Caribbean and Brazilian zouk dancing involve movement in the core and pelvic region. For many people in non-movement cultures, this is automatically sexually suggestive.

Zouk love is undeniably a dance done in the club with a partner to whom you are at least a little attracted. If you didn’t come with your significant other, then it’s one means of flirtation, part of getting to know each other. It should not be confused with grinding club dances, though. Escalation is slow, and both partners indicate their growing interest (or perhaps diminishing attraction) through their embrace and movement.

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Some Brazilians complain about the foreign sexualization of lambada. I had a brief fling with ballroom dance back in 2006, and my parents gave me a book with glossy pictures and descriptions of a variety of dances. I remember finding the page on “Lambada: the Forbidden Dance.” Apparently this was a common association, thanks to a 1990 film so titled. These days, regardless of which style of Brazilian zouk you prefer, it’s up to you what sort of tone you want to bring into the dance.

4. Zouk is a freestyle dance.

There is a misconception that when it comes to zouk, you just do whatever you feel. Let’s examine that for each of the two dance families.

Zouk in the Caribbean is not a codified dance. You can’t find a syllabus setting out the accepted steps. There are very few classes you can take. If you search for lessons on YouTube (and manage to weed out all the results related to lambada-derived zouk forms) you will only have a few relevant hits. Still, zouk dancers know what is and is not zouk. Growing up in a movement culture, they learned by watching their elder siblings and friends. There is lead and follow technique, attention to rhythm and also to the meaning of the song’s lyrics.

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Brazilian zouk sometimes gets labeled a “hippy dance,” what with the lolling heads and hair being flung around. I have to assume such detractors have never tried to dance lambada zouk! My interviews confirmed my own understanding from the few times I have taken classes in these styles – there is very specific technique for everything from body rolls to hair flicks, and it is not at all easy. Not only do you need a very sensitive lead-follow dynamic, but excellent balance and body awareness. In recent years, quite a lot of contemporary dance movement has been incorporated into Brazilian zouk. Although the range of possibilities in contemporary is enormous, I can tell you from my own semester trying to learn this dance form with a bunch of 12-year-olds that it is not just random movement – I found it very difficult to do as well as my classmates!

5. Zouk and kizomba are basically the same.

Although my knee-jerk reaction to this one is “Whaaaaaaaat? Have you even seen them?” I do have to admit there are several sources of confusion for the layman.

– Zouk music helped inspire the birth of kizomba, with Kassav‘s concert in Angola
– Kizomba was often danced to zouk music in the ’80s
– Musical artists from both genres have borrowed from one another, and plenty of songs exist in the gray area between them.
– Many people first encountered kizomba being danced to ghetto zouk music
– When people dance tarraxinha, or insert tarraxinha breaks into their kizomba, there isn’t much visually in the way of steps. The close connection and focus on isolations can resemble zouk love.
– At Latin festivals, there is often a zouk/kizomba room
– Quite a number of teachers who started off with Brazilian zouk have started offering kizomba classes
– Followers from lambazouk and from kizomba talk about the delicious state of surrender they find in these dances

One beginner class from each should pretty quickly clear up the confusion, though!

Let me know about your own misconceptions about zouk, or the questions people ask you, by leaving a comment below!

Credit for the first three photos goes to Jerry Joseph & Melorize Productions

The fourth photo belongs to Rachel Meth of Embodied Dance.

Want to know more about the evolution of Brazilian zouk?
Check out this article by Kim Rottier and this YouTube playlist.

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16 Comments

  • Lori says:

    Hey! A couple clarifications:

    M-Zouk is NOT related to Rio-style. It is its’ own separate genre of Zouk. It uses completely different technique, unlike Neo and the rest of the Rio-style variations you listed.

    Brazilian Zouk is not danced in open hold as a rule. It has a lot of close body contact and body manipulation, although it has more open hold than Caribbean Zouk.

    🙂

    • Oh interesting, I didn’t realize there were three separate styles. Or maybe more? Are there other styles that claim a completely separate evolution?
      I did mean that Brazilian zouk can open into open hold, in contrast to Caribbean zouk which doesn’t usually. Not that it is exclusively in open hold.
      Thanks for commenting!

  • Ama says:

    Good article…
    Quick precision Guadeloupe and Martinique are French regions actually. So zouk is part of France culture even if some french people don’t admit it… It is.
    And also caribbean zouk can be mix of so many different musics such as sega, dancehall, reggae, kizomba (you said it), rnb, hiphop etc.
    And you can dance it with whoever you want, attraction or not. It’s just about dancing. If not our parties would be very boring. And it’s anything but boring. Of course sometimes it’s a way to flirt but not always.
    You’ve got as well retro zouk which corresponds more to the period 1980 to 1995-97. Some artist of zouk retro sing now zouk love or ghetto zouk and work with youger artists of different scenes.

    Anyway thanks for the precisions. It’s frustrating when you know creole zouk and it has been your culture or part of your history to hear that it is from Brazil.

    • Lots of thoughts here, great!
      While France may claim Martinique and Guadeloupe, I hardly think they can then take credit for everything their overseas possessions create culturally. We may say zouk has become part of French culture thanks to being imported from the Caribbean and becoming popular in France, certainly.
      While I agree that you can dance zouk with anybody, my impression is that you would not dance zouk love with your brother or grandmother or someone you found repulsive…maybe I’m wrong?
      Thanks for reading!

      • Ama says:

        I can tell you that zouk is part of France culture. Guadeloupe, Martinique, Reunion Island, French Guyana … Are still French. And artists like Kassav, fight and work to make zouk recognised as French culture. I know that it sounds weird but these little countries are part of France with the same president, the same law, ok not exactly the same economy as they are far away, but even educational system is the same it’s one country at the end of the day. Creole food is part of French gastronomy too.
        Also you can perfectly dance zouk love, zouk retro etc with your family. Just the degree of proximity or intensity in the dance will be different. What I mean is that they are different way to dance zouk. On the same music my parents won’t dance together like I would dance with my boyfriend. And I won’t dance the same way with my cousin but the rythm, the steps etc will be the same.

        • Jerry Joseph says:

          It’s not because Martinique and Guadeloupe are part of France that zouk is part of French culture.

          For example Canada is part of the common wealth of Great Britain, Poutine is a typical dish from Eastern Canada, but it doesn’t make it British.

          • Ama says:

            Well in France the country itself the French Caribbean community is huge. They are French they dance zouk. And I will add that not only French Caribbean people dance and sing zouk. Moreover artists like Jacob Desvarieux, big figure of creole zouk, works hard to get zouk music recognised as part of the French culture. But I agree with you for Canada. Thr issue is that commonwealth doesn’t work like the DOM TOM … Those DOM TOM are French. There’s always a polemic ariund it but so far so good it is French.

  • Kizouka says:

    When you say “Zouk is from Brazil” is a lie, do you mean the dance of the music? Yes the music is from French Caribbean. But the dance we all know and love was created by a Bazilian couple Adilio Porto and Renata Peçanha.

  • I guess I would have to refer you to my 3 paragraph response above – both the separation of music and dance and the disambiguation of the term zouk as it refers to different dance styles. Paragraph 3 explains the link with Brazil.

  • Mau. Kobri says:

    Hi, Rachel!

    Great attempt in enlightening anyone that will come across your article! You really have done some research, not necessary complete, but really rich to help clear some misunderstanding and educate those who want to learn or at least cause in them the desire to research by themselves what’s what.

    Cheers!

    Mau.

  • Marie says:

    Love the article. There is a book on Zouk now too “The Art and Sensuality of Brazilian Zouk Dancing” written by Marie Alonzo Snyder! Go to http://www.livezoukaloha.com or Amazon for copy. First book published in the USA

  • Meg says:

    I think it’s a problem that festivals put kizomba and zouk in the same room. Sure they share some of the same music, but the floor dynamics are totally different. With kizomba, although you have to look out for other dancers, it’s no big deal if you bump gently into another kizomba couple, hence followers can feel relaxed enough to close their eyes sometimes. However if you crash into a zouking couple in full flight, that could hurt! So you can’t relax enough. Likewise for zoukers, they have to look out for backward moving kizomberars. So I think the festival orgnanisers should ideally split the kizomba from the zouk, mix in some bachata instead. Also I hate seeing kizomba danced to slow modern zouk remixes (yes I have seen this attempted!) or zoukers struggling to keep up with traditional fast zouk music which is better suited to kizomba!

    • Paul says:

      I totally agree. If you are putting Kizomba and real Zouk (the Caribbean one) in the same room it is totally acceptable because both genres of music and way of dance are similar, although Kizomba has more complexed steps, the basic step are the same.
      Putting Kizomba and Brazilian Zouk in the same room makes no sense as they are dances completely different from each other. The two do not go hand in hand, it’s only on festivals and events where organizers that do not know how apart this two dances are that this happens. Cape Verdeans, Angolans, Mozambicans, Portuguese do not dance Brazilian Zouk or have interest on it, so goes for Caribbean people for that matter. I mean, why would we dance a totally different dance to our music if we have our own dance?

  • Dj Kakah says:

    Just a slightly correction: The birthplace of Lambada is Pará, north of Brazil. Porto Seguro is the place who made Lambada more known and popular.

    • Oh interesting, I didn’t find that in any of my research! Do you know where I could learn more? “Pará” is hard to find in connection with Lambada, at least online.

  • Jill Jaeger says:

    Great article adressing a sometimes somewhat emotional topics for a lot of (Brazilian/ Lambada) Zouk dancers and enthousiasts. I like the way the article tries explain this dance by searching for facts and historic elements from different perspectives.
    There have been quit a few attempts to try and untangle the hairy knot of connections, evolutions and origins of the dance, which unfortunaltely sometimes lead to heated discussions while the dance is/was such a unifying one. Luckily articles like this try to positively contribute by offering a more helicopter view approach.

    A few books on the dance have already been mentioned in the article.
    In addition to paragraph 4, I would like to mention that since 2012 the basics (!) of the dance has been codified in word and image in the syllabus “LambaZouk – The Technique Book”. It was written by Patricia Rezende and Claudia de Vries and the dance has been registered and documented at the UKA (United Kingdom Alliance of Proffesional Teachers of Dancing & Kindred Arts).
    The syllabus describes (part of) the history and the basic techniques of the dance that are common to the original form(s) before it gets split up into the different styles and evolutions.
    The goal is to preserve the origins of the dance before it gets lost in the ever growing and very natural evolutions in styles and names, while trying to re-unify the scene and providing a good technical basis for those who would like to learn the dance and choose their own route in the scene.

    Let’s dance!

    For more info and availability of the syllabus:
    http://shop.ukadance.co.uk/LambaZouk
    https://uedata.amazon.com/LambaZouk-Patricia-Rezende-Claudia-Vries/dp/9082011905
    http://brasazouk.nl/nieuws/79-lambazouk-the-technique-book

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