Kiwis get Kizomba – how an African dance is bringing us closer

By Jennifer Little 

Reading time: 12 minutes

Could a sensual new dance style that came out of Angola be taking over New Zealand’s social Latin dance scene, as an alternative to the energetic spinning and hip rotations of Cuban-origin salsa?

The new kid on the block is called kizomba and it is gaining momentum. Not to be confused with ‘Zumba’ – the globally popular fitness programme that involves Latin dance-inspired moves – kizomba is slower and more relaxed than salsa, the entry dance for those who get the Latino bug. Kizomba is danced in close or open embrace to music often accentuated by funky electronic beats. Fusion is all the rage, with moves borrowed from sources as diverse as tango and hip hop. It’s the simplicity of steps and pace that have hit a sweet spot for Kiwi social dancers.

By Jennifer Little 

Reading time: 12 minutes

Could a sensual new dance style that came out of Angola be taking over New Zealand’s social Latin dance scene, as an alternative to the energetic spinning and hip rotations of Cuban-origin salsa?

The new kid on the block is called kizomba and it is gaining momentum. Not to be confused with ‘Zumba’ – the globally popular fitness programme that involves Latin dance-inspired moves – kizomba is slower and more relaxed than salsa, the entry dance for those who get the Latino bug. Kizomba is danced in close or open embrace to music often accentuated by funky electronic beats. Fusion is all the rage, with moves borrowed from sources as diverse as tango and hip hop. It’s the simplicity of steps and pace that have hit a sweet spot for Kiwi social dancers.

Dancing close-up, especially with a stranger, is a new cultural experience for many, yet kizomba has been growing in popularity in main centres world-wide and in Aotearoa over the past few years. Increasing numbers are attending specialist kizomba classes, workshops, and social events as well as participating in competition categories in established Latin dance festivals and events. And now it’s hitting smaller towns.

Lee Aiono, Auckland Latin dance instructor, choreographer and exponent of Kizomba.

Auckland instructor Lee Aiono sees the rise of kizomba as a sign New Zealanders – traditionally known for their reticence on the dance floor – are evolving and maturing to the point of feeling more at ease with a dance that offers fun, fitness, and uncomplicated physical connection. That’s something many are appreciating, thanks to the isolation many have experienced while living through a global pandemic, with numerous restrictions on social gatherings required as part of public health measures.

If you google ‘kizomba’ you’ll encounter videos featuring lithe dancers performing fluid, sensual moves in intimate holds, as well as executing extravagant lunges and leg flicks. For the average social dancing novice, the style is lower key. Partners determine how close they want to get, with women (or followers) calling the shots. Kizomba can even be underwhelming to watch, precisely because of its subtlety and slowness. What gets people hooked is the feel of the dance. As a kizomba learner, I can vow for the simple, immersive pleasure of being in sync with your dance partner to compelling rhythms and evocative music that invites an elegant, smooth flow of steps.

There’s even a view that kizomba could become a fun form of exercise for much older people who may have dodgy knees but not lost their sense of rhythm or pleasure of dancing to music they love with another person.

Kizomba roots

Kizomba file: Angolan Kizomba dancers Alberto Celmo and Jessica Lopez Reus

Kizomba originated in Angola in the late 1970s, around the time that the southern African nation and former Portuguese colony gained independence from Portugal in 1975. Kizomba songs are sung in Portuguese or in a dialect of the various Portuguese-speaking African nations.

Fleming (2019) describes kizomba as “reminiscent of Bachata and other Latin dance styles” as well as “uniquely African”. Its movements are derived from a traditional Angolan dance, semba (not to be confused with Brazilian samba). Semba arose in the 17th century around Angola’s coastal regions. Ever popular today, Angolans consider semba to be “music of the sea”. The word ‘semba’ comes from the singular ‘massemba’, meaning “a touch of the bellies”, which is described as “one of the most recognisable and entertaining movements in semba”.

In technical terms, kizomba is danced with the torso and right arm of the leader guiding the follower as they connect with the music through elegant footwork and smooth body movement. Sub-genres include kizomba fusion, urban kiz, urban kiz tango and urban kiz sensual – the variety of names a testament to the fluidity and playful spirit inherent in this dance mode.

As Lee explains: “It’s a dance of freedom, a dance of expression. When we dance Latin styles, like salsa, bachata, merengue, it’s all about expression. With kizomba, it’s even more open to personal interpretation – what has made it very popular is that people are allowed to express who they are.”

The fusion of different styles, from tango to hip hop is evidence of this freedom. “I’ve seen some amazing tango dancers go into kizomba, and kizomba with hip hop, which is pretty cool,” he says.

As online dance writer Alexius Razbakov says: “Kizomba is for many of the Latin dancers a breath of fresh air, bringing something new and exciting, and perfect for anyone who wants to enter the world of dance, due to its softness and easy basic steps, allowing any novice to gradually evolve to more complex steps, and more importantly allowing a beginner to enjoy the pleasure of social dancing much earlier than any other type of dance in pairs.”

Kizomba in the capital

Wimmy and Bari, founders and instructors of Dança – Wellington’s dedicated Kizomba dance school.

Among New Zealand’s array of experienced and internationally trained kizomba teachers are Bari Chin, from Trinidad and Tobago, and partner Wimmy Wimmy, from Indonesia. Passionate about sharing their knowledge, they founded Dança in Wellington in 2015, a school they call “The Home of Kizomba”. Based in Cuba Street, they run foundation and improver level classes. Wimmy has done multiple trips to Portugal and trained with numerous kizomba pioneers, completing the Afro Latin Connection Kizomba Teachers Training in Porto in 2017, and Semba and Kizomba Teachers Training in Lisbon in 2019.

Co-founder and instructor Bari, who’s been dancing since 2000 in ballroom, breakdancing and Latin styles such as Cuban salsa and bachata, has also immersed himself in the international kizomba scene, making multiple trips to Portugal and pursuing a similar journey of training and competing. Known for their skill, passion and patience in teaching moves, students also praise the way the pair impart their knowledge of the culture, history, and soul of kizomba.

In Auckland, where the Auckland Kizomba Community Facebook page has over a thousand followers, there are classes widely available, and you can find a packed Latin dance club, bar, or studio hosting kizomba somewhere in the city most nights (when we are not in lockdown).

Kizomba connections

Kizomba exponent Lee Aiono is currently in New Plymouth where he’s teaching basic kizomba and training a performance team. He discovered salsa and other Latin street dances through the Latino community growing up in San Diego, California. A New Zealand-born Māori/Samoan, he returned to Aotearoa in the early 1990s. He’s been teaching and choreographing Latin dance for nearly 20 years, at AUT Club Salsa, Salsa in the Suburbs – Auckland, as well as privately through Viva Dance, Auckland, and more recently at two dance studios in New Plymouth.

The decision to bring kizomba to a regional town was an experiment – he decided to trial it after teaching a guest workshop in kizomba to add to the salsa and bachata mix at the end of 2020. He had such an enthusiastic response from local dancers that he decided to return. “My purpose is to give people a new dance experience, a way to learn it and compete.

“The thing about kizomba is that it’s a true count type of dance, so you step every beat…one-two-three-four-five-six-seven-eight. That’s what makes it simple to learn,” he explains. “Because it is a true count, you can play with it, which has given it wide appeal.”

Another part of the appeal he says, is that “it is a very slow, close, romantic style to dance.”

What does he specifically like about it? “To be honest, I took up kizomba because of my age (he is early 60s). I love to dance salsa but at some point, you have to realise your body’s not what it used to be. Kizomba, to me, is a more relaxed dance but I still tend to push myself.”

For him, it is a really great way to “stay physically active through movement and also to keep my mind active – thinking of different ways to dance and creating new moves.”

He senses people are ready for this more seductive dance. When he first arrived back in New Zealand in the 1990s, he recalls men and women were quite timid about dancing together.

“In the years I’ve been dancing I have seen a big shift in the male perspective of couple dancing and a big shift in the overall perspective of being close to a stranger in a dance.”

He’s observed that COVID-19 restrictions have made people more deeply aware of the need for human connection: “After the first lockdown, we noticed the dance studios were packed with more guys than women (which is not usually the case in the dance world). What does that say? That guys were suffering more from lack of connection.”

He advocates dancing as a great way to age well. “Ageing is a privilege and an opportunity, but we need to let the 40-year-olds know, ‘hey you need to prepare’. Be active but don’t go knocking your body around because it catches up with you in your 50s and 60s, talking from experience.

“I’ve always been dancing but I had to put away the basketball shoes at age 40. Dancing has been a great journey and I look forward to the next 20 years.”

His focus now is to get people in their 50s and over into the more relaxed versions of Latin dance – like kizomba and bachata, with covers and songs by artists as varied as as Adele and Lady Gaga suitable to dance to, despite not being traditional kizomba tracks. “I love to see people of all ages being able to go out socially and dance, no matter what music is playing. That’s one good thing about kizomba: it doesn’t matter the music that’s playing – you can probably dance kizomba.”

Source: 1. Kizomba, Wikipedia 2. What is traditional dance in Angola? sidmartinbio.org 3. What is Kizomba? wedance.vip 4. About us, danca.co.nz

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