This is the second post in the series “honing different dance skills.” The first was kizomba. In it, I described several skills required of followers in kizomba that are useful in every dance, but which are most prominent in kizomba.
This means that if you want to develop your following in such and such a particular way–such as by enhancing the subtlety of your torso connection–then kizomba might be a great dance to add to your repertoire.
Today we move on to another dance – this time, Zouk.
What is zouk?
First we need to address the question of which kind of zouk I am talking about. The zouk that we most commonly see out social dancing is Brazilian zouk, from the Brazilian dance called “lambada.” This lambada dance collided with Carribean zouk music in the mid 1990s, and the combination of the two was, apparently, super appealing. The Brazilian lambada dance has since become associated with Carribean zouk music, and then expanded to include a whole genre of it’s own, largely inspired by hip hop, pop, R&B, and the like.
So you may occasionally run into social dancers who are keen to preserve the differences between Brazilian zouk and Carribean zouk, but more often than not, these days, at least in the states and in Europe, at zouk socials you will solely encounter the hair-whipping, thumping beats of Brazilian zouk.
(If you want to read more about the dance’s history – go here!)
Single foot balance
One of the most important skills a follower can develop is the ability to hold their own weight, and especially while standing on one foot.
In fact, in most dances, for most of the time, your weight should only ever be concentrated on one foot anyway. To stand with your weight planted on both feet is called “splitting weight” and it makes it relatively more difficult for your leader to direct your next steps. This is especially true of west coast swing. You should probably always clearly be on one foot, unless the move calls for otherwise (and to be clear, sometimes they do).
Zouk is an excellent dance for working on single foot balance because its becoming increasingly popular in the dance for leaders to lead single foot moves.
In zouk it is reasonably common to be led spinning, on one foot in place, while the leader holds your frame and walks around you in a circle, creating the spin. It is also common for leaders to stop your motion and suspend movement for the sake of musicality, leaving you in place on one foot.
You can identify when a “single foot” spin, moment, or pause is coming based on the leader lifting you up from your frame in place. This upward motion is intended to block any sort of lateral motion, such that you stay just in one place. It also helps keep you balanced, as it elongates the length of the line you have over your foot.
If your leader is good, they will also provide steady support where you need it, in order to you to balance well.
That being said, the better you get at these moves, the less you will need to lean on your partner.
Flexibility and manipulability in upper back / neck
Zouk moreso than any other dance requires flexibility in the upper back and the neck. The dance is said to “hinge” at three axes — at the shoulder blades, at the shoulders/neck, and at the neck/head.
This dance absolutely requires fluid rotational movement around those three axes.
At the shoulder blades, you can create a concave shape, closing your rib cage in towards itself, arching forward. Keep your neck and head in line with the arch so that you are looking at the floor. Then rotate around so that you are leaning off to one side, hinging from your upper back / shoulder blades. Continue rotating, pulling the shoulder that was the highest while leaning to the side now back and around, such that now you are arching back from your upper back, looking at the ceiling. This should have a more ‘convex’ feel to it as while you arch back your rib cage also opens. A good leader will not just help facilitate this movement but also the convex and concave feelings.
Zouk also requires what I call horizontal movement in the rib cage. You can think of this as creating a convex shape with your ribs out to the front (keeping your shoulders in place), transitioning around to the side, creating a concave shape with your torso in the back (so that if you look down at this point you should see the plane of your stomach) and then rounding it out to the other side, and back to the front. All the while keeping your shoulders in place.
See a video on zouk body movement basics here:
You can work on this flexibility alone but will inevitably work on it while dancing with a partner as it is crucial to just about every zouk dance anyone ever does. Being able to move like this is as basic to zouk as the basic step is.
Mastering the curved movement of zouk, and particularly through turns, enables you to throw lots of cool curves into your turns in other dances. You can spin with your head and your torso off to the side as much as your heart desires.
Bachata and west coast swing are particularly friendly to this kind of “shaping” these days – salsa less so.
It is important not to over-style turns, however: if you are bent half way to the side and whipping your hair around coming out of a turn, that’s all well and good, but it does prevent your leader from being able to lead you at this moment. This is important for west coast and bachata but most especially for salsa, as the vast, vast majority of salsa moves a lead will give you before, during, and after a turn rely on having a properly straight posture.
Pure following in body, especially the upper body; shutting off brain
Zouk more than any other of the social latin dances requires–in my opinion–pure following.
Of course, when you start out in zouk, you learn steps.
But as you progress in zouk, leads melt into other leads, and you cannot keep track of the “moves” you were taught being led any more.
And much of zouk has you off axis. You do get to just stand straight up throughout dances, for sure. But you will often have your face looking down at the ground, or up at the ceiling, or at some position in between, and maybe your eyes are closed. And your leader pulls on your shoulder or taps you on a place on your back and you don’t just rotate your torso and keep your eyes moving all about, but also spin in one place.
For me, zouk is an excellent dance for learning how to shut everything off and simply try to do what my lead is communicating to me to do. I can’t look at the lead and interpret from body cues (often in complex following situations they are standing behind you); I can’t remember moves from class; I can’t even guess which way I will be looking next.
That being said – because you are looking this way and that, and because you are often off axis, zouk requires an enormous deal of trust in your leader.
Zouk also has potential to be the most “dangerous” of the dances, for a lot of reasons: it manipulates the spine more than other dances; it has more large and often “violent” motions (but they don’t have to be done that way!); it tends to draw in leads who like doing flashy moves (though not exclusively of course); and the dancefloors are always full of so much movement that a careless leader quickly becomes a hazard.
So zouk requires a lot of trust in your leader. And it requires honesty with yourself and communication. If you enter into a dance with someone and feel unsafe for any reason, you can (must) communicate this to your leader in some way, reject the leads that you are being given that make you feel unsafe, or extract yourself from the dance if you must.
In cases in which you do not feel unsafe, however, zouk is a great time to practice trust.
People will probably disagree with me on this point, but I stand by it: in zouk, I get to do the least amount of styling of any dance, save, of course, for kizomba.
In salsa there are shines; in bachata there is a lot of open position in which styling can be reasonably easily inserted; in west coast swing there are anchors and sugar pushes and turns… and pretty much everything is styled all of the time (even not styling is a stylistic choice, westies will be quick to point out, since all movement on the westie floor should be intentional.)
But in zouk, the strides of the basic are larger than in other dances, the basic often rotates the whole body, and it is often done quite quickly. When you are not doing the basic, you are often caught up in movement that is so complex that styling simply cannot be done, or should not be done, so that leads cannot be missed.
This isn’t to say that styling is impossible, not at all. But I find that I spend much more time in zouk doing exactly what I am told to do than in salsa and bachata, in which I have more freedom in the shape of the music and the shape of the dances to move as I choose. I am certainly biased in this perspective, as I am not the world’s most accomplished zouk dancer, but I still think that, relative to other dances, there is less styling in zouk.
Now you might be wondering: why is it a good thing that there isn’t as much styling in zouk?
Because I really think followers need to be followers first and foremost, and stylers secondarily. (The same goes for leaders, though is less commonly an issue for them.) It’s pretty common for people to get caught up in the way that they look and they way that they personally want to interpret the music, rather than their leaders.
It is a very hard thing, to learn how to listen to your leader first, before the music.
But it’s so important.
And zouk is great for that.
And… that’s it for my zouk list!
Please tell me what you think! And share your own thoughts! Next up is bachata.