Tag Archives: kizomba

Moving Stories


Prelude: ‘Paris is about life’

On the 14th of November 2015, I was at the Eurostar check-in at the Gare du Nord, Paris, scrolling through my Facebook newsfeed. A quote from the French Cartoonist Joann Sfar, (who in fact works for Charlie Hebdo) reposted by a Parisian friend, caught my eye: ‘Friends from the whole world! Thank you for #PrayforParis, but we don’t need more religion! Our faith goes to music! Kisses! Life! Champagne and Joy! #Parisisaboutlife’. As it so happens, I was carrying with me back to London my dancing shoes and a bottle of champagne gifted to me by one of the nicest people I know in Paris. The previous night, I had had dinner with some members of the Modern Moves team and friends. Two of us had been out for Kizomba research just the night before (the 12th November) at the club Khao Suay in the heart of the Bastille. The only reason we were not all back there on the 13th November is because we were recovering from the excellent conference ‘Orchestrating the Nation: Music, Dance, and Transnationalisms’.

Kizomba on thursdays at Khao Suay.  image taken from Facebook.
Kizomba on thursdays at Khao Suay.
photo taken from Facebook.

Professor Ulrike Meinhof from the University of Southampton had closed the conference with the remark that while the whole world was antagonised and divided, through music and dance human beings continued to connect with each other. However, even as we were celebrating this sentiment and our successful conference in one part of Paris, in another part, carnage and bloodshed was unfolding around the Bastille where we might have been dancing. The attacks were aimed at decimating people who were engaged in convivial and modern leisure pursuits typical of the concept of ‘Friday night’ in a city both global and intensely local: enjoying themselves at bars and restaurants, enjoying a sports spectacle, and enjoying a music concert at a venerable Paris venue, the Bataclan.

Since only coincidence and tiredness had prevented me from being right in the scene of action, I couldn’t help thinking of Khao Suay, the restaurant in the Rue du Lappe, Bastille, whose basement has been serving Paris’s kizomba dancers for quite a few years now. What would I have experienced had I actually found myself at Khao Suay that night? Through Facebook I pieced together the story. It seems that, as the terrifying drama unfolded with little clarity on the doorstep of the club, the owner of Khao Suay, Henri Lee, had the presence of mind to issue an all-night lockdown. Apparently, a club full of kizomba lovers danced the night away in each other’s arms, as the DJs played on. Henri Lee’s role was recollected in several posts as one of paterfamilias, saviour, and comforter, creating a temporary safe haven in the middle of mayhem and danger, even opening his kitchens at 3 am to serve chicken and French fries to the famished and frightened crowd.

I contacted Henri Lee (whom I didn’t know yet personally) on Facebook to ask him for his words. He graciously replied that he didn’t like to talk much about himself, and directed me to the same Facebook post that had caught my eye. Since the privacy of that post had been set to ‘public’, I reproduce a translation of it below:

‘Impossible to fall asleep… All this is a nightmare! Thousands of cops, firemen in the streets of such a deserted Bastille (although usually so lively on Friday evenings), thousands of sirens that we hear all over the place and all the people bursting into tears in the streets!!! One always thinks that this will happen to others yet this time it happened here. This is terror!!! I have to thank Henri Khao Suay Lee!!! Who kept us safe in his establishment and who took good care of all of us!! Opening the kitchen at 3 in the morning to offer chicken and frites to everyone, keeping us updated of what was happening and handling everything for the best, not everybody would have done so!!!! Huge hugs for the victims, their families and relatives!! I have no words.’

Having studied trauma for many years, I found it easy to detect its signs in this as well as other Facebook posts attesting to that evening at Khao Suay. All commentators remembered the poulet-frites, some even posting photos of the chicken ready to be consumed. The deep connection between food and social dance has been reiterated in Modern Moves events and investigations. Here, the food that arrived like manna from heaven was functioning by association to recall another activity involving shared enjoyment of sensation, and collective proof of the body’s vitality: dancing kizomba.

Once again the ‘kizomba hug’ came to rescue human beings caught in a web of violence and uncertainty, when the rhythms of the music induced a sense of order and calm within the space of the dance while chaos and curfew ruled outside. I say ‘once again’, because it was in similar conditions, during Angola under civil war, that the steps of the social dance we now call ‘kizomba’ were forged out of older dances. Stories of dancing until curfew was lifted, of talking, joking, and singing when the electricity disappeared for hours, are now part of kizomba lore.

Kwenda Lima demonstrating the kizomba hug at the Vienna Salsa Congress, 2013. Photo by Valentin Behringer.
Kwenda Lima demonstrating the kizomba hug at the Vienna Salsa Congress, 2013. Photo by Valentin Behringer.

My close brush with the ISIS attacks on Paris through kizomba at Khao Suay made me remember that parallel. More than ever, it impelled me to articulate some of my evolving ideas on war and peace and kizomba. I have noted in particular the warmth with which kizomba has been adopted in certain European countries which seem to have no shared history with Angola or any other part of continental Africa—either that of colonization or cultural exchange– those arising from the former Yugoslavia, the Baltic nations, Sweden, Hungary….

Couples dancing at the Budapest Kizomba Connection Festival, August 2015.  photo taken from the BKC Facebook page.
Couples dancing at the Budapest Kizomba Connection Festival, August 2015.
photo taken from the BKC Facebook page.

The propensity of people from these countries to embrace kizomba intrigues me and I’m searching for an answer through a combination of methodologies: through alternative frameworks for explaining cultural connections– most importantly, the Cold War, in which Cubans, together with their music and dance, moved between Europe and Africa— and a ‘psychosocial’ approach to society, where I read symptoms of collective traumas of different kinds together with ‘responses’ or ‘solutions’ (in this case, couple dance with African origins). The bigger question remains the basic Modern Moves one—why do people, often with no connection to Africa, turn to dances of African heritage for leisure, pleasure, or healing?

Kwenda Lima's Kaizen Dance at the Budapest Kizomba Connection, August 2015
Kwenda Lima’s Kaizen Dance at the Budapest Kizomba Connection, August 2015

In my search for answers, I have found extremely important the life stories of individuals in the world of dance. So in this Moving Story, I present three individuals with no ‘personal’ or ‘ancestral’ connection to Africa, whose love for kizomba developed in cities far from the African continent, and with small or non-existent African diasporas. The subjects of each story are very different from each other, but they also share many things—most importantly their practice of kizomba, and the generosity and trust to open up their innermost selves to a stranger (me). I like to think that these two factors are connected.

Read on!

1) Ljubljana: ‘We feel it’

Urska Merljak met me at the foot of the statue of France Preseren in the centre of Ljubljana. It was a sunny Sunday in January 2015. She sat waiting for me, holding a magazine, the Slovenian equivalent of The Big Issue. On my arrival, she showed me the word ‘Urska’ heading an article on the first page. It seemed some kind of sign: one of the things I’d asked earlier was the meaning of her name. I joined her at Preseren’s feet as she started telling me about his famous poem about Urska, a young girl from Ljubljana, who loved to dance.

Preseren's statue
preseren’s statue

One day, a river god rose from the waters of the Ljubljanica—which was flowing right by us under the city’s famed Triple Bridge. He joined her in the dance and spirited her away from the city to the waters. ‘A black cloud appeared and when it disappeared, so did they. No one saw Urska again.’ We contemplated these (non) coincidences: the poem (which is about couple dance as practiced traditionally in Central Europe), the protagonist and her namesake, and our convergence at the poet’s statue. She pointed to me a house across the street. ‘That’s the balcony under which Preseren used to serenade his Juliet’.


Clouds, unspecified demons, and the romance of connection were everywhere in the conversation we had about why kizomba is meaningful to her. If intuition is a sixth sense, then to dance kizomba is to invoke the sensual part of ourselves as a seventh sense to be discovered. Hugging each other [which kizomba necessitates] leads to a connection of two souls. Indeed, each soul is a fragment of a larger whole, waiting to be united with each other. ‘We are stuck’; kizomba allows us to be unstuck, to unblock ourselves. The proximity it demands to a member of the opposite sex both releases ‘sexual energy’ and requires its reorientation towards ‘sensual energy.’ ‘People don’t think about [these energies] but they feel it. It’s up to them what they will do with the feeling.’

maps, monsters, and magic  juxtaposed in Ljubljana
maps, monsters, and magic juxtaposed in Ljubljana

Despite having a lovely Friday evening in the Kizomba room at the Magic Salsa Festival, which included meeting new people, talking to Kwenda Lima, and dancing hours of kizomba at the opening party, Urska had woken up that morning with ‘a feeling of overwhelming loneliness. We have our demons— we have to embrace them.’ Kizomba does this to us— it releases inexplicable feelings, and increases our vulnerability. ‘We are sometimes afraid of being hurt.’ At the same time, ‘we are starving to get some meaning into our lives—we are not just a body, we are a soul—indeed, a grand unified soul. When we relax our bodies in dance, embrace another body that is vibrating on the same level as us, this is so natural and divine at the same time. We need each other to awaken the parts of each other.’

IMG_1206We were by now sitting outdoors at a café on the banks of the river. The rays of the setting sun illuminated the scene and the church bells started ringing– a fitting son et lumiere show for our discussion on the natural and the divine—but also a reminder of the different temporalities, sacred and secular, which punctuate and order human lives in the past as well as the present. The streak of anti-rationality with which Urska started our conversation, returns. ‘Maybe there is no point in knowing everything. We have to allow ourselves to feel it.’ Sensual energy can heal us and make us stronger. At the moment, we are easy to lead: ‘they are leading us. If we become strong, we will destroy the system.’

IMG_1208As I had also encountered this mysterious ‘they’, and the ubiquitous ‘system’ in my discussion the previous day with Kwenda Lima himself, I felt compelled to stop Urska and ask: ‘who is the ‘they’? What is this ‘system’? Her response was quite clear. ‘The leaders.’ Visions of Tito and other strong leaders of the socialist era floated up in my memory. Are these socialist leaders or capitalist leaders, I asked. ‘These are those with money and ego. It’s a problem of all humans, not of socialism or capitalism per se.’ Yet a reassessment of life under socialist Yugoslavia and capitalist Slovenia shows this problem to be exacerbated in the capitalist present.

Urska went on to elaborate. ‘I was seven years old when the system changed. I remember the feeling I had then. We were more connected then [emphasis mine]. My parents were building a house and the whole village helped them. Nowadays, it’s all about paying each other to help each other. Then, people were together in the streets. Now, we are in the house. This is individualism. Its not about the country that we live in, or the nation that we are, we are all the same,’ she reads out from her notebook. ‘But in today’s Western world of capitalism and individualism, money and ego power, we are more and more disconnected with each other and ourselves.’

We need to find our souls to get over the ego, and it is here that kizomba can help. But this power of kizomba lies not merely in the dance as a formal activity: it is intimately linked to Urska’s awareness of kizomba’s African affiliations. ‘I feel Africa and people coming from that continent have a socialist impulse, transmitted through the generations. They live differently in relation to their environment.’ Even if this is a romantic fantasy, the feeling of ‘Africa’ transmitted through kizomba serves as solace and utopian hope to this citizen of the former ‘Yugosphere’.

2. From Belgrade to Tallinn: Feeling Africa

Nemanja Sonero is a kizomba dancer and teacher living in Tallinn, Estonia. I met him online on the many Facebook forums in which the origins, evolution, meaning, and music of kizomba are hotly debated. He and I were usually in agreement. We became friends, exchanging ideas through private messages, only meeting face to face at the first iKiz Kizomba Festival he organised— extremely successfully— at Tallinn this November. A tall Serbian man in a dashiki and retro glasses, he cut a striking figure. While dancing he was gentle and fun, able to close the ‘height gap’ between us with ease, and this was his attitude during conversation and interaction.

IMG_0406In his choreography with his dance partner, Laura, we saw a Finn and a Serbian, who met in Finland, dressed in ‘Afro-Tribal’ mode, dancing expertly and with passion Angolan semba (the precursor of kizomba, which has developed both in step with and independent of kizomba), enlivened with touches from belly dance (Laura is also an expert belly dance artiste). How did a Serbian come to ‘feel Africa’ while dancing in Tallinn? Nemanja and I finally found the time to have a morning coffee ‘together’ where we discussed his story through Facebook messenger.

The trigger for this conversation was a comment he had made ages ago to me— ‘we were dancing in the streets when there were bombs exploding all around us.’ In my understanding of the Bosnian War and its aftermath (the NATO bombing of Belgrade which was the crisis Nemanja had referred to) I had never spared a thought for the Serbian, who was equated in my mind with ‘perpetrator’ status. Here was my first contact with a Serbian who was far from the images I had held, and whose memories of the NATO bombing were connected closely with his memories of dance. Apart from dancing kizomba, Nemanja spoke English, Spanish, Portuguese, some Estonian and Russian, and his native Serbian…. Where in the story of a war-torn adolescence was there place for all this cosmopolitanism?

Let us imagine, in Belgrade in the late 1990s, a bored, hyperactive and highly intelligent high school kid, trapped between a difficult home life and an educational system that responds to abnormal social conditions by regimenting its students even more than is normal for school. As Nemanja recalls, ‘I just didn’t find school interesting, the whole system of repeating like a parrot.’ In his neighbourhood are young boys slipping into drugs and other criminal activities. Our protagonist’s brother, sensing this fate as a real possibility, introduces him to— capoeira.

Belgrade in the midst of the disintegrating Balkans, offering its youngsters capoeira: how come? It so happened that a British capoeirista was in Belgrade at that time, teaching capoeira for free in the ‘Angola’ style in a house for homeless and destitute children, including those of Roma stock. As with slaves on the sugar Plantation, where capoeira first developed as a means of resistance and physical and spiritual training under difficult conditions, so in the urban dystopia of Belgrade in 1998: capoeira was serving as an ad hoc social glue.

The young Nemanja, who was already skating, skateboarding, climbing trees, and listening to hip-hop, finally found in capoeira something challenging, fun, and new. ‘Capoeira gave me something to focus on, so I would not go to school, but go train.’ With his British teacher, he also practiced English, which he had already absorbed like a sponge through subtitled television programmes. In time, capoeira also opened the door to Portuguese, a language that he lives and breathes now as part of the Lusophone world of kizomba. When, because of the war, the teacher was forced to leave, it was Nemanja who took over his classes.

Again, as on the Plantation, so in Belgrade: from capoeira to couple dance was the next step. At that time, one of his female students took him to a Cuban bar, where he encountered Choma, a Cuban graphic designer who was offering Cuban style salsa classes. Nemanja was soon picking up Spanish as well, and learning about the orishas and Afro-Cuban percussive spirituality. The Cold War had ensured that there had been plenty of Cubans in communist Yugoslavia. They didn’t need a visa, Nemanja recalls. What is rather surreal nevertheless is the image of a Cuban holding salsa classes in a bar while Serbia was grappling with all kinds of social, economic and political effects of coming out of long war. The video below gives a general idea of the continuing popularity, in Belgrade, of the Cuban style of dancing salsa:

On the streets, in the meanwhile, people were selling pirated music on cassettes and later CDs. From these sellers and his friends, Nemanja expanded his music education, listening to reggae, Cuban music, what we call ‘world music’ in general, and even Angolan semba. His brother being an amateur computer enthusiast, they always had Internet at home, so, like Neo in the Matrix films, Nemanja reached out to the world through those early retro computers. He became ‘friends’ with Brazilians and African Americans online, journalists and teachers, who ‘helped me understand many things’: ‘the history of capoeira’, ‘reggae history, and Ethiopia, and slavery.’

Through ‘guerilla’ methods of accessing the wider world, this young man in Serbia was learning about the deeper histories of slavery and colonialism that connected the different kinetic and performative practices that he was increasingly drawn to. From his scattergun exposure to capoeira, reggae, hip-hop, percussion, salsa, the orishas arose a desire to join the dots through accessing information as well as physical expertise. Was he at all aware that all these forms were linked to the history of slavery and Black culture?

‘Not as I do now’, Nemanja reflected, ‘but very much, yes. And I always had a thing for folk traditional dances from Latin America and Africa… I always felt comfortable falling into that feeling of a trance or expressing myself with it.’ The next step then was to embrace kizomba. Already in the mid 2000s, friends in the Angolan embassy were lending him CDs and videos of semba music, while some of his dance friends were being exposed to the dance kizomba, during travels to Portugal. In the late 2000s, he invited a white Portuguese teacher of kizomba, Benjamin Nande, to the Serbian Salsa Congress, which he was organizing.

By the time Nemanja received his first invitation to teach salsa at the Vilnius Salsa Congress in 2008, kizomba was already in his dance repertoire. That first trip to Vilnius led to Nemanja’s eventual relocation to another Baltic country. ‘Somehow destiny and events took me to Estonia in the end. I liked it here, because it was calm and nice and no stress.’ Although a dance polyglot who ‘loved dance so much and the possibilities’ that he ‘wanted it all’, he realized that the life of a dance professional in Europe necessitated a self-presentation as a specialist of some kind.

Kizomba makes Nemanja ‘feel very comfortable and relaxed’. Teaching first at salsa festivals and events which had scope for kizomba, and then at exclusively kizomba events, while building up the kizomba scene in Estonia (culminating in the organization of his own kizomba festival in Tallinn this year), Nemanja is clear about what kizomba allows him to feel: ‘I love to feel my partner… to get close to my partner, and kizomba and tango give me that, and I feel this is what I need more.
But I will always do different dances, and always learn something new, that will never stop no matter what I do.’

True to his word, Nemanja is now dedicating himself to pole dancing. While it is probably impossible to establish an African-heritage basis to pole dancing, we can nevertheless see how the Black Atlantic expressive arts have been crucial for a young boy from the war-torn Balkans to become a cosmopolitan man of the world. But it is too simplistic to draw stark distinctions between Serbia in the shadow of bombing, the peaceful Baltic region where he now lives, and indeed Angola where kizomba came together as a dance. All these regions were deeply impacted by the Cold War, and the same Cold War produced its own cosmopolitanism in which Serbia, too, participated.

'no worries': healing the split self. Nemanja teaching at his festival, iKiz, November 2015.  Photo from the iKiz Festival Facebook page.
‘no worries’: healing the split self. Nemanja teaching at his festival, iKiz, November 2015.
Photo from the iKiz Festival Facebook page.

It is more worthwhile to consider African dance and movement forms as allowing someone like Nemanja to channel back into himself the best of Serbian society— what he remembers as ‘not only its messed-up history and war and violence, but a really wonderful place and people, even in those hard times’. Different kinds of ‘African heritage’ dance passed through his body over time to be assimilated into and to expand his kinetic vocabulary. Their swag, their style, and their very different energies– from the explosiveness of hip-hop to the meditative possibilities of kizomba, have sent him healing messages at different stages of his life.

3. Budapest, Stockholm: Moving into Mindfulness

In August 2015, I visited the Budapest Kizomba Connection, a festival now in its fifth year and organized by the superbly capable Nikolett Hamvas, a Hungarian woman who lives in Lisbon, speaks Portuguese, and appreciates Angolan and PALOP culture as her own. This year, the festival took place on the cruise ship ‘Europa’ moored on the Danube. On Saturday night it slowly cruised under the romantic bridges of this grand Central European city. Beautifully lit buildings floated past. Dressed in white, bathed by the full moon, we reconnected to the elements through kizomba. (see this story’s featured image). ‘Africa’ was reconfiguring ‘Europa’.

IMG_1409At BKC I enjoyed reabsorbing the energies of kizomba into my body and mind. I was learning to change the temporality of my enjoyment (of everything) and kizomba was part of the journey. I was content to watch the dancers whose style I appreciated rather than rush to ask them for a dance. This was how I spotted on the dance floor a young man, slender, pale and dark haired in a Mediterranean kind of way, with his name emblazoned down his trouser legs: ‘Ronie Saleh’. His style mesmerized me.

photo courtesy Ronie Saleh
photo courtesy Ronie Saleh

This style was not the kizomba that the Angolans and PALOP people first brought to Europe and which is danced alongside the more upbeat, playful style ‘semba’; but neither was it purely one of the newer styles developing from kizomba that have proliferated in France in the past five years, the most recent of which is being called ‘urban kiz’. BKC was a bit of a battleground between the so-called ‘urban kiz’ styles and the so-called ‘traditional kizomba’ styles– in keeping with debates raging through the kizomba world about the meaning, movements, mood, and music that are appropriate to this dance and its developments.

Despite those debates and differences, the same dialectic between war and peace, between violence and its overcoming, that brought forth kizomba, and that we have been exploring through my previous protagonists, also gave rise to a dancer who appears to veer towards urban kiz. In 1990, when he was but a year old, Ronie’s parents escaped the war in Iraq and arrived in Sweden. Growing up in a secular Muslim household, the young boy thrived on the opportunities Sweden offered: theatre, singing, writing music and playing the guitar, and the usual set of Black Atlantic urban dances: hip-hop, breakdance, popping. He performed on stage and regularly won dance and music competitions.

Perhaps it was this confidence that allowed him to overcome something that could have been an impediment in his encounter with the world: the stutter he had as a child, and his long experience with speech therapists. But—in a positive and farsighted move– Ronie decided to ‘work with something that I know myself how it feels,’ eventually obtaining a Masters degree in Speech and Language Pathology. Around the same time, something new entered his life: he started to dance foxtrot and ‘got hooked right away’, because ‘the connection and feeling was amazing.’ An interest in feeling and connection thus underlay both his choice of subject for study and his new dance.

It’s not at all uncommon for dancers in search of connection to switch from the sharp and dexterous moves of Black Atlantic urban dances to couple dances like salsa and kizomba. But I had never come across a narrative in which foxtrot featured as the couple dance of choice. Indeed, I knew little about foxtrot beyond a basic awareness that, like the charleston and lindy hop, it was one of the classic swing dances of New York. When, under Ronie’s guidance, I watched some foxtrot videos, I realized that it has been evolving along lines similar to others from the swing family, most obviously West Coast swing; moreover, the path towards ‘foxtrot nuevo’ and ‘dirty fox’ discernible from the titles of youTube videos recalls parallel developments in tango.

At a foxtrot workshop Ronie attended in November 2013, a kizomba song was played during the break. Drawn to the ‘enchanting’ music, he also responded to a similarity of feeling between foxtrot and kizomba. Foxtrot, Ronie explains, ‘is all about body connection and flow on the surface of the dance floor’. Unlike salsa, and like kizomba and tango, this connection is ensured by upper body contact between partners. Interestingly, one of the divergences between urban kiz and kizomba is the diminishing of that upper body contact. Ronie’s retention of this connection, a direct legacy from foxtrot, alongside footwork developed in Paris rather than Angola, is one of the ingredients of what we started calling (only half in jest), ‘Ronie style’.

To this emphasis on connection, Ronie adds a playfulness he inherits from his love of hip-hop and popping. This tendency is apparent in most visually arresting kizomba dancers—from the Panamanian Albir (one of Ronie’s earliest inspirations), who is renowned for his use of hip-hop moves, to the Angolan Morenasso who, based in Paris from 2010, has been one of the earliest propagators of kizomba and semba internationally and whose dance style flamboyantly draws on the Angolan urban dance kuduro. What stands out as ‘Ronie style’ is the mix of body connection, street dance playfulness, basic steps taken from both the ‘Paris styles’ and kizomba, and, most importantly, meaningful variations of time and energy.

‘I like to make contrast in how I dance with my partners, as you notice in my videos,’ clarifies Ronie; ‘some videos are mainly slow motion and peaceful and others have a lot of attitude and firm moves, playing with time, closeness and space—but I always let connection be the main attribute of my dance style.’ These contrasts are a continuation of syncopation, one of the most resilient and recognizable signifiers of Africanity in music and dance. It is another kinetic inheritance from slavery: syncopation was the slave’s mode to overcome ‘Plantation time’ and tease out alternative temporalities for resistance through the body. Ronie’s ability to slow down to an extreme the tempo of the dance highlights the contrast with faster syncopations.

These variations are further enhanced by Ronie’s sensitivity to a deeper difference between foxtrot and kizomba: ‘the feeling and how you walk and put down your steps along the floor. In Kizomba you walk with the energy downward—connection with mother earth. In foxtrot you are more on the surface of the floor.’ ‘It took me a while to get the kizomba movements in my walking (cause I was too much gliding on the floor instead of walking downwards)’, remembers Ronie, ‘and still some foxtrot dancers tells me that they can’t see the difference between my foxtrot and kizomba, but that’s maybe what makes my style bit unique.’ It’s the contrast in energies as much as their coalescence, together with the slowing down of time, which allows him to draw new possibilities out of kizomba.

The overall effect is reminiscent of the body’s mastery over its environment that is the forte of Asian martial arts. Although ‘not religious’, Ronie ‘has been meditating for eight years’, and sees his beliefs as ‘more headed to Buddhism and Mindfulness.’ Like a number of kizomba dancers he has grasped kizomba’s potential to approximate the meditative possibilities that Asian embodied philosophies access and refine. Kwenda Lima’s ‘kaizen dance’ and ‘bodhi kizomba’ has been pioneering in this respect. It is no coincidence that I experienced Kwenda’s unique classes with both Urska and Ronie, who recalls ‘crying with the impact’ of Kwenda’s kaizen workshop on the top of the Europa’s sun deck that blazing hot Budapest afternoon.


Like Kwenda, Ronie synthesizes fragments of the sacred dispersed across the (post)secular world to explicate connection through dance. He turns to the four elements ‘Fire, Water, Air and Earth’ and their attributes: fire’s being ‘firm and sharp movements’; air’s, the ‘flow’; earth’s, the connection created by the body’s downward direction of energy; and water’s, ‘patience’ (‘just imagine how it is to walk in water’, he asks me). This verbalization of a dance style, itself a creolized product with African and European influences, combines ancient Greek philosophy and Asian ideas of energy flow. ‘If we can vary the way our souls move our bodies in accordance with life (the four elements), then we can share a deeper and more three-dimensional experience with our dance partners. The way we dance will not feel like separated steps anymore – all the “Steps” become ONE energy– we`re floating.’

Photo courtesy Ronie Saleh
Photo courtesy Ronie Saleh

Ronie has been dancing kizomba ‘non-stop’ during the past two years, teaching since August 2014 in Stockholm’s biggest dance school, and, a year later he quit his job as Speech Language Therapist to devote himself full-time to dance. He says with a faint air of disbelief, ‘I’m now travelling all over the world sharing what I love the most, to make this world to a better and happier place.’ Apart from giving weekend workshops and teaching at festivals, he still teaches foxtrot (with a kizomba touch), which now has become really popular in Scandinavia. From Iraq to Stockholm and from Stockholm to all over the world, kizomba and foxtrot and hip-hop and popping comes together in this dancer’s body and mind, to reaffirm the salience of the Black Atlantic as a kinetic philosophy but also reconfigure it as a world resource.

Concluding Speculations

The ways in which different kinetic strands of the Black Atlantic, floating away from each other in the tailwinds of history, unite in his and the other two stories I have told here, move the debate over cultural appropriation of Black expressive forms towards considerations of kinetic sharing and the body’s hospitality towards dance and music traditions that are not ‘meant to be our own’. These stories of individuals from the margins of Europe and beyond, take us to a world beyond the binary of ‘black’ and ‘white’, and make us think harder about who is allowed to take what from whom in the remaking of the self that modernity invariably seems to demand, no matter where we are born and where we grew up.

Kizomba alfresco on the banks of the Seine, Paris.
Kizomba alfresco on the banks of the Seine, Paris.

I started this Moving Story by a recollection of dancing kizomba through the recent attacks in Paris, and I want to return to that scenario by wondering what would have been the conditions under which the young terrorists would have taken up kizomba in the suburbs of Paris, where urban kiz first came together, instead of guns and body explosives. We can’t just point to social marginalisation, religious beliefs, skin colour, and collective trauma as explanations. Some young men and women across Europe have turned to dance to heal, others have not. Trying to work out why (in both cases) means taking far more seriously than ever dances like kizomba and their deeper connection with war, peace, and our global modernity.

kizomba on the boat 'Nix Nox', Seine, Paris
kizomba on the boat ‘Nix Nox’, Seine, Paris

All photos by Ananya Kabir unless otherwise specified.

A heartfelt thank you to Urska, Nemanja, and Ronie! Gratitude always to Kwenda Lima for opening the pathways of consciousness. A special merci also to Henri Lee and Domino Ancete.
Thank you to Nemanja and Nikolett for such hospitality at their festivals; Vedrana ‘Dottoressa’ and Darinka Chebella for talking to me about dance and the ‘Yugosphere’ in Ljubljana; to my ‘Kaizen family’ for all that we learnt together on the Danube; and to a partner who shall remain unnamed- for being the key that unlocked the secrets of kizomba.

Finally, to Brenna Daldorph, who initiated me into kizomba in Paris, a massive thank you for being there from the start of this particular ‘never-ending story’

The Moving Blog


It´s not possible to write a series on houses of African music for dancing in Lisbon without giving a special place to the most emblematic and internationally known place: B.leza, the survivor of the tradition of live music. Following the tradition that started in the seventies with Bana´s place, live music is the main raison-d´être of this mythical house.

The name chosen, “B.leza”, has an extraordinary symbolic meaning for Cape Verdean music: B.leza is the artistic name of Francisco Xavier da Cruz (1905-1958), a composer and musician who inspired the musical genre called morna (Cidra, 2010a). His house became the meeting point of artists, and he trusted in Bana to keep by heart his last poems (Cidra, 2010b). If we take into account that Alcides, Bana´s son, is one of the co-owners, we can understand how strong and deep is the relationship of B.Leza to the transnational links between Cape Verde and Portugal.

For all these reasons and more, B.leza can be considered an institution in Lisbon and it deserves an in-depth ethnography: the symbolism of the space, the artists that wrote the history of music, the personages that circulated and still can be found there, the dancing bodies that still respond to the ritual call of music… If we look carefully at B.leza´s dancefloor, we can see how all this long and deep history is embodied through the most pleasant and smooth of movements.

The tradition of live music in Lisbon

Bana was probably the first musician who opened a space in Lisbon for displaying his art and inviting other artists to play. It was in 1976, and the first name given to it was “Novo Mundo”, that later gave place to “Monte Cara” (Cidra, 2010b, INET-MD). Its final name was “Enclave”, the most remembered nowadays. Anyway, it was popularly known as “Bana” on behalf of the famous owner´s name. He put together live music, food and a dancefloor: this formula met with great success. Other well-known artists opened live music venues, such as Tito Paris and Dany Silva. In this context, José Manuel Saudade e Silva, a Portuguese gentleman who worked as a lawyer, fell in love with African music and enjoyed socializing with musicians. One day, he decided to gather some friends to open a new space devoted to this music and dance culture: in 1987 the dance club Baile was born in the ballroom of an ancient palace (XVI century) to give it new life. We are speaking about the emblematic Palácio Almada de Carvalhais. Previously, it had hosted the mythical Noites Longas (Long Nights) organized by Zé de Guiné, one of the fathers of Lisbon´s African nightlife. Among the legends that circulate around the dancing rooms, it is said that it was the place where Marquês de Pombal designed the reconstruction of the city of Lisbon in the eighteenth century! It was some years later, in 1995, that the house would be reopened with a new name: B.leza was born to become an icon that is still alive today.



Entrance to old Bleza
Entrance to old Bleza
Backyard of old Bleza
Backyard of old Bleza

B.leza, an icon of African-ness in Lisbon

Those who were lucky to live during those times describe the old days with emotion and agree that there are no words to define what it meant: the ancient candelabras hanging from the high ceiling, the corridors where you could find the big stars of African music chatting and smoking, the impressive dancefloor, the mix of solemnity and decadence because of the passing of the years, and the magic of the ambience. It was the meeting point for artists of every genre and intellectuals, and it became the university of African music and culture for those who were interested in it. All the big names of African music played in B.leza: Bana, Bonga, Justino Delgado, Tabanka Djaz, Tito Paris, Don Kikas, Sara Tavares, Lura, Nancy Vieira, just to name a few. DJ Sabura, one of the DJs that you can find there making people happy every Sunday, speaks about the old B.leza as his place of initiation into dance:

“B.leza is a cultural icon of African-ness in Portugal, in Lisbon (…) It was a place that had a mysticism that transpired the walls. There were verses written on the walls, there were red giant candelabras of high value, there was a dancefloor in darkened wood, there was a giant ceiling (…) and apart from the main hall, there were all those narrow corridors where people went to smoke and chat. It was a place where you could find painters, writers, singers, musicians, everyone spoke about it…it was a really special place, and it had a spectacular energy. Everyone was there, look, my initiation into dance took place there, with the friends I met at B.leza.” (Interview with DJ Sabura)

Nevertheless, it was not only about music: from the first day, the vocation of the house was the promotion of African culture (and not only) in all its dimensions: there were also poetry recitations, film exhibitions, visual art exhibitions, and more. Although it has always been open to art from all PALOPs, Brazil, and beyond, B.leza’s fame rests on its special relationship with Cape Verde, to the point that the President of Cámara Municipal de Lisboa (local government of the city) said once that the house can be considered “one more island of Cape Verde”. The owners insist that B.leza is not a disco: it is a house of culture. In fact, the first thing that strikes any lover of African culture is that the house offers a luxury cultural programme for inexpensive (sometimes even merely symbolic) prices.

B.leza, a love story

If we go to the dancefloor, we can read this message on the wall: “In 1995, B.leza was born from a love story. In the noble hall of Almada Carvalhais Palace, the music from Cape Verde danced in Lisbon. Recognising the city as a natural space of encounter of the people that History joined together, B.leza hosted artists from Mozambique, Angola, Brazil and many others that made of the stage the pretext for life to take place. The Palace closed but the history didn´t end. B.leza (re)encounters now the river Tejo and its audience to receive old friends with a new house, and sing the poetry and magic of lusophone culture with them. Good evening, welcome to B.leza!”


What is this love story that this welcoming message tells us about? An interview with Sofia, one of the co-owners of the place, leads us to the answer. The magic of D. Jose Manuel Saudade e Silva´s dream was imperilled when he unfortunately passed away in 1994. It was then when his two daughters, Sofia and Magdalena, two strong-minded and determined Portuguese ladies, decided to carry on with their father´s dream as an act of love for him. The musician Alcides (Bana´s son) joined them in the adventure. And they succeeded, there´s no doubt! Now we know the mysterious love story that the walls of today’s B.leza tell us about…

The opening of B.leza was kind of a risky adventure, as the two ladies were quite young and they didn´t have much experience in the field. They didn´t know whether the house would come to life again. The inaugural night was a difficult moment for them. Fortunately, the success went beyond expectations. This is the way Sofia, one of the current co-owners of B.leza, remembers that day:

“We opened in 1995, with a bit of fear because it was something new for us to some extent (…) it was kind of surprising how it became so successful (…) Baile had been falling down in its final years, and we wanted to do something that represented a continuity while making it also clear that there had been a change. (…) I remember the inauguration day, it was 21st December 1995, we went back home to change clothes and come back, and before I phoned Fernanda, a lady that worked there with us in that time. I asked her: “how is it going, Fernanda, how is the house now?” because I was afraid that nobody would come in, those anxieties…she said: “girl, come quickly or you won´t be able to get in”. It was absolutely crowded, things went just great.” (Interview with Sofia co-owner of B.leza)

Exiled from the palace

Unfortunately, nowadays we cannot experience a night in the palace because the owner finally decided to sell the property and B.leza´s soul had to pack up and look for another home. The search was hard, as it was rather difficult to find a new place that could keep up with such high standards. During the period between 2007 and 2012, trying not to leave the B.leza community homeless, the co-owners organized parties that they called B.leza itinerante (itinerant B.leza) in diverse places such as Teatro de São Luis, Teatro da Luz, Maxime or Teatro do Bairro. After some years roaming around the city, B.leza found its new home: an industrial block beside the river Tejo. How to invoke the spirits of the ancient iconic B.leza in a cold and empty diaphanous industrial box with metal serpents running on the ceiling? The staff worked hard to feed the imagination of their loyal members and help them get over the trauma of palace exile.

“Our idea was bringing some elements that could bring people back to the former B.leza. (…) This space was too modern, too cold, and we tried to find elements that could bring in a bit of warmth and a bit of history to the place. So we went to look for velvet for the curtains in a warm colour (…) and old furniture (…) And it seems that we made it, because people say: “oh, those candelabras are from the former B.leza” and they are not! But we got to build that bridge.” (Interview with Sofia, co-owner of B.leza)

Smokers´ sofa area
Smokers´ sofa area
Bleza dance floor
Bleza dance floor
 Area of chairs
Area of chairs

Yes, if we go to nowadays´ B.leza, we don´t find ourselves in a palace. Anyway, we shouldn´t feel sad about it because the crystal wall that looks at the Tejo provides us with other kind of luxuries. For example, while dancing in a Sunday matinée we may be amazed by a sight like this one.

Sunset from Bleza
Sunset from Bleza

As the sun goes down, the lights that let see the silhouette of the bridge 25th April remind the dancers that critical episode in the history of Portugal that changed definitely the destiny of former Portuguese colonies. On the left of the bridge, the illuminated Christo Redentor (Redeeming Christ) seems to look at B.leza and protect the dancing community with his opened arms.

During the day, the walls recently re-painted in deep pink make the new B.leza impossible to remain unseen in a walk by the shore of Tejo in the area of Cais do Sodré. There´s no doubt you will find it if you´re looking for it!

Pink Bleza from the outside
Pink Bleza from the outside

But the most important ritual space is the stage: here the resident band plays every Friday and Saturday, and the living legends and new artists of the Portuguese-speaking countries (and beyond) jump on to display their art. The resident band of B.leza makes people dance every Friday and Saturday: Vaiss Dias (guitar), Cao Paris (drums), Paló Figuereido (bass), Kalú Ferreira (keyboards) and Calú Moreira (voice).

bleza resident band by samuel sequeira (from www.lisboafricana.com, by Samuel Sequeira)
bleza resident band by samuel sequeira
(from www.lisboafricana.com, by Samuel Sequeira)

On Sunday there is an extremely popular Matinée that starts with a dance workshop by some of the best-known teachers of Lisbon, followed by a session guided by DJ Oceano and DJ Sabura.

DJ Oceano and DJ Sabura Matinees Bleza
DJ Oceano and DJ Sabura Matinees Bleza

The organizer of these dancing Matinées is Magda, an incredibly nice and busy young woman (originally from Poland) and a source of never-ending original ideas for new events. She combines her role as producer of music and dance events with her role as doctoral researcher on African music at ISCTE (University of Lisbon).

She was responsible for some extremely interesting activities, including a series of colloquia with the main kizomba teachers of Lisbon. Another initiative that she developed and deserves special attention was the series of workshops named Kizomba com Elas (Kizomba with them, a feminine “them”) that intended to bring under the spotlight the work of these female teachers that are usually regarded as secondary actresses in a context where male dancers rule.


kizomba com elas Catarina Paniagua
kizomba com elas Catarina Paniagua

B.leza, the democratic dancefloor

One of the most striking aspects of this house is the extraordinary heterogeneity of its clientele. The dancefloor is inhabited by people of all ages, colours, looks, social classes, professions, origins and lifestyles. Indeed, this openness and diversity is one of the main characteristics of B.leza, and it is so because the politics for entering are not restrictive:

“We let everyone in, we don´t have any dress code to get in, people come as they want. If you come from the beach and you wear flip-flops, you get in wearing flip-flops. If you want to come with a shiny dress from head to toe… you just come as you want to come, as you like to come and as you have money to do it (…) There are car parkers, who got some coins today and come to drink their cup of red wine and dance all the night long and everything is ok, or even ministers, judges, the prince of Monaco came here one year ago to dance as any other client, Robert De Niro, Catherine de Neuve…everyone as long as they want to have fun are allowed in.” (Interview with Sofia, co-owner of B.leza)

Bleza matinee dancefloor
Bleza matinee dancefloor

In this way, the dancefloor becomes a democratic ritual space where social inequalities of everyday life are temporarily suspended. In the words of the classical author Victor Turner, the hierarchical social structure becomes a horizontal communitas during the ritual (Turner 1967). At B.leza nights, the time of the dance is the moment to dream of a better world where everyone is the same…



Cidra, Rui (2010a) “B.leza”. In Castelo-Branco, Salwa (dir.) Enciclopédia da Música em Portugal no século XX A-C. Lisboa: Temas e Debates/Círculo de Leitores.

Cidra, Rui (2010b) “Bana”. In Castelo-Branco, Salwa (dir.) Enciclopédia da Música em Portugal no século XX A-C. Lisboa: Temas e Debates/Círculo de Leitores.

Turner, Victor (1969) The Ritual Process. Structure and Anti-structure. New York: Cornell University Press.

Livia Jiménez Sedano is currently member of INET-MD (Instituto de Etnomusicologia-Centro de Estudos em Música e Danca) and her work is being funded by FCT (Fundação para a Ciencia e Tecnologia) of Portugal. She is a collaborator of the Modern Moves Project and will become a full member in September 2015.

The Moving Blog


After last week’s visit to one of the classical African houses of Lisbon, A Lontra, today I propose taking us to a newer one. The landscape of houses for dancing African music in Lisbon is so dynamic, and the craze for dance is so strong that we can find new clubs opening even in the hardest times of financial crisis in Portugal. A good example of this is Kalema Club: each disco has its own personality, and Kalema attracted my attention from the first time I stepped into the house.


Kalema Club is a warm and welcoming house with a capacity of a bit more than 100 people. It is situated in the northern zone of Lisbon, at Avenida Frei Miguel Contreiras 18C. The golden and earthy colours of the lights and furniture, the comfortable sofas where you can sit freely and the non-huge but crowded dancefloor make you feel at home since the moment you arrive.

PICTURE 2. General view 1


Whenever you decide to go to the bar and ask for a drink, you will always find the beautiful smile of Zanatt, barwoman and co-owner of the club with Ricardo Rodrigues.


One night in Kalema: ethnographic description

“Raluca, the promotor of Friday nights of Kalema Club is waiting at the door to welcome us with her shiny smile as we arrive. She is a really nice Romanian young woman who became a lover of African music in Lisbon. As she has great social skills, she has been recently included in the team of promotors of Fridays nights in Kalema. It means that we are on her guestlist and she invites us to sit on her table. The security man gives us a paper card of consumption. This is the most extended system in this kind of clubs in Lisbon: you don´t need to pay when you enter, and everything you ask for will be marked on your card. To anyone who is used to pay right in the moment of serving, this card system makes you feel that you are not spending money at all (until the moment of leaving, of course!). Before you leave, you pay the total amount and your card is stamped. This is the proof of payment that you must show to the security staff to be allowed to leave.


After crossing the entrance door, as you go downstairs you can feel the beats of kizomba reverberating closer with each step. Once at the level of the dancefloor, we go to the table where some friends are sitting. After being introduced to the rest through the smile-and-kiss ritual, we can sit down as part of the group. We can now be considered part of the collective social subject “our table”. I look around and see that all the sofas are occupied by groups of people that chat together and lean their drinks on the tables beside. Everyone is dressed in a weekend fashion, in varying degrees of formality that don´t go to the extremes (neither suits-and-ties, nor sport shoes-and-jeans). All the tables and sofas are oriented looking at the dancefloor and, as the space is not big, it is possible to observe almost every corner from any seat. The dancefloor is never totally empty but never totally packed up, leaving space for dancing without accidents. Most people come back to their original tables of reference after each dance.” (Fieldwork Diary)

This continuous cycle of going to the dancefloor when favourite songs are played and coming back “home” afterwards made me remember what I had witnessed in other African houses such as Mwangolé or Sussussu. But…this is not what I was used to see in any of the typical kizomba parties I have attended here in Lisbon…

The riddle of Kalema

Kalema became a mystery for me since the first night I went there: I was very curious about was what I perceived as a striking mix of ambiences. As far as I have witnessed in my fieldwork until today, in a “typical African disco” of the old style (80s and 90s), we will find people drinking and chatting in groups sitting on sofas beside tables around a dancefloor. Most of the time they will be talking and watching people dance (what is usually called convívio), and only in certain special moments they will jump on the dancefloor. By contrast, in the houses and parties that kizomba school people prefer, most of the time they are not sitting: instead, they are dancing or standing around the dancefloor, so that chatting and drinking is much of a secondary activity. In these contexts (such as Barrio Latino on Thursdays or, more recently, B.leza on Sundays), chairs and sofas become an obstacle for the dance or an improvised bengaleiro (place to leave their coats and bags). Apparently, Kalema broke that rule: being frequented by a mix of kizomba school people and Africans, all of them shared the habit of sitting on the sofas in groups and talking. Why? What was going on? I decided to resolve this intriguing fact that made Kalema such a special place. An interview with the co-owners, Ricardo Rodrigues and Zanatt, finally led me to the answer.

THE DANCEFLOOR ON FRIDAY (from facebook, courtesy of Kalema Club)
THE DANCEFLOOR ON FRIDAY (from facebook, courtesy of Kalema Club)

History of Kalema 

Kalema Club opened just a few years ago, the 8th November of 2013, as Ricardo remembered immediately. The place already existed, and it was known as Terra da Música. To give it a new life, it was essential to change the name, the decoration, and the ambience. Interestingly, Ricardo spent a part of his life in Cape Verde and opened a house that called RClub. He used to go to another disco that was called Kalema, and the name inspired him. “Kalema” is the name given to a strong swell that beats the Western African coast (what could be considered a metaphor for the emotional state in which people get into through dancing.) Apart from the beautiful sound of the word, one of the reasons why Ricardo chose this name is because, according to him, we can find this term everywhere in the PALOPs: a general reference of Portuguese-speaking Africa that is not specific of any country. In this way, it could make people from diverse African countries feel identified with it. The two co-owners are well knowers of the African nights of Lisbon: Zanatt, from São Tomé, has lived in Lisbon for a long time, and Ricardo, Portuguese, has a quite interesting history of relations with Africa. Their intention was opening up a new African disco with a special personality that could make it different from the others. The boom of kizomba changed their plans: school kizomba lovers started to come and introduced their social rules. As the house started receiving more and more clients of this kind, it became an unexpected social mix and it had to adapt to the needs of both types of public: a good balance of recent hits and old music, a combination of living-room-like space with kizomba workshops some nights. As a result, today we can find a quite interesting mix of nightclub cultures, social rules and dance styles that develop through crossed influences in a small-medium space.

Nevertheless, these cultural diversity provide with some difficulties to keep everyone happy. The first key point is the music: how can the DJ guide such a heterogeneous community through the night?

DJ KLAUS, THE RESIDENT DJ (from facebook, courtesy of Kalema).
DJ KLAUS, THE RESIDENT DJ (from facebook, courtesy of Kalema).

For this reason, the solution found was the following: Kalema offers the possibility of experiencing a night more focused on kizomba on Fridays and a more “African night” on Saturday. At this moment, on Friday night we can find some of the DJs most appreciated in the world of kizomba schools and festivals joining DJ Klaus, the resident DJ. On Saturday, the invited DJs are specialists in African audiences; for example, DJ Zauzito was there for a noite do semba (semba night).

PICTURE 9. Workshop on Friday

FLYERS OF FRIDAY PARTIES (from facebook: courtesy of Kalema Club)
FLYERS OF FRIDAY PARTIES (from facebook: courtesy of Kalema Club)

Summing up, if you go on Friday, you may find a kizomba workshop or a show by a well-known teacher; if you go on Saturday, you may find something more similar to the nostalgic African discos of the 80s and 90s. Or you may find a surprise, as new realities are being created every weekend. What are the new shapes that African-ness is taking in Lisbon´s nights? Are we helping the blending of social groups and night cultures through the love for music and dance? The answers are waiting on the dancefloor of discos like Kalema in the next years, starting from tonight. We´d better not miss it!

Livia Jiménez Sedano is currently member of INET-MD (Instituto de Etnomusicologia-Centro de Estudos em Música e Danca) and her work is being funded by FCT (Fundação para a Ciencia e Tecnologia) of Portugal. She is a collaborator of Modern Moves Project and will become a full member on September 2015.

Moving Stories

Learning through Exhilaration: Modern Moves at Batuke! Festival 2014

In August 2014, the Modern Moves team collaborated with London’s Batuke! Festival of Afro-Luso dance culture. This month’s Moving Story presents a kaleidoscope of our individual responses to the weekend, which included classes, parties, and participation in the Notting Hill Carnival on Monday.

Four very different perspectives here, which are not shy to reveal the intensely personal impact the festival had on each of us—and each one emphasizing the ‘exhilaration’ alongside the ‘learning’.

batuke e
Batuke 2014: In a basement room in central London, a group of dancers are going through the steps of the Angolan dance ‘Rebita’. The Rebita involves men and women promenading in a circle. When the ‘Commandante’ (here, the teacher Mestre Petchu) calls us to attention—‘atenção!’— we shift our steps from tempo to contratempo. Stepping into the circle with a crossed step, we shift back, face our partners, and flex our torsos towards each other. After this movement, we resume our Rebita promenade.

What we were performing in that group was the infamous gesture of ‘semba’— which Portuguese and other colonial authorities found the most scandalous element in the dances they observed amongst the Africans they encountered in the region that is now Angola, as well as amongst those transported to Brazil to work as slaves. It is a gesture that – despite this heavy weight of disapproval—has survived and lives on in various social dances across the Afro-diasporic world; it has even given its name to the modern dances ‘samba’ and ‘semba’.

A very specific experience that recurs in my dance research is the feeling, while I’m dancing, of being transported to another time and place. This uncanny encounter between my dancing body and a history that is not mine per se repeats itself often enough for me to not want to dismiss it as the product of an overheated romantic imagination. In the course of my research I constantly ask myself about ‘methodology’. What do we scholars actually do with social dance? How do we use living practice to reveal the past, and why should that past be of any importance and interest to the present?

The Batuke festival presented me with two moments of cutting through space and time. The first was the class in Rebita and Angolan carnival rhythms (such as kazukuta) that Mestre Petchu and Vanessa offered. An exhilarating session of men and women facing each other, led by Petchu and Vanessa; we moved by mimicking their gestures. The heat, the beat, the advance and retreat- the collective energy that warped the present- Petchu and Vanessa coming together briefly in couple hold to dance a few semba steps. I was somewhere in Angola, sometime when the rebita and kazukuta were transforming into semba.

The second class released a different energy. Kwenda Lima led a large group through Caboverdian rhythms: mazurka, coladeira, and batuke. As with the other class, we sometimes formed couples, sometimes divided into male and female groups. The atmosphere was defined by Kwenda’s mix of childlike joy and complete control over the archive he was opening. It was delightful to move from the mazurka, with its clear links to Central European partner dance, through the lively coladeiras and finally our fantastic finale of the batuke (more meaningful for us by being one of the songs in the Muloma soundtrack). Facing each other, keeping the rhythm by continuously slapping our thighs, we performed for each other, gave each other strength.

Once again I was translated to an ‘elsewhere’– an island in Cabo Verde, where women sang work songs and produced percussion out of their bodies—because they either did not possess percussion instruments, or because percussion was forbidden (as with the ‘patting juba’ traditions of the American South). That evening I discovered massive bruises on my thighs produced by the energetic batukeira that I had momentarily become. I remembered the wound that never heals on the ankle of Achille the Caribbean fisherman, in Derek Walcott’s epic poem Omeros? Yes, the wound of history– but also the mark of intense pleasure and a physical understanding of what it means to feel the batuque.

There were other moments, too, when the unexpected conjunctions of Afro-diasporic history passed through my body as participant and spectator. Jessica from New York paying homage to her Haitian heritage by dancing the yonvalou (voudou movement in honour of the snake god Damballa) at the start of her kizomba show with her dance partner Phil (also of Haitian heritage via Montreal); Nuno Campos and Iris de Brito teaching us to sing in Criolu (‘Sodade’) and Kimbundu (‘Muxima’), the sounds and words forming in our mouths and throats; all of us at the final class chanting in call and response format, participating in impromptu animations, and cheering on those who entered the drum circle to delight us with their quicksilver movements.

It’s unusual to find a festival that finds space for discussion, history, and reflection, as well as for dance pedagogy. When these elements are integrated into a festival it facilitates a different kind of learning experience. Dance and music illuminate each other in a mutually enhancing manner. The learning breakthroughs for me came in Phil and Jessica’s ‘kompa to kizomba’ presentation, and towards the end of Petchu and Vanessa’s seminar on Carnival. In the kompa presentation we were asked to dance in two-step to different genres- kompa, semba, zouk and merengue, while in the Carnival seminar, different couples danced social semba, funana, samba and carnival semba to the same song.

As each presenter asked members of the audience to dance to demonstrate the co-existence of similarity, difference and continuity, many things that I had only read about in texts suddenly came alive and made real sense.
batuke 3


batuke f
After a long weekend of dance classes and parties at Batuke! Festival in London from 22nd to 24th August 2014, anyone who has experienced so many different kinds of body activation would be both exhilarated and exhausted.

It was also an intensive brain ‘boot camp’ — as this word is now used in the dance context — that allowed me to experience and to think more deeply about how Afro-Luso dance culture, particularly kizomba, is now so popular among a very diverse range of people.

Besides the dance classes I attended, from Kwenda Lima’s Kaizen class to Coupé décalé (offered by an Angolan dancer by the way), from Rebita and Semba to Cape Verdian Mazurka and Coladeira, the parties taking place in the evenings were also a space where you could experience another relationship to dance. People are no more in training clothes and running shoes, but dress up according to the different themes (‘Union Jack swag’, ‘Great Gatsby’, ‘Miami Beach’), ready to apply on the dance floor what they learned in the day. The multiplication of possibilities to connect with dance in different ways during the festival allowed me to think about the complexity of spatiotemporal dimension in this frame.

As multi-layers of time are already entangled in the context of dance floors, the kizomba scene adds another dimension that could be related to the world of electronic music: the music is deliberately mixed in such a way that you can barely feel when a ‘song’ ends and another starts, especially during tarraxinha sets.

This also implies that the change of dance partner is not obvious at all and reshapes the relationships between the dance couple and the energy produced on the dance floor. You do not see a moving tide with hands and arms flying around like in a salsa party, but in the contrary, you can see a slow undulation of bodies, head against head with closed eyes, that seems able to never end. Indeed, if the dancers are both enjoying the dance, they can keep dancing without feeling any need to look for another partner for a while.

Thus I discovered during the Batuke! parties that some of the codes valid in the salsa world – for instance- are not accurate here. I am afraid that my ‘salsa’ tendency to move away from my dance partner at the end of the song was surely felt quite rude sometimes. You have to penetrate a world that is not only a space for a completely different kind of couple dance and music but has also its own rules. If you try to apply the ones you know previously without keeping this in mind and accepting your ignorance, you may be ‘chopped’ ¬or seem to ‘chop’ someone by mistake — to use a word from the Vogueing scene that I’ve learnt thanks to Madison!

Thinking about this phenomenon when we are used to dance according to a very specific setting which involves the change of partner after each song, then suddenly, discovering the possibility of being ‘locked’ with a complete stranger for about half an hour or more raises many questions: how the partners feel that it is the time to release each other? Who is responsible for ending the dance? Are both men and women feeling bad for being released only after one song? Besides, how important is the influence of the music production in this setting? Are the possibilities offered by electronic sounds ‘responsible’ for expanding the dance?

This slow dance, which is experienced by an international audience and could be considered, for many reasons, as a product of the globalization process in itself, thus confronts the realities of the globalized capitalist world where – in short – accumulation and speed are emphasized.

The notion of ‘song’ duration is transcended by the need of people to connect themselves with another body through the length of the dance. The longer the better to be completely immersed in a kind of transcendental space, where the two bodies are building a little story, song after song, without any words or even any eye contact sometimes, but with the sharing of a close body contact and the feeling of moving in a compatible manner.

My global assessment of the kizomba parties I first experienced so completely at Batuke is that they completely invert the balance between the couple dance part and the solo dance parts (on Afro House music) as I have experienced as a teenager during the first parties I ever had that we called ‘booms’ at that time. You were mainly dancing in solo but were secretly waiting for the ‘slow’ couple dance moment. At Batuke! parties, it seems that I had to forget all my expectations to be able to go beyond the dance culture in which I grew up!

batuke c


batuke g
Batuke! definitely represents an exception among the many festivals of kizomba, in terms of the effort to represent Afro-Luso culture in the most complete way and in terms of the quality of the professionals chosen for the event.
My impression of the teachers was really positive. I realised that they were chosen not just for the quality of the shows that they could produce –which is one common criterion of choice in this kind of event – but especially for their pedagogic qualities and their ability to move in a comparative way between different dances from the most traditional to the most modern ones throughout the Afro-diasporic world.

Some classes — the Kompa, Zouk, Coupé-decalé, traditional dances of Cape Verde, Rebita, Sabar — were really important opportunities to understand how the most contemporary dance evolved, and other activities like the seminars and the singing class very interestingly complemented this approach t o African culture and rhythm. I must say that very few organizers invest in the introduction of these elements in the dance festivals. Among the different classes that I participated in, I found the following ones particularly interesting:

New York Ginga by Jessica of Kizomba NYC: A comprehensive and interesting class by someone who was for me a lovely discovery through Batuke!. She explained basic movement technique for ladies’ ‘ginga’, starting form the opposition between chest and hips and the position of the knees, which is something fundamental to obtain the correct movement but that most teachers forget to explain. She then proceeded to the description of very simple movements as the frontal wave and hip rotation during the second basic, but she was able to deconstruct the movement to demonstrate very clearly the coordination between the changing of weight and the lateral step in order to make the process clear to even absolute beginners.

In the second half of the class, she applied some tango steps –following her own description of the work – to the ladies’ and men’s saidas. Despite my doubts about the fact that this kind of improvisation very hardly can work in couple dance and that very often women in kizomba have neither the time nor the occasion to plan correctly their own embellishments, the exercises were very useful to train quicker change of weight, balance recuperation, and a little improvisation using the contratempo.
What was evident to me – and it was also confirmed by the couple demo provided at the end of the class – was that the sequence could be applied only partially, and not easily, in a couple’s spontaneous interaction; yet it represented a very good training exercise. (video available)

Dancehall: This class brought together some nice movements that I recognized as belonging to very different African traditions. The typical traditional African movement of the hip circle was combined with the opening and closing of the knees– elements characteristic of some dances from the southern Congo areas that have evidently been developed in different ways in Jamaica adding to them the special cadence of ragga music and a deep bounce at the moment the movement is linked to another one. The basic ginga of capoeira was also used in the mini-choreography that we danced during the class, the basic step reproduced once with the original cadence and then twice at double the speed.

This dance beautifully demonstrated how Jamaican dances unify the idea of a fight with the idea of smooth and provocative movements that can use similar gestures with a completely different attitude. The teacher himself, Safwaan Ess Daboogie, said that he is constantly surprised by the presence of many heterogenic elements that he discovers in dancehall. Traditional kinetic codes are being constantly renewed in these street dances.

Singing: this class to me really represented the spirit of the festival: led by the teachers Iris de Brito and Nuno Campos we spent one hour trying to memorize and sing Creole and Kimbundu lyrics of the two songs Sodade and Muxima, and we received an explanation of the importance and meaning of the two songs that are really emblematic for the two cultures of Cape Verde and Angola. The experience was fascinating: when we try to reproduce the melody of a song in the singing we immediately feel our body interiorizing the rhythm and the cadence; consequently this starts coming out naturally even in the dancing gestures and in the posture of our own body.

Nuno’s explanation of ‘Saudade’ in Cape Verdean culture as a suspended moment, a calm but uncertain wait really clarified the Cape Verdean spirit and was maybe the most profound cultural topic that we touched: he described Sodade as an accepted sorrow, not dramatized, not desperately assumed, but the brief and intense sound of a drop, constantly falling over the echo of a wide but peaceful loneliness.

Final class: The best idea of the festival, and a moment in which we shared our own work and presence there, giving something back to ourselves and to all the group, to fellow participants and to the teachers, celebrating our own presence and energy. This final class has already become a classic and permanent element in the structure of the festival and is definitely a liberating moment in which people can experience the purest essence of dance and music. The dance can be improvisation on the drums, collective moment following a leader, or even just following with our own body the percussion without almost moving.

Dancing to the sound of live drums and without specific structure to follow is an experience that takes people to another level of interpretation of music and of their own movements. In the same way the experience of playing for somebody else for the first time is something really powerful that puts the dancer in a new position and stimulates new cognitive capacities of interpretation of the music and very physical conception of the rhythm.

Notting Hill Carnival: an amazing experience– one of those moments in which the body is part of the dance and part of the music and we can no longer separate them. People from all cultures participated and mixed in the event. We could recognize people that were not born into the cultural groups that paraded, wearing the same costumes with a sense of pride and love. I felt positively surprised by people’s capacity to embrace a new culture to the point of rebuilding the image of their own body and trying to live it in a new way. This was absolutely evident in the Brazilian parades, where people of all provenances were sharing the exhilaration of feeing the freedom and joy of their own body beautifully dressed and decorated, without any taboo due to aesthetical or social rules. It was truly a suspension of the common regular order and the opening of a new dimension in which the body seemed to surpass its limits and capacities and transform itself into a collective entity that was dancing shaking singing and screaming together.

This moment can be a very rich learning process for newer generations within a particular culture, since we actually experienced movements that were suggested by other people in the crowd without even seeing them, but just by means of the vibration of the bodies, without even knowing what our body was doing. Simply being part of a Carnival group is already a way to learn, and we learn by responding directly to the bodies of the other members of the group that impose on us their movement. The Batuke group was really full of energy and well organized and we danced in the rain for almost six hours without stopping. Nobody left till the moment when we decided to leave.

A very good experience was also the one of seeing represented the symbols that I discussed during my seminar on Maracatu on Sunday: seeing kings and queens opening the parade, Brazilian groups playing stick fights (Maculele), and having our own parade opened by an African folkloric group that had at their head a sort of joker figure with a very long stick pointing at the sky, decorated with colourful strips. Maybe he knew, maybe not, that he was recalling some unknown ancestors from another world, geography, dimension… anyway, we knew he was in the right place.
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As someone who can spend hours in nightclubs – so long as I’ve had an adequate ‘disco nap’! – during the Batuke! Festival I found myself experiencing a completely other sort of exhaustion. I participated in a number of classes, from Kwenda Lima’s Kaizen Dance and Cape Verdian Dances to Sabar from Senegal and AfroMix, but after each course, and sometimes during the middle of the class, I had to stop to catch my breath or sit out entirely. This was my first Batuke! Festival as well as my first hands-on exposure to many of these Afro-diasporic dance forms, and part of the incredible learning experience was staying in tune with my body, how it was moving and what it was telling me.

What’s the difference between dancing by yourself to music in a nightclub and being taught choreography as part of a group? How does the body labour differently in each situation?

The best class for me was the Sabar class, mostly because I loved the presence of the drums (and I would) as much as I loved the movements. The whole time there I kept thinking about Barbara Browning’s concept of ‘infectious rhythms’, where cultural transmissions occur through various types of ‘infections,’ with the powerful rhythm of the drum playing a key role. I loved the interplay between the dancer and the drums, with the dancer in many ways ‘conducting’ the drums. I noticed, too, that at the penultimate Batuke! Finale workshop, as each participant danced by the drums, there was definitely a sort of call-and-response, a direct communicative link between the body and the instrument, or the body as instrument.

If the dancer made smaller movements, the drummer made smaller sounds. If she or he made big movements, the drummer made bigger sounds. Certain sounds even lent themselves to all types of booty pops and pops, and this interplay between the body and the drum really made me think about the work a DJ does on any dance floor in inciting you to move, and to move in particular ways.

What I loved most about the festival was the sense of it being a shared space of learning and cultural transmission. People were there to learn. I bought homemade black hair care products and asked the person who sold it to me the best way to take care of my hair. But in terms of the dance itself I’ve already said that this was my first exposure to many of these forms, and even then I could already see how many of the moves percolate throughout contemporary popular music – and I’m thinking specifically of the global popularity of popping and locking, twerking, booty popping, grinding and all the rest.

But it was also a shared space for expressing one’s own connection to the diaspora. French, Spanish, Portuguese and German was spoken, in addition to English, of course. I was asked by several different participants ‘where I am from’, a question that most brown bodies are used to being asked. When I told folks that I was from New York, which is what I always say, the answer was never sufficient enough and people always dig deeper.

‘No, but what are your origins? What is your cultural background?’

And in that instance I say what I always say: my father, who I have never had any contact with, is Jamaican, and the rest is unclear. My mom made various kinds of curries and oxtail, culinary delights that in America are as much a part of Southern Style Soul Food as anything. I feel more African-American than anything as I have never really had any direct ties to Jamaican culture, not least because of rampant homophobia.

When I said this to one person in particular who asked me about my ethnic origins, she rightly told me that it doesn’t matter whether I feel any connection to the culture. It’s in my blood. The way I move and the way I dance is already impacted by my Jamaican roots because ‘it’ is in my blood.

The festival was also a shared space for experiencing connectivity and the universality of the human experience. More than one person I talked to emphasized the power of kizomba to highlight the feelings of being human. Though Kizomba does privilege heterosexuality and traditional gender roles, which admittedly I do have serious issues with, I did notice at least one lesbian couple, and another gay male I talked to told me that when he dances with a girl in kizomba, clearly for him he is not interested in a sexual experience but more in the spiritual feeling of connecting with another body. There’s something about being so in tune with another person that gives you an out-of-body experience.

Kwenda Lima’s exhilarating and fun Kaizen Dance class ended with an unexpected therapy session where his philosophy to life, as mirrored by the dance, was expounded on. Participants eagerly talked about their feelings, love, feeling free through dance, with some people in tears. Immediately I began wondering about the interplay between physical exhaustion, sweat, tears and confession all within the same dance class. How do all of those emotions relate together?
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Some questions are best answered by us performing the answers.
We hope this report has made you both think about dance and want to experience, whether for the first time or the hundredth, the exertions, exhilarations and epiphanies of the Afro-dance floor!

All photos courtesy of Kizomba United Kingdom.
The Modern Moves team thanks Iris de Brito for the opportunity to work with Batuke 2014.

This Moving Story was put together by Ananya Kabir on the basis of individual reports from Modern Moves team members Elina Djebbari, Francesca Negro, Ananya Kabir, and Madison Moore.