There are certain things that define a culture: its food, its history and its art. And while museums exist to give us a glimpse into the olden days, it’s performance art that has served as the portal by which we connect the past to the present. Dance and music, in particular, have existed since before the written word—they are a human instinct, the most natural way for us to experience emotions and bridge the gap between one culture and the next.
And it is here where my journey with Kizomba began; at the intersection of culture and self expression; at the place where a colonial past and civil unrest meet with resilience and optimism. I first discovered Kizomba about two years ago by way of a random YouTube video shared on social media. The scene took place inside of a modest dance studio, the subjects moved in a seamless, slow, and sensual wave and I thought to myself, ‘this is the sexiest Bachata I’ve ever seen’. But it wasn’t bachata, in fact, the video description claimed it as ‘Kizomba’. I gave it no further thought until I traveled to Portugal last year and began to hear rumblings of Kizomba night clubs; and for good reason: while Kizomba is an African zouk inspired dance style, its growing significance in the dance world owes its success to its prominence among the immigrant communities of Lisbon.
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Kizomba first emerged during the late 1980s in Angola, one of several Portuguese colonies in Africa. But to fully understand how this dance migrated from colony to mainland Portugal, we first need a bit of understanding of the military coup that went down in 1974. This coup was the impetus for the fall of the Portuguese empire and spawned civil wars and decolonizations across all of Portugal’s holdings—Angola, Mozambique, Guinea and Timor. As with any society that had been under colonial rule for centuries, when Angola won its independence, a power struggle ensued. The colonizers did what colonizers do and withdrew without backing any of the liberation movements or helping oversee the installation of a new government. And with the country in upheaval, a lot of people ended up leaving Angola for Portugal. Those people were called ‘retornados’—a misnomer if ever there was one since they, having been born in Angola to parents who were also born in Angola, weren’t in fact ‘returning’ to Portugal at all as it had never been their home to begin with. Little by little, as Africans of Portuguese descent and Angolans made their way to Lisbon, they brought their customs along with them. And thus the African presence, and Kizomba, began to grow and take hold in Lisbon.
Because at the time it was men that traveled more freely than women, it was these men who introduced the dance style to the general public. As Kizomba gained popularity among the local communities via nightclubs, professional dance instructors began to take notice and started inviting these individuals into their dance studios as a way to showcase their culture and share this new and innovative dance in a more formal setting.
“I’m very passionate about Kizomba. I started this back in the summer of 1996. One night after dinner we followed one of my classmates to a dance hall. The place was called Belleza—it still exists but the name changed. And that’s the place where it all started,” says Afonso Costa, a Kizomba dancer and instructor. He trained as one of the first students under Petchu, one of the forefathers of Kizomba. Now serving as the director of Danças do Mundo and credited as one of the pioneers of Kizomba’s meteoric rise in Europe, I tapped Afonso for a lesson and a first hand account of the history of the dance.
“This started in Angola with semba. Semba is a traditional music that started in the 1950s or late 40s, and what you have with semba is upbeat music; it started with special lyrics that were all about independence. The music was an independence call among local people in a way that the Portuguese couldn’t understand. Nowadays semba is about joy, so it changed after the war. From semba came Kizomba, which is a phenomenon that started to take hold in the late 80s and 90s. People took the semba beats and started making them slower because of the influence of zouk, a music style came over from the French Antilles. As zouk seeped into the musicality of Cape Verdean culture, it later made its way to Angola where the music was paired up with the dance style now known as Kizomba.”
In 2002, a slew of international salsa dancers attended a dance festival in Lisbon and were shocked by what they saw at dance halls: people slow dancing skin to skin, changing rhythms and partners while never missing a step. Professional Latin style dancers are accustomed to following a metric, but Kizomba has no pattern—it relies on the intimate connection between two dancers. The shock and confusion of this new dance style led to fascination. And ultimately, dance pros like Afonso decided to introduce Kizomba to the professional dance community at large by way of international salsa congresses and festivals. And the rest, as they say, is history.
When I traveled to Lisbon I had signed up for a basic dance lesson, but as it turns out, Kizomba is steeped in a rich, multicultural history. So it makes sense that it has become a dance style that is both loved and deeply personal for many people. While at first look Kizomba is reminiscent of bachata and other Latin dance styles, it’s something uniquely African; its movements are derived from Angolan semba and its beats influenced by Cape Verdean music. And much like the liberation movement that spawned it, Kizomba is a freestyle dance, meaning that instead of being trapped in an 8-count, it is a sensory experience where the music and the rhythm dictate your next step. More than just a dance, Kizomba gives voice to the history and the spirit of the Angolan people.