Brazil's Zouk Dancing Gains Loyal Following In U.S.

Kendra Haynes stretches so far back that her long blonde hair touches the floor.

It is a Monday night in Miami and the hour is approaching midnight. At the C Lounge and Cigar Bar, Haynes and a small crowd dance Brazilian zouk, a partner dance with the closeness of tango, sensuality of bachata and quick turns reminiscent of salsa.

Haynes' partner dips her nearly all the way to the floor and up again. Then he spins her in circles and she rolls her neck around, hair following like a whip.

"It's really hard not to fall in love with zouk once you see it," Haynes said.

Zouk dance and music — born in the French Caribbean, adopted in Brazil and spread throughout Latin America and Europe — is now taking root in the United States.

Brazilian zouk classes and dance scenes can be found in cities stretching from Seattle to New York, and festivals featuring parties and top dancers are being held in Miami and Washington. A second annual zouk congress starting Thursday in Los Angeles is expected to draw hundreds.

"It's already huge in Europe, it's very big in Australia, all of South America," said Haynes, one of the first to give zouk classes in Miami. "The U.S. is just a little bit behind."

Zouk music began in the West Indies in the early 1980s. The band Kassav is widely credited with creating the first popular zouk songs. The group was formed in Paris and combined traditional Caribbean rhythms like gwo ka beats from Guadalupe, Haitian compas and Trinidadian calypso with synthesizers and drum machines.

The word "zouk" is Antillean French Creole and means "party." The music quickly spread throughout the Caribbean and could also be heard on radios in northern Brazil. There, another music craze was taking place: Lambada and what would become known as the "forbidden dance" for its close, sensuous twirls and hip movements. By the early 1990s, however, lambada music had begun to fade. Adapting what they heard on the radio, Brazilians began dancing lambada-style moves to the slower-paced zouk music trickling in from their neighbors to the north.

"The music kind of died out," Chris McGowan, author of "The Brazilian Sound," said of lambada. "But the dance lived on."

Dancers kept many of the core elements of lambada, including flowing body movements and head rolls. While in the Caribbean, zouk is danced at two beats per measure, in Brazil, dancers adapted it to four beats per measure, allowing for a slight pause between some of the steps.

"It has the memory of lambada in it still," said Shani Mayer, a 28-year-old Israeli-born dancer who has organized both zouk congresses in Los Angeles.

Mayer discovered zouk as she was backpacking through South America. A trained dancer, she went to a social after an Afro-Brazilian dance class in the city of Porto Seguro — considered the birth place of Brazilian zouk — and took an instant liking to it. After her trip, she returned to Los Angeles in 2006, eager to continue building on what she'd learned, but couldn't find any studios that taught zouk.

Surfing YouTube video one day, she noticed an Israeli flag at a zouk congress in Brazil. In Israel, zouk was already being danced. She packed her bags and went to Israel to train.

"I don't think any other dance gives you that freedom," Mayer said. "And I like how the guy has complete control over the whole body, not just the feet, but the head, the arms, everything."

For more than a decade, zouk has been growing in seemingly unexpected places like the Czech Republic and Switzerland. Two zouk congresses are held in Holland each year.

"Dutch people have a certain openness about themselves," said Charlotte Mathiessen, a zouk dancer in Amsterdam. "They are not too afraid to get to know each other. I think that's probably why this dance can exist here."

In the U.S., meanwhile, up until about three years ago, it was hard to find anything more than a weekend zouk workshop.

"The beginning was tough," said Kim Rottier, a zouk dancer and instructor in New York. "It was very hard to start the scene with no one to work with."

In addition to a dearth of Brazilian dance teachers, it also took time to find the right audience. Rottier started teaching zouk at a ballroom dancing school. But zouk, she says, is "a little closer, a little maybe sexier than a lot of the ballrooms styles. It took a long time to build up a base."

In Miami, a growing Brazilian population also contributed to the dance's rise. Renato Medeiros, 33, recalls leaving Brazil to pursue a culinary career in the U.S. about seven years ago, and being perplexed there was no zouk dancing in Miami. For almost two years, he didn't dance.

Then a friend arrived from Brazil and began giving classes.

He said the last year there has been "a boom."

"I think it's the sensuality," he said of the dance's growing popularity. "Zouk is a completely fluid dance. It's almost like you're floating."

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