Why you should care

It’s an imported dance and music style that’s likely coming to a studio near you. Hot.

There’s sensual dancing, and then there’s kizomba. This Angolan dance form is mesmerizing to watch, and its unavoidable sensuality is helping it spread across the world.

Kizomba is both a dance and a style of music, which developed in Angola in the late 1980s and early 1990s. The dance derives strongly from zouk, which is a Caribbean Carnivalesque quick rhythm originating in the islands of Guadeloupe and Martinique, and which calls to mind reggaeton and Brazilian funk. Zouk drifted to Angola, where it mixed with traditional Angolan music and semba, the Angolan origin of Brazilian samba, resulting in kizomba. The word zouk means party or festival; if zouk is the party, kizomba is what’s going on in the back bedroom among the muffled beats of the party raging up front.

In fact, Jorge Elizondo, one of the first instructors to bring kizomba to these shores, told OZY: “It’s not meant to be performed. It’s not about tricks or turns. It’s about the one-to-one connection with your dance partner.”

As in so many sensually driven dances, the man’s leg spends much of the dance firmly lodged between the woman’s thighs; it’s the iconic move of kizomba. But don’t get it wrong: Kizomba is not a frantic, throw-me-around-the-dance-floor surge. Quite the opposite. Its sensuality resides in its steady simmer, never boiling over.

The dance is nearly exhausting to watch in its intensity: The woman leans into the man, resting all of her balance in his grip; he pulls her strongly, suddenly slowing as they near. Couples dancing kizomba look something like mating insects, tightly gripping each other, in a private world.

This can be problematic for newbies, and perhaps that’s why it hit first in Europe, where it’s been a craze among dancers for the past five years. Christian Gutierrez, owner of the Latin Dance Factory in Houston, where he teaches kizomba, has seen this firsthand. “Kizomba is a very close dance; there are no gaps between you and your partner. So not everyone likes it right away, because the culture here in the U.S. is different. Many people don’t want to get that close to someone you don’t know, so my challenge as an instructor is to help people feel comfortable enough to just give kizomba a try.”

Miami Beach hosted a kizomba festival this past summer; in March, San Francisco will host its own.

He says that sometimes it can be a challenge. “In the U.S., dancing that close with someone means you’ve got the green light. So, yeah, I’ve had to call out guys on taking it too far.”

Even just as a spectator of kizomba, you can understand the temptation. It is impossible to not find your eyes drawn to the woman, who dances in heels or on tiptoes for the duration of the dance (talk about a calf workout!). In particular, the eyes are drawn to her rear, which twitches with the staccato beats of the music, the only indicator of the quicker zouk rhythm of the music, and a stark contrast to the otherwise steady, slow embrace.

These days, the popularity of the dance is growing fast as it draws in outsiders with its sensuality paired with the catchiness of the music. In Lusophone countries in particular (kizomba music is usually sung in Portuguese), the dance has already firmly taken root. It’s now one of the featured dances on Portugal’s edition of Dancing With the Stars, and, along with kuduro, it has essentially taken the sexy dance baton from the lambada in Brazil. But language can’t confine this dance. Kizomba festivals cropped up this summer all over Europe, and it’s finally headed west. Miami Beach hosted a kizomba festival this past summer; in March, San Francisco will host its own.

Want to get ready for the kizomba wave to hit the U.S.? Sign up for dance lessons at your local Latin dance center or African cultural center, and get some pointers online. To help you keep current with the music, here’s the hot kizomba song that kept folks swaying this summer in Luanda and won this year’s Angolan Music Award for best kizomba.

This OZY encore was originally published Sept. 22, 2014.

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