What is Brazilian Zouk?

Brazilian Zouk is a dance that developed from the Brazilian dance Lambada. The dance is now combined with a variety of music, including Caribbean Zouk music, which is how the dance came to be known as Zouk. For a more detailed description of the dance and the music, please read below.

Many people remember lambada by the film “The Forbidden Dance”, or the hit song “Lambada” (also released as “Chorando Se Foi”) by Kaoma in 1989. It is said that Lambada is a direct result of the traditional Brazilian dance Carimbo, which was commonly danced to drum beats and was characterized by many turn patterns. Lambada was first introduced, and gained popularity, in Porto Seguro, in the northeastern state of Bahia. The word lambada refers to a whip motion, which is the motion created by the body when dancing lambada. The dance can be described as having fast, twisting steps. One of the main features of the dance is the sharp hip movements that result from shifting the weight of the body from left to right, combined with alternating relaxed knees. The movement looks similar to the samba steps that you might see in Brazilian carnival, though it is danced to different music and with a partner. At the time of this introduction to lambada, Brazil was exposed to seasonal dance influences that appeared and were each quickly replaced by the next dance style craze. Lambada was no different. Popularity of the dance soon faded and lambada was replaced by the next dance hit.

It was an unexpected move by French producer Olivier Lamotte d’Incamps that gave the stage to lambada becoming an international scale phenomenon. Olivier, clearly inspired by the dance that he had witnessed, recruited musicians and dancers from Brazil along with the rights to some 300 lambada songs, and retrieved them to France to create the band Kaoma. The band was vastly popular in the 80’s and 90’s, with their hit song “Lambada” selling as many as five million copies around the world. The video clip features a group of dancers partying along the beach, exposing the carefree Brazilian culture, and a little boy and girl demonstrating the innocence of the dance that is considered forbidden. As Kaoma’s sound echoed across the globe, the lambada craze spread to the wider population in Brazil and lambada was reclaimed as a national cultural export.

Kaoma’s success was said to have had a profound impact on the Brazilian culture. Brazilian youth celebrated the international success of lambada-dancing in the way that previous generations had enjoyed the success of globally publicizing samba. Kaoma has been credited with bringing Brazilians back into partner-dance schools, which flourished at that time and continue to do so today. Ironically, the song, later found to be plagiarized by Olivier who apparently did not buy the rights to all the songs he produced, was originally from Bolivia.

Lambada’s success, widespread as it was, lasted only about five years. By the mid 90’s lambada musicians were few and far between and the majority of the lambada dancers had lost their inspiration. Some dancers sought to continue the lambada style and began experimenting dancing lambada to the Caribbean music influence of Zouk. This fusion was highly appealing and eventually lead to the widespread Brazilian zouk dance style that can be seen today. Zouk music in the 90’s was significantly different to the current popular zouk music that is danced to.

The roots of zouk music can be traced back to the early 70’s in Guadeloupe, where the bands Exile One, the Grammacks, and the Midnight Groovers created the kadans-lypso sound that later evolved into Zouk. Though Guadeloupe is where the music was produced, members of all three bands were originally from Dominica. Exile One was a popular kadans (creole for cadence) band in the late 60’s and 70’s. Kadans music is originally Haitian, but was popular across the French Caribbean, and developed mainly in Guadeloupe and Martinique. When Exile One moved to Guadeloupe, they inculcated American rock, soul, and West African rhythms into their sound. Their lead singer Gordon Henderson went on to create a kadans fusion band, from which his band members later formed Kassav, the band most commonly credited with the creation of zouk. Born out of an experimental ensemble of Guadeloupe musicians in France, Kassav was the first Zouk band to become a worldwide sensation. World music promoter Neva Wartell describes that Kassav fuses the native Caribbean rhythms with Western and West African elements, and is Zouk’s “most popular, pioneering and enduring band.”

Zouk has come to mean ‘party’ in French Creole, and has developed a long standing accompanying dance, which resembles the Latin dance style merengue in the sense that it is danced whilst standing in very close proximity to your partner. It has been put forth that Zouk is an integral part of the battle to create a national identity amongst the four Islands of Martinique, Guadeloupe, St. Lucia, and Dominica. These Islands share a history of occupation by French and English rule, and are predominantly populated by black descendants of African slaves. A common phrase to these Islands is “when you hear zouk, you feel at home.”

Given the sense of cultural identity and pride associated with the zouk music genre, conflict arises when a similar sense of national identity is associated with the term Zouk by the Brazilian Zouk dance culture. Brazilian Zouk and Caribbean Zouk both use the term Zouk, and neither side is comfortable with the other stating ownership of the word.

One way to distinguish between Caribbean Zouk and Brazilian Zouk is by use of the term Zouk lambada when referring to the latter. However, many Brazilian Zouk dancers prefer to avoid the affiliation with the forbidden dance, not only because they no longer dance in the twisty style once associated with the name lambada, but also because they no longer dance to lambada music. Sara Murphy, dance anthropology student at Roehampton University in London, explains that “the Brazilian Zouk community is seeking to carve out it’s own unique identity, separate from the lambada identity.” The Brazilian Zouk dance community has been using the term Zouk, or Brazilian Zouk to describe the dance. Still, the Caribbean Zouk community resents the term Brazilian Zouk on the grounds that it implies that Zouk (Caribbean Zouk) is somehow Brazilian.

Despite nominal setbacks, Brazilian Zouk dancing has spread around the world, and has developed into numerous healthy dance scenes. Whilst Brazil is still home to Zouk, other countries, such as Australia, Thailand, Israel, United Arab Emirates, Argentina, Holland, Spain, Russia, Germany, Czech Republic, Sweden, England, Denmark and the United Sates, have also established healthy Zouk scenes.

It is commonly believed in Brazilian Zouk dance communities, that Brazilian Zouk dancing is merely the combination of Zouk music and lambada dancing. Berg Diaz, a dance instructor from London, shares on his website:

“Most of the music we now dance Lambada to is Zouk-love. As a result some people now call Lambada ‘Zouk-Lambada’. This is, however, misleading – the dance is still Lambada in essence and origin, despite the different music and influences surrounding it.”

Berg Diaz feels that the dance should be called Lambada. Indeed, within the Brazilian Zouk dancing community there are multiple opinions on what the dance should be called. As a result, it is referred to as Zouk, Lambazouk, Zouk-Lambada and Lambada. The Brazilian dance in question has evolved significantly since the days of lambada. When watching the three dances (Caribbean Zouk, Lambada, and Brazilian Zouk) one might ascertain that Brazilian Zouk has assimilated more than just musical influences from Zouk. Indeed, elements of the traditional Caribbean Zouk dance, such as the slow shift in weight from one side to the other done in very close proximity, can be established in observing the reinvention of Brazilian Zouk lambada. Thus, all three elements of Brazilian Zouk (Lambada dance, Zouk music, and Caribbean Zouk movement) might have contributed to the resulting dance that we most frequently refer to as “Zouk.”

Written by Kim Rottier


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