When most of us hear the word “zouk”, we automatically think of Brazilian zouk, where the follower displays beautiful circular upper body movement and elegant head rolls in a close partner dance.
However, there is a lot more to zouk than this.
In fact, zouk has had quite a journey across countries, cultures and music genres—something which has led to several dance styles and variations.
The Caribbean Origins of Zouk
The earliest forms of zouk dancing began on the islands of Guadeloupe, Martinique, St Lucia, Dominica and Haiti in the Caribbean. According to Professor Shannon Dudley of the University of Washington, there was no formal dance style or classes. It was a casual dance that was done at weekends with family and friends.
Zouk in Brazil: A New Dance Style Emerges
In the 1980s, the French Antillean band Kassav’ boosted the popularity of the zouk music genre and brought it to other parts of the world. This is where Brazil enters the room.
Mona Byrne is the founder of Zouk Ireland Familia and Zoukalicious Ladies, and she studies under some of the directors of the Brazilian Zouk Dance Council. She tells me that while zouk music was becoming popular in places like Brazil, lambada dancers were struggling to find their usual music to dance to.
Mona describes how lambada had been a popular dance in Brazil and had become known worldwide via its music and films, most notably thanks to the band Kaoma. However, it also became known as the “forbidden dance” due to its sensual moves, while the dance itself could be challenging to learn.
Eventually, DJs stopped playing lambada music. So, lambada dancers began dancing to zouk music instead.
The Brazilian Zouk Dance Council states that the zouk music from the French Caribbean had similarities to lambada music. However, since zouk music was much slower, it was necessary to alter the lambada dance, including its basic steps.
This new variation of the dance was referred to as lambada zouk or lambazouk in Brazil, before its new identity as Brazilian zouk emerged.
Compared to Caribbean zouk, Brazilian zouk involves much bigger steps, slower turns and more intricate styling. Furthermore, the “zoukable music” which many dance Brazilian Zouk to these days is very different from the traditional Caribbean zouk music, which has a faster tempo and features more brass instruments:
Meanwhile, most zoukable music these days is popular chart music that can be quite slow.
The Relationship Between Zouk and Kizomba
Zouk is often hailed as one of the reasons we dance kizomba today. However, it is important to be clear that kizomba is an African dance that originated in Angola (even though we may first encounter kizomba via the Latin dance scene).
The traditional music that we dance kizomba to evolved from semba and Caribbean zouk music. These dance styles met in the 1980s, when Kassav’ played a concert in Angola. According to some, that’s when kizomba was born.
In the 1980s, kizomba was often danced to Caribbean zouk music, so the two dances have been confused at times. Furthermore, in recent years, many people’s first encounter with kizomba has been as ghetto zouk or to ghetto zouk music, which originates from Cape Verde and has more R&B and hip hop influences.
Also, as Caribbean zouk started to slow down with zouk love, some people began to call it a subgenre of kizomba. With their similar close partner hold, it is easy to see how zouk love and kizomba have been confused.
In contrast, although ghetto zouk carries the word “zouk” in their title, it is primarily a dance with a kizomba base.
Meanwhile, Brazilian zouk dancers sometimes dance to kizomba music, which has even resulted in Brazilian zouk and kizomba sharing dance floors at socials and congresses. However, dancers of each style would most likely argue that there are distinct cultural differences that ultimately separate Brazilian zouk from kizomba.
As you can see, the evolution of zouk has been just that: an evolution which has incorporated aspects of different cultures and music, from semba to lambada, to create multiple dances over the last few decades.
Summing Up the Origins of Zouk
- Zouk began as an informal, casual dance which was part of daily culture in the Caribbean Islands of Guadeloupe, Martinique, St. Lucia, Dominica and Haiti.
- When zouk music was made popular by the Caribbean band Kassav’, lambada dancers in Brazil began dancing to it. This gave birth to lambada zouk or lambazouk—which eventually became known as Brazilian zouk.
- Zouk heavily influenced kizomba in Angola, Africa in the 1980s.
- In recent years, hip hop influences have given rise to ghetto zouk, a variant of kizomba.
- Today, the most common form of zouk that we see danced at congresses and on YouTube is Brazilian zouk.
Altogether, it’s not as clear cut as assigning zouk to just one part of the world—Africa, the Caribbean or Brazil. Even the earliest forms of zouk in the Caribbean had African influences due to the Atlantic slave trade.
As zouk music became popular in other parts of the world, like Angola and Brazil, it became incorporated into Angolan and Brazilian cultures. Ultimately, this resulted in the birth of the rich, rhythmical dances of kizomba and Brazilian zouk as we know them today.