I first met Kianda T at one of Oscar’s Friday kizomba socials outside DC. She was rocking multi-colored hair and her movement drew my eye immediately. She was a joy to lead as well. We didn’t speak much on that occasion (the music is really too loud for comfortable conversation), but I got a better chance at her Skyzomba event last spring. As a student of Petchu and a strong female teacher and leader, I knew Kianda would be perfect for this series. I wasn’t prepared for how inspiring that interview would prove to be!
As always, what follows is my best attempt to transcribe and organize Kianda T’s words. Any mistakes are my own.
First Dance Career: Hip Hop
“I was dancing as early as I can remember. My earliest memories are of dancing with my mom. So it’s just all my mother’s fault. I never took any formal classes because I was a military child and we moved around a lot,” Kianda began.
“When I was in high school we lived in North Jersey and I would drive up to NYC and pretty much be in the clubs from Wednesday to Sunday.” She also started learning salsa at that time.
All that time in the club wasn’t wasted: “When I graduated from high school I was offered a position on a hip hop company in NYC. That was 1991. I was in a dance company and going to community college.”
After a year and a half with the company, a friend of hers had a serious knee injury. Kianda was understandably concerned about her own risks, and her family told her, “You can’t dance for a living, you need to have something more responsible.”
Kianda decided to take a step back from her dance career. She went to college for psychology and criminal justice at Rutgers. Meanwhile, she continued dancing for fun, picking salsa back up.
Salsa as Lifeline
In 2000 Kianda moved to Baltimore. “I met my current partner, then D. Scott, now Psyon. I learned with him how to dance salsa on 2; we would drive up to NYC to learn with Frankie Martinez.”
By 2002 she started dancing and teaching with him. “Before I started teaching on my own, I shadowed Psyon for about a year and a half, just going to all his classes and privates and helping” without receiving any payment. Kianda was working at that time as a supervisor at a foster care facility.
Then came the unexpected – in 2003 Kianda became seriously ill. “I was in bed for about two years with neurocardiogenic syncope with sincopey.”
“Uh…what?” you are probably asking, as I did.
“There’s a nerve in my brain that’s connected to my circulatory system that decided to stop working. So my blood didn’t circulate right, and I would pass out and flat line. There was never a guarantee that it would come back. At first when I was nauseated, I would just go and lie down. That was a lucky thing because that allowed my blood to circulate. It took them a while to figure out what it was. It felt almost like a stroke. So I was having all these other symptoms that were leading to all these other conditions, because the type of condition I have is pretty rare. They still don’t know a lot about the condition. So they tried a bunch of other medications to try to help it and nothing fixed it.”
At last the doctors offered to give her a pacemaker. “I call it ‘for shits and giggles.’” Kianda explained. “They weren’t sure it would work, but said it wouldn’t hurt.”
Kianda wouldn’t give up on salsa, though. “Psy was one of the few people that stayed connected with me. He would come up and visit me. I would dance for like 10 minutes, then pass out and be in bed for like 3 days. And after a while it was 20 minutes, 30, 40 that I could dance. Then an hour a week, then two hours a week. So that’s what got me out of bed, is slowly not caring that I was going to pass out.
Dance for me was the only thing that kept me sane. Slowly over those three years I was dancing again. I started teaching with Psy one day a week, then two days a week, then on my own one day a week. About 2005 I started my own women’s team. November 2005 I got a Pacemaker and that allowed my recovery time to be not as bad, since now my heart doesn’t stop when I pass out. So dance was the one thing I could do that I still loved and enjoyed. It got me out of bed.”
Second Dance Career: Salsa
“So over time I built up and was teaching more consistently. Which was good because that was what was paying my bills. It’s funny – when you get a medical condition they tell you: ‘Put your affairs in order.’ For most people, dance is their plan A, not their backup plan. For me it was for a little while, but I got scared and got a normal job. And then dance was the only thing I could do, so I’m sure that it’s what I’m supposed to do. So for me that fills my soul in a different way from some people, because that’s what got me through to the next day.”
Kianda is fortunate to have a situation that works around her condition. “My students are so aware and I’m able to call them and say “I’m having a bad health day, so we need to reschedule our private.” or call another instructor and ask them to cover for me.”
She elaborated more on her work with the women’s dance team. “I had a coed company with Psy, but I was frustrated with the women’s team performances. Yemashun has become my creative outlet over the years. The name comes from Yemaya and Oshun – the goddess of the large bodies of water/patron saint of mercy; and the goddess of the smaller bodies of water/patron saint of charity, from the Cuban tradition of Santarina. For me it’s important to respect the culture of the dances we do. The name has meaning for me from the roots of the dance and because I love water.”
The team was quite successful, traveling all over the country to perform. One special feature was having lead-and-follow within their women-only choreography. Kianda admitted: “When we first got started I actually didn’t get booked at some festivals because of that.” However, one such performance actually led to Kianda discovering kizomba!
“Yemashun and I were performing in Hawaii in 2011. When I was there I ran into a friend of mine who used to live in London whom I hadn’t seen in years. He invited me to teach in Vancouver with him a few months later. That’s where I first saw kizomba. He was doing it with one of his students and I was like, ‘What is this? What are you doing? What is this music?’ and I just absolutely fell in love.
“At the time, I came back and Oscar BA had just started teaching classes in DC. Another friend of mine, Joao Alexander who’s Portuguese, was the first person to push Oscar to start teaching here in DC.
Unfortunately I was a complete salsera, complete beginner, and my schedule didn’t allow me to take classes like I wanted to.”
Fortunately, that schedule didn’t hold Kianda back for long. “In 2012 at the DC Bachata Congress I finally decided to get serious about learning kizomba. I actually decided to stop teaching so much salsa in order to learn kizomba. I met Carla Poma. She’s an amazing woman. She actually helped teach Jeffrey Kizomba how to teach kizomba. That same weekend I also met Ivo Veira. I took a private with Carla and I took a private with Ivo.”
Interestingly enough, I was also at that congress to do kizomba– and somehow managed to meet none of them! Or at least, I don’t remember meeting them. Anyway, back to Kianda’s dive into kizomba…
“The following weekend, completely unbeknownst to me, Eddy Vents happened to be doing a workshop in DC. I took a 2-hour private with him, and the first private we did was just talking music and history. He was confused, but I just believe that it’s important to know the music and where it’s coming and the culture so you can dance better. So I was trying to learn from that perspective, and I wasn’t concerned at all about getting steps.
“Carla was here in DC that week as well. She was bringing that same month for the first time Petchu and Vanessa to NYC. So with Petchu I did the same thing, I was just talking to him about music and learning the difference between semba, kizomba, tarrachina, etc. I think I did like 6 hours of privates that weekend in NYC with Petchu and with Vanessa. And after that weekend I was like, so is there any more time for more privates? Because I knew they would be gone.
“Petchu invited me to come and train with him in Portugal. And then my friend Joao knew AfroLatin Connection, as does Ivo, so I decided instead of only going for like 2 weeks to learn with Petchu and Vanessa I would go for a month and a half. I started in Porto and stayed 2.5 weeks and learned with AfroLatin Connection and danced every class from beginner to advanced every day.
Moving Towards a Third Dance Career in Kizomba
“After that trip to Portugal I decided I wanted to start teaching, but I ddin’t start teaching for almost a full year after that trip.”
Instead she started working to organize events that would help grow kizomba in the USA. “The following summer, June of 2013, I had the first kizomba festival in DC, Skyzomba, with Ricardo and Paulo from AfroLatin Conenction.”
I attended the second incarnaton of that festival, in 2014, which featured Miguel and Susana.
“Later that summer I returned to Portugal for a bootcamp with AfroLatin Connection and a choreography course with Petchu. I stayed in Petchu’s house at the same time as Bernadeth and Dilson, and that was the summer I got my nickname.”
I asked Kianda to clarify why she had waited to get so much training before beginning teaching – after all, so many salsa teachers begin teaching kizomba with far less.
She told me: “I teach salsa at a very high level. I do instructor training in salsa. I help studios with their syllabuses. I didn’t want to start teaching kizomba at a lower level than I taught salsa. Also, Oscar was already teaching in DC so it wasn’t like there was no kizomba. So I figured, community doesn’t need me to teach. They need me to learn. I needed to understand the difference between what the woman does and what the man does.”
That understanding extended to practice as well. “They had me start leading Jan 2013 because in the courses you have to learn both sides. But socially I never led, I only led in class. Part of that was cultural. In Portugal and in the African clubs they very much respect the partnership between a man and a woman. And they don’t understand why American women want to learn to lead.”
Nevertheless, when Kianda does lead, she has her preferences: “I like leading in the more traditional Angolan style. I don’t lead a lot of the syncopated stuff. I like it, but only to the more modern music.
For me the music should dictate the style. If the music doesn’t call for it, then don’t do it!”
Challenges as a Female Kizomba Teacher
Kianda returned from Portugal after the summer of 2013 and was teaching a little in Seattle. Then she attended the iSemba San Francisco Kizomba Festival that October. “I taught two classes with Eddy on the first day. David didn’t have Guida because she was pregnant. Vasco didn’t have a partner, coming from France. Mandela didn’t have his partner. And I was supposed to be teaching with Oscar. So basically everyone was like ‘We don’t have a partner’ so I ended up teaching 11 classes.”
In spite of all this teaching time, Kianda didn’t so much as receive a refund for her pass, or a lower tier party pass for a friend of hers. When the organizer did a thank you for the instructor, her name was never mentioned. Later on, when Kianda let this same person know she now had a partner and would be available to come out and teach more, she was told they were looking for people with more experience.
She was surprised as she encountered this more than once – the response “You haven’t been doing this for long enough.” After all, she was being encouraged to teach by Petchu and Vanessa, Miguel and Susana, Lana and Paolo…
Kianda attributes some of the slowness to book her, in that case and in others, to not being very strong in marketing. “I don’t market myself well at all. But I dance and I can teach my ass off, and all my students know it and all the instructors I’ve parttnered with do too. But because I’m not YouTube popular and I don’t really promote myself then people don’t really know who I am.”
Kianda has also experienced a vast difference in attitudes depending on whether she had a male partner. “I had a first kizomba partner and as soon as I had one I was getting booked right away
Then we stopped working together; we had different priorities. And I stopped getting booked.
Now I have a new kizomba partner that a lot of people don’t know because he’s from Seattle and was training in Europe. He still works in Seattle part time and in DC part time and we havnen’t had a lot of time to dance together and prepare a choreography for shows.”
Nevertheless, people are quick to collaborate with her. “When I show up at a festival I’m one of the first people to get grabbed to teach when someone doesn’t have a partner, but I’m not having organizers reach out to ask me to dance. I’ve taught with Brayo Judah at events in Miami and Philadelphia. I actually taught by myself at a zouk festival in Seattle, but that’s unusual.”
Kianda think it’s a shame that more organizers don’t value having a teacher than can speak to the followers. “There are technique differences in leading and following. The men teach their way of dancing, and that’s fine but followers have to be able to follow all the different ways of dancing. I don’t think the guys ignore those things on purpose; I think they just don’t think about things from a follower’s perspective.”
Her attitude remains incredibly positive in spite of this asymmetry. “I do this because I love it and because I want as many people to learn as can possibly learn. That’s why I’m working with some younger couples and helping them learn to teach. I’m not looking for credit, I just want them to teach right so people learn kizomba.”
Advice for Female Teachers
1. Learn Both Roles
“Train up a partner, but both of you should learn both roles. If you can follow and you have a male student and he’s leading incorrectly then you can feel it. Like right now I’m training my dance partner to follow. If you know both sides then you can teach both. If you only know one way then you forget about the other side.”
2. Don’t worry about critics
“I would also tell you not to give a blankety blank blank about what anyone else says. Just do what you’re going to do. Just because you aren’t in the clique or aren’t in with a certain promoter, don’t worry about it.”
As to shoes…
“I prefer leading in flats and I like dancing as a follow in heels. It’s funny because I don’t dance salsa in heels. I am known to be in a dress and a pair of jazz shoes at a congress. Kizomba put me in heels for following.”