The first time I danced with Riquita Alta was just a few weeks ago. I was visiting friends in London, so of course I wanted to return to one of the longest-running weekly socials: Chocolate Tuesdays at Gem Bar. Looking at that week’s Facebook event, I noticed that Riquita would be teaching a semba class. I had to go. I rearranged my plans and rushed out into the rainy night.
Having spent several months in 2012 and 2013 training and teaching in and around London, I had of course heard of Riquita, and caught a glimpse of her at social dances. With the overwhelming number of venues and instructors, however, she’d never much held my attention until after I’d returned to the USA. We chatted briefly on Facebook several months ago about leading as a woman, and that pushed me at last to her class in London. I quickly realized to my regret how much I’d been missing. Riquita has an easy teaching style, confidently and clearly explaining and demonstrating for her students. Even in leading me through some simple steps later on the social floor, her mastery was clear.
So how was it that I hadn’t bothered to search her out before this? In the Skype interview I had with her a couple of weeks later, it became clear. In spite of her long history with the dance, her professional abilities, all the successful dancers she’s turned out – Riquita is simply not the type to shamelessly self-promote. “I would be blushing,” she said. “My work speaks for itself.”
I do not in any way dispute that, but let me add my voice to the chorus of those singing her praises. The following is my written version of the relevant portions of a two-hour conversation we had. Quotations may be paraphrased but I have done my best to be true to her voice. Any errors are my own.
A History of Kizomba
As I tried to learn about Riquita’s personal dance history, I quickly realized that it was inextricably tangled up in the history of kizomba itself, particularly in Portugal and the UK. I won’t give you all the details here (although you may expect to see them turning up elsewhere soon!), but suffice it to say Riquita has been dancing her whole life. She left Angola at the age of 4, her Portuguese father convincing her Angolan mother they would do better to flee the civil war. She grew up dancing in backyard gatherings: “The parties used to happen every week. That’s how we learned, because kids were okay there.” In 1986, 13-year-old Riquita returned to Angola with her mother for a couple of years. “That’s really where I learned to dance. In Portugal it was good, but in Angola it was amazing! I could only do basics, but there I learned so many steps.”
By age 17 Riquita was back in Portugal and going out to clubs to dance. She remembers the club “If” with particular fondness. “This one was the best as far as I was concerned. There were Sunday matinees, from 5-10pm.” Again her dancing improved: “I could dance with so many different guys, and most of them were actually Angolan.” People took notice of her dancing, too. “I used to never leave the floor! They liked me because I followed so well.” The dance was “always evolving. We had so many steps. We called it passada, which means ‘steps’ and I remember we would exclaim, ‘Look at that passada!’ when we saw something we liked.”
Riquita followed a friend to London in 1989. There weren’t many emigrants from Lusophone Africa in the area at the time, so everyone knew each other in the community. She recalls Alex Gurgel opening a club with a Sunday matinee where she would go to dance, even winning a couple of competitions. More clubs opened as new members of the community migrated to the area. Riquita also started dancing lambada, which represented another small community in London.
A Startling Change
Riquita got married in 1994. She took some time away from dancing as she had a son and focused on her work and her family. By 2000 she was divorced and returned to the dance scene to find a startling change: “All I saw was people dancing tarraxinha. The music had slowed down, and there were no moves anymore, and for me it just wasn’t fun. Even people from before, they were all doing it – they wouldn’t be caught dead doing moves.”
A return to the lambada community was also confusing. “I saw people dancing lambada to kizomba music. After seven years, so much had changed!” So, for a time Riquita departed for the salsa community.
Riquita still danced kizomba at times, and recalls that she “was dancing with this girl Nadia who was well known in salsa. People were watching and asking me what it was, and asking me to teach, but I wasn’t confident teaching on my own.”
Leading and Teaching: The Beginning
Riquita had previously started leading at age 18, in order to teach a close friend. “She had been living in England but was coming back to Portugal and wanted to go to clubs.” Leading came naturally to Riquita: “I could visualize the steps based on the woman’s steps; I just very quickly picked it up, like a mirror.” In the early 2000’s as well she would occasionally lead to show people or teach friends some steps, but that was the extent of it.
In 2004, or perhaps 2005, Riquita met Kwenda Lima, who had recently moved to London. She was out dancing with Nadia in Skala club, where they had lambada but were dancing to kizomba music. Of Riquita’s first dance with Kwenda, she said, “I was like ‘Oh finally I found someone who dances passada!’ ”
Kwenda explained that he was interested in teaching kizomba, having been teaching it in Portugal for some time, “which I was surprised about, since I didn’t know anyone was teaching kizomba in Portugal.” She invited him to work with her, but they wanted to be strategic – to bring in not only the lambada dancers who were already listening to the music, but also the large community of salsa dancers. So Kwenda did a demo with Iris do Brito, who was at that time very well known in salsa. Iris also helped set up a workshop for the three of them.
Riquita and Kwenda set up classes following the workshop, and continued to teach together for about a year. “At that time I was teaching the ladies, but sometimes I would lead to dance with the ladies in class. I had so much experience at that point it was no problem.”
Leading and Teaching: Standing on Her Own
Over the next few years, Riquita at times stepped back from teaching to attend to other aspects of her life, and Kwenda taught with others before moving back to Portugal in 2007. Then for a while “I was the only teacher in the UK. It was quite overwhelming.” However, Riquita is quick to acknowledge other women that stepped up soon after. “Iris started teaching, as did Norma,” one of Riquita’s original students. “Obviously Iris has been a huge force. And Marie Doyenne started Kizomba UK, which was instrumental in promoting kizomba.”
By 2009 Riquita was consistently teaching classes on her own. “When I was teaching by myself I was obviously dancing both roles. That’s when I really fell in love with leading. Kizomba is so much more for the leaders. If the lady is to understand what the man is doing, the lead needs to be perfect.” She feels strongly about her purpose as a teacher. “I felt like I could give so much more of myself teaching the leaders.” That’s not to say she’s one-sided – “I dance with every student in my class. I’ll backlead the men so they can understand. I dance with the ladies so they can feel the lead. Then the lightbulb comes on!”
Riquita most enjoys teaching beginners, “because if you know the foundation well, then anything else is possible.” She reassures the newbies “You don’t have to feel frustrated because you didn’t get everything in class. Just take one thing from the class you understood and work on that.”
Like most teachers, she does have problems with students placing themselves up. “People think that they’re intermediate. but some of them are not; but then once they’re in my class they’re like ‘Oh! I didn’t know this.’ and they do enjoy it. I won’t let anyone go to a higher level unless they know the basics and are applying them on the dance floor. I’m strict, not rude, and sometimes they say ‘You’re scary!’ but they like me anyway
Riquita admits that she has been overshadowed by louder personalities in the scene. “I’m very good at teaching but I’m not a promoter. I had a lot of students, but others kind of took over.” That’s not to say she resents this change entirely. “I always wanted my students to come to a point where they could also teach others. I was teaching them in a way that they could be good dancers, and some are now good teachers. But not someone who comes to a couple of classes and decide he wants to be a teacher.”
Riquita is less accepting of those who claim undue credit. “I tell people that after they learn with me they can learn from other people, I even recommend them other teachers and then sometimes because it’s a man teaching them they feel like they have to give so much more credit to them.” She’s not one to let it get her down, though. “My work speaks for itself; a lot of my students are very good dancers, even if some other teachers have taken the credit. I know that it was though my help that they became that way.”
Riquita is also disappointed by the bias in hiring by events. “To get recognition you’re either in a couple or you’re a man. For some reason people think you have to be a man to be a leader, which is rubbish. I see many people being invited to teach, and I’m like ‘You know I can do better, why not invite me?’” She points out: “I think if a woman leads, it’s so much more advantageous for a class, because the woman can dance with the men and the ladies, whereas even if a man knows both sides, many men won’t dance with a man.”
Advice for Female Teachers
In Riquita’s own words:
1. First and foremost if you’re going to lead, you need to know how to follow.
2. You need to know the dance.
You need to know all of the basics.
You need to know the posture.
3. You need to know the music.
4. You need to learn how to lead.
I have seen a lot of ladies trying to lead and it’s atrocious, and they’re teaching the men to use the women’s posture. It makes my blood boil because I’m a woman and I want good representatives! You’re giving us a bad name!
You need to become like a man.
You need to be so confident in your leading.
5. Practice, practice, practice
To wrap things up I inquired about Riquita’s favorite shoes to lead in. Her first comment: “You don’t see men wearing high heels!” She elaborated, “It’s easier to lead flat-footed; either ball to the heel or flat. Not trainers, I don’t wear them much anyway – something smooth that will slide, like ballerina flats. I can lead in heels, but the posture is better if I’m dancing in flats.” She also admitted “Even when I dance as a follower I rarely wear my dance shoes. I wear whatever I find comfortable.”
For everbody in the US, don’t miss your chance to meet, learn from, and dance with Riquita Alta at Ladies Take the Lead in Los Angeles, March 6-8!