I first met Chalianna at Oscar’s first Sawa Sawa Kizomba Festival in 2013, now an annual event in DC. She was the only other woman I saw out on the social floor asking ladies to dance. I was thrilled when she agreed to dance with me as well! Chalianna is based in the San Francisco Bay Area and teaches all over the country with Yair. She’s also soon to be featured at Kizomba All Star’s Ladies Take the Lead event.
Her interview proved to be less about her individual leadership role and more about appreciating equal partnership with Yair – the kind of partnership I would love to see become the standard in our American kizomba community.
Finding Kizomba and a Partner
Chalianna is from NY and her family is from the Dominican Republic, where her father was a DJ. “I grew up with a lot of music,” she explains. “I grew up dancing merengue and bachata. Then throughout middle school and high school my focus was on hip hop. I was part of a dance youth organization in the Bronx. Throughout college I expanded into ballet, samba, and Afro-Brazilian dance.”
It wasn’t until she moved to California that she met Yair and found kizomba. “I met Yair at an African lounge. We connected having both just moved from NY. Yair told me: ‘Oh I learned this dance, I used to dance this thing called kizomba in NY. I don’t know if people know about it out here, are you interested in learning?’”
As simple a start as that!
Training and Teaching
“Most of what I learned, I started with Yair,” she described. “We did go to some classes by Dennis Richards and Oriel Maria but at that time they were in the process of moving to Seattle.”
As for teaching, Chalianna admits: “We didn’t plan it at all. Yair had just moved from NY, he wanted to keep dancing this dance, I was dancing with him, people saw us at socials and they were like ‘We want to learn what you are doing’” Chalianna and Yair responded to that call and stepped up to start teaching.
Chalianna wanted to fulfill that role well. “It’s one thing for you to learn how to dance, and it’s completely something different when you learn how to teach,” she explains. She sought out the best training she could find, “So in the last three years I’ve been to Portugal twice and Angola twice
training, learning, dancing, growing.”
Chalianna has been fortunate to have people encouraging her: appreciative students, a variety of teachers, and more. “Oscar has been one of my mentors. Since the first day I met Oscar, he’s always pushed me in a good way – thinking, dancing, teaching – that pushes me to grow. So any time we can work together, we do work together.”
Chalianna is effusive in her praise of Yair and their partnership. “Yair’s a great partner; he’s been really supportive. Our teaching dynamic feeds off of one another, so we normally try to teach together; If an organizer reaches out to us for a workshop or an event and we are not both available, we won’t do it.”
I was impressed by this, since it’s well-known that organizers often try to reduce expenses by bringing only the male partner to an event. “When promoters tell us ‘We can only pay for one of you to come,’ then we say, ‘Well then we’re not coming because we do this together.’”
It hasn’t always been easy for Chalianna to be recognized even within that partnership, though. “When we first started dancing there was a promoter who put in her event description: ‘Demonstration being done by Yair and partner.’ Right away I was like, ‘We have to talk to the promoter because your partner has a name!” Yair was supportive and yet challenged her: “If you want the promoter to know you and respect you, then you have to go up to them and tell them how you feel.”
In class, Chalianna takes that equal partnership seriously. She remembers: “I would take couple dance workshops and I would often see the guy speaking most of the time and the lady was just kind of following.” She wanted to go beyond that, but it wasn’t natural. “I’m not so outgoing. I had to push myself out of my comfort zone to make sure my voice is heard when I teach.”
Teaching to Followers
In Chalianna’s words:
“I grew up dancing partnered dancing so for me it made sense. It’s like relaxing your mind and your body to read your partner’s movement and the signals that he’s giving to you for you to understand what you should be doing.”
“Women don’t always feel comfortable, though. Some teachers say, ‘Oh, just follow’ but some women don’t know how to follow.”
“I think the best way to learn is through practice, getting your body used to moving in different ways. When it comes to body movement that’s not something you can learn from a man. So I learned to follow from dancing with men – but how to move my body, and how to move in a way that’s comfortable for me, I learned that from women.”
Dancing as a Leader
Once she started teaching, Chalianna felt, “I would be able to give more if I knew both sides of the dance. There’s only so much of directing the leads that I could do just as a follower.”
So she started working on leading as well. “I think that was important for both Yair and me so we can provide the best for our students within our workshops and classes.”
It wasn’t just a duty, though! Chalianna enthused, “I love leading. I also love dancing with guys, but to me it’s fun to be able to lead, just as fun as it is for me to follow. I do it as well because I feel like as an instructor it’s important for me to expand and learn as much as I can in order for me to grow and provide the best for my students.”
She recognizes female role models she strives to emulate: “Of course we have ladies teaching on their own, like Lucia and Riquita, but since I have a partner I wanted to make sure I wasn’t falling into the role of just following and not giving as much as I know I can give in my classes. Vanessa Pura Ginga is great at what she does, and Paula Loureiro is also great in her classes. Watching those women, you’re able to see their presence throughout their classes and they’re great at instruction.”
Chalianna also spoke to the cultural problem some bring up in regards to women leading kizomba. “I think in the Caribbean, same with African cultures, it’s very male dominated. At least in my household, growing up in a Caribbean family, men take care of the family, men do manly things, and the women are more passive. The US culture is not like that as much, so women are more comfortable with doing things outside of the traditional male/female roles.”
Being in a Position of Leadership
Beyond her role as a teacher, Chalianna is investing a great deal of effort in what she sees as “my responsibility as someone who’s trying to bring kizomba to the community.”
One of her efforts has been finding a way to facilitate social dancing and community involvement in the Bay Area. She was very enthusiastic in describing her most recent venue for a monthly social. Chalianna explained, “We prefer the lounge atmosphere. The studio creates a different environment; it discourages people who aren’t dancers or take dance classes. We want to bring in the people that want to come enjoy the music; but it’s hard because the lounges and bars want a bar minimum and dancers don’t drink.”
Unfortunately, that’s a recurring problem not only in the Bay area or the USA, but around the world! It hasn’t stopped Chalianna and Yair from organizing some exceptional events, however.
“We first started organizing in 2012, with just Eddy Vents & Laury Esmeralda in 2012; in 2013 Mika Mendes performed; in March 2014 Katumbella (an Angolan singer based in Houston) came in March; and this past summer we had Petchu and Vanessa.”
Recently the biggest buzz has been about the Miami Beach Kizomba Festival, a destination event that happens in August. Chalianna organizes it “with four guys: Yair, DJ Guelas, Eddy Vents, and Dany Rocha.”
Chalianna really has a heart for all of this. “I like organizing these events; it’s the idea of kizomba growing in the US and creating a community and an atmosphere where people can dance, get to know each other and we can also expose everyone to the culture of the dance and the music.”
Advice for Female Teachers
“I feel like kizomba is a pretty male-dominated industry. Sometimes women’s work doesn’t get valued or respected as much. We need to use our voices more in our classes and know that we have a lot more to offer than we think we do.”
“If you’re teaching on your own, of course you have to learn to lead. But when you’re teaching with a partner I still think it’s important to do both. It’s the same with men – I think men who teach on their own should be able to follow as well. How can you tell your students what to do if you’re not able to demonstrate or do that as well?”
As to shoes…
“I like to wear my heels all the time. I have these boots that I love to dance in as a follower but they’re not the best for leading because they’re so high. My dance heels are not that high, so I’m able to lead and follow really well with those. When I go out though, I think more about what shoes go well with my outfit, I don’t think about what shoes I will lead in!”