Click here for an introduction to the Ladies & Leadership series.
I ran into Sonja KikiZomba at LIKE Festival in Portugal this September. She had just finished teaching a workshop on Kizomba Advanced Leading and Following. The whole event was tightly scheduled, but I gave her my card and begged an opportunity to speak with her about being a prominent female kizomba teacher. Sonja was kind enough to work with me to find a time amidst both our traveling and changing time zones to schedule a chat. Below is my compilation of what I learned from interviewing with her; quotations are revived from my notes. Any errors are my own.
Originally from Germany, Sonja started dancing as a child of 12 by copying her parents as they practiced ballroom dancing in their home. She took on the role of the leader, having no partner but her younger sister. Sonja’s interest in social dancing intensified when she went to Italy in 2004 to study European policy and languages – she was soon going out to dance salsa “four or five times a week,” this time as a follower, since the salsa scene offered plenty of leaders. She experienced withdrawal upon moving to Portugal in 2006 for a study abroad program; the small university town had no salsa.
Withdrawal ceased when Sonja went along to some African parties and discovered kizomba and semba. There were no classes, but with her ballroom and salsa background Sonja was able to learn just by dancing with people. She recalls about kizomba “that first night I kept messing up basic 3” but she found the dance “very captivating, very natural.” Soon a new addiction was established, and she felt depressed when she found herself based in Germany, choosing to return often to Portugal not only to see her then boyfriend but to dance. Only in 2009 did Sonja have her first formal kizomba lesson, at a festival in Poland where Kwenda Lima was teaching. She felt “like it was a very different approach … before there could be no saida in the whole night,” but festival classes were more concerned with technique and steps.
Sonja became interested in leading kizomba first as a way of taking greater ownership of her learning. “At that time I was in Belgium, and around me no one was learning kizomba. So if I worked only on the girl side I would leave the festival and remember nothing, and I couldn’t rely on men back home.” By learning the leader’s part, Sonja was able to take back a better understanding of what she was learning, particularly since she had honed her following so much in Portugal.
Soon enough, a salsa organizer approached Sonja about teaching kizomba in his school. “In the beginning I had some reservations,” she confessed. “I was unsure where to start; I had no structure.” Attending European festivals “gave me the materials and the structure, and I saw the teaching approach” of various teachers. Of course, learning the leader’s part became even more essential, since “when trying to do structure for class, you need to know the steps you do and propose the male version also.” In October 2011 Sonja started teaching regularly for the first time with a male bachata teacher as her partner. She had to spend an additional hour teaching him his part, for each hour of class they would teach. Eventually “I realized teaching with a bachata teacher wasn’t right – even if I taught him the steps, his body movement wasn’t right.” Indeed, her desire was to “create the dancers that afterward I would want to dance with.”
Although it had never been her ambition to do so, Sonja decided she should teach as the lead instructor. “It was just the more time- and energy-efficient way to do it.” The first course at the salsa school finished in March of 2012 and wasn’t renewed because the school hadn’t found it sufficiently profitable. Sonja’s students insisted she continue, though, and “within three weeks I had my own company KikiZomba running.” She took on Elisa Soares as her main teaching partner. Elisa’s Cape Verdean origins gave her a close access to the culture of kizomba. “Since then we’ve been sharing everything; she is my business and dance partner. We share the same vision in what we want to bring in culture.” It hadn’t necessarily been her intention to work with a female partner in the long term, but “with Elisa it just fits. We complement each other in a very good way. We don’t compete with each other for the attention of the students. Elisa brings the female part and a Cape Verdean aspect; Sonja brings the male part and the Angolan dimension. We have this experience now we can use whenever we teach together.”
Within Belgium Sonja also teaches now with Kevin, one of her very first kizomba students and biggest supporters. I asked her what it was like to be the primary instructor when dancing instead as the follower. “If you are thinking about pedagogy, psychology, structure, interaction with the students etc., there’s so much you have in your head. When I teach with a guy sometimes this gets lost. Not with Kevin – even if he does the male steps and I do the female, I can sort of lead him to change the structure or steps so we can change plans in class when necessary. He can lead even when it wasn’t what was planned, and make it look totally natural. It comes from our connection, his having been my student for three years, but you can’t easily find someone like that and train him fast to be on this level.” I think we can all agree!
Leadership as a Lady
In the beginning of Sonja’s teaching career, she experienced a lot of criticism. She shared, “People were telling me I should wait in the corner until a guy shows up and then I could be his assistant. I’m German and I’ve been raised with a strong belief that gender/age/race don’t matter for what you want to try to achieve. We are in the 21st century, how can someone even say that! But as a female teacher, many people still do not take you seriously.” Word-of-mouth praise for her classes got her hired at regional and then international events. With her growing success- she even left a job as an ocean conservation lobbyist to pursue teaching full time- many of her initial critics “became quiet and now they show me respect.” Still, her footing is not always equal. “Someone told me recently – we really want to book you but you have to bring a guy. I wonder if they would say that to a mixed couple: ‘I want you to come but please bring a different partner.’ ” Organizers have also tried to relegate her to teaching ladies’ styling. “I will not teach it anymore,” is her response. “It often reduces the dance to booty shaking and that’s not what kizomba is about. I find it a bit boring and over-rated.” Sonja remains largely unmoved in the face of criticism. “I learned this from Kwenda,” she shares. “Don’t bother about the people who don’t understand your language, who don’t want to appreciate your work. You get so much more from focusing your energy on those who do, and they deserve your attention a lot more.”
Sonja strongly values pedagogy in her classes. Festival and scene organizers tell her “I want to bring you because you can connect with people. You can break down these things.” Additionally, she recognizes the importance of teaching to both roles in the class. “Following is a skill; the movement is unique. The moment you get them to switch roles, the guys understand this immediately.” I asked her if it was possible for a man to give this kind of instruction. “There are some really good followers among men teaching,” she replied. “But if you watch them, they often dance without any technique or style. Still, there may be hope for more gender equality in the roles: “There has been a trend recently in Europe, at least in countries near Belgium, for men to follow. Kevin loves to follow; he does it whenever he can. These men understand they need to be good followers in order to be good teachers.” So, shouldn’t we always prefer teachers (be they male or female) or teaching couples who are able to provide instruction for both leaders and followers? Why is it that a woman who dances both roles may so often be passed over in bookings for a man who dances only one? Sonja smiles about this. “You can use your legs to lead. You can use your upper body to lead. You can use your arms to lead. You can even use your head to lead but I have not yet heard about anyone using their penis,” she laughs.
Advice for Us
1. Ignore criticism
“I aim to not give too much importance to skeptical people; Constructive criticism is always welcome and helps me to grow, but I prefer to focus on the ones who actually like my classes. In the beginning I was only teaching in Leuven, Belgium. I had no publicity but classes were full from word of mouth. Then people in those classes were talking, and then other people were asking for me in another city. nitially my big goal was to be invited maybe once in a while to teach in a festival in Belgium. I was lucky enough to surpass that easily.” I don’t call that luck, I call it determination and persistence!
2. Always continue try to learn
“If you want to go further, work on yourself. Get the most knowledge and skills you can. Go to festivals. Take private lessons. This summer I even went to Angola to learn more. Always be the most demanding with yourself, and then in the second place think about training someone else.”
3. Respect teaching partners; don’t underestimate the female side
“Actually here in Europe many of the festival organizers are women, but then they invite the guys to come teach. It is a pity but maybe we don’t realize what we do. I also did this – I invited couples or guys. When the guy has a partner I respect her. Of course if he’s just bringing an assistant to follow, then I don’t want to pay another flight. It’s the nature of the dance that the guy leads. But a woman can teach also, and not just the females. In my experience a female teacher can give leaders much more direct feedback. A woman knows what it should feel like. A guy can’t double-check that. Ladies, if you teach with a guy, don’t be shy to talk also in the class and to explain the female side. The ladies will appreciate that you give them some tips also.”
4. Build a network
“Get to know all the other teachers who are the only ones in their town, trying to start things up. You feel connected and you exchange. You say, ‘Why don’t you come to my festival?’ and so on.” We’re lucky here in the United States to have this on a large scale, given the size of our country. There are regional and national Facebook groups. Frances Tee in Seattle encourages teachers to meet up at festivals. There’s even been talk of a teacher’s retreat sometime. I know for me it’s been hugely encouraging to talk to teachers all over the US as I try to keep Kizomba Community up to date.
On a less serious note, I was asked to inquire about Sonja’s favorite style or type of shoe to teach or lead in and why. Sonja shared, “I don’t like to lead in heels because I’m not stable. Sometimes it happens but I definitely prefer flat shoes. The sole should be slippery so I can slide. For the sake of Angolan dance, they should be very shiny and classy, not tennis shoes. But they need to be comfortable because I dance a lot!”