Ladies & Leadership Interviews: Tania Mendonca

Introduction

I’m embarrassed to say I can’t remember exactly when I met Tania. Certainly it would have been in the fall of 2012, when I was living outside London and frantically trying to learn all the kizomba I possibly could. I saw her several times over the course of that year I spent in Europe, and I remember her being classy, poised, and very well-liked – in fact, impressively well spoken of by everybody. One occasion stands out to me – I had been in Dublin for a month or two and was invited to a party in a part of town I didn’t know. I got lost but finally turned up to find the social dancing in full swing. Tania was in the thick of it, never leaving the dance floor, leading and following and lighting up the room with her smile. I was thrilled when she came and invited me, leading me masterfully around the floor in a firm hold.

I was frankly shocked at her reaction to my asking her for an interview. Certainly I had hoped that she would remember me, and I was sure she was nice enough to give me a little of her time. Yet it didn’t fit into my expectations for her to say to me: “It is such an honor.” I inquired further and received quite a beautiful explanation of how much she loves speaking to people about kizomba and the culture she comes from. To sum up: “I take it personally – you want to know about my culture? Wow.”

That humility permeated Tania’s words as she generously spent hours answering my questions. What follows is my attempt to capture her words; any errors are my own.

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Kizomba with the Kids

“I was a young lady when the heart of kizomba was developing,” Tania begins. She is from Bengala which is in the south of Angola. “Dancing and music has been part of me since I can remember myself.”

“The earliest memory that I have: there was a huge house that probably you would call a farm and they were famous for their parties. I remember going there with my whole family; everyone would dress up, it would start usually on a Saturday afternoon, there would be loads of food. It would be a family gathering; the music would be playing, great big speakers and band sometimes, and as the night progressed, moms would lay straw mats and put the kids to bed under the tables. It was a social, family matter.”

Sent Away from Home

“I’m a child of a war, and I was one of the many children who were abruptly separated from their parents and put in Portugal to study with a family.” Tania was not at all prepared. “All I know is one morning I am playing in the streets, the next morning I’m on the plane to Portugal. This was the hope of the parents, to have a better future for their children because the country was so unstable.

Tania speaks with determined positivity about their situation. “I am very fortunate, I have a very strong family background, but you bring your ghosts – I lost my dad at age 9; I had a brother and two little sisters and my mom sent me and my brother to live with my aunt, so I felt that I had lost my dad, my mom, and my sisters.” Eventually her mother and sisters were able to come join her, which provided some relief.

Growing Up in Portugal

It wasn’t easy – Portugal didn’t necessarily welcome us. They still had a lot of wounds from the history they share with Angola. I was just in Portugal and waiting until things were safe enough for me to come back. It didn’t give you much chance to dream, I just kept living on the memories I had from home.”

That experience gives immense meaning to Tania’s relationship with kizomba. “I share my story in festivals so that people understand the meaning that kizomba has for us Angolans. Growing up in Portugal you go with the flow, but we had to face a lot of adversity, ignorance and racism. When I was a teenager I used to go parties – I had brothers so my mom would let me out. We would go to house parties and kizomba was what we had to remind us of where we were from. Then it was the early 90s and with names like Paolo Flores, most of the lyrics are talking about our story – me, my brother, and the parents that sent us. We were there with crying eyes thinking about our mother, brothers, sisters, and dad. It’s not something that we can always put in words. We are a happy people – Angolans always laughing and joking – but we have these lyrics and this powerful music.

It is no wonder then that Tania is always asked to share about her culture in addition to teaching the dance. “When I see kizomba being vulgarized and commercialized it’s extremely disturbing and this is why I carry on teaching and sharing.”
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Early Teaching and Leading

“When I was a teenager of 16 or 17, the club scene in Portugal was matinees (in the afternoon). I remember teaching those who came to Portugal earlier than me and they didn’t have the connection to that background in Angola.”

“My brother had a lot of male friends that came around and wanted to learn kizomba. I think that’s how I learned to lead. I remember dancing with girls as well in parties and in school.”

Transition to Adult Life

Tania didn’t have the extended adolescence so common today in the USA. “I started working very early: I abandoned my studies at 15 and started working with my mom in the office. I met my daughter’s father at age 16 and at age 22 I left home to get married. We decided to start a life in England.”
Once in England, she took a break for several years from dancing. “Between the age of 22 till about say maybe 10 years ago, I was too busy being a mum. I had my daughter on top of living in a foreign country and learning a new language and not having family near. We used to do 16 hour shifts cleaning dishes and cleaning toilets – that’s my story and made me who I am today. He was doing day shifts and we were swapping parent duties. My only trips home were for weddings and so on.”
That doesn’t mean she abandoned kizomba entirely, though. “I still listened to music at home.”

Teaching in Reading

“About 5 years ago, my daughter was 15. My brother and I would go to a club in Reading and we would dance kizomba/semba to certain merengue and they would open a circle and watch us dancing to certain songs, when the beat would allow us to do it, until someday someone said ‘Let’s do a workshop for kizomba in Reading.’

Tania’s initial reaction was that she couldn’t possibly, but she eventually agreed when they found another teacher and asked her if she could help. “But I ended up teaching the workshop because he knew 2 or 3 steps and thought he could get away with it!”

People started putting pressure on Tania to teach more. “So finally I told them, ‘Find me a venue and I will do it.’ And that’s how it happened. I started doing workshops here and there. Then I founded Kizomba Reading with the help of some friends. We had people coming from all over the UK to party and to learn with us.”

Tania is self-deprecating about those early days. “To be honest, when I came to teach, I wasn’t great. I had no shame in saying: ‘We are not great teachers, we are great dancers and we are learning to teach.’ Most Angolans/Palops don’t really agree with the concept of teaching – they think that spoils the natural way of learning kizomba.”

Clearly they found a balance that worked. “My personality made me keep coming back – because I have the story and the background, people stick with me. We had a really good community, they appreciated it. We slowly start to invite teachers from London, and bring DJ Hugo Boss, and Kizomba Reading was starting to grow and grow.”

A Willing Collaborator

“I was hanging out with Hugo in London and he said, ‘I know someone who’s looking for a dance partner to do a show. He’s desperate and he’s just the perfect person to work with.’ So I met Eddy Vents; we danced together and he was like ‘Yes I need you.’ We worked together for a little while. We did a little show at El Grande [an enormous multi-room social that happens monthly in London]. We also worked together when Tina Dialektaki started Kizomba Oxford, because I was close by in Reading.”

Tania and DJ Hugo Boss also co-founded the charity Kizomba for Life, “We did parties and raised funds to help starvation in Africa, as a way to give back to the comunity where kizomba comes from.”

“I invited Said to Kizomba Reading one time. I was a big fan of Said’s style because it’s very linked with the traditional roots and he has his own style. He’s very popular in the UK. He’s one of the first ones who started the kizomba movement in the UK back 15 years ago.”

Said became Tania’s regular partner for teaching abroad. “He was being invited to teach abroad and never had a regular partner. He sent me a message to invite me which was flattering. Last year we did a show, and we traveled a lot.” Working with Said was one reason for Tania’s move to London. “2013-2014 was the peak of my career. He has a very demanding job so we can’t do so much now, but we are like brother and sister. I’m really grateful to him – if he hadn’t invited me to be his partner I probably would still only be limited to the UK.”

That being said, they don’t work together exclusively. “He’s my official dance partner but in the UK I mostly teach alone, both men’s and ladies’ parts. But if other guys have a night and they invite me then I will use them. I teach with pretty much everyone, not on a regular basis. Eddy, Rico, To’Costa… but I’m very passionate about teaching alone.
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Standing Alone as a Teacher

Tania is extremely generous with her time, which has contributed to her popularity. “I guess I am a people person. I like to communicate; I like to get to know them. If I see anyone who is interested I will give my all. I take every chance I can to share, to talk about the lyrics of the songs, getting them to understand.”

I absolutely love this dance, this music, my culture, and when I’m on the dance floor I’m in my element. The fact that there’s not always too many gents obviously allows me to dance with ladies, so I lead a lot. Sometimes I have a queue of ladies waiting to dance with me at the festival! When I lead I dance like a guy, I really want to be as macho as possible.”

Tania explains nicely her passion for solo teaching. “When you teach alone you can put your input into things. When you teach with a guy – well, lucky enough I have a dance partner that allows me to have a voice, but that’s not always the case. It’s still very much of a man’s world.”

“I’m tiny and I have a sweet look to me, but I can be very assertive,” I could not agree more with this assessment! She continued, “As a lady teacher you have to develop that – you develop a shield that has to be there because you’re constantly fighting adversity from salsa teachers, organizers, students who think they know better than you, and constantly putting them in their place to run a class and engage both men and women. It takes strength.”

Fighting for Respect

My biggest adversity is when they vulgarize this culture. That’s when my frustration comes. I have this picture in my mind: my brother at 15 dancing with my younger sister at 5 on a concrete floor – that’s how we learned. I have very few memories of my dad, as he passed when I was 9, but he was a party man and I take after him.”

Tania strongly dislikes kizomba being done in very dark room. “When I’m invited to teach somewhere and then the clubbing comes, the light turns on. I tell them “You either put lights on in this room, or I’m going to leave.’”

She also prefers “90% kizomba, as little tarraxinha as possible.” Her frustration was clear as she elaborated, “When I see girls moving their butts like they have their own brain I tell them ‘What is that?’ It aggravates me when I see that they all flag themselves as part of the culture – especially when they are part of the culture.”

Advice for Female Teachers

1. Persevere
“It’s very difficult to make it in the market as a lady teacher alone. In saying that, I was very pleased to be notified today I was nominated for best kizomba teacher in the UK with the LUKAS awards, and 6 out of the 10 teachers nominated were ladies. In the UK they’re kind of used to it because of strong voices like Riquita and Iris. But outside the UK there are very few, maybe on a ladies’ styling thing only, like Mafalda and Sara Lopez. But as a kizomba teacher on your own, no – internationally it’s going to be extremely difficult.”

2. Learn
“Perfect the art of teaching and perfect the art of dancing. Both the culture and the dance itself.”

3. Handle People
“I would say that you need to be a people person. You also need to be willing to take it on the chin a couple of times; you need to be ready to take adversity. We still have situations when I’m teaching, that if there’s a male teacher watching they feel like they need to step in and correct me.”

As to shoes…

“I lead in flats, mainly because the posture of the man is completely different from a woman. Men’s posture is the heels just barely touching the floor, the shoulders curved and the back slightly bent.
It would be very difficult to do that with heels. The heels would erase 90% of that posture. It does happen – I start a party with my great big heels, and halfway through the night I change to my flats. I start the night as a follower and I finish by leading when everyone is already comfortable. I find those new trainers with a little bit of heel in the back are the best of both worlds.”

Connect with Tania on Facebook or check out her YouTube channel!

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