So You Want an Authentic Kizomba Experience! Some Advice on Culture

This has been a trend for years. You discover kizomba. Maybe you take a few classes at a big Latin festival. Maybe you’re lucky enough to have a scene not too far away. You might get to a kizomba-dedicated event. After a while, you feel like you want to go further. You want to have an authentic immersion experience. You want to dance in African clubs, or better yet, attend an Angolan family party. Angola is intimidating and requires a visa application for most people – but Portugal is EU, has a major Palop* population, and is home to some famous teachers. Perfect!

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Only you haven’t yet realized that your studio dances, or even your socials at the bar, have a completely different culture from family parties or even African clubs in Portugal. You’re about to commit some serious blunders…

Except, fortunately, you found this article. Here are some key points to help you have a delightful kizomba dancing experience. They are in a roughly sequential order, rather than ranked by importance.

1. Find Some Friends
You’re a foreigner, I know, and you’re probably traveling alone. But trust me, you’ll have a lot more fun if you head to the club with a group. Most people are going to show up with a mixed group, whether family or close friends, because they’re going to socialize, not just to dance. Maybe they’ll have dinner together first, and stay to dance.
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Go take a class with a local teacher and ask about students that are planning to go out. Or maybe go first to a Portuguese club that caters to tourists that like kizomba – they’re pretty easy to find in Lisbon these days. Use Facebook, Meetup, CouchSurfing, or any other social media to get connected with people in town. Anyway, don’t you want to make some awesome cross-cultural friendships?

Obviously this is the only way you’ll ever go to an Angolan family party – you need to be a friend to be invited!

2. Dress Up
It doesn’t matter what you wear for your daytime tourist activities, but you ought to look sharp when you show up at a Palop event. Tania Mendonca explains: “We take the way we look seriously. We like to dress well, and you see everyone always dresses up.” At an African club you may be denied entry if you are in jeans and sneakers, or shorts and a t-shirt. As for family parties, you will certainly look very out of place in your tourist attire!

Guys, a button-down, slacks, and well-shined shoes will see you right. Ladies, a dress and heels will never be wrong. You can get by with some strappy sandals, black trousers and a dressy top, though. It’s not just about getting in, of course; you want to appear to be a respectable partner.

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If dressing nicely just doesn’t fit into your holiday plans, don’t worry! There are still plenty of European clubs that will happily take you in.

3. Don’t Just Ask
If you are in a club or at a party with Palops, there is a way of doing things. Ladies, don’t ask men to dance. It’s going to be awkward for them. It’s perceived as forward, and may greatly offend the man’s wife, girlfriend, or mother. That being said, many men will say “Yes” to be polite, but there will be eyes on you! It is particularly offensive when a woman comes in and goes from one guy to the next all night (even though of course that’s normal for you at home). Don’t worry, though – it’s seen as the men’s responsibility to keep the ladies dancing. You will probably be invited before you even make it more than halfway to the dance floor!

Gentlemen, look for the approval of the men in your chosen lady’s group before you ask. Yes, BEFORE you ask. Obtaining an introduction is best. Women aren’t always comfortable dancing with a complete stranger. And obviously you don’t want to upset a husband, boyfriend, brother, or father! Tania Mendonca shared, “Even now, at my age, when I’m in a Palop club with my brother they look at him before asking me.”

As for those of you that are non-binary in your gender identity, you are going to have a tough time. You might want to pick a role for the night and dress accordingly.

4. Keep It Classy
Kizomba is not the Angolan bump-and-grind. Gentleman, be respectful in how closely and how tightly you hold the lady. Think twice about what your hand is doing on her back, or before you press your cheek against her face! Ladies, you don’t want to look like you are dry humping a man, whether he is available or not. Tone down the butt movement. Don’t wrap your hand around his neck.

par 4 Even head contact shouldn’t be something you initiate from the first dance. That’s like walking up to someone and saying, “Hello, let’s cuddle!” Wait till the third song to lean in, and even then be sensitive to whether your partner is also seeking that contact point.

In short, be conscious both of appearances and how suggestive your behavior might feel to your partner.

5. Stop At Three
Usually songs are mixed together, so a couple can continue dancing seamlessly into the next song. There isn’t a mass exodus from the floor between discrete songs. So it’s normal to dance more than one abbreviated tune.

Now, let me tell you something important: it is the woman’s responsibility to end the dance. It’s considered impolite for the man to halt without her pulling away. Ladies, be aware that you are sending a message depending how long you dance with your partner! Two is a very safe number – clearly you enjoyed but it was just a dance. If you go past three, he can safely assume he’s getting your number. Dance at length, and you’ve basically said you’re willing to go home with him. As Sonja KiKizomba put it: “You know that when a guy starts caressing your neck after the third song, it’s time to leave – or to stay!”

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I’m not saying I agree with that kind of attitude – consent is really important! But you need to be aware. Meanwhile, if the man wasn’t interested but was just trying to be polite, especially if he has a girlfriend or wife somewhere nearby, you may have made the rest of your night very awkward.

Guys, pay attention to when your partner draws back. Let her go with a smile. If you get to three dances and she hasn’t let go, then it’s up to you – do you want to express an interest in something more than dancing? Are you hoping to take her home? If not, better gently guide her back to her table!

6. Be Sensitive
You love kizomba. The music moves you. Maybe you even understand the lyrics! You don’t share the visceral feelings that some songs bring up, though. There are kizomba songs that speak to a people’s experience of civil war, of sending children away to be raised in Portugal, of loved ones lost, and more. Sometimes it just isn’t the right time for them to want to dance with a foreigner.

You don’t need to stress out about that before every song, of course. Just pay attention for when there’s a collective shift in facial expressions or audible responses to the song. When in doubt, ask one of those locals you linked up with!

Many thanks to Tania Mendonca for speaking at length with me on this topic, to Riquita Alta for her input, and to Sonja KiKizomba for her suggestions that improved the clarity of this article.

Read some excellent advice about respecting the culture.

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*Palop comes from the acronym PALOP, Países Africanos de Língua Oficial Portuguesa, or countries where the official language is Portuguese. People commonly use the term to refer to people coming out of those countries as well.
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