Anaïs Millon is one of the top kizomba dancers in the world today. She travels the world constantly, appearing in festivals to teach workshops and perform with Morenasso, in addition to running her own weekly classes in Paris.
I had my first classes with Anaïs and Morenasso when I traveled to the Paris Swimming Festival in 2013. Since then, I couldn’t tell you how many times I have been in their classes. I was impressed from the beginning by the way that Anaïs shares the instruction of classes, addressing leaders as well as followers, offering constructive criticism that demonstrates a deep understanding of movement and partnering.
In June 2015 at the Summer Sensual Days festival in Croatia, I decided it was time to try to get an interview with Anaïs. She was interested, but the festival was of considerable size and we never managed to link up. I found myself teaching at the same festival as her just a few months later, the Melbourne Kizomba Festival, and she remembered my interview request. We chatted over meals that weekend, but never did manage to have the full interview face-to-face.
Amazingly, Anaïs agreed to finish the interview in writing (by e-mail). She blew me away with her considered and complete responses to my many questions. With her permission, I have put together the article below in English, but you can also read her original responses in French.
A childhood of dancing and gymnastics
Born in 1982 to a father from Martinique and a mother from Normandy, Anaïs had a very physically active childhood. Her mother was a classical and modern dance teacher, but Anaïs only endured one year of dance classes from age 5 to 6. She hated it: “I wanted to be in gymnastics and do cartwheels and somersaults!”
Her mother registered her at the gym, and by the age of 8 Anaïs was in high-level training, 30 hours a week plus competitions on the weekend. “At the time we had a choreography that we worked with for several hours a week that included classical dance, barre, floorwork – everything that I detested! But we needed to learn to hold our bodies correctly and prepare for floor competitions.”
Of course, today Anaïs is grateful for that forced dance training!
Teaching young people
When she was 15, Anaïs completed training to teach gymnastics, going on to teach for two years. At 17 she became certified as a competition judge in gymnastics, which she did for another 2 years. At the same time she started training as a coach for children, and worked in a social center for ten years as a coach for youths of 12-25. She did everything from physical activities to arts (like painting) to helping them with their homework. During holidays she organized their extra-curricular time.
When she was 24, Anaïs started going out to clubs. She enjoyed attending nights with Caribbean zouk, hip hop, afro, and so on, “just for fun.” Her sister, Noémie Millon, was already an international salsa dancer, so Anaïs went out to Latin nights on occasion as well. From age 27 to 29, she worked as a weekend club dancer for one alcohol brand.
In 2009, Anaïs started helping manage a social put on by her sister and her partner at the time, Leon Rose. Called AGUA, it was on a boat and featured a room for salsa and room for kizomba. Noémie and Leon had discovered kizomba in London and were interested in helping it develop in France. “At the time it was not at all known in France, except for a very small community.”
Anaïs was immediately enchanted with kizomba. “I liked it for the rhythms, so close to zouk, but with a totally different way of dancing – it delighted me.
“I wasn’t dancing at all at that point, but I saw the clients dancing and I really liked it. I wanted just to learn a bit so I could enjoy myself during my breaks at those parties, but I never found the time.
“One evening, my sister introduced me to Morenasso. A few weeks later he invited me to dance. This was in November 2009. He explained to me about following kizomba and I learned to follow him. So I was dancing about 30 minutes a week at that point, just for a little fun during my break.”
A blossoming kizomba career
“In 2010, three months after that first dance, Morenasso asked me to participate in the Africadançar competition with him. After that we had our first contract in Belgium, the famous video on an outdoor stage in red and black.”
This was the video that launched Morenasso and Anaïs’s career. They were quickly contacted by several organizers, including two well-established schools in Paris, to do regular classes.
“We really questioned ourselves. At that time Morenasso was a professional football player, and I had my work, and above all I was living 2 hours outside Paris. It was tricky enough for me to come in once a week for that social.”
Besides, Anaïs wasn’t sure she wanted to kizomba classes. She hadn’t been impressed by the general lack of pedagogy and structure, or even the quality of shows.
“Finally, after a lot of reflection, we told ourselves that with Morenasso’s technical qualities and my teaching abilties, we could make something of this. Before we started, we took hours to prepare our classes and begin to develop and perfect our technique and pedagogy.
“So that’s how I got started in 2010. I made the commute to Paris on Mondays, Tuesdays, and Thursdays after work, and also on weekends because it didn’t take long for festival contracts to arrive in France and in Europe.”
A true partnership
Anaïs finds that she and Morenasso complement one another well. They each have their strengths and are able to do great things together as well as individually.
In those early days of their partnership, Anaïs and Morenasso did everything together: weekly classes, shows, and weekend festivals. “Morenasso brought to the table the history and the technique specific to kizomba and semba. I provided the level of pedagogy and the more general movement technique, like alignment or support of the body.
“For classes, besides French, I speak pretty good English and understand Portuguese, and Morenasso speaks Portuguese and Spanish. This is an advantage that allowe us to quickly work a bit of everywhere in the world; we were able to make ourselves understood to our audience.
“There is no difference in how much Morenasso or I work – we are on the same level. I am lucky to have a partner who thinks that the follower does 50% of the work in the dance, whether it’s teaching, styling, or dancing.”
After a couple of years working together, Anaïs and Morenasso decided also to do weekly classes separately: “so as to develop other aspects of our teaching, and also to share our technique with a larger audience.”
Thus, on a weekly basis they each have their own classes and workshops, and on the weekends they work together. They prepare their festival classes and shows together, sharing the workload.
As to how it’s going after all these years: “We are really good friends, and our collaboration grows from that. It’s a true strength in this milieu and this lifestyle, where in the end we are surrounded and yet quite alone.”
Fighting for respect as a dancer
Anaïs’s first struggle was to become accepted in the world of kizomba. “When we got started, plenty of people did not appreciate Morenasso dancing with me, a European, rather than an Angolan woman. I had trouble finding my place in the Angolan scene and having those already in place accept me, which had never been a problem in the salsa scene. People said hello to me only half the time, or not at all; they were always talking to Morenasso instead of me, even if they spoke French or English.
“I worked incredibly hard and trained myself up in socials to try to become a good dancer, and so that they wouldn’t have anything to say against me.
“I am a fighter in my soul, and I wasn’t afraid to suffer. I wasn’t intimidated by having to travel 2 hours to Paris to dance at a social, then head back for 2 hours of commute at 4:00 AM, only to have to go to work the next morning.”
Anaïs has worked extensively to improve her dancing technique and her teaching skills to arrive at her current level. “I have written, observed so much, analyzed a lot, both for kizomba and in other dances. Whenever I wasn’t dancing at a party, I observed the dancers to understand the systems of movement and see how to improve them technically.
“I know what I’m talking about. I am able to reproduce and explain all the men’s steps and movements.”
Her second struggle has been to have her style of dancing become accepted. “Many people criticized that I danced in heels, whereas back at that time everyone danced barefoot in shows. I lift my arm when I turn, both for aesthetic reasons and for the fludity of certain movements. People were saying there shouldn’t be salsa styling in kizomba, when in fact these are techniques I learned when I was a gymnast, that you should always control your arms.
“I was born into Caribbean zouk as well as many other styles of music that are listened to and danced in Europe. I will never dance like an Angolan. My dancing is a reflection of my journey and of who I am, but certain individuals’ ego push them to believe that you must be like them.
“Having my differences in style accepted has been a long road and it’s not finished!”
The special challenges as a woman in this scene
“Today, the challenges are constant. Things are changing, but overall the world of social dancing is a man’s world. It’s rare that the woman is asked what she thinks; we are often left in the background as “only followers” that obviously have no opinions. That’s the reality that female dancers endure in this scene.
“I am a woman of character and a very reflective person, so it was difficult for me at the beginning to understand why all of a sudden I should be mute, essentially erased.
“Thus I’ve had to work twice as hard to make them understand that I am not just a doll that dances, but indeed a teacher on my own account and a dancer apart from my partner, that I am creative even outside the couple ‘Morenasso & Anaïs Millon.’
“It’s still a struggle; the scene remains primarily directed by men, and even female organizers often address themselves only to men. Organizers and students are always surprised to see that I speak 50% of the time in class, to explain things to the girls but also a lot to the guys, and that I have my own opinions about things.
“So my challenge is to have men in this scene realize that we women have a place in terms of the dance but also intellectually.”
Anaïs doesn’t restrict herself to the challenges imposed by others, though. “I also challenge myself. I want to be better in 2 days than I am today. I am constantly dissatisfied and perfectionistic, so I work to attain what I want, and above all to continue to progress and evolve.”
Respecting the culture and tradition of kizomba
Anaïs does believe that respecting culture is important. She also acknowledge practical considerations. “The reality is that when we start dancing, it’s not to get to know a culture better. That’s something that might come later.
“First we are touched by a style of music and also the dance. It’s our relationship with this community and this dance that makes us want to learn more. For me what’s important is to learn and master the basics before trying to do more technical steps. You have to take your time and not skip steps in the learning process.
“As with any discipline, there is a hierarchy of steps and leading techniques that are really necessary if we want to be pleasant to dance with and clear in our movements. Before learning to run, we first have to learn to stand up, hold ourselves on our legs, and walk. It’s the same in dance.
“Kizomba is a dialogue between two bodies. We speak without words, communicating with our bodies. But it’s a new language that you have to learn in order to unlock it and communicate – a bit like learning sign language to speak with the hearing impaired. In order to have a discussion you have to take the time to learn.”
What about evolution?
Most people recognize Anaïs as being part of the evolution in kizomba dancing, which has been a source of controversy for several years. She distinguishes between two types of evolution: “a technical evolution that respects the foundation of kizomba, and an evolution that comes from our leisure activities.”
The latter probably has some of you confused, so let’s start there. “In France kizomba generally touches on two audiences: a dancer audience, who already have experience learning at least one other dance, and who want to learn to dance correctly and progress. From this group emerge differnet styles.
“We also have a cubbing audience, coming out of Caribbean zouk. This group haven’t come to kizomba because they want to learn steps; they come to meet people. They take 5 or 6 classes just to understand how it works and then do their own thing.
“From each of these two groups emerge new ideas, more or less in line with kizomba.”
Anaïs feels that the aforementioned technical evolution is in fact necessary. “It’s what makes the dance interesting and allows it to endure. Dancers are artists: they express an emotion with their bodies. This is something profound, and we are all different inside.
“We start from a foundation that has touched us, the dance and music of kizomba, and we use that foundation to create new mouvements. The music that evolves is a huge asset for this creativity: each song transmits a particular emotion that may affect us or not, and can push us to dream, to imagine new moves.
“Kizomba has been so successful precisely because it is so rich in terms of movements and styles. Everyone finds their style, which is why kizomba has spread so rapidly. Everyone finds their place according to their preferences.”
What about the French style?
Anaïs doesn’t recognize the controversy over “French style” as being legitimate.
“For me it comes from people who were there from the beginning but didn’t succeed in making the dance evolve. Not everyone is creative, and not everyone has the abilty to follow the pattern of evolution and to adapt to it.
“And of course there are the traditionalists, who because they are Angolan want any evolution to belong to them. They don’t tolerate not having a hand in the evolution of a part of their culture.”
As for the concept of a French style: “It doesn’t exist.
“Today the international scene includes a lot of French people. But not one of us has the same style. It’s very limiting when you look at what the French have brought to kizomba, and then reduce it to be one style. I am French and I have my style, Félicien and Isabelle for example are French and they dance differently, Enah is French and dances in another way.
“So who can define for me what French style is? Because I live in France, I go out in France and nowhere do I see a well-defined style. There are certainly different aspects of movement, but kizomba in France is in its image: mutlicultural.”
Advice for women learning kizomba
“Everything depends on what ladies want. Do you just want to learn to follow, or do you intend to control your dancing?
“In classes today, unfortunately, few female dancers are teachers. They may act as assistants in class to show the moves, but don’t speak or hardly do. They content themselveswith lady styling classes in which most of the time they just do a choreography without talking about posture, the impact of movements on one’s partner, or even where in the dance these movements might be placed. They concentrate on moving their pelvises, which is extremely limiting to the role of the woman in kizomba.
“There are too few of us pushing greater reflection.”
I couldn’t agree more. Every time I find another woman who thinks about things like this, particularly an instructor, I get excited.
“Kizomba is a couple dance. The ladies are not just there to follow. As a teacher, a woman can explain the things that she feels in relation to her experience of the dance, in terms of her posture, her movements, and her style, but also in terms of the lead. We experience things as followers that the men never expeirience, at least unless they dance as followers; and vice versa, the guys experience things that we ladies never do unless we learn to lead.
“For me, a woman can progress in kizomba without a female instructor only if the male instructor really understands the followers’ technique.”
Obviously that is quite rare today, but it’s certainly not impossible. I’d like to think it’s becoming more common, but I don’t quite have enough data to be sure it’s not just a few examples fueling my wishful thinking. In any case, Anaïs provided another such example.
“I trained a teacher in France for two years. He spent the first year dancing as a follower in class. He was my assistant. Today, he is quite capable of correcting the ladies, and of giving them advice and teaching them following technique.
“Lots of ladies stop taking classes because they’re bored of them. That’s a shame, because there is really a huge amount to teach ladies. And the dance doesn’t just depend on the leader. I find that the partners of these male teachers have a responsibility to their students but also to this dance, and should try to have more of an impact in these couple dancing classes. These ladies should be capable as teachers to do a class on their own where they take the leader’s position.
“But this is starting to change; the scene is truly undergoing an evolution!”
Advice for women in leadership in the scene
“I would say that the best thing to do is to take the time to gain knowledge of kizomba as a whole from the foundation, the history (from its inception to today), and to be open to its audience finding its place. It’s important to know the difference between Caribeean zouk, which has its own dance, and kizomba, with all its different styles.
“Work hard for the respect of others, those who have come before you, those who see things differently from you, and know how to open the door to young talents and new movements if they touch us.
“Above all, never forget where you come from, because this dance is about sharing and social interaction. Kizomba affected us at a particular moment, brought us together, and unfortunately when we cross to the other side we can forget about when we were newbies.”