I met Isabelle (or Isa Belle as she is sometimes billed) at the Ladies Take the Lead event in Los Angeles this March. I had seen a great ladies’ styling video by her, and I remembered a couple videos with Enah, but I knew they weren’t dancing together anymore. That was about the extent of my familiarity with Isabelle – and maybe it’s the same for you.
That’s a shame, because this lady deserves recognition for her part in shaping what is now being called Urban Kiz. I’m featuring Isabelle not as a lady who leads kizomba, but as someone who was a leader in developing what has become a very popular style. I’m only one small voice, but isn’t it worth trying to see that ladies get credit once in a while?
I interviewed Isabelle in French; what follows is an organization of my notes that I was translating even as I listened. Any mistakes are my own!
From Ballet to Bunda
Isabelle started dancing at the age of 5, signed up by her mom for classical dance. She continued for 12 years and identified it has her passion, but as is often the case, romance got in the way. She left dance to try other things but found her way back with dance hall. Living in a village outside of Paris it was a bit difficult to find dance classes, but she continued with dance hall for two years. After a while she got a bit bored and saw bachata in a nearby school, and that kept her interest for another year.
Then a friend invited Isabelle to a social for a new dance – “I’m certain you will like it!”Sure enough, she completely abandoned bachata, falling totally in love with kizomba.
“I started with three months of beginner classes and I worked on my own in my room. I looked at videos online to learn the style of ladies, and then I practiced that. I also tried to dance a lot with teachers; in Paris there were so many teachers, there were all the people that today are renowned. They gave me lots of advice and that’s why I learned so fast.”
“In the beginning, maybe around 2009, there weren’t many socials, just on the weekends. After a little I met a teacher called Gilles who was known a bit around Paris. Gilles proposed to me that I could progress very quickly and start teaching with him, we danced all the time together- he was one of the only ones who had the patience to dance with me and teach me. Curtis also taught me a lot; he gave me great advice.”
Isabelle taught with Gilles even as she continued her learning; the two of them danced “very much in the style of Sara and Albir. I made a really successful video with Gilles, that had more than a hundred thousand views.”
After four months Isabelle stopped working with Gilles because she went to Australia. She was already friends with Enah, and when he asked her to be his partner, Isabelle accepted. “Enah and I had great communication. With him I had to relearn how to dance; it was completely different [than with Gilles]. He let me try things out and experiment.”
Creating the Attitude
You’ve heard of ‘Enahtitude,’ right? Turns out there’s more to the attitude than Enah.
Enah had already started to create a buzz with lots of videos as well as doing Africadancar. “Once we became partners and trained together, we knew each other so well that we started looking for how we could add to the dance.”
“Enah liked how I follow my steps with my head – that’s from classical dance. Then we watched lots of videos of tango and looked at what we could use in kizomba. That’s how we created this idea of ‘Kizomba Attitude.’ We danced on our toes and looked for elegance. We helped to create what we call ‘kizomba moderne’ ” – now branded Urban Kiz.
“Our videos really helped us to take off professionally. Once you’ve been asked to make a show, you’re pushed to keep creating and inventing. Enah and I worked together for a year. I loved traveling so much. I really felt that I’d achieved my dreams, because since I started learning to dance I dreamed of traveling and performing.”
Balancing Professional Life and Dance
“I need to be in a real professional situation; I want to make plans for my life. I stayed with Enah until he found another partner,” and then Isabellle left to focus on her career.
The kizomba world was not so willing to let her go. “I wasn’t trying to be booked at all. I had already posted on FB that I was completely stopping kizomba because it had changed too much. But I had done two classes of ladies’ styling just as I was finishing up my partnership with Enah, and I did a video in La Reunion that was very popular. So I was contacted by some organizers I had already taught for. They told me, ‘You should do some ladies’ styling, you have created your own style, you should do some classes.’” So after a while she agreed.
“Since Sept 2014 I’ve started to give some classes. At first I wasn’t really confident as a teacher, making that transition from being with a leader who was in charge of the class to teaching alone. But I love it. As a ladies styling teacher I help girls find their styles by exploring their own movement.
“Now I’m booked 2-3 weekends a month. I want to continue like that, since I have two other jobs besides. I’m often tired but I can make it work.” As to her job…it’s difficult to translate easily. Let’s just say she works in administration, so if anyone could juggle all these roles, it’s Isabelle!
“It’s so enriching to travel: I know I’ve really matured from meeting different people, who have different visions of dance with different passions. I really enjoy showing my classical dance origins in my kizomba style.”
For the future: “I’m hesitating as to whether to take on a partner. I think that if I had a partner I would have 10 times more demand than as a ladies’ styling teacher because then I would be hired to do normal kizomba classes as well as ladies’ styling classes. But it’s also great to teach alone, to choose your dates and guide your own class.”
Having Your Own Style
Having fought criticism myself for teaching ladies to add something of their own when dancing kizomba, I was interested to hear Isabelle’s perspective. Her response was awesome; I try to convey her emotion in my translation.
(I added link to my blog on follower agency and ladies styling preview that received criticism}
“I am fed up with people criticizing ladies’ styling! We ladies need to stop saying ‘We’re only here to follow.’ We are also here to dance – the men should listen and adapt.”
That said, Isabelle does believe in respecting the leader-follower dynamic. “The first thing I ask myself is if it’s going to bother or mess up my leader. As long as I follow, it’s fine. You can add body movement and even syncopations without disrupting the dance. I am in favor of ladies’ styling because the ladies feel more feminine and have more confidence. Especially in traditional kizomba it’s supposed to shine a spotlight on the girl, while in semba it’s all about the guy.”
Speaking of the spotlight…
Teaching to Women
“When I started taking classes, a couple always taught but the girl didn’t speak at all. There wasn’t any ladies styling. Girls really had a hard time adapting themselves to the leaders.”
Enah was the one who encouraged Isabelle to speak up. He told her, “I want you to tell me what you hear in the leading, everything you do, where you put your weight, how you do your undulation.”
Isabelle was up for that! “So we started teaching for the women as we always taught for the men. Like Cherazade with Curtis and now Karole with Moun. This was a movement that arrived at the same time as modern kizomba. It depends on which teacher you end up with, but now it’s more and more common.”
Handling Criticism of Urban Kiz
At the time of our interview, the terminology was still quite varied, but the debate was clear. Plenty of people did not appreciate the changes happening in the kizomba dancing in Paris. Isabelle spoke of the divide between the proponents of “traditional kizomba” and “modern kizomba.”
“I try not to let it bother me but it makes me sad. I do also like traditional kizomba, but I prefer modern kizomba, and that’s my choice. Of course previous artists are always going to criticize new art, but that is how evolution happens.”
Isabelle points to the music. “The sound changed – we didn’t ask for that to happen, we follow the Djs. We added things as we heard the music change. We arrived as this movement was cresting and we contributed.”
She also notes that the division is not at all absolute. “Most people who dance modern kizomba also dance semba and traditional kizomba. Of course there are some people who only dance modern kizomba and that’s a shame but I’m tired of the criticism. As girls we can’t dance in the traditional way when guys are leading us in the modern way, but I do think that girls should learn both. That’s why I often use traditional steps in my classes.”
On Ladies Who Lead
We met, after all, at the Ladies Take the Lead event in LA. The festival, organized by the all-female group Kizomba All Stars, was not intended to teach ladies to lead kizomba, but to feature and honor amazing women in the kizomba world. All the teachers, teaching both roles, were women. That attracted a lot of us who enjoy dancing both roles ourselves.
“I’m surprised to see so many [ladies leading] here in the US; I guess maybe it’s from the lack of guys in the scene. In Europe we’re sick of tarraxinha and that inspired some girls to start leading to show a real dance.”
In other words, it seems that some ladies decided if you want something done right, you must do it yourself.
“I would have liked that when the guys started seeing so many girls starting to lead they would say to themselves: ‘I really need to get better!’”
Of course personally I’d like it to inspire more of us to experience both sides of the dance, but I’m also in favor of anything that drives improvement in the scene!
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