I met Lam at my first festival in Australia: July 2015’s Australian Kizomba Festival in Melbourne. He was hard to miss, what with his brilliant white smile, frequent shouts of “OPA!” and this amazing performance:
Note: I couldn’t find a video from that festival but this show is substantially similar.
Our friendship grew as I continued to catch Lam at various Australian events during my “working holiday” there. He hosted me for workshops in Canberra and was a major contributor to an article I wrote for Latin Dance Community.
Lam’s ability to draw in students and infect them with his unflagging energy is hard to imagine until you see it in action. So of course Lam was one of the first people I contacted about this interview series.
We spoke for well over an hour, and I came away feeling like I’d already gained a wealth of information. In fact, it was that interview that made it clear to me that I wasn’t just going to write one article, but a whole series. Throughout, Lam emphasized that he was only sharing his own opinion and experience. “I don’t know everything,” he repeated.
True enough, but the puzzle pieces I’m collecting from each of these interviews will certainly help us create a larger picture! What follows is an abridged version of our interview. I have at times rearranged the order to keep the ideas more organized, but these are Lam’s words.
What dances do you do from the African tradition?
I’m from the Congo myself, so most of the African traditional dances that I do are from the Congo.
I’m sure it’s like everywhere in Africa: in Congo we have a few tribes. Each tribe will have their own dances. Within those tribes, they will have a dance to celebrate a birth or life or new beginning, maybe a dance for hunting; a different type of dance for each season within the tribe. To my knowledge, we have more than 30 types of dances just in the Congo.
I am Lari – we have more than five dances within just this one tribe. Dances for birth, hunting, death or funerals, giving thanks to God, competition, storytelling, romance or finding new love…
Tell me more about some of these tribal dances.
Hunting – Before even going hunting, there can be dancing asking the universe or God to have success in the hunt; then when the hunters return, they give thanks through performing another dance.
Storytelling – So when a grandfather is telling the children a story, he will also be dancing, and the dance will connect to the story.
Bakongo – From this tribe I dance the dance for warriors, and we also call it Bakongo dance. Throughout history, a tribe might be at war with another tribe. So they do a dance to represent their strength, to show that the other tribe should be afraid.
Bateke – From this tribe I dance the dance for celebration of birth or new beginnings. So Bateke is the tribe and we call it Bateke dance.
How did you come to learn dances from other tribes?
First I was curious about the dances. But that’s not really the reason why. It’s just because of traveling to that area of the country. My tribe is Bakongo but subdivision Lari specifically. But I traveled to the Bateke villages. That’s how I learned their dances. In a way I had a naive interest in their dance.
Whereas now, being away from that culture, I’m learning more and I’m yearning to learn more of that. When I go back home, I continue to learn because I’m really interested in understanding their story, learning about them. When I was at home I was taking that access for granted. You know, you appreciate the wealth of your culture even more when you are separated from it. I want to know more about the history of my ancestors.
How do you put together your solo shows?
I don’t typically dance just one style. It’s often a mix of several of the styles I know. It’s not just about dance. Every time I do a solo performance, it’s an honor for me to be able to express who I am, but also the wealth of the culture I come from.
I know some African dances are more modern and some are much older. How would you categorize them?
The history of African dance is really interesting. Because in a way, African dancing has evolved over time as well…
Back home we have traditional dancing, which graduates from the oldest forms (warrior dancing, hunting, gathering) to the more recent forms, often centered around worship. It’s more like giving thanks to God, celebrating new life. Whatever you are grateful for, or happy about in your life.
There are also the styles the new generation came with: party dances. Like ndombolo and coupé décalé. It’s more like what we dance in the clubs. We’ve got rumba as well, and soukous. Because of course in the clubs we won’t dance traditional or contemporary dances—that’s not suitable for the club.
How do you feel about people teaching African dances just as “African Body Movement”?
I think it’s important to give credit to the origins in what we do. We can’t just say it’s “African Body Movement” or “it’s from Africa” because that’s where sometimes confusion comes in. The reason I think they might do it because they don’t know the real origins. But being able to characterize it, being able to say the name of the dance and where it is danced, it’s better. Then we avoid confusion.
It’s good to be innovative and for dancers to evolve, but at the same time, you can’t say “I exist today, just because I exist, but I don’t have a mom and dad.” You need to know where you come from.
It’s the same with soukous and ndombolo. It’s good that they are pinpointed, to give credit to the country. It feels good for someone who’s actually from the Congo who knows about soukous and grows up with it, it’s their culture, to know that there is someone who is teaching it and refers to it correctly as soukous and says it comes from Congo.
One of the reasons they might say “African Body Movement” is more about marketing. To me, if we see a dog or a cat, we should call it “dog” or “cat.” We should call zebra “zebra” and elephant “elephant.” I don’t see a zebra and say “This is an animal from Africa.”
When we say “African Body Movement,” well, we have heaps, it’s vast! So pinpointing is good. Marketing comes into play but we shouldn’t sacrifice knowledge for the good of our pocket. Unfortunately that’s the way the world is leaning. But just because the majority are doing it, doesn’t mean I think it’s the right thing.
It’s never too late to take a step back. It’s good. It’s being humble. It’s one of the things that we should have among our teachers. What I see sometimes, a reason for someone to just say “African Body Movement” it’s because they are at the stage of being teachers and they don’t want to show that they are still a beginner in this territory. So I think we can be humble – learning is until we die! There are some people that call me a “master” but I am still learning! I am still a beginner in some things.
Where did you learn Afro House? What do you draw from in your Afro House?
First, when you say “House,” what do we understand as House? The way I see it, Afro House is more like saying “Any African move goes.” It’s almost like that. “Any African dance you know goes with this type of music.”
Afro House is a mixture. You can dance ndombolo, coupé décalé, or soukous to that music. These are newish types of dancing—where it was born again from the evolution of the African dancing. For me when there is Afro House I dance ndombolo, soukous… I can put some traditional moves in Afro House.
I think the dancing came before even the name. If I’m back in the Congo and I don’t even know the name “Afro House,” and a song comes on and I don’t really know this music, I will dance what I know to the beat of the song that’s playing.
What are you teaching now in the category of solo African dance?
Matanga Fitness is my new venture. To give you a bit of history, every time that I’ve been invited to festivals, I’ve been asked to teach an Afro class. In those situations, I said, I will do an Afro, but during the class I would tell them: “This move is from ndombolo, this move is coupé décalé, this move is soukous.”
Then at the end of the workshop people would come up to me and say “This is something new that I’ve never done before. I feel like I’ve just worked out, I can feel my muscles, but I feel more energized. I have more energy and I’m happy.”
I wasn’t thinking about this effect on them, but this is the effect on me. So it got me thinking about sharing something that I love and giving back to the community in a way I know I can. And that’s how Matanga Fitness was born.
At a festival, I would put a choreo together. We have one hour: it’s never enough time. There is the pressure of sharing my energy with them, so I don’t feel like I have a lot of time to explain things in detail. So before you know it, time is up. So I focus on having the right energy for the class. You need to put yourself in it 100%, you always have more energy than you think you have. Feeling your body celebrating something. I can’t really focus heavily on the techniques of the movement, due to the time limitations. But the energy is critical.
For Matanga Fitness, it’s in installments. 12 months in the year, 12 stories. Matanga Fitness is based on story-telling, dancing to the story. I’ve got more time to spend with them. We get to know each other throughout all that time. I have more time to engage them, so they can connect to the story. I can focus the students down on technical aspects of the movement, as well as what muscles we’re working and training. Still, the energy exchanged, and the philosophy around what we do is the most important thing to convey.
First you need to learn the story, the order. And then you need to clean up the movement, the technique. And every move has levels of difficulty. The first move we may do, for example, will have increasing levels of technical and physical challenge in the first week compared to the forth week.
What do you think is the future of solo African dance in the kizomba scene? Will we move beyond party animation?
I see the advantage of doing a line-up. You can pick up some moves that you can learn and use later.
But I think it’s not enough to make people be creative.
I think if at kizomba festivals they could give slots to subsets of African dance, like let’s say ndombolo or soukous, etc— it would allow people to understand the differences, and how to relate to the music. You can’t dance Afro House to every piece of music. There are ndombolo songs, soukous songs. If someone can’t tell the difference then they will be dancing let’s say Afro House to ndombolo.
Another way it can be more acceptable is learning to do this ndombolo, soukous, etc to the rhythm of Afro House music. In my opinion it’s time that we start learning those different types of dance. First acknowledging the differences and learning them: only ndombolo and only soukous instead of just generalizing. If they are well equipped then without forcing creativity they will be creative.
I think for people who want to advance their kizomba, learning other dances like ndombolo and soukous will be profitable for them. A lot of African dances today came out of those main dances. For example coupé décalé is one of the dances that was inspired by soukous and ndombolo. When you know how to move your body, when you know how to move your hips, it gives you room; you are well-equipped to assimilate the other dances easily.
It’s time to put other African dancing forward as well.