Let’s talk about kizomba fusion dancing

Kiz Talks, Dec. 29, 2016

First of all, what is fusion? The word “fusion” has some scientific meanings we won’t bother with here. It is used in music to talk about a mixture of styles, and in cooking it refers to cooking that uses elements of different cuisines together. Similarly, fusion dancing involves combining elements of different partner dances. Let me quote the wonderful people over at fusionexchange.org:

“Depending on the music and the dancers, fusion can mean creating a new dance style to unique music, or combining two or more established dance aesthetics into a single dance to reflect the sound of a song combining multiple influences. […] By finding the commonalities between various dance styles, or creating new movements, dancers can actively adapt and improvise their dance style to music of all influences.”

You’re probably already familiar with some kinds of fusion dancing. Bachatango combines tango stylings and steps with bachata. Bachata Sensual is bachata with Rio-style Zouk movements mixed in. In recent videos, Enah has used Rio Zouk steps and movement along with urban kizomba. Notice in this video he and his partner dance to a song that would more usually be associated with contemporary dancing.

I first encountered fusion dancing through the blues dancing world. In the scenes that I was part of, blues fusion meant dancing mostly with movements and partnering structures based on modern blues dancing, then layering in elements of other dances as felt appropriate for the music. For example, we usually had the relaxed embrace of blues dancing, but might occasionally tone up to add a movement from tango. Normally we would express the heartbeat of the music through a physical pulse in our dance, but sometimes it made more sense to glide through our steps. The music was widely varied, ranging from soul to jazzy tango to singer-songwriter to pop with dubstep breaks. You can see tango and blues coming together to an alternative rock song here, and blues with contemporary and other influences in this dance to alternative R&B cover.
Of course, like any scene, the blues community disagrees about what fusion is and even whether the term blues fusion should exist. (You can explore more here if you’re interested.) So it wasn’t surprising to me to see the kizomba world experience some disagreements over what should and should not be called kizomba. Many people have used the term “fusion,” “new style,” or “evolution” in ways that offend others. There is a criticism that “fusion” is simply a label used to camouflage a lack of expertise in the dance style. I myself groaned a few years ago over some bachata teachers teaching “kizomba fusion” that seemed to be bachata plus some body rolls, with no kizomba elements whatsoever.

close embrace fusionSo let me state clearly for the record: I believe that fusion dancing means using elements of at least two dance styles, and requires a certain level of understanding of each of those styles. I believe in labeling things appropriately; it’s not kizomba fusion if you don’t have kizomba elements. I also believe fusion dancing should demonstrate a connection with the music as well as a leader-follower connection.

For years, my two favorite dances have been blues dancing and kizomba. With enthusiasm I have introduced kizomba dancers to the notion of blues dancing, run “kizomba for blues dancers” workshops, offered private lessons to instructors and leaped at any crossover opportunity. (Shoutout to Philadelphia, San Francisco, Sydney, and Honolulu for the most memorable ones!)

One of the very first people I knew who got excited about the possibilities of bringing elements of kizomba and blues together was my friend Tory G. She first encountered kizomba at the 2012 DC Bachata Congress, as so many American dancers did. Tory told me, “I stumbled on the kizomba room and immediately thought: ‘That looks like close embrace blues! I need to learn this dance!’”

a-zaytseva-toryI knew Tory from the blues and blues fusion scenes. She has always impressed me with her expressiveness as a follower and her ability to adapt to various music styles. She explained: “Much of my earliest fusion dancing experience was at local events run by DJ Experiment in Philadelphia. One of the core tenets of DJX has always been to push the boundaries of genres and styles of music to which we partner dance; thus, a core element of my definition of fusion dancing is to experiment with dancing to music that is not traditionally associated to other partner dance styles.”

We met up in 2013 in a friend’s backyard in DC and started experimenting with our dancing. Although I had only been leading kizomba for a few months and Tory had next to no experience in kizomba at all, we found we were able to create interesting and musical dances together (if often punctuated by giggles over miscommunication.) It became a semi-regular thing: if we were in the same town, we’d try mixing some kizomba into our blues or some blues into our kizomba. I danced with Tory at Oscar’s socials in DC and at the DJX Fusion Weekend in Philadelphia. Finally we got together with the intent of filming some of our improvisational fun, hopefully to inspire more people to try out this combination!

Here’s our first video, released in June 2016:

For me kizomba and blues fusion dancing is partly about bringing together two of my favorite things in the world. I love both of these dances, and I love the people I meet in these two scenes. Fusion offers the possibility of bringing them together. More than that, though, these two dances often speak to me in similar ways. From the first time I danced kizomba I was thinking of all the elements it had in common with close embrace blues dancing. I was accused a few times of lying about my lack of experience in kizomba, because following it seemed so natural to what I had learned in blues.

Tory and I found several elements that make these dances work well together:
– a relaxed, comfortable embrace
– chest area connection (at least some of the time)
– steady, grounded rhythm
– improvisation

Tory appreciates two aspects especially. “I’ve found a couple of elements in common between blues and kizomba which excite me not only about each dance individually, but for the possibilities in combining them. One is the depth of the connection: in a close embrace, it’s easier to feel how one’s partner is hearing and inspired by the music! The other is the flexibility in the dance structure – both dances are highly improvisational, allowing the music to truly inspire the flow of the dance and creativity in both partners.”

This last element makes it difficult to quickly explain either dance to a beginner, but it gives us so many creative options. Kizomba has multiple “basic steps” that can be combined and varied in many ways. The lexicon of “passada” from past decades have been expanded with steps that fit the aesthetic of kizomba. Similarly, modern blues dancing has several basic steps that come from vintage idiom dances. We build on these steps to create variations, and new steps have also been created that suit the aesthetic without being part of the historical tradition. So for both dances, the steps serve as building blocks that we can put together in whatever order, with the addition of pauses and different phrasing possibilities.

You can see several features of both kizomba and blues coming together in the above video. Sometimes we move smoothly like kizomba, while other times there is a strong pulse from blues dancing. We move in and out of close embrace, sometimes into saida position and other times into a much wider open position. There are steps pulled from the lexicons of both dances. My posture is mostly upright like it would be in kizomba, but I incorporated several level changes like I might in blues. You can also see quite a few times where as a leader I suggest a move to Tory, but she offers a different movement instead. We are both listening to the music, listening to each other, and finding opportunities to express our musicality.

close-embraceI’ve had the opportunity to combine kizomba and blues with a few other friends. They were similarly enthused by the possibilities. My friend Anastasia, a wonderfully talented follower in Pittsburgh, shares the best cuddly dances with me. She offered this insight: “I thoroughly enjoy blues and kizomba because the pure, unobtrusive connection shared between the lead and follow always satisfies without needing to be ostentatious. These dances are usually the best when kept simple.”

I had a ridiculously good time when my friend Jered Morin, an American blues teacher based at the time in Hamburg, joined me at the Kiel Kizomba Festival in 2014. We swapped off lead and follow roles, dancing kizomba that sometimes morphed into something bluesy while always making sense with the music. I reached out to him for his thoughts this week and he shared the following: “My affection for both dance idioms includes plenty of similarities in the looseness of body and connection; the grounded centers; the thrill of clear, quality movements; and the subtleties that both partners can add which inspire me when dancing with someone. I enjoy the differences as well, such as their connection to the rhythmic timing of the music. And then, both also share a less technical ability: the ability to become aware – in a small sense – of who that other person is while you dance with them.”

In the end I think this deeply felt, indescribable connection is what keeps me closely tied to both dances. I keep spreading my love for these dances at every opportunity, hoping to introduce more people to that place of sharing.

Listen to more awesome music chosen by Tory on Spotify.

Many thanks to Tory G, Anastasia, and Jered Morin for sharing their words in this piece. Thanks also to Ruth Evelyn, John Joven, and Forrest Rogers-Marcowitz for their assistance with wording!