What is Kizomba?

Lewi side croppedIntroduction

Kizomba is an African dance characterized by close partner connection and smooth, grounded movement. In kizomba, there is no “basic step” after the fashion of ballroom dances, to be repeated continuously throughout the dance. Instead, movement with the music is the priority, and steps are incorporated according to the range of your vocabulary. Kizomba can be successfully danced with only four or five moves, and yet mastery lies in the subtlety of movement and of the lead-follow connection. “If it’s done well, if it’s done with the music, you don’t even need to do one saida, and I’m happy, you can only see a grin on my face because they’re feeling the music, they’re following the music. That’s what makes the dance as exciting as it is, not the moves,” says Angolan-born Riquita Alta.

In addition, the lexicon of kizomba steps is constantly expanding as people from around the world interpret the music in new ways. That means it’s easy for anyone to learn and enjoy on the social floor in only a little time, but remains challenging and interesting for those captivated by this style.

Kizomba is a close dance but is only as romantic or sexual as you and your partner choose to make it. As with any social dance, courtesy and respect are basic expectations, so there’s no need to feel intimidated by the social floor! Kizomba is a wonderful, moving dance that will appeal to new dancers and veterans alike.

Kizomba Music

Kizomba music springs from the tradition of semba in Angola, and takes inspiration from other African music forms as well as Caribbean zouk. Many point to a 1984 Kassav concert in Luanda as a pivotal moment for the birth of kizomba, but Eduardo Paim, a key figure in the musical innovation that created kizomba, disagrees. In a discussion at the 2016 White House Kizomba Summit, he explained that “zouk from the Antilles” was already being played in Angola years before that concert, and that “any analysis of kizomba as a genre should start from 1979.” He mentioned that as a semba musician, kilapanda and rebita were important influences. Certainly when you listen to kizomba, you can hear how rhythmically similar it is to both semba and zouk music.

As kizomba spread through Angola, Cape Verde, Guinea Bissau, and other Lusuphone (Portuguese-speaking) countries, it was adopted by musicians and dancers of several nationalities and evolved. The lengthy civil war in Angola, continuing in some form from 1975 to 2002, “wiped out the nation’s recording industry, and artists were forced to seek production opportunities abroad.” (Culture and Customs of Angola, p.148) Cape Verdean artists were for some time the most prolific in creating kizomba music, but today the industry is very multinational.

The word ‘kizombada’ originally just meant ‘party’ in the Angolan dialect Kimbundu. ‘Kizomba’ was first used to describe the style of music and later to name the steps that had been done to quite a few kinds of music. The choice is perhaps not surprising, following the popularity of zouk, which also means ‘party’ in Antillean Creole. Eduardo Paim credits his SOS band member ‘Bibi,’ the percussionist, with coining the term in an interview in the early 1980s (YouTube 2014). Kizomba has become an umbrella term which people use to refer to several genres of music, including Angolan kizomba, Cape Verdean coladeira and cabo-love, ghetto zouk, tarraxinha, and European remixes – much to some people’s annoyance. As for the dance, in 2015 an attempt was made to end fighting over the label “Kizomba” by giving the name “Urban Kiz” to the more linear and upright style first popularized in France (Facebook 2015).

A few Angolan musicians to know: Eduardo Paim, Paulo Flores, Don Kikas, Anselmo Ralph

Dancing Kizomba

Kizomba steps were being done in Angola long before the dance was formalized. Riquita recalls: “We used to dance them in other dances, to African music, especially 3-step basic and shuffle, so when kizomba came, it was easy.” It wasn’t until the mid-1980s that she first saw people doing saidas.

Tania Mendonca remembers, “Before Paolo Flores, there were maybe 10 years where zouk was becoming famous and was exploding. As it traveled down, we recognized the rhythm as slightly slower than semba, so we started dancing semba to zouk music.” Semba and kizomba were danced in a family setting, at large parties called kizombadas. “I remember going there with my whole family; everyone would dress up, it woud start usually on a Saturday afternoon,” says Tania. “There would be loads of food; it would be a family gathering; the music would be playing, great big speakers and band sometimes, and as the night progressed, moms would lay out straw mats and put the kids to bed under the table.”

There are also claims of a Cape Verdean origin of kizomba. Hélio Santos and Guilherme Mendonça co-wrote an interesting exploration into that relationship. Certainly, there are some similarities in weight change patterns and rhythmic variations when looking at Cape Verdean dances morna and mazurka (originally Polish but danced in Cape Verde).

There was a significant migration to Portugal during the Angolan civil war, families sending away their children to be raised out of the war zone, or to protect their boys from the compulsory military service. There were plenty of clubs playing zouk, kizomba, and related genres, and people from Angola and Cape Verde filled them to dance. Riquita shares, “In Portugal it was good, but in Angola it was amazing. There I learned so many steps. We didn’t call it kizomba then, we called it passada (meaning steps). We used to say pôr de lado (foot on the side), not saida. A lot of the moves you see now, I call them upgraded versions of the moves we had before. People think in the ’80s and ’90s it was very basic, but no, it was always basics as well as lots of steps – we used to do dips, lifts, all of that.”

kiel saida side

Kizomba as it was done in Angola and in expatriate communities, “is all about circular, smooth movement. There are always basics with moves in between,” Riquita insists. “For me, you should be able to dance to an Eduardo Paim song. If you can’t, then it’s not kizomba. Tania agrees: “As long as you keep to your 5 basic steps, the world is your oyster; you can do anything and then come back to your basics.”

A few well-known teachers
Angolan: Riquita Alta, Tania Mendonca, Petchu & Vanessa, Hernury Jamba
Cape Verdean: Kwenda Lima, Helio Santos, Avelino Chantre
Portuguese: AfroLatin Connection, Joao Rocha, Mafalda Amado

Urban Kizomba

A new style originated primarily in France, and soon became extremely popular in the international scene thanks in large part to an incredible number of YouTube videos. It has been called French-style, evolution, new-style, urban, modern, etc. This style is danced to more electronic music, including ghetto zouk and remixes of pop, hip-hop, and house music. It is characterized by more linear movement, more frequent syncopation and breaks, and an upright stance.

For a while, the community was not too bothered; after all, kizomba had been evolving from the very beginning. Complaints started to surface, though – that basics were being ignored, that these dancers could not dance to real kizomba music, that there should be no “traditional kizomba” label, but only “Kizomba” and “something else.” Eventually, there was a push from certain teachers to have the split be formalized as “Kizomba” and “Urban Kiz.”

A few well-known teachers
French: Curtis Seldon, Isabelle & Felicien, Enah Lebon, Isa Belle
Spanish: Albir Rojas, Sara Lopez

kfbd my back w girl

Kizomba Around the World

Although Angola might the birthplace of kizomba, it would not be wise to assume Luanda is still the hub of kizomba. Tania Mendonca explains: “Semba is cool, they’re very proud, but kizomba they see as a little bit ghetto and common, like what you used to do in the ’80s. Most of the parties now is Afro house a lot, 3 semba, lots of Afro house, 3 semba, and then 1 tarraxinha. They never play real kizomba except maybe at the very end of the party to raise glasses together.” While some Angolan artists still produce kizomba music, they usually perform it abroad. Today the popularity of kizomba is most firmly established in Western Europe but is becoming international with increasing speed.

Kizomba continues to be influenced by a wealth of styles. The roots in semba and commonalities with Cape Verdean dances have already been noted. We can see elements of son, coming from Cubans in Angola. Similarities to Argentine tango have encouraged many to take vocabulary and apply it in kizomba. Hip-hop, zouk, Latin styles, contemporary dance, and more are finding their way into shows and onto the social floor.

Note: this article is based on conversations and interviews with several dance instructors and DJs, beyond those who wished to be quoted directly.

Read next: What is semba? and What about tarraxinha?