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Dancing Kizomba and the Rules of Attraction


Published February 10, 2016 at 10:00 a.m.
Updated February 16, 2016 at 6:19 p.m.

Kizomba at Zen Lounge - MATTHEW THORSEN
  • Matthew Thorsen
  • Kizomba at Zen Lounge

A stranger walks toward me in the dimly lit club. Insistent bass pulses from the speakers, the lyrics in a foreign language. Without a word, he places one hand on the small of my back and takes my right hand in his. I smell his cologne and, beneath it, the faint aroma of sweat.

My chest is pressed against his, his leg between mine. Slowly, we begin to sway. Following the signals from his body, I gyrate my hips in a figure eight pattern — tarraxinha infinita. Then the beat drops, and we begin gliding across the dance floor: back, two, three, tap; forward, two, three, tap.

I breathe, trying to empty my mind of everything but sensation. I'm a feather, and every cue from his body is a breeze. "Switch," a voice calls out. I snap back into myself and step away from my erstwhile partner, giving him a double high five and a "booty bump" as I recede.

"Let's get some separation here," says the same voice. It belongs to instructor Jon Bacon Jr., clad in a dark red dress shirt and black pants. Slender, he sports a fade and the beginnings of a goatee. He waves his arms, indicating that leaders should step to one side of the floor, followers to the other.

Beside Bacon stands Sarah Snow, platinum blond and lithe, clad in leopard-print leggings and a black tee. They come together and demonstrate how to add finer points to the move we were just doing — a little adjustment of the hands for the leaders, a sexy body roll for the followers.

Bacon and Snow are instructors at Dsantos VT, an Afro-Latin dance company owned by Tyler Crandall, who also teaches. In addition to holding weekly salsa classes in Burlington and Montpelier, and one-off special events, the Dsantos team shows up at Burlington's Zen Lounge each Wednesday to educate people about kizomba. The sensual dance from Angola, with lyrics sung in Portuguese or Creole, emphasizes close contact, lower body movement, and a sort of gliding walk that makes the whole thing look effortless.

The Dsantos VT team trains in Montréal with renowned performer Manuel Dos Santos, who goes by the moniker "Dr. Kizomba." Dos Santos grew up in Angola dancing in a wide variety of styles, and now travels worldwide to teach and compete. Crandall, Snow and Bacon, accomplished performers in their own right, learn moves and tricks north of the border. Each week, around 25 dancers — one coming from as far as Poultney — show up at Zen Lounge seeking a taste of their acquired expertise.

What motivates people to drive so far for a dance class? For Elizabeth Podhaizer (my sister, who got me into dancing in the first place), it's the breadth of the experience kizomba offers. "It can be very sensual and funny and fun all at the same time," she explains. "And the lessons are accommodating to the social dancer who is there to make new friends and do something different, as well as those looking to excel in the dance."

At Dsantos, rather than opting for a finicky focus on tilting one's chin just so, the instructors frequently admonish us simply to show our dancing partners what a wonderful time we're having, and to recover from our inevitable mistakes with aplomb. That can be a relief. "It's a great place for shy people," Snow says, "because the only words you have to say are 'Would you like to dance?'"

At my first class, in early November 2015, I certainly felt a bit shy, given that it can be tricky to move sinuously in time to music while straddling someone else's thigh. But I was immediately entranced by the dance form. Because of the proximity to one's partner, and the fact that one leads primarily with the chest and the body, rather than with the arms, kizomba is vastly different from other dances I've learned.

Other factors have contributed just as much to my dedicated kizomba attendance, chief among them the shocking (for Vermont) diversity of the participants. In the 33 years I've lived in this state, I've never encountered people from so many different cultural backgrounds in one place, except perhaps at the annual drag ball. My fellow dancers at Zen Lounge have roots in China, Japan, Korea, the Dominican Republic, Peru and many other countries. They are straight and queer, cisgender and transgender. They work as mechanics, scientists, blacksmiths, computer programmers, chefs and massage therapists. Most are people with whom I would never have connected via my social circles. And most are people I'm delighted to know now.

"It's a terrific group," agrees architect Brian Leet, who has danced kizomba on and off for more than a year. "They're so open to new people who show up. I've been surprised at how much I've enjoyed becoming part of a dance community."

In more traditional dance communities, it's assumed that men are the leaders and women the followers. At Dsantos, people are expected to do whatever feels natural to them, and that can change from one class to the next. Says Crandall, "It's not [only] a question of how you identify. People get confused, believing that all the time, dancing is a sexual experience. We are all friends, and we want to have fun and practice our craft ... we're all trying to get better at what we do. [As a leader,] learning to follow is very important, so I can understand what's happening on the other side."

Jon Bacon Jr. and Sarah Snow - MATTHEW THORSEN
  • Matthew Thorsen
  • Jon Bacon Jr. and Sarah Snow

Partner switching is also the norm: Every leader aims to dance with every follower, during class and at social dances. In that way, the class is a bit like speed dating: You notice more or less chemistry, cordial or otherwise, and then you move on.

And that is part of the charm. "As soon as I danced kizomba, I fell in love," Snow recalls. "It creates a connection you can't have by sitting down and having a conversation. There's no other activity in our society where you can get that close to a stranger and it's appropriate. It feels nice."

In our touch-averse culture, there's something enticing and almost daring about sharing space. Yet the dance comes with a tacit contract that keeps those intimate situations from feeling perilous: no groping; focus on having a good time; it will all be over in four minutes. At Dsantos, the emphasis is on creating a safe and supportive environment. "You can be as sexy as you want, or as not sexy as you want," says Snow. "Afterwards you can say, 'OK, thank you so much,' or you can say, 'Do you want to hang out later?'"

When two dance partners feel drawn to each other on the floor, does the feeling ever blossom into romance? Sometimes. Since I started attending classes, I've noticed pursuits, romantic flare-ups and breakups among fellow dancers. Most of these relationships are as short term as the songs. Yet, while a dance lasts, says Bacon, "You're connected, and you're speaking the same language."

The results of that closeness are sometimes surprising. My sister, a scientist, guesses that kizomba raises levels of endorphins, endocannabinoids and oxytocin. In her own experience, she says, "I do notice a stronger high than after a run. Maybe it's the added component of physical contact with another person; maybe it's the pleasure of a dance without the pain of pounding the pavement." When she gets home from class, Elizabeth notes, she often can't sleep.

The same happens to me, and so has something else. I've realized that my focus on the attraction of the mind is impoverished. For lovers and friends, I've always sought out people who can construct brilliant philosophical arguments and are exceedingly well read. At bars, unwilling to engage with pushy strangers, I subtly made myself unapproachable.

Until now, I've never fully understood the power of being silently attentive and vulnerable in the presence of a stranger, of getting to know someone's body before I know their mind. But we are, after all, animals, and our bodies' interactions are at least as important to us as witty wordplay.

Simply put, dancing kizomba has changed my definition of attraction. It's now broader and more inclusive, a force that relates to how somebody holds me in their arms, how they move with me around the dance floor, and how I experience the mysterious power of pheromones. Will I find love on the dance floor? That remains to be seen. But this I know: When I meet someone who piques my interest, I will ask them to dance.

"Take me Away" is most likely the first original Kizomba song written and recorded in Vermont. The artists are Adam Frehm and Caroline O'Connor. Adam is part of the Dsantos dance community, and is also a photographer, music producer and recording engineer.

The original print version of this article was headlined "Body Electric"

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