If tango was the dance of the twentieth century, as it has often been referred, zouk is the dance of the twenty-first century, as there is no other dance around today that better reflects the world as it is now perceived as being a “global village.” With the advent of the internet and man’s increasing mobility, geographic distances have become all but irrelevant, while cultural differences that once divided us would seem to be breaking down and bleeding together. The immediate affect of this can best be felt in the art world in which new forms of music, literature and film would seem to be created on almost a daily basis. Zouk is a direct result of this phenomenon. It is, in fact, the multi-cultural element that makes it hard to explain to the uninitiated exactly what zouk is. Even among zouk dancers you will find there to be a tendency to disagree and one’s definition largely depends on where one comes from, Martinique, Brazil, Holland, Cape Verdi, Africa.
Zouk’s origins can be traced back to the West Indies, having come out of the French islands of Guadelupe and Martinique in the early to mid-1980’s. In Jocelyn Guilbault’s seminal book on the subject, “Zouk: World Music in the West Indies,” she states that “Zouk is the creation of black, Creole-speaking Antillean artists,” and puts forth the theory that it is the product of the struggle to form some kind of national identity among the four islands, Martinique, Guadalupe, St. Lucia, and Dominica. All four share a similar colonial past, having been under both French and English rule at various points in their history, and are populated predominantly by blacks, who are the descendants of African slaves. The word “zouk” comes from the Creole word meaning “party,” and is such a part of everyday life that a common phrase heard on the islands is “When you hear zouk, you feel at home.”
It has been said that music in the West Indies is inseparable from dancing, to where how good a song is, is determined by how much it compels people to move. So it is no surprise that just as the international popularity of zouk has resulted in different variations in music so has it resulted in different variations of dancing to go with it. For the sake of brevity, this article will limit itself to focusing on the two most popular forms, the original Caribbean form and the Brazilian form.
To an observer the first thing one notices is the close proximity in which the dancers stand to one another, to where their bodies are literally joined at the waist or “se toufe yen yen.” Which translated means, “so closely that not even a fly could pass between the couple without being squashed.” The movement is essentially a two-step, the dancers shifting the weight of their bodies on the beat of the music “doom-chik, doom-chik,” One reason given for it’s popularity is it’s immediate accessibility, bearing a great deal of similarity to merengue, biguine, manpa, jing-ping, and other traditional dances commonly known throughout the West Indies.
Zouk’s emergence on the international scene happened to coincide with the decline of lambada, filling a vacuum while at the same time taking on some of its attributes. It is this form of zouk, often referred to as “zouk-lambada,” which eventually found its ways to the nightclubs in Europe. The fact that both Caribbean zouk and lambada are danced close together, it is easy to see why Brazilians took to the dance so quickly and over time eventually made it their own. The confusion between the Caribbean style and the Brazilian style, comes from the fact that they are both often referred to as simply “zouk,” when there is in fact a significant difference between the two. The Brazilian style is a three-step, “chick-chick-doom,” often described as “quick-quick-slow.” The choreography of the Caribbean style is best described as simple and not elaborate, where as the Brazilian style often incorporates many steps and turns and a much wider variety of hand combinations.
Perhaps because of the Latin influence zouk is often compared to tango or salsa, when the fact is, nothing could be further from the truth. In tango, it is the upper parts of couples body that are joined, while in zouk they are joined at the pelvis. It is from the hip that movement originates and one guides ones partner, while in tango and salsa guidance is given primarily using one’s hands and upper torso.
The basic step is simple. The man steps back slowly on his left, followed by a quick right, left as he brings his two feet together. He then steps forward slowly on his right, followed again by two quick steps, left, right, the whole time the woman mirroring his footsteps. Connection is key throughout the dance, and in part is what gives the dance it’s fluid quality. In some sense, it is best to think of the dance as one continuous motion, one that is never forced, and when performed correctly, is seamless, incorporating no pauses, just an alteration in tempo in accordance with the hypnotic beat. The simplicity of the beat is appealing to those who find the beat of salsa too obscure and difficult to grasp. To where a common response when asking someone why he or she started dancing zouk is, “I used to dance salsa.”
It is this underlying rhythm that gives zouk dancers a great deal of freedom and flexibility, being able to meld their style of dance to the music of the moment. Where as many dances are limited to a particular style of music, zouk would seem to be the exception. The “chick-chick-doom” rhythm is not uncommon and can be found in many musical styles, such as R&B, Reggaeton, HipHop, Club/Pop, and the songs of many popular artists from the Madonna, to the Giypsy Kings to U2. All of which, allows the zouk dancer a much wider range of music to dance to, and with the opportunity a greater freedom to experiment and play with the rhythms. In short, zouk dancing is far from a codified or stuffy institution — it is, instead, a living and continuing passionate exploration.