Latin dances have long thrived in Finland, with Zouk the most recent genre to elicit avid followers.
BRAZILIAN Zouk dancing is a modern partner dance that has gained momentum in Finland, along with devoted supporters. The dance is an intimate dance that mixes the Brazilian Lambada with Zouk music of the Caribbean. The music originates from the French Caribbean areas of Guadeloupe, Martinique and Guyana.
The dance took its first steps in Finland two years ago, and the Zouk activists celebrated their second anniversary recently in Café Caisa along with open dancing to Zouk and other festivities. The Fresca Helsinki Latin Festival took place 18 to 21 October, topping the Cuban Culture Week. Besides dance and music competitions and performances, also culinary experiences were on offer. The second Freestyle Brazilian Zouk competition took place at the festival. Many Latin dances, such as varieties of Salsa, Bachata, Argentinian Tango and Kzonmba were also embraced at the event.
Gaëlle Céline Le Vu is an avid fan of Zouk in Finland, and teaches pole dancing regularly. According to her, regular Zoukers do not amount to more than 10-15 people. Many beginners take up Zouk yet often do not pursue it. In Finland not many people have heard of Zouk. Although it has been around for a while, it has never been as popular as Salsa, and other Latin dances.
Latin dance congresses constantly take place all around Europe, and dancers may receive teaching from well-known professionals in these events, and spread the word of the newer genres in their native countries. This is where Zouk receives followers from all over the world.
Le Vu describes the dance as yielding two common reactions: “People are either intimidated by the complexity of the movements – and fear injury – and also the intimacy of the dance,” she explains. “It’s such a big dance. The other common reaction people have is awe. They might still be a little scared, but find it so beautiful that they want to learn it”.
Le Vu’s own introduction to Zouk took place through friends, who acquainted her with Latin music and dance. “I was at a Salsa party where I first saw Zouk,” she describes. “I thought that this is unlike anything I have ever seen before, and I wanted to get involved with it.”
The 4th Brazilian Zouk Festival in Finland
Modern and organic approach
What makes the dance so different and original then? It is intimate and requires a holistic bodily effort from the dancer. “Most social dances are led by the hand, although in some dances like Bachata you can lead through the body, but it stops there,” Le Vu says. “Zouk is a very organic dance as it is led by everything possible. For example it’s also about using the head, torso, leg, everything. If the person you’re with starts to use the hip, you have to do the same.”
However, there are other movements that make Zouk even more distinctive. “The thing that characterises Zouk and makes it very different is the hair and circular movements,” Le Vu adds with a laugh. “Zouk is all about being relaxed and loose, and often you see the head go down and come back up with the dramatic movement. It is a grand movement, and when you see hair go up and down a lot, it’s probably Zouk.” This does not necessitate that the women should have long hair, but many do, which adds to the dramatic nature of the movements.
“I started a little slow with Oriental dancing, but now I love it dearly,” Le Vu says. “I would love to learn it better, because of the circular movements and the use of hip and waist. If you do Oriental dancing, you actually have a huge advantage to do Zouk.”
The dance is also revolutionary in its gender roles. In Zouk it is quite normal for a girl to lead, and the man to follow, which is uncommon in partner dances. The role of the girl in Zouk is more active in the sense that she moves more, and is often more visible due to the hair movement. The dance does not entail specific outfits, and it is essential for the dancers to feel comfortable.
“A lot of people do Zouk on high heels, but Zouk dancing is probably the only one where you don’t have to wear heels, and it’s actually recommended to be on the flats. You have to feel good and be comfortable,” Le Vu says.
The Zouk beat
The style that the Finnish Zoukers mostly dance is the Rio style, which is quite a slow and emotional variation of Zouk. The style that is mainly danced in Europe is the Lambada-Zouk (or Zouk-Lambada). It has a similar beat, but it is much faster. The Zouk beat consists of two quick beats, followed by a slow one.
Zouk music has gained popularity internationally through the Francophone Zouk band Kassav, dating back to the 1980s. Brazilian Zouk mixes traditional Zouk features with modern ambience, and its beat can be found in many contemporary R&B songs, for example.
“The music is one of the best parts in Zouk,” Le Vu says. “You can make a song just for Zouk, or you can take a song that already exists and make it Zouk, by adding the Zouk beat. It uses almost the same beat as Kizomba, so you can dance Zouk to Kizomba music and vice versa.
Another influential figure in Finnish Zouk circles is Soile Vedenpää, a dance and circus instructor who, as she puts, fell head over heels for Latin dance around four years ago. “First I got acquainted with Bachata and then Salsa. The first time I tried Zouk at a Bachata festival, though, there was no going back,” Vedenpää says. She scurried the internet for mentions and displays of the dance, and soon attended Zouk festivals around Europe.
“By attending festivals and dancing all around Europe I have obtained my knowledge and skills, but of course other dancing experiences have been of great value. I remember telling everyone who was willing to listen what a remarkable dance this is,” Vedenpää continues.
Vedenpää says that the reason why she became so enthralled with Zouk, more so than with other dances, was its flow and the continuity of the movements. “The use of the body is much more elastic and softer, when compared with Salsa for example. Also the use of the head with women is important, it plays a major part in the visual look of the dance,” Vedenpää states. “In the arms of a secure leader, it almost feels like flying.”
Vedenpää’s Zouk-propaganda eventually reached Markus Sankari, who had a longer history with Zouk. Vedenpää and Sankari started to practice together, and wished to bring the dance to reach bigger audiences and enthusiasts. Late during the summer of 2010 they started to arrange workshops together, for example during Opera Salsa.
Later that year Vedenpää also worked as the assistant of Anthony Lee, a London-based dance enthusiast who taught the basics of Zouk and Lambada in Helsinki for a month three times a week. She says that the responsibility of keeping up the instruction was somewhat delegated to her.
Currently Vedenpää teaches Lambada-Zouk every Saturday in Helsinki, and she says that the number of enthusiasts is slowly increasing, much to her pleasure, although newcomers are always welcomed. Currently three people instruct Zouk in Finland: Vedenpää, Freddy Marinho and Andressa Castelhano. “The challenge is to be able to throw Zouk parties on a regular basis,” Vedenpää outlines.
“The lessons alone do not keep Zouk or any other partner dance alive. People want to test their skills in practice. The enthusiasts are a versatile group. Some have experience in Salsa or ballroom dance, but for many Zouk is the first partner dance they have worked with.”
On 16 to 18 November Helsinki will see the 4th Brazilian Zouk Festival. The instructors include Marinho and Castelhano, Leonardo and Laryssa from Brazil, a couple from Spain and Vedenpää. It will also entail workshops and of course parties. Vedenpää will be instructing the basics for newcomers, and perform with Olli Huotari as her partner. For those who are more advanced, the festival will offer a more intense programme with the world-famous instructors.