Kizomba Gains Popularity on the Oakland Dance Scene

Oakland embraces an exotic Afro-European dance.


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Instructor Emile Carter wants his students to learn Kizomba from “the source.”

Photo by Chris Duffey

Kizomba begins with a close embrace, one that’s uninhibited, gentle and fleeting.

At a downtown Oakland studio, students pair up, lean in, and wrap their arms around each other when the R&B-like Kizomba music begins. They move in sync in patterns: forward and back, side to side, and up and down, to sensual lyrics often sung in Portuguese or French.

“It is a dance that belongs to the world,” says instructor Emile Carter.

Sometimes confused with Zumba, the unrelated dance workout, the romantic social dance with roots in Angola is growing in popularity in Oakland. Carter teaches it with his wife, Nika, in a third-story Oakland dance studio at 1924 Franklin St. where they offer evening and weekend Kizomba classes.

Carter organized a workshop on Dec. 6 with Helio Santos, an internationally known and recognized Kizomba instructor, dancer, and choreographer from Cape Verde. Carter believes in regularly bringing in founders of the dance, like Santos, so local dancers gain an understanding and direct feel for Kizomba’s essence, explaining, “You need to get it from the source.”

Kizomba was born in Africa, but nurtured in Europe. And Kizomba “is all about connecting in the present moment,” Santos says to the workshop participants. “There is no time for thinking.”

Santos is compact, elegant, and with dreads tied atop his head. While coaching the dance students, who range from 18 years and up, the thick-accented Santos refers to the women as “princesses” and the men as “boys.”

“Each princess is different,” he says, languidly rolling the “r” in princess. “It is all about adaptation.” Santos encourages dancers to let go of preconceptions and inhibitions so they flow with their partner—tall or short, large or small, young or old—as one to the music.

The origins of Kizomba, which means “party” in the Angolan language, are somewhat in dispute. It is a mix of African and Caribbean dances, and has evolved because of different influences, including Portuguese.

A community of African dancers who moved to Lisbon, Portugal, including Santos, got together in early 2000. They began breaking down the moves they had been doing at nightclubs so they could teach Kizomba to others. The sensual dance started becoming popular in Europe more than a decade ago and later spread to the United States and the Bay Area, and its founders and followers see it as something of an antidote to attention-deficit disorder and physical disconnects caused by technology-dominated lives.

“Hugs are good for you,” Carter says.

An increasing number of men and women in Oakland and the surrounding region are or are becoming smitten with Kizomba, and there are a growing number of classes and dance venues in and outside Oakland dedicated to the dance.

“At the first workshop I attended, I was told it’s a dance of a lover’s embrace,” says Oakland resident Tom Tomasko, a United Airlines jet mechanic. “I was immediately hooked.”

“There are lots of benefits of closeness,” Carter says, noting, however, that intimacy scares off some people.

The intrepid and curious, however, can try some classes—or go full immersion. There is an annual Kizomba festival in San Francisco. This year it is being held March 12-16 at the Hotel Kabuki. It includes four days of workshops, including dance technique, musicality, and the subtle essence of this lovers’ dance embrace by experts from different countries, styles, and backgrounds. For more information contact www.GotKizomba.com.

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