written by ANNA-CATHERINE BRIGIDA
The sound of pulsing music and Portuguese lyrics blares out to the sidewalk outside Vanessa’s Positive Dance Studio on Monday nights in South L.A. Couples press close together, attempting to move as one unit, as they review new steps, with leaders signaling their partners to move forward or backward with just the slightest movement of the chest.
The students are learning Kizomba, a partner dance that originated in Angola, spread to Europe and has now taken hold in Los Angeles. The dance combines African rhythms with the sensual passion of Semba, a dance that originated in Angola and gave birth to Argentine Tango and Brazilian Samba.
“It’s a very sensual dance and really allows you to connect with your partner,” said Felicia Mello, who started learning Kizomba about a year ago. “It has an elegance to it that is different than some of the faster dances. That’s the beauty of it.”
A handful of Kizomba classes have popped up in Glendale, Hollywood and have now reached South L.A., including the Vermont Knolls area. Here, the class began last August when Vanessa Bailey, the studio owner, met Kizomba instructor Rome David. David offered a free Kizomba demo at Bailey’s birthday party, and since Bailey was looking for new classes to offer at her studio, the two made an arrangement for David to teach regular classes.
David was one of the first instructors in L.A. to embrace Kizomba. He first witnessed the Afro-Caribbean dance when he traveled to Canada about two years ago. The rhythm of the music and sensuality of the dance attracted him immediately.
“I said, ‘Oh my god, I have to learn this. This is so beautiful,’” David said. “When I came back to L.A., I said ‘We have to do Kizomba because this is the dance.”
It was then that David adopted his role as the unofficial spokesperson for Kizomba in L.A. At Salsa clubs, he would beg for one more Kizomba song even though he was often the only one dancing. He offered classes at a Hollywood studio despite the limited attendance compared with the turnout his Salsa lessons.
David was not discouraged by the Latin dance community’s lack of interest – after all, this wasn’t the first time a new dance had attempted to disrupt the reigning Salsa scene. When Bachata, a dance that originated in the Dominican Republic, landed in L.A. in the 1990s, Salsa ruled. David became an early Bachata supporter in L.A. after seeing the dance in New York. But when he started teaching it, hardly anyone would come to class. Now, Bachata is played in every Salsa club.
Bailey has also watched the dance scene evolve. Krumping, for example, got its start in South L.A. as a way for people to release anger through dance. Bailey says she has noticed a decrease in popularity in recent years in this style of dance.
Bailey opened her studio in 2007 because she always loved to dance. When she attended George Washington Preparatory High School in South L.A. in the 1960s, dancing was part of the physical education curriculum. Both male and female students would gather in the gym to learn the Cha-cha, Waltz, Foxtrot and line dancing.
Although she watched that tradition fade away, Bailey sought to keep it alive by incorporating dance into the classes she taught in elementary school during a 30-year tenure. She also began teaching dance classes for seniors in 1993. Since the class participants were mostly female, Bailey focused on line dancing instead of partner dancing. Bailey always liked country music due to her family’s Texan roots, but her line dancing classes added R&B music to appeal to a wider audience. In 2007, she was able to open her own studio so that the tradition would not be lost.
“My goal was just to have a place where I could teach dancing and offer a place for people to come and socialize, get some exercise and have fun,” Bailey said.
And while she has always admired partner dancing, Bailey said she is not yet convinced that Kizomba has earned a permanent spot in the L.A. dance scene.
Bailey is still hoping that Kizomba will draw more practitioners at her studio but she said low attendance is common when she’s offering a new class, a new phenomenon. Her forecast is that Kizomba will stick in the Latin dance community, but it may not resonate as much with solo dancers unaccustomed to dancing with a partner.
Christina Padilla started Kizomba lessons with Rome about a year ago. Unlike dancers like Rome or Mello who transitioned from Salsa to learning other types of partner dance, Kizomba is Padilla’s expertise.
“If somebody comes and tries it I think they would fall in love with it if they have love for dance,” Padilla said, taking a break from the dance floor.
As she returns to practice, she relaxes into the beat, letting the rhythm take over to guide her movements.
[This article originally appeared on Intersections South LA.]