This is not a story of predators nor victims; this certain dynamic I’m about to speak of is far more grey area than that. This is the story that may sound very familiar to many of you, a story of a shared drive for affection and connection can lead to ecstatic highs and disappointing lows.
This is also not exclusive to Brazilian Zouk, nor to dance; but as a dancer in this genre, I feel compelled to speak to this form in particular.
I hope this article serves as a helpful word of caution and an invitation to enter the dance with mindful ownership of the power you wield as co-creators (whether lead, follow, student or organizer).
With Great Power Comes Great Responsibility:
Zouk has many amazing qualities. People feel great healing in connection & trust in cultivating one of the most compassionate, open-minded and just social dance communities of our time.
But this openness, this invitation to step into our vulnerability can leave people open to old wounds, perpetuating cycles of attachment and the dance version of “spiritual bypass”.
In my own experience, in my favorite dance partners I was seeking a mirror for my idealized sense of self-mastery, of calm and direction within the storm. Most significantly, I saw in my favorite partners a container, as well as a magnetic expression of sexuality, sensuousness. They brought out in me that which I felt unable to offer myself: true comfort.
They mirrored, per my own preferences and desires, the other polarity that I did not yet own, internalize and embody. For me, this was a masculine presence. This was the presence of sexual union without all of the attenuating drama, jealousies, particularities of relationship-building, potentially awkward conversation. Ideally we could “connect” for hours without losing steam, not stick to one partner, and experience the welling up of primal, sensuous creative energy.
More on that, later.
I’d been a student of yoga and of folkloric African-diasporic and world folkloric dances by the time I was introduced to Zouk in 2009. I fell in love with its combination of dance influences, its sinuous undulations of the spine, isolations, and spiraled movements. And in many folkloric dances throughout the world, the organic movements of the spine and hips remind one of fertility–not just of the human body, but of the elements, the earth, of living organisms. They acknowledge and revere planes of existence beyond the 5 senses. The movements often replicate and ritualize the necessary creative acts of perpetuating life, culture and worship.
Additionally, allowing the head to release off of its upright axis arouses ecstasy and a connection with something larger and less palpable than oneself. Sufi whirling, an active meditation, is a great example of this.
This new social dance also seemed to evoke Kundalini Shakti. It is a concept in Saiva Tantra, a tradition in ancient India with much background information too long for this article. It is believed to be sensual, creative energy coursing through the body and housed in the base of the spine.
It is understood by practitioners of Yoga that “Shakti is both responsible for creation and the agent of all change. Shakti is cosmic existence as well as liberation, its most significant form being the Kundalini Shakti, a mysterious psychospiritual force” (The Shambhala Encyclopedia of Yoga).
This concept is likely why dancers are becoming more interested in Tantra.
So all I’m saying here is that there’s no doubt that to some Zoukers, something ecstatic, sensuous and fiery gets inspired in the dance; that this dance can tap into a certain sort of heart-to-heart yet sensual connection. Not all Zouk dancers share this sentiment; nor do they have to. I believe it’s the dance’s movements, its place growing up in the early 2000s and its early adopters that have lended it to this interpretation.
More and more, some dancers are learning how to stoke those fires of ecstasy through marathon dance sessions. Those moments of bliss soon become all some dancers can think of, as they line up for full dozens of minutes to dance with the most gracious giver of the evening.
But when all we can do is wait for a handout, when lining up to meet our personal Zouk version of Amma becomes half of our congress experience, are we really having fun? Are we reaching some Zouk enlightenment, after all? Are we learning, are we growing, or are we just getting our fix from someone outside of ourselves?
Back to the Receiver Again:
Our culture and upbringing have left us floating heads. We stare at screens all day, and many of us have unfulfilling jobs. We’re fed polished, magazine-ready portraits of aspirational Instagram life. We retreat to yoga class (ok, at least, I do) or are so disturbed by our shadows that we shun anyone who dares mention a negative word. “Positive vibes only” becomes our mantra. Or we celebrate “petty” culture, where call outs, bullying and victimization mindsets are our unresolved cry for help. Our individualist, perfectionist culture leaves no space for community beyond our nuclear family template, and we’re left feeling lonelier than ever.
So what did we do? We’ve formed supportive groups of people to connect with through shared interests; memes are the newest love language, Zouk congresses feel like a chosen-family reunion where it’s a guaranteed good time. Great! Let’s keep that.
The follows of our Zouk generation can now feel surrender, joy, comfort, ecstasy and a space to feel fully into their bodies in the presence of a space-holder (the lead). In a safe space, it can be a truly healing experience. Awesome! We need that/ like it very much.
But when it’s the only place where one gets to feel it, it can become a fix. When you use Zouk to heal but not integrate the lessons of the dance floor off the dance floor, and when dance becomes an escape, and not a conduit for growth, whatareweevendoing?!
Some folks have grown up in a culture of sexual liberation and safety. Others of us; quite the opposite. Wherever you find yourself now in your sexual expression, I don’t intend to make moral judgements here. I also do my best to honor others’ feelings of safety, communication and boundary-setting. Here I intend to speak solely on the results of consensual deep connection in this particular dance scene. I am not a professional therapist, and this is not a replacement for professional therapeutic advice. First and foremost I advise that you reach out to a professional before trying any of my advice mentioned here.
Recognize Your Power:
In the leads, this is the power of holding space for someone experiencing an ecstatic journey. In the follows, it is in interpreting, magnifying and embodying the creative expression that the lead suggests to you. For both, it is a powerful collaboration. It’s in feeling your own ecstasy in the dance, and honoring how freaking powerful that is. It’s in practicing consent. Not using the Zouk community as a pickup spot. Fostering friendship both amongst your fellow leads and follows, when they reach out to you. Offering the invitation to be friends with no goals or expectations, and if they don’t follow through, taking their actions at face value.
Understanding how incredibly powerful the intimacy of dance connection is. With great power comes great responsibility. Knowing that you may bring up profound emotions or experiences in other people, or in yourself. Understanding that you may make an impact in someone’s life, and readying yourself for that emotionally and mentally. Noticing when excitement is excitement, and when it goes into the sexual, what is really behind that. Honoring not only your partner’s boundaries, but your own boundaries of preserving your own time and energy.
There’s a lot more to this around preserving one’s attention and energy for those with whom you truly want to connect on a deeper level. When you spread yourself thin you don’t benefit, and neither do your connection partners (connection is whatever that means to you– whether as activity partners, romantic, sexual, etc.)
Taking pause. If you develop a dance crush, remember what we’re all here for. It’s a social dance community, so honor it as such. Don’t turn your inner circle into a circle of solely dance crushes or hookups. Make this the dominant culture and eventually social dance will not feel “social” anymore; it will become very insular. As emotionally mature as you or your connections may be, understand that the intertwining connections in a relatively small dating pool may make things complicated at best.
I recommend keeping a Zouk journal. (Psst, this is just a gateway drug to keeping a regular journal.) Many of us have journal jitters: Basically writer’s block about committing half-thoughts to pretty notebook paper.
I recommend keeping a journal in general, anyway. To get over your journal jitters, buy a few cheap, tiny ones. Buy two: Keep one in your bag at all times, and one next to your bed. Write shitty half-sentences. Write a third of a haiku. Write as if you were tweeting (because unless you’re a troll or were at a tech conference, when’s the last time you logged into Twitter, forreal?)
First thing in the morning, pick up your pen. Write the fragments of a dream. Write whatever comes to mind. and if you have time, keep writing, stream-of-consciousness. It may sound funny to you, but you’re writing to let your brain pour out all of the stuff.
Right after the social, once you get home or on the Lyft or train ride back, write about your experience. What frustrated you? What satisfied you? What did you feel in the moment? What did it essentially reveal to you about yourself? Your habits, desires, fears and frustrations? When do you get bored? What do you want to improve? Where are you hardest on yourself?
Sit with one question, take 5 minutes on a timer and close your eyes. No music. Keep your journal with you.
- Talk Therapy
Basically all of my recommendations are just general recommendations for life. Look back at your journal once a week, maybe on a Sunday evening. Notice any patterns or difficulties, and write more about that. Then talk it out with a therapist or counselor.Take your journal to therapy. See if you could talk about it a bit to unwind further.Counseling or therapy resources, online and in person, health insurance EAP, university or psych school sliding scale sessions:
- Dance and Movement Therapy
This is big. I am a big, huge, honking proponent of dancing FOR YOURSELF. This one’s not just for the follows, but it’s especially for the follows. I’m not talking lady’s styling. I don’t mean preparing for your America’s Got Talent debut. I’m talking being with yourself, letting go of all the dance steps you’ve learned and getting. That. Shit. Out.
Book recommendation: The Body Keeps the Score by Bessel van der Kolk
This is a good time to journal, too.
Let yourself even just jiggle a little. Hop around a bit. Shake a leg, if you feel like shaking the leg. Shake the other leg, for good measure. My favorite when I come home from work: Roll around on the floor and lie on it for a good moment.
Play your favorite music. It doesn’t have to be dance music or Zouk or anything like that. In fact, try some music that you wouldn’t ever think of dancing to, just something that you like.
If you still want to do something like this with some folks, luckily there are open-minded communities out there who get together to dance it out. Some examples are:
Ecstatic Dance. It’s a freeform dance event. Think a social without partners and no nightclub vibe. No shoes, no need to make smalltalk on the dancefloor, no bars and bottle service. It’s just a place to let go of your dance steps and let it all out. Feel like wiggling around on the floor in the corner the whole night? That’s okay, too.
5Rhythms. It’s a slightly more facilitated freeform dance event, with an instructor/DJ (yes, both!) who guides you through the night through 5 different general vibes of letting it all out. Kind of a nice gateway.
Dance and Movement Therapist Directory
The other type of DMT.
There are entire therapists who study and guide people through this stuff. It’s amazing, check it out.
Write and talk with your mentors/counselors/guides through this process. Stuff may come up, and you’ll want a way to journey well.
Dance it out. Sometimes our stickiest issues can unwind with a little time here and there with our *own* bodies, without dance steps to execute, without anyone looking at you.
Take care, and live well.
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