Brazilian Zouk, or Zouk for short, is not quite the first type of dance that comes to mind when we think of “partner dance”, is it? What comes to mind is more likely the spicy Latin dances such as Salsa and Bachata, or ballroom dances such as Waltz and Foxtrot.
Brazilian Zouk might seem like a new fad but this dance style actually originated from Brazil in the 1990s. It evolved from a fast-paced dance called Lambada which was once popular at all the night clubs in Malaysia.
As Lambada music fell out of favour, the dance fans began looking for a new kind of music to dance to. Zouk’s festive rhythms from the French Caribbean, which has roots in Haitian music, was something that suited their style and became easily adapted.
Throughout the years, Zouk has also been influenced by new moves, techniques, and concepts from a variety of dance styles, eventually transitioning into the dance we know today. It is a style that embraces diversity – just like our favourite rojak!
Vivien Ng, one of the studio owners of Frisk and Swing, and Lawrence Yee, a dance instructor, tells us about the rise and fall of Zouk dance and the place it now has in the Malaysian performing arts scene.
Like most partner dances, Zouk has a leader and follower dynamic. The leader would initiate the opening move, while the follower responds with the subsequent moves.
The differences lie in the music, rhythm, and step count.
In comparison to other dance styles, Salsa has more theatrical moves, faster songs, and a step count is 1-2-3, 5-6-7;; while Bachata has more sensual moves with 8 counts and 4 steps. Zouk tends to have stronger beats likened to a heartbeat, with a slow-quick-quick rhythm.
Some of its main features include the lateral sidestep, body isolations, boneca, tilted turns and counterbalance moves.
In Malaysia, Brazilian Zouk only entered the dance scene in 2009. Back then, it started with a dance studio called Rhythm Identity, whose owner had learnt the dance style in Brazil and brought it back to the country. By 2010, the studio had gathered enough interested students to start a class.
For Vivien and Lawrence, stumbling on Zouk was a beautiful coincidence. Both were already experienced dancers in Salsa and Bachata at the time.
Lawrence gave Zouk a go in 2009 after endless persuasion from a colleague, while Vivien ended up in a mistaken social dancing event by chance in 2015. Despite the initial lack of enthusiasm, theyboth found that they enjoyed Zouk and started learning the dance.
During this time, the Zouk community was thriving with numerous events. There were weekly dance socials at several nightlife venues in town.
For 8 consecutive years, the directors of Brazilian Zouk Dance Council and celebrated dancers, Kadu and Larissa, used to visit Malaysia to conduct workshops.
International Zouk Day, which falls on the third Saturday of September every year, would see dancers from as many as 120 cities across the world dancing together at the same time. In Malaysia, there used to be about 80 dancers participating in the event.
The annual highlight, Zouk S.E.A, was the largest of its kind in Malaysia. During the annual international dance festival, there would be private workshops run by professionals, performances, pool parties and social dancing.
Social dancing is more informal and non-competitive, meaning that anyone can dance with anyone else without prior choreography, so long as they know the basic moves.
During the 2015 Zouk S.E.A., Lawrence and Vivien participated in the competition together and took the first place.
“When it took off in 2010, it was just called a Zouk event, but later it became known as Zouk SEA. People from the whole of Southeast Asia would be invited to participate. The last time the event was held, there were about 300 to 400 participants from Singapore, Vietnam, China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Australia and some parts of Europe,” said Lawrence.
2019 would have been the 10th year since it started, if not for the pandemic.
Malaysia may be one of the pioneers of Zouk in Asia, however, the scene has not grown as fast as other partner dances.
One of the reasons is due to the prolonged Movement Control Order in Malaysia during the pandemic season of 2019. Social dancing had no place at a time when social distancing was the paramount rule. As a result, the Zouk dance scene fell into slumber for two years.
“After Covid-19, the studio did not operate so we decided to open our own after the Movement Control Order was lifted. We started Frisk and Swing in November 2021,” Vivien shared.
“We had classes to freshen up all the senior dancers who wanted to refresh their steps again, before going back into level progression.”
Located in TTDI, Frisk and Swing is helmed by three passionate dance instructors each specialising in a different genre – Vivien, who focuses on Zouk; Harry Ang, who teaches Bachata; and Mavis Tan, who leads the Salsa classes.
The studio runs several group and private dance classes for Zouk, Bachata, Salsa, Kizomba and Street Jazz. They also have music instructors for the violin, harp, piano and vocals run by Amy Lim and Eunice Ng.
To date, they have about 100 to 150 students joining the studio.
During the dance classes, their focus is on honing skills that can be applied to social dancing. The idea is that once you know the basic moves and techniques, you can dance with new friends – no choreography required!
Occasionally, the studio also runs performance classes which focus on dance routines.
Frisk and Swing is currently the only dance studio that offers Zouk classes in Malaysia.
Public perception has always been a significant challenge for the social dance community in the country.
“Actually the biggest challenge is our culture, and the acceptance level of the public. In Malaysia, people are still considered quite conservative,” said Lawrence.
Those who have not heard of Zouk before might mistake it for a nightclub with the same name. For others, partner dances sound intimidating and a little too intimate for their liking.
“In fact, social dances have adapted to the country’s culture. For example, in Asia we usually adjust our dancing position to a respectful distance. We teach students to use a more open position,” he added.
Since it opened, Frisk and Swing has been organising bimonthly social dance events at the studio. They are regularly running trial lessons and beginner classes.
The Zouk community has also organised group trips to Vietnam for their Zouk events, giving them the opportunity to dance with other people and learn from them.
Vivien revealed that the studio is hoping to plan Weekender events by 2023, where professional dancers from abroad would be invited to run special workshops for two to three days, across the weekend.
Reviving Zouk S.E.A. would take more than a little wishing thinking. Costs for venue rental and international instructors can be expensive, and it does not help that travel restrictions are still happening in countries like China.
According to Vivien, there would have to be more people in the committee before the team can commit to a large-scale event. However, this is still in the plans.
In the meantime, they are continuously growing the dance scene so that more people are aware about how beautiful and versatile the dance style can be.
“With partner dances, you can start at any stage of your life. It is not like ballet where you usually start at a young age. Many of the dancers are in their 20s to 30s. But we have students learning as young as 10, and our oldest student is in his 70s. It is not limited to age,” said Lawrence.
Perhaps what makes Zouk appealing to new dancers is how it can be paired with different musical genres. While Lambada Zouk is a more traditional subgenre that emphasises on flowy motions, modern Zouk can be infused with hip hop, jazz, pop, Latin and R&B.
Be it classic or contemporary hits, so long as it has been given a Zouk counting, dancers can ease into it easily.
“Brazilian Zouk is a very special dance. It has various types of dance styles, from fast paced, to averaged paced to slow paced. It can be romantically choreographed. It can be hip-hop style. It is a fun dance that you can enjoy with anyone,” said Vivien.
Cover image supplied by Rachel Tan