Brazilian Zouk: A Demanding Physical Art

Cassandra Collins
MS Nutrition & Integrative Health, Certified Personal Trainer

I struggle with cyclical neck pain and I see many other zouk follows with the same ailment. When I attend congresses filled with KT tape, cupping and stiff necks, I often wonder: Is this dance possible in the long term? And why hasn’t anyone invented sparkly KT tape yet??

There are OGs who have been dancing Brazilian Zouk and Lambada for over 10 years, so a career or long term hobby must be possible, but I have come to believe that additional inspection, training, and a lot of intention has to be part of a zouk dancers’ life in order to keep their body healthy. I believe it takes tremendous work and self-improvement in order to figure out what specific physiological impairments, differences, or challenges you personally have to correct or condition in order to dance zouk pain free- the same effort it requires to stay healthy while consistently engaging in any other sport!

Safety is a two-way street- the follow and lead are both responsible. I see many follows start zouk, do it gleefully until they start learning head movement, and fall off shortly after because of pain or fear. I hope that we can do more to address the self discovery required for leads and follows to achieve or maintain body alignment and strength required for this dance. We should continue teaching safe and proper leading technique, and also empower follows to stay safe in their dance. As a group, maybe we should consider discouraging leading head movement and spinal-extension movements with new follows, to improve the longevity and growth of this beautiful dance.

Let’s Get Physical

Necks are a multi-purpose tool found in humans and most other land animals that allow us to move our eyes, ears, nose, and jaws independent of the body. Necks allow for energy efficiency, maneuverability, adaptability, and zouk hair whips.

When learning to include the upper body in this dance we constantly hear that “head movement” is a misnomer. The head movement is simply a consequence of the head being attached to the cervical spine (in our neck) which is continuing the movement initiated in the either lumbar or thoracic spine (the middle and lower part of the spine). When we do a simple circular movement for the follow in open position, we are asking the body to stabilize the lower body and lower lumbar spine, and use the core muscles to allow our thoracic and cervical vertebrae to move circularly. The vertebrae allow this movement in a sequential and controlled way, translating the weight of the head in a circular motion easily when the spine is held in normal position (assuming there is no excess extension or flexion in other parts of the back to begin with).

This is very technical, but very important. Whiplash occurs when there is an impact to the front, back, or sides of the body while one part of the spine is restricted. For example, when you are rear ended in a car, the impact is felt from the back of your body, causing you to translate the energy forward. Your seat belt tightens to keep you in place, but the belt does not restrain your upper spine and head. This allows your cervical spine to continue moving independently of the rest of your body, and causes the injury.

Knowledge and Responsibility

In zouk, you can probably imagine many movements that have quick transitions while in a compromised spinal position. One scenario is a led cambre with the follow’s side perpendicular to the lead’s front of body, then a quick transition from the bottom of the cambre immediately into an upright turn to lunge. This movement can be done safely if the follow is allowed to finish the normal trajectory of their spinal movement including the relaxation of the head, only then leading the follow to come up, their spine regaining upright posture with no added flexion or extension, and then moving to the turn together. However; oftentimes this move is led quickly to fit into a musical segment. If the lead does not allow the follow’s cervical spine to finish its normal extension during the cambre (still chin to chest in the prepped position) and then uses their own arm and body force to bring the follow up quickly into the next move, the same situation as the car whiplash is initiated.

This is highly concerning for follows in zouk, because in these types of movements the follow’s body is at the mercy of their lead. Follows also need to be aware of tension and carrying their own weight when led into cambres- many cambres are led to be very small movements with hardly any extension of the spine, but are instead followed with much more vigor than the lead intended. In this case, leads should try and adjust their timing to allow for what the follow is performing in terms of their spinal extension and depth, and not continue on their initial planned timing. The safety of a dance is the responsibility of both parties: leads should be aware of how to safely perform a spinal-related move, and follows should be prudent in their movement and sure of what they are being asked for. It is much better to have someone think you followed a move “incorrectly” than be hurt.

We Have Bad Posture

Many people in the United States work at desks, use their phones to text while waiting in line, or hunch excessively while tracking bears. Because of this repetitive downward-looking movement, our bodies are evolving. The muscles controlling the front upper part of the body are tight and shortened while those controlling the upper part of your back are lengthened in what’s known as Upper Crossed Syndrome, or sometimes “text neck”. Characteristics of this syndrome include:

  • Forward head carriage
  • Hunching of the thoracic spine (rounded upper back)
  • Elevated and protracted shoulder blades (winging of scapular)
  • Decreased mobility of thoracic spine
  • Reduced shoulder stability

In this condition, the spine is already compromised in terms of flexibility and mobility, because the controlling muscles are either pulling it out of place or not able to contribute their fair share of movement. The head is incredibly more impactful to the spine when it is slightly forward than when it is properly aligned on top of the top vertebrae. If you begin doing zouk head movement with your head only 15% more forward than normal, it increases the weight effect to your spine by 50%.

Upper Crossed Syndrome can translate into neck pain in general sedentary or non-zouking people, but can exponentially affect those in activities that involve spinal manipulation – like zouk! Another consideration with this improper alignment in the upper back is that it may impact the flexibility of the vertebrae. The vertebrae can easily absorb forces down the length of the spine by translating the energy sequentially through a flexing motion. If several vertebrae are not in the proper position, pulled apart, or compressed, then instead of each one moving to absorb the force like running your hand across the strings of a harp, they may have to absorb the force as a unit, like beating a drum. This can cause what would have been a normal movement to be felt much more intensely.
This condition also affects non-spine-specific parts of the dance: the main way for dance frame to be engaged is by the contraction of the trapezius (upper and mid back, flanking the spine) and latissimus muscles (sides of your mid back, wrapped under the armpit). Those muscles may be overly tight, either creeping your shoulders up or pulling your shoulders forward. Without normal length and movement in those muscles, it will be very difficult to maintain good posture and frame in dance.

Upper Crossed Syndrome is only one of the many potential physiological issues that can affect our zouk dancing. Every body is personal, everyone’s health history and injuries are different, and so each person is in charge of the self discovery needed to feel good. Even perfectly led and followed head and spine-related moves can be dangerous if the body receiving them is not in alignment. It is up to the follow to know what their body is capable of during each dance. Consider that even within the same night of dancing: muscles fatigue, dehydration sets in, bodies collide and recover. Above what you know about your abilities well-rested on a Friday afternoon, it is the responsibility of the the 4am Saturday night follow to know what they should and shouldn’t be doing.

A Message of Hope and Expectation

Many activities that are fun and exciting are also taxing physically. Rock climbers must put in hard work with stretching their hips, knees, shoulders and hands. Football players must condition to strengthen their feet, ankles, and core. Competitive grocery baggers must thoroughly moisturize their hands and forearms to ward off the dreaded “brown bag splits”. Brazilian zouk is no different than any other high-level physical art or sport. We spend time to learn proper technique leading and following, we practice our dance and use common sense when executing, and the third least-stressed element is that we must spend time to discover our bodies’ strengths and weaknesses so we can work to correct posture, imbalances, and improper movement patterns. Only then can we be aware of our limits and how to dance responsibly. If we ignore our bodies, then zouk will indeed be a short-term hobby for most of us.

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