How Zouk Can Take Over America
Photo credit: Steven Colon
I’ve done some form of dance since 1999. I only discovered Zouk in 2014 when a friend dragged me to a Zouk social, and after I saw this video I was hooked. But why did it take so long to find Zouk in New York, one of the most multicultural cities in the world? Moreover, of the few major cities in the US that have a Zouk scene, each has limited options for socials compared to other dances. If you dance Salsa, you know what a luxury it can be. Visit any major city in the world and you can find a lively Salsa scene while instantly making dozens of new friends (it almost sounds like a superpower, right?), and while Zouk is growing in the US, it has yet to reach such heights. Here I explore how Zouk might thrive in New York (and by proxy the US), what challenges we face, and how we might overcome them. Warning: this is a wall of text that contains very unscientific methods.
If you’re too lazy to read, the main takeaways for Part I are:
- Zouk clearly trails Salsa and Bachata in popularity.
- Zouk needs more time to grow organically before it can ‘go viral.’
- Modern Bachata shows us that partner dancing can still become popular, but it’s hard to draw parallels to Zouk.
Why Isn’t Zouk A Global Phenomenon Yet?
Personally I believe Zouk is the most mass-marketable partner dance today, but I have yet to see it in any major American film, music video, or TV show. Am I out of touch, or is Zouk really lacking a media presence?
I did some digging into trends for other dances to see if I was imagining things. I first used Google Trends, which isn’t perfect but makes for a good starting point. Note that Google Trends captures the relative popularity of a search term, not absolute volume; it shows how popular a term is relative to all other google searches. Anyway, below see the chart of global web searches for ‘Bachata’, ‘Zouk’, and ‘Salsa’ (I searched for the music genre of each since google didn’t have a dance option for Zouk or Bachata). Note the rise of Bachata since 2008 while Salsa remains popular.
I also looked at global YouTube searches for each term (see chart below). Here, people are increasingly searching for both Salsa and Bachata videos relative to other search terms. Even if they’re searching for music videos, at least Salsa and Bachata are in the minds of the public.
In both of the charts, you’ll notice the relative search volume for ‘Zouk’ is declining. And take a look at Yelp Trends below for New York — frankly I couldn’t figure out what this data represents, but it seems ‘Zouk’ is barely showing up on Yelp users’ radar while ‘Bachata’ at least has activity (I omitted ‘Salsa’ because it distorted the chart). Granted Zouk is still new here, it’s only making a blip with Yelp users.
If I simply google ‘salsa dancing’ I get 6 million results, ‘bachata dancing’ yields 1 million, and ‘zouk dancing’ yields 500,000. On instagram, ‘salsa’ yields 2 million posts, ‘bachata’ yields 650,000, and ‘zouk’ yields 250,000. The ever popular Bachata couple Daniel and Desiree, who have Youtube videos with millions of views, incorporate signature Zouk moves in their routines and yet their popularity doesn’t seem to increase awareness of Zouk. So what’s the deal?
How A Trend Explodes
First let’s explore what makes a trend popular. I know some of Malcolm Gladwell’s writings are criticized (10,000 hours mean nothing if you don’t have the right teacher), but let’s give him the benefit of the doubt for now in the interest of exploring ideas. In his book “The Tipping Point,” he cites three key factors that push a trend into exponential popularity (I don’t necessarily accept this as truth, but one possible framework to think about trends).
- The Law of the Few: Certain key influential people are essential to growing a trend. People who connect different realms that otherwise would not intersect; people who inform the public about a trend; and people who can ‘sell’ and persuade the public about the trend. In the dance world there are party promoters, DJs, and professional dancers, but they all operate in a self-contained ecosystem. Who else can play a role that will increase visibility/awareness in the general public? Perhaps journalists, film makers, music artists, or famous bloggers?
- Stickiness Factor: This is how well a phenomenon stays in the minds of the public; usually it’s helpful if the trend is counterintuitive. Zouk videos on youtube are very memorable! Plus I think Zouk goes against prevailing assumptions: most Americans think partner dancing resembles ‘Dancing With The Stars,’ so their minds will be blown once they see Zouk.
- Power of Context: The environment needs to be primed for the trend. Will current conditions support a new partner dance, and if so, is the American public yearning for something like Zouk? Partner dancing isn’t as common as it was decades ago, yet modern Bachata has emerged recently (as I’ll discuss). And perhaps Zouk can be a refreshing change by showing young people it’s “cool” to partner dance again. The trend also needs a certain number of people to achieve a tipping point — Gladwell says 150. Perhaps he means these people need to be local. Are there 150 Zoukers in your city? Or even in your state? Probably not in America. Maybe a local Zouk community needs to reach a certain size before we can expect growth like Bachata.
Zouk has a couple of these down except for the “Law of the Few” and the magic number of 150 people. We’ll see later that we can leapfrog these factors.
Case Study: The Spectacular Rise of Modern Bachata
Bachata, both a music genre and dance from the Dominican Republic, was thrust into worldwide success once it succeeded in New York. Believe it or not, a whopping 41% of Dominican Americans live in New York City, or roughly 750,000 people. Of those I’d guess 20% fall within 18-35 years of age, or about 150,000 New Yorkers who count as modern Bachata’s target audience. If I conservatively assume only 10% of those people actually listen and dance to Bachata, that’s still 15,000 people (100x Gladwell’s magic number) in NYC for one dance scene! That doesn’t even include other demographics. How lucky are those dancers!
So it’s not surprising that modern Bachata blew up here.
- The environment was ripe with a big concentrated market and captive, loyal fan base.
- Local artists such as Aventura, Romeo Santos, and Leslie Grace created progressive content that kept up with current tastes. And Bachata dancers are progressive in turn, keeping the dance fresh; they incorporate RnB and even Tango to their dancing, and now (much to our chagrin) they use Zouk moves!
- Although the dance is difficult to master, it’s easy to learn, which makes a feedback loop — a dance scene creates demand for more songs, and new songs in turn keep the dance scene vibrant.
In New York City, Romeo Santos is the most popular music artist in over 50 of the city’s neighborhoods, and as of November 2, 2015, he has 6.5 billion Youtube views (Taylor Swift has 5 billion and Beyoncé has 3.5 billion). Crazy, right? Now as they say, if you can make it in New York, you’re going to get a lot of Youtube views (I’m paraphrasing).
So what does this all mean for Zouk? In Part II, I’ll discuss the challenges Zouk faces and some ways to overcome them. I conclude with a proposal that could allow us to leapfrog Gladwell’s requirements and bring Zouk to mainstream prominence.
For the lazy, my main points are:
- Zouk might need a simplified version in order to attract and retain more people. There is precedent for this in other dance forms.
- Zouk should leverage New York’s devotion to Hip-hop.
Is The Table Set for Zouk?
Compared to modern Bachata, I think Zouk will have to take a different approach in NYC. Only about 70,000 Brazilians live in New York and New Jersey so there isn’t as strong a base of demand for Zouk music or dancing. But there are ways around this. First, we all know that Zouk is adaptable to many forms of music, hence my idea for us to go clubbing via the ‘Bazouka’… *ahem*. Second, Zouk music is already in the public but not in the form of traditional Brazilian songs. Instead, it’s hidden in plain sight within subgenres of EDM. Hits like Major Lazer’s ‘Lean On’ (with 900 million Youtube views) have used the ‘toom-chik-chik’ beat and achieved mass market success. So there’s already strong demand for and supply of ‘Zoukable’ music.
The challenge is to marry this music to Zouk dancing. How do we get the public to automatically associate popular Zoukable songs (which include, well, almost everything) with our dance? Ideally, a music video for a new hit song would incorporate Zouk dancing, but instead we’re given twerking. That said, even if Zouk dancing were in a Beyoncé video or an Apple commercial, would people know what the dance is called? There’s a familiarity issue that we need to overcome somehow. For those old enough to remember, a Gap commercial in 1998 solved this with the tag “Khakis Swing” which helped spark a swing dance resurgence.
Besides a smaller base and limited visibility, another roadblock for Zouk’s growth could be its difficulty. I’ve overheard innocent bystanders who see Zouk say things like: “I can’t move like that” or “That’s too complicated” or “Am I going to get pregnant by doing this?” And since Zouk is unlike other dance forms, even experienced dancers have trouble with its learning curve. Head movement, body isolations, counterbalance, connection, safety, hair whips, body rolls, spinning on a horizontal axis, spinning without spotting… most social dances don’t incorporate all of these concepts.
To give some history, Lindy Hop went through a similar phase where many people thought it was too difficult (or dangerous) to dance. Now commonly called swing dancing, it’s a fast, exciting, sometimes intricate dance that can intimidate beginners. As a result, some dance studios got together to create a simplified version (upsetting some purists). I assume this helped usher in a new generation of swing dancers by easing the learning curve; now there’s a vibrant Lindy sub-culture across the country, and scores of American newlyweds use this version of swing as their first dance, keeping both swing dancing and swing music alive. Incidentally this has its own feedback effect where wedding guests strongly associate first dances with swing dancing/music and thus keep the trend going at their own weddings.
Does Zouk need to be simplified to gain widespread appeal? I’m convinced Zouk will attract people, but will it retain them if it’s too hard? I’ve heard anecdotally that Hustle, once extremely popular in the ‘70s, declined in popularity partly because advanced dancers didn’t mentor incoming students. Meanwhile, Bachata appears easier to learn (3 steps and tap… ok… then another 3 steps and tap… wait, that’s it?), which attracts even those with no dance experience. Also, dance studios across the world teach a version of Salsa that’s easier for the average person, and now it’s a global phenomenon. I like Zouk the way it is but if it were simplified, I wouldn’t be upset. In Lindy Hop, I learned the simpler version first, building my confidence before I ‘graduated’ to the authentic dance. And Lindy socials are typically divided between beginners who stick to their six-count basic and advanced dancers who fly across the floor, making it easy to identify who you can do fancy moves with. Plus, the Lindy Hop scene is overwhelmingly inviting and no one feels ostracized for being a beginner. I suspect the Zouk scene would see similar results.
Another challenge that Zouk faces is the century-long decline of partner dancing in America. I won’t bore you with another history lesson (here is a fascinating read), suffice it to say that solo dancing replaced partner dancing partly due to social change and the increasing extravagance of partner dancing, which created skill anxiety amongst common folk. Back in the day, couple dancing was a major part of courtship. Heck, even animals use a form of dancing to attract a mate, yet we humans just don’t do it as much anymore. And in the modern age, why learn to sway when you can swipe? Swipe right on your phone’s dating app, that is. It also doesn’t help when shows like ‘Dancing With The Stars’ give America a soul-less, bastardized, cookie-cutter form of partner dancing that isn’t appealing to the viewers who are most likely to go out dancing: young people. Instead these viewers watch shows that highlight solo dancing like ‘So You Think You Can Dance.’
How Zouk Can Succeed In America
Maybe Zouk needs to make a simplified version of itself, maybe not. We should remember that Zouk has some obvious advantages over other dances. As you know, partner dancing is social by nature and you meet new people any given night. As a breakdancer ages ago, I rarely befriended other people, and they were usually other dudes (one benefit was that Tim Ferriss was my teacher). Also, look at the people who attend Zouk socials. Have you seen a better looking group of people in any other dance scene? Looks aren’t everything but I mean, come on. I’ve heard feedback from female friends who are intimidated to be on the same dance floor as the girls in Zouk. Clearly this will have major appeal to young people ready to socialize.
More importantly, Zouk needs to leverage its most meaningful advantage: its adaptability to different music genres. I think it would be helpful if the professional Zouk dancers made their own high-quality videos to new hit songs (this couple did it), but we may need to think deeper than that. First I thought Zouk’s adaptability would translate to immediate widespread appeal, but Zouk still has a ways to go in the US. So in New York, I don’t think Zouk should try to be all things to all people; this won’t create strong associations in the public’s mind about the dance. Instead, I think Zouk should first target one particular genre and grow from there. Specifically, it should target a movement that is native to and widely beloved by this city: Hip-hop.
Hip-hop was born in the streets of New York in the ‘70s and it has since been embraced worldwide. It is not just a music genre, but a culture that we New Yorkers proudly celebrate. Summer Jam, an annual Hip-Hop festival organized by an NYC-based radio station, is attended by over 40,000 people. Hip-hop dance emerged with the music in the form of breakdancing, and like Zouk, the culture is highly adaptable and welcomes new ideas. As such, several derivatives of Hip-hop dance formed and now thrive in clubs and mass media… except Hip-hop is still missing a partner dance. This has always puzzled me because a major theme in Hip-hop is one’s own community. Regardless, it’s an opportunity for Zouk to fill a decades-long gap in both Hip-hop and popular culture: the chance for young people to dance in a way they like (that’s not grinding), to current music they like, with someone they like. This is exactly what I felt when I saw that video I first mentioned in Part I.
I’m saying we should all go out more — practically every club in New York plays Hip-hop, and people here aren’t shy about dancing to it. Play the latest Drake track and you’ll see young people dance on the street, in a subway car, or in line at Starbucks. If the Hip-hop heads in New York are exposed to Zouk and embrace it, then the rest will take care of itself and we can leapfrog Gladwell’s requirements. Hip-hop has a loyal fanbase that transcends race, age, and religion; the industry supplies a steady stream of new songs; and dance is strongly ingrained in the culture. Plus, trends in Hip-hop grow at lightning speed. Zouk will change as more dancers in the city learn about it, ultimately creating “New York Style Zouk,” which is inevitable. Growth in the scene will create demand for more classes, teachers, socials, and congresses. Now think bigger than that: if people are dancing Zouk in all the nightclubs in New York, it could become larger than Salsa, which is popular but limited to dance studios that play Salsa music. Once Zouk is popular here, it has a good chance of growing globally and creating demand in mass media for the dance. Then imagine someday being able to find a Zouk social in any major city in the world. Wouldn’t that be worth the effort?
About: Daeil Cha
- Previous Video: Laura’s Interview With Freddy & Andressa at the 2015 Helsinki Zouk Festival
- Next Video: Wakko & Masha Demo at the 2015 Dutch Zouk Congress
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