In Part I we saw that most top level teachers say there’s no dissociation – and then do it.

In Part II we saw some possible reasons why this happens.

Here in Part III finally we take a step back to try to make sense of it all.

The whole situation is hard to believe. What do teacher training courses say about dissociation?

That was my question, because I used to have this concept that teacher training courses are where somehow authentic, distilled knowledge is passed on to a new generation of teachers. I guess this was a vestige from the time I spent in martial arts, where the relationship teacher-student, and the pedigree of your school, is very important.

And Western disciplines like ballroom, ballet, etc, which are famously strict and demanding, surely also have high standards! In fact, just like martial arts, they frequently have formal competitions; so a teacher who wings it won’t last long.

An amusing example of how BS gets challenged in martial arts is this old video of a delusional “kiai master” vs an actual fighter. Amusing, yes – but notice that even the delusional guy had a school full of Believers.

Kiai Master vs MMA

Well, in the world of westernized social dances it’s even worse! Anyone can be a teacher of anything with an exotic name. And just like anyone can be a teacher, anyone can be a teachers’ teacher. Teacher training courses are then just another packaged, marketable product, in which you spend a few days hours with a teacher, and you learn whatever that teacher thinks is worth learning. They might explain history, or they might explain social media marketing. At the end you might get a pretty piece of paper, or a social media selfie with the teacher, or if you’re lucky even a t-shirt.

It’s up to the student to check how seriously the teacher takes things. Did that exotic name mean anything? Or are you just another Believer?

For a more concrete example, I’ve seen a European instructor who has traveled over 60 countries (including Australia) teaching everything from kizomba to urban kiz (according to himself) – yet he has somehow not found time to visit Angola. Still, this guy sells kizomba certificates. He also sells self-published books about getting passive income. This is peak hustler! I bet he will sell you a t-shirt if you ask nicely. Scratch that, of course he already sells t-shirts on his website. Duh.

And that’s how you end up with certified instructors that don’t know what they are doing. 🎖️💸🤷‍♂️

But is there any kind of standard for teaching… or for teaching teachers?

No. In kizomba, the curriculum of what a dancer needs to learn, and sometimes even the names of steps or techniques, can change with the teacher; and many don’t even use the same (few) basic names that Angolans use. I came across 4 different curricula, and all of them appeared in Europe – 2 of them by Angolans thinking how to teach Europeans. Which makes sense; why would you need such a curriculum in Angola?

In contrast, Angolan teachers in Angola don’t learn in teacher training courses. It’s more organic than that; they learn first in the culture, probably as kids with their family, and then teaching siblings or their own children in the same way they were taught. They might also learn in casual rivalry with family and friends… until someone is good enough that maybe will start teaching others. Few ever go to dance schools, in good part because few can afford it1. There is convergence among their styles as much as they all share dance floors and see and copy each other, so they share the basic language and musicality; but other than that, each teacher (like each dancer) naturally develops their own method… and thinks it’s the best one.

This means you might do some teacher training courses in the West, and then go to Angola to find that Angolans do things differently, or even disagree with what you think or do.

There was a time that I thought this was hopelessly chaotic and hoped that Angola would do something to standardize kizomba. Indeed, looks like there’s an effort to elevate kizomba to UNESCO World Heritage. Maybe that will help?

However it’s also worth examining the very idea of having a “standard”. In fact, the first time I asked an Angolan teacher about her opinion on possibly standardizing kizomba, she didn’t understand what that would even mean. This was when I was still in the salsa mental model: I was used to a purposefully limited dance, so trying to make sense of a cultural dance like kizomba – so disconcertingly free and versatile! – was overwhelming. I yearned for some way to neatly contain and organize the stuff!

McDonalds® vs grandma’s Sunday dish

Now I realize that kizomba is more “chaotic” than salsa just like a home-made celebration banquet is more “chaotic” than a McMeal®. Any famous national dish has prized variations in every family, and in the same way kizomba can be different among regions, families, or dancers. That’s what the product of a culture looks like. Watch any Angolan competition, compare to a ballroom competition: would standardization smother the variations, the creativity, the humor? I’m afraid so.

Of course, learning the product of a whole culture across decades is more involved than, say, learning in 12 hours what some guy invented in a gym. And that guy can give you a pretty paper saying that you’re his Certified Teacher of FunDance® 🐝. In contrast, you won’t find that paper in Angola.2

But coming back to dissociation, this all boils down to the fact that we can’t expect help from teacher training courses to clarify what’s going on. Indeed, the Famous Teacher that started all of this has been giving teacher training courses for years – but surely never taught dissociation.

So… is there a moral to the story?

My take is that, outside of Angola and maybe some PALOP countries, to learn kizomba we are necessarily playing a game of telephone: you are learning from someone, who learnt from someone, who learnt from someone, … and you can only hope that people along the line knew what they were doing, and that they were careful about transmitting the knowledge, without taking the easy route of, e.g., spicing things up with a little ocho or two.

Probably most of us who started dancing in “the West” did it in the bad end of one of these games of telephone; you probably didn’t know who was that guy in that dance school where you started. But once you realize that there’s a disconnection, once you’re reading random blogs about kizomba, the solution should be obvious: learn from Angolans. Dance with Angolans. Go to Angola. One of the few good things about social media is that you can find Angolan teachers from your smartphone! And you can bet many will give cheaper classes than the latest batch of superstars that just discovered that a tango pivot can be added to their choreographed routine.

But to learn from Angolans, it’ll be immensely useful to learn to learn like Angolans do, so that you can drink directly from their same sources. Learn to learn by copying, not by talking and analyzing and overthinking. Or rather, re-discover that you know how to learn like that.

You know how to do dissociation without knowing that it’s called like that. Trust your eyes and your body.

That way, if a teacher says one thing but does another, you’ll actually get twice the information. Maybe they say not to do dissociation, but they do it. Maybe they say to keep a straight posture, but they bend. It’s ideals vs practice.

Hustlers love a game of telephone!

The game of telephone is unavoidable. And anyone can be a teacher. Putting both together means that you’ll find opportunists selling “kizomba” just because if they said “salsa” or “bachata” they’d be called out. “Kizomba” is (still) exotic enough!

For example, I heard one particularly sad take by a well established local instructor to justify a nondescript fusion: “knowledge is second hand, and I don’t have a time machine, so I can’t know what is actual kizomba”. I can only wonder how did they learn English then!

Stolen from Son Y Casino. This has all happened before!

This can be a problem for a beginner student: it’s hard to distinguish if you’re dealing with a hustler in your game of telephone. But, fortunately, the solution is the same we already mentioned: for kizomba, find the Angolans, and learn like they do. While evidently not all Angolan teachers are great, at least they have more probabilities of dancing the real thing – which is what you will be copying anyway, right?

A few teachers to highlight

One last interesting result in this whole thing was noticing that some teachers welcomed subtle questions and took them as an interesting challenge; while others … didn’t.

In my case, Kirsi vanSol was a great guide, first in Angola and then in relearning to learn. When I asked her the tricky questions about dissociation in kizomba, she reduced it to the actually simple thing that it is: some people do it a lot, some people do it less, depending on things like personal style and body build. So simple! She also pointed me to various Angolan teachers and how each of them would do the same move in different ways. Half an hour with her solved more doubts than the rest of the 11 privates, and put me in the mindset of what to look for. She’s taught teachers that are now famous worldwide, has partnered with Angolan champions, and probably is the first white person who has taught kizomba in Angola, to Angolans. She is just incredible.

Given the discussion of explanations vs drills, Dasmara Dos Santos needs to be mentioned. He talks a shocking amount in his classes; but there’s no filler, no silly jokes, only great information. Dasmara is an example of how explanations can and should work. I can’t do him justice here, it needs to be experienced; I don’t remember the last time that I was so challenged in a class. Though his regular students seem used to soaking up the information! I organized my last trip to Lisbon specifically to catch his classes, and will continue to do so.

And finally Adilson Maiza was very helpful to discuss stuff with. Even though he is world famous, he is amazingly humble and open-minded. Amazing range, amazing knowledge, great personality. He taught himself English! Big respect. We still didn’t manage to catch him with his partner Telma André, but we will!

In closing…

There’s a quote I loved during my time in martial arts, and it kept popping up in my head while writing this:

If you want to learn, you have to think like a thief and figure out how to steal your knowledge. What this means is that you can’t just wait for the teacher to explain everything. You have to notice for yourself what he does, and why—for everything he does has its reason.

Ajaan Fuang – Awareness itself

Big thank you to Adilson Maiza and Gabriel Cabinda for reviewing this looong article – and to the other many friends who reviewed the initial drafts!

  1. Sounds to me like there’s many parallels to how Cubans learn to dance in Cuba. See for example this interview with the Director or the All Stars from Santiago de Cuba, in the marvelous “Son y Casino” blog – search for “How do people learn”. ↩︎
  2. I think that another big advantage of cultural dances vs “one guy’s invention” is that we have it easier to avoid personality cults for charismatic instructors! ↩︎

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