Leg to leg, dance partners glide, undulate and sway. The lead dancer guides the follower in swirling spins and serpentine body rolls accented by the occasional hair whip.
This is zouk, the most popular dance style currently offered at Veda Studios in Asheville, where classes span yoga, dance and martial arts. “It’s grown by leaps and bounds,” says Veda’s executive director, M. Alexander. The beginner zouk class, held Mondays at 8 p.m., can attract 20-30 people. Alexander believes many are drawn to zouk’s balance of sensuality and artistry; he describes the style as an “energetic, sophisticated, smooth kind of aesthetic” and notes that people have been coming to Asheville zouk events — such as the monthly Saturday night zouk social — from as far away as Charlotte and Knoxville.
Originally, the term zouk — which means “party” in French Creole — referred to a music and dance style that emerged in the French Caribbean in the early 1980s. In the mid-’90s, Brazilians discovered the zouk rhythm and began adapting lambada movements to it, yielding the hybrid form that is now more commonly associated with the term zouk. Today, Brazilian zouk, as it’s also known, is danced to many kinds of music, including pop, R&B, lyrical, electronic, reggaeton and hip-hop.
Local massage therapist and doula Michele Rosa Gee began teaching zouk with Nathan Morrison at Veda Studios in 2017. The two were introduced to the dance at the Interfusion Festival and then attended a teacher training in Atlantic City, N.J. Gee had previously participated in tango, blues, belly dance, contact improvisation and ecstatic dance, but something about zouk was special. “When I dance with very good zouk leads, I feel like I’m in an absolute flow state,” she says. “It’s just like heaven to me.”
Janae Elisabeth agrees. She found zouk at Veda Studios about a year ago and hasn’t missed a lesson since. “The flow of zouk feels like an infinite spiral,” she says. “It can be a little bit addictive.”
Many local zouk dancers are drawn from other scenes, including contra, blues/fusion and salsa. “I know that the word is out,” says Gee. While not all attend class regularly, the Infinity Zouk Asheville Facebook group currently has more than 170 members.
“At first, when we brought zouk here, no one knew what it was,” says Gee. “Now, there are lots of points of reference for it, because it’s spreading so quickly throughout the world.” In fact, the style is growing in popularity in Europe, Latin America, Canada and Asia.
Gee emphasizes that, despite its flowing appearance, zouk is harder than it looks. Moves include off-axis turns and body isolations, which require skill and technique. Much of the development of the Asheville scene in this regard is thanks to Knoxville-based zouk dancer Brad Meccia, who teaches residencies and workshops all over North America and offers regular instruction in Asheville.
Meccia thinks people are very drawn to the popular styles of music zouk is danced to, and it “provides connection that we’re lacking a lot in the new digital world,” he says.
He believes that zouk also offers more room for flow and creativity than other dances. Asheville zouk dancer Andrew Sheffield agrees, contrasting zouk with dances that involve more set patterns, such as salsa. “With zouk,” he says, “you can really listen to the music. As a leader, at least, you can frame the music into whatever you end up leading.” But Sheffield’s main draw, he admits, was not the dance, but the people. The inviting feel and encouragement he experienced when he started dancing zouk in 2017 were far from the judgment he’d experienced as a novice elsewhere.
“What it ends up coming down to a lot in dance scenes, I think, is the vibe,” says Gee. “And something I’ve always held as very important is for us to have an inclusive dance community that’s not snobby.”
“People seem to be very open-minded to trying new things in Asheville, and they seem to be comfortable being close to each other,” Meccia says. “Zouk fits the culture very well, from what I can see.”
While zouk is enticing to many, the sensual nature of its movements — close leg connection combined with undulations of the midsection — can also be intimidating. Zouk’s forebear, lambada, was nicknamed “the forbidden dance,” after all, for its spicy and suggestive appearance. “It is very, very sensual,” admits Gee. “And I do see that it’s not for everyone, probably for that reason.”
Sheffield is one of many who enjoy zouk’s intimacy. “I like that it’s sexy,” he says. “It may push some people away, but maybe it just acts like a challenge — to say, ‘How open can you truly be with yourself, and can you allow yourself to be kind of vulnerable like that.’”
Gee notes that she has felt safe when she’s traveled to dance zouk in other cities across the U.S. “It’s intimate,” she says. “But there are really clear boundaries, and really good, strong etiquette.”
For most participants, zouk is a welcome embrace. The community “is exactly what I was looking for,” says Elisabeth. “Friendly, engaged people who care that they are dancing with an actual person more than getting the moves perfect.”