A one-of-a-kind dancer - that's Pasty Pieternelle for you. Born on the island of Curaçao and living in the Netherlands, he is known all over the world for his touching shows and experimental dance workshops. Anyone who has also danced with Pasty or seen him on the dance floor, is sure to know he's just as charismatic social dancer as he is on stage and gives his everything to his partner.
To me personally - and I'm certainly not alone - Pasty & his partner Josta are one of first Brazilian zouk teachers that really made an everlasting impression on me, back in the first zouk congress I visited as a budding zouker. I've had the pleasure to cross paths with Pasty several times over the years, and this time I jumped to the chance of interviewing him for the Zouk The World readers. And oh boy, what an interview it turned out to be!! I took this opportunity to ask him all important questions about his teaching philosophies, his relationship to Brazilian zouk, about his role as a dance scene mentor and how he would advice new zouk teachers.
A long time waiting, finally here is my interview with dancer-extraordinaire, Pasty Pieternelle!
Zouk The World: I always start the interviews with this question: When and how did you come across Brazilian zouk for the first time?
Pasty Pieternelle: Coming from the Caribbean island of Curaçao, music and dancing is in the culture and plays a very big role in my life. Apart from the cultural music and dances of Curaçao, there are music and dances brought to Curaçao from the many surrounding islands and countries like USA, Cuba, Dominican Republic, Guadeloupe and Martinique, for example. This is how I grew up listening and dancing to different kind of music and also to the Caribbean zouk music brought by the group Kassav.
Coming across the dance Brazilian zouk is like a story - In 2001 I moved to the Netherlands to study Skin Therapy. On one of my first night outs in Amsterdam I saw a couple dancing in a bar. I didn’t know then what kind of dance this was. It wasn't until in 2004 that I realised that the dance was Brazilian zouk, and that the girl dancing was Josta, who in 2006 became my dance partner.
I was introduced to this dance style in 2004 by Chandrika Floridas, who is also from Curaçao. At that time I was full into professional salsa dancing, since 1997, doing shows and appearances. I didn’t see Brazilian zouk as a dance I would love to do as it contradicted to how I used to dance on this music. But when Chandrika taught me the basic I felt the music in a different way and I was convinced to join a training of the group Zouklovers. Back then this group was led by Ray Olymph and Dj Shing, students of Claudio Gomes, who introduced Brazilian zouk in the Netherlands. It was clear to me that my job in the group and in the Brazilian zouk scene was going to be to help promote and make the scene bigger like the salsa scene.
That same year in 2004 I got to perform with this group at the first International Brazilian Zouk Congress in Europe that was held by Daniel & Leticia Estévez in Spain. Looking at the dancers coming from all over the world and having so much fun at this event, and the shows in all different Brazilian zouk styles, I knew that this dance have a great potential to grow. There was more to explore but also to professionalize this dance to make it more attractive and accessible for more people.
ZTW: I wanted to ask you a little bit about the way you teach. Your workshops have a way of standing out from the rest, for example at congresses. Sometimes you have exercises that don’t really involve dancing zouk, or even dancing as such. Quite often you focus on a particular aspect, such as connection, instead of doing a particular pattern or routine. I’ve noticed that these often lead to interesting discoveries among the students. What in general is your goal in a congress workshop?
Pasty: The first time that I saw Brazilian zouk shows in the Netherlands, I was thinking like most salsa dancers are still thinking today; I didn’t like the way they were dancing. I couldn’t connect the dance to the music. There was a lack of technique. The dance was with a lot of cambrés that seems to be hurtful for the women while the men mostly standing still and leading with the hands. I didn’t consider it as a dance since the men was only telling the lady what to do by leading or pushing her into the movements.
It became very fast an aspect of the dance that I thought I will focus to improve and try to make it all more professional so that it makes more sense to other people what this dance is all about. I made this dance my challenge.
Brazilian zouk is a beautiful, elegant, graceful, special and sensual dance when it is danced with feeling to the music and if you can let yourself go, but also keep yourself in control at the same time.
There is a very thin line between having this control and letting yourself go since it is a dance constantly danced off-balanced. If you do only patterns or routines it will soon look like you are in control, but without the feeling it becomes mechanic and it will miss this certain energy that transforms into a nice connection. Dancing without this connection will make this dance look cheap, ludicrous and like an eternal 'try'.
On the other hand, letting yourself go means that you should be able to lead and follow well while you are losing and taking control at the same time.
All of his makes it a very difficult dance to do on the same level of connection as your dance partner. If one aspect is wrong, the whole dance seems unattractive. It is like a domino effect. In comparison to other dances that emphasise that the women should only listen and feel the leading of the man, in this dance the man have to listen and feel the follow of the lady to make it a good lead.
Because of constantly dancing off-balance, Brazilian zouk has also a different kind of flow than the other dances. This dancing off-balance asks a great reaction, support and still gentle, smooth leading and following from the dance partner.
This being said, it means that it is necessary to be a good individual dancer working on yourself and not only in couples. By teaching the students only movements and showing patterns, they will always think about leading and following, but will never work on their own body and their own way of feeling and dancing to become better by themselves.
This is why in the classes lately Josta and I have been focusing a lot more on exercises and technique trainings that can help the dancers to become better. It’s a couple dance, but you will improve more and faster when you work on yourself. Exercise, explore, follow and and lead your own body first, instead of only leading and following the body of someone else and only copying the patterns and routines of the teachers.
So to sum up, our goal with these workshops is to open the mind of the dancers since the old fashion ways of teaching - "the men lead and the women follow" - in the latin scene, and to make them become better individually, and that then it will show in the beauty of this couples dance.
ZTW: You write dance advice and comments under Pastycho "Your Dance Teacher Online” on Facebook. You say the page is for “covering the aspects of the dance scenes that people are scared to say or talk about”. You talk a lot about music, mixing dance styles and the evolution of dance styles, about being creative and being a better dancer. You also talk quite candidly about the dance business, the relationships among promoters and teachers as well as about many other things like hygiene. What is the topic you feel the most strongly about as a dancer and a dance teacher?
Pasty: Even though I try to be serious and to the point with educational comments in the form of small blog posts, I also mix it with some nice mind opening suggestions for the dancers to read and think for themselves, what is best for them and why they should respect each other.
Why I started this page is because us teachers and representatives of the dance, we usually try to lay low and not mingle in the dance politics. We try not to be too much in the picture when things are going wrong or when there are points for improvements. We don’t say anything because we don’t want people to start criticizing our opinion. We feel like it is not our job. Neither we do have time to waste or need bad energies - the only thing we want to do is to share our creative work with everybody peacefully.
But if the dancers are fighting or confused about a topic it can be good for the ones that are long in the scene to say something and remind us all what dancing is about. There still have to be some people on the teachers' side who won’t only train dancers the steps but also train their minds to help the scene. This page is also like a therapy for me as an artist, to say the things that I normally would keep for myself as a professional. It keeps me sharp to teach better everyday since I have to think about what I am writing down for the whole dance community to see.
The topics that I feel the most strongly about is the criticism of another dancer because of mixing dance styles, fusion styles. Like if you mix something, do something or feel the music different then others think it is bad. People say “this is not the original dance”, “why you call it this way”?
I mean, dancing is dancing and it's almost the only freedom a person have nowadays. It is the way a person feels to the music at that particular moment. The dance floor is the only place where somebody shouldn’t feel restrained to do and dance how he or she likes.
Everybody has their own purpose why they started dancing. If my purpose is to listen to the music and forget everything for a moment in the feeling, and then someone tells me “you can’t express the music like that” or “you can’t mix those styles” or I can’t be my own, then for me it loses the point to dance. There will be no purpose.
I am still dancing after all these years, because I want to be free to express myself and surprise myself constantly with new creative moves every day. If I couldn’t dance to express myself, then I wouldn’t be dancing. I will be doing something else like riding a horse. Music is something everybody feels different and it is beautiful to respect that. If you are able to open yourself and watch closely maybe you might learn something from anybody else dancing.
ZTW: Now that people are already getting your advice via Pastycho “Your Dance Teacher Online”, I wanted to ask if there are some memorable advice or comments you’ve received along your career?
Pasty: Comments and advice I’ve received a lot over the years. Some of them very useful and some of them I haven’t even put close to me, to believe in myself and to continue the good work of art.
A funny story is that although my father was teaching my two brothers and I to dance already since I was a baby, it was only later at the age of six that I became conscious about dancing. I starting focusing more on the dance when my family subscribed me to a song festival where I forgot my lyrics while singing. I started dancing until the end of the music and won the price for the Best Dynamic Singer. Since then I knew that dancing can be my rescue and I should keep dancing no matter what! And the most memorable pieces of advice were also to keep on dancing. Ironic is that I always tell people that I don’t like to dance, but I love music! And music makes me dance!
For the Brazilian zouk, I hear a lot of people in the other dance scenes saying that they don’t like Brazilian zouk at all, but when they see Josta and I dancing or doing shows, they like it. It is a nice comment, but at the same time I see it as their weakness of not being able to see what they themselves can do or bring into the dance instead of blocking it out.
It has been a long career of dancing and being in public around the world - some of the positive more memorable comments that I can recall now are; “Don’t stop the Pasty, don’t stop what you’re doing, don’t stop being you”. “Thank you for giving your heart to dance”. “Your show made my husband cry, and that is unique, thank you for that, I have never seen him cry”.… and many more great and supportive things have been said. These keeps an artist going for sure. Never doubt giving a bit of support even when you know that the artist is not so good in receiving good feedback.
Memorable is also that people comment to me “you can’t do that, you can’t do this in a dance style”. They try to compare what they know about the dance to how I or another dancer dance. The way I dance, move, walk and talk on the dance floor comes from a total background of different dance techniques and lessons learned in this world. So to criticize how I’m dancing and doing it now, you’re criticising my whole life and history in the dance scene that you may not even know about.
It’s important to remember that music is going to evolve and the dancers with their dances are evolving too. You should use everything in your past and want for the future in your dance and make yourself better, enjoying the moment today.
Yes, there is more! See the second part of this interview, where Pasty tells about what advice he would give to a person starting to teach Brazilian zouk, how he keeps himself inspired after all the years of dancing professionally and what in his opinion makes up the best social dancing experience.