Salsa vs. Zouk

You might remember from last year that I started a new chapter in my dance adventures: learning cross-body salsa. I spent the last four months of 2014 learning the salsa basics and ended the year feeling quite excited about my new dance skills. My spins were faster than ever, coordination and balance improved, following skills renewed and generally I feel superb. And utterly confused.

But I had no time to feel renewed or confused. Almost straight from my last salsa class I flew to Brazil for a month of zouking, all day and night. I quite literally had to zouk the salsa out of me and fast! It didn’t take long to sink back in my comfort zone - into the arms of the fantastic Brazilian zouk dancers. The month in Brazil was like a month in *sigh* heaven, to put it short. After coming back home from Brazil I dove further back into zouk. After the bliss of Brazil I didn’t really miss salsa all that much - the zouk tunes were calling to me like sirens luring sailors to shipwreck.

After a few months came the reality - I need more than smooth sailing at my comfort zone. I need to challenge myself. I started to look for new dance classes. And so I stumbled upon a marvelous message: “Looking for a follower for the intensive cross-body salsa training group” ...Hey, that’s me!

And so I signed up for an 'intensive' course of salsa. For the past weeks, couple months, I've been back in the deep water, or so it feels. After every session I literally collapsed onto the floor out of exhaustion - both physical and mental. It has been intensive indeed, so we definitely got what we asked for. I was lucky to sign up with a fantastic partner who has a good amount of skills and enthusiasm so while I felt confused and hesitant, he helped me to push myself forward. And the improvement in my dance has been dramatic to say the least. A lot of it I owe to the fantastic teachers IDNZ.

At the same time I started the salsa course, I also started to host zouk training sessions in my home town. The idea was to provide a free weekly training for any new or old zouk dancer, to spread the love & knowledge I have for zouk and introduce a new style, lambazouk. It has been fun to see people get excited about dancing and making new discoveries - it's definitely rewarding, much more than I could have imagined.

While I've been splitting my time with zouk and salsa the past couple months, I've had a great chance to do some comparisons with these two dances. This is something that's been on my mind for a long time. And now I can present you my results. So here goes, the epic duel - salsa vz. zouk!


To compare salsa and zouk - or namely cross-body salsa and Brazilian zouk are what I will focus on in this post - it's like comparing a hamburger and a burrito... It's fairly easy to point out the differences as well as to notice the similarities. But to form an opinion, to say which is better? That’s not the point here - it's totally up to each person's taste! Is it fair for me to even compare? Probably not, but I thought it would be interesting to write my thoughts on the similarities and differences of these two dances and share them with you!

Cross-Body Salsa & Brazilian Zouk - Similarities

Different styles of salsa & different styles of zouk

I have quite a lot of experience with many different styles of Brazilian zouk... and there are many! Read here about different zouk styles. If zouk is a mixed bag so is salsa too. To find the similarities between salsa and zouk I can examine certain styles of Brazilian zouk more closely - some styles of zouk are more similar to cross-body salsa than others. Or actually; different zouk styles resemble cross-body salsa (CBS) in different aspects.

  • Traditional or Rio style zouk perhaps is the closest resemblant to CBS in the way that it's danced in a line.
  • Lambazouk on the other hand has a lot in common with the timing (123, 567) and the speed of CBS; though I would imagine that in many other ways it’s more similar to Cuban salsa (in which I only have a little experience so tell me if you agree or disagree!).
  • Modern zouk is such as collection of different dance styles that it could be similar with almost anything. One thing I would note among modern zouk are the hiphop elements in ‘black zouk’ - implementing hiphop moves and isolations is also very trendy among the younger generation of CBS dancers. And surely this goes beyond hiphop; merging and crossing styles is something all dancers love to do!

General similarities

In a general level I can of course find many similarities. Learning a partner dance, whether it's zouk or salsa (or WCS, kizomba, bachata, samba de gafieira, tango etc etc), is largely based on a) learning to express music with your body and b) learning to connect with a partner and to lead & follow.

A lot of what I know about leading & following in zouk I can use in salsa and likewise there's a lot I can learn from salsa that I can apply on the zouk floors as well. Learning salsa now during the past 12 months has provided me a lot more insight on holding my frame even better, to understand the leads and learning do them more precisely and more universally - almost all of theses aspects I can incorporate into my zouk.

Same goes for interpreting music and improving musicality; certainly dancing zouk (like dancing several other dances before that) has given me a strong basis in musicality and now I’ve beefed it up with the salsa training. In the salsa classes we’ve been practicing with a lot of different music styles, picking up the rhythm and using the different elements in the music... That has been useful for both salsa and zouk.

In salsa and zouk I’ve also found many similar aspects in the dance technique and body control: how to spin, how to hold my balance, how to move more fluently, how to be in charge of my own body when moving fast and slow. It has been an interesting process.

The list of similarities seems endless when you start to think of it. Especially if you break things down to pieces, there are many things that you can use to build up your dance skills - no matter the style. But when you start applying the skills you've learned from another dance it's easy to start blurring the lines. While many skills I've learned in zouk I can apply to my salsa, and vice versa, also many are not applicable...



The core of the movement

Perhaps the biggest difference between Brazilian zouk and CBS is the overall posture. The biggest in that sense that it affects everything you do, it’s the core of the movement. From the outside, the difference doesn't appear to be all that dramatic. Ok, surely the most extreme ends of a basic zouk and salsa body posture are very different, perhaps even noticeable in the non-dancer’s eyes. But the more ‘neutral’ zouk and salsa body postures are not remarkably different; you’re pretty much standing straight up, keeping your core and body active and the weight of your body lies in the centre of your feet. But from the inside, the way it feels and the way you hold and move each part of your body is in fact rather different.

Each body part plays its own role in the movement. The devil is in the details and the deeper you go into the details it can get a little fuzzy; these are things that each zouk and salsa teacher might explain differently. But the biggest difference is clear; the hips. Zouk is all about the hips, the hips start the movement. This can be even quite exaggerated, with hips literally leading your body forward. Or then again it can appear more subtle. Nonetheless that is the key in basic zouk steps. And that affects the whole movement - every moment, everything you do in zouk - even if you’re not the most hip-thrusting type of zouker. In cross-body salsa you definitely don’t want to do that! In CBS it’s more the chest leading the movement. This obviously makes all the difference.

There’s also a difference in how you step. When you're doing the zouk basic step your steps and your partner’s steps go on four lines; in the closed position / embrace the right foot is in between the partner’s feet and each foot moves parallel to each other on its own “lane”. Once you step, the weight goes first on the toes / ball of the foot and smoooooothly transfers from the front to the end of the sole. The toes can be a little open as your hips are also open.

In salsa then, your hips and feet are more closed - your steps don’t land between your partner’s feet but you stay “on your own side”. You also hold your weight more on the inside of your foot while you step, but also try transfer it smoothly from the front to the back of the sole/heel. In general, I feel in salsa I have to focus more on keeping my ankles straight and legs active. Ziish I had - and still surely have - trouble in getting accustomed to that! In zouk the focus in the movement of the legs and feet is more on being soft, giving the impression of “floating”.

Leading & following the basic steps and turns

In my previous post about learning salsa I wrote some of my first impressions about CBS. In the beginning I really had a hard time following the salsa leaders:

“Many of the salsa leads are so subtle... to me, even ambiguous. It feels the leading lacks the kind of direction, intention and communication I'm used to. In salsa, they say you should keep your arms basically relaxed and follow by holding your frame together. In essence you're connecting the leaders signals from the hands (palms or fingertips) in a basically relaxed, yet somehow firm way to the muscles on the back of the shoulder blades. Ok, this will take some learning.“

Read the entire post: Zouk dancer’s challenge: Learning salsa!

And surely I’ve learned. But still, no matter how much I’ve learned I feel that in salsa the leading is more dependent on how sensitive and firm (both at the same time) your fingers, hands, arms and the frame (hands - arms - shoulder blades) is. In zouk on the other hand, the base of the movement is different. To achieve a certain flow, which is critical, the leading comes trough the leaders' entire body; the arms can be almost irrelevant. In some moves the arms are even totally irrelevant as you can lead with visual cues, the partners mirroring each other with no physical contact; but even when arms are used, in basic moves they can be mere extensions of the torso. Once you’re bodies are interlinked, from the hips, the movement of the body becomes more distinct, more important. Some zouk teachers even (rightfully!) say that you can leave your thumbs at home; never ever should you need to pull the follower or the follower to make a “hook” with her fingers in order to follow. The connection comes from elsewhere.

To be clear, I’m not saying that a good salsa lead is a “wave of the arm” type of movement that is disconnected from the torso or the frame. I’m just saying it typically is a bit (or a lot) more disconnected than in zouk. But then again, salsa leads and leaders can be more versatile is what turns can be lead from what position; the body position doesn't have to match with the lead. I feel there’s a lot more work that goes into learning to lead all the “basic” turn variations in salsa and as a follower I need to be more active and more aware and more capable in starting a turn from any position into any direction. It could be subjective, just how I experience it… Please share your thoughts in the comments!

Axis and bodywork

The most obvious difference to me in zouk and salsa is centered on your axis. In cross-body salsa there’s really only one axis; the body is in a straight line and the leader draws flat horizontal circles around the follower’s head for the perfect spins; the follower’s body ticking forward like clockwork, straight as a nail, head towards the ceiling.

In zouk then, there’s no right and wrong axis, or right or wrong kind of body movement. The bodies move like snakes, making waves from up to down, from left to right. The leader can turn the follower, like in salsa, with the follower's head towards the ceiling by drawing a horizontal circle. Or the follower can be turned with her head and upper body rotating towards the leader by the leader drawing a vertical circle. The axis bends and bodies twist like a corkscrews. If you don’t know what I mean, see here demonstrations by Dadinho & AlineRodrigo & Adriana or Renata & Jorge.

In addition to the torsions mentions above, all kinds of body movements and isolations are common. There are certain principles that can be used to lead different body movements. These include giving leads with hands, forearms, torso and visual leads (mirroring)... And new ones are being invented every year.

The head movements (or ‘hair movements’) are also an essential part zouk, which does not really exists in salsa beyond styling. And make not mistake, the head/hair movements in zouk are not (just) styling: by tilting the follower’s upper body to the sides or back/forward, the leader can create these head movement. The technique(s) is fairly simple really, but mastering it takes a long time, also to incorporate it to the dance & music - not for the most impatient dancers!

As I mentioned, salsa is not immune to body or head movements, but these typically would fall under styling.

Musicality and styling

Both salsa and zouk - like all dancing - is strongly connected to the music, no doubt about that. Great salsa dancers are very versatile in their musicality; they listen to the different instruments, the changes in the beat, the melody, the lyrics, the feeling of the song and whatever they can hear - and put that into the dance. Salsa music is not your 'easy listening' soundtrack. The music is complex and strong. A general topic in a salsa dance class is "where is the 1”... why do they try to hide it in the music? A live salsa band is quite challenge to dance to; there are loads of different instruments, the songs are fast and long. I’m always amazed by the salsa music; it can be quite hectic at times, but it keeps you on your toes for sure!

What I enjoy about zouk is the variety of music styles. There can be music like salsa, fast and full of beats. But it can also be calm and melodic; even with no beat at all (doesn’t mean the music doesn’t have a rhythm or a pulse). It can be hard, it can be electronic. It can be the #1 track on the charts. The styles can be - in addition to zouk - pop, hiphop, r&b, latin, oriental… The variety of music takes the musicality to another level! If you say dancing is painting an image of the music, then the images that zouk dancers paint can be wildly different. It doesn’t make zouk dancers automatically any more musical than salsa dancers! But the music can give zouk dancers more choices in how to portray their musicality.

Solos - shines

Great salsa dancers excel not only in dancing with their partner but also dancing solo. Shines can be very complicated and you need to be well versed in the musicality. I can say this a topic I know almost nothing about: salsa musicality and shines. But I do admire it! And I love trying make up my own "salsa shines" whenever I get a chance to it.

I think many zouk dancers shy about dancing solo. Lambazoukers know something about that - or so you’d think when you see a zouk couple going on their separate ways. But event then it’s in fact a play of lead and follow, with the leader giving his signals to the follower visually with his hand and his body. Most zouk dancers that are good in dancing solo, have a solo dancing background; it’s not really something that is taught on the classes (aside from ladies’ styling choreographs). What many zoukers do commonly learn on the other hand, is dancing with multiple partners at the same time. But more about that in another blog post!

An advanced dancer’s skills

Now I’m starting to enter uncharted waters. What can I say about advanced cross-body salsa movements? Not much really. I’m sure I come across advanced movements in my salsa dancing experiences already. But I can’t really categorise what makes a salsa movement advanced, I don’t have enough experience. Is it mastering a certain speed in all your movements? Is it being able to lead and follow more lightly? Is it using more styling? Being able to dance on your own and not relying on your partner? Are there certain moves or the amount of spins that makes the dance more advanced? Do you need to know several different dance styles? All of the above, none of them, something else?

If I think about being advanced in zouk… What can I say about that either? The more I learn, the more I discover things I need to learn. 

There’s no limit to how much you can learn or improve when it comes to dance, I think it's universal. The points I list above are all related to being advanced in zouk - just like mastering everything I’ve written in this blog post. There’s no one thing that makes you a great zouk dancer, it’s an undefined combination of things.

I talk more about this in some of my older blog posts:


While I’m not the feelings -type of blogger I cannot complete this post without talking about feelings. Salsa and zouk are both passionate dances, that’s for sure. What is your style of dancing, what music you like and how you (like to) connect with your partner can make a bigger effect in the feeling in the dance than the fact that is it salsa or zouk. So in that sense, there’s no difference. What you feel, is personal.

But….  In salsa I do miss the closeness, the kind of surrender that comes with zouk. A lot of it comes from the dance position in itself: in zouk people usually dance the basic step in an embrace, joined from the torso and hip. The music can be, and typically is, more relaxed and the dancing becomes more relaxed. Also, to be able to perform the mentioned head movements the follower needs to relax her neck - and that’s quite a big thing to relax. Perhaps not big physically but mentally it is. In salsa the dancers are more independent, more active. 


Salsa vs. Zouk - who wins? Who cares?

What is salsa, what is zouk? With so many styles of salsa and zouk, who can draw an exact line on where salsa ends and zouk begins? It could be even argued that a particular style of salsa and a particular style of zouk have more in common with each other than with the most different style of the same dance.

While it's important for the survival of the dance to know what makes salsa salsa and what makes zouk zouk, it's also important for the survival of the dance to let it evolve. Blurring the lines between dance styles is one way to evolve. Everybody seems to have their own opinion on the topic of mixing and blending dance styles. This can be the ultimate debate for a dance purist. And it can be a superb source of inspiration for a dance 'fusionist'.

So what am I saying here? Do the differences and similarities matter? Am I even qualified, unbiased enough to compare? Am I trying to make it sound like zouk is the best thing since sliced bread? Don’t take it personally. I think that comparing dance styles is fun and I believe you should only do it as long as it's fun, or at least insightful. While I looooove zouk, salsa is still awesome - I enjoy the speed, the smiles, the playfulness and the multi-faceted technique that's involved. I'm also positively surprised how warmly I've been welcomed to the salsa group and it’s been nice to see the collaborative spirit across the different dance communities. I’ve been having a great time, learning more and becoming a much better dancer.


Your experiences

Share your thoughts!

Have you had experience with both zouk and salsa - how do you see the similarities and differences?
Have you started learning a new dance style - how did it feel like transitioning from one dance to another?
Are there things you've learned from other dances that you've incorporated in your zouk?

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