Val Clemente and why "zouk needs you"

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Not many dancers are great teachers. And not many dance teachers can get you to learn and laugh at the same time! Someone who does this very well is Val Clemente - a zouk teacher from Rio de Janeiro. So when I met him earlier this year I was curious to find out how he makes this happen! 

Here’s Zouk The World’s interview with Val Clemente, where we talked about what makes a positive atmosphere, what is the most important thing in zouk and how to learn the most difficult moves, like the head movements. We also talked whether it makes sense to divide zouk to different styles and what style to learn. And of course I asked about "Zouk needs you"; how we could spread zouk!

Zouk The World: Could you describe a bit when and how you came across zouk for the first time?

Val Clemente: When I saw zouk for the first time I had already been doing dança de salão (Brazilian version of ballroom dancing). My dance school had some zouk classes as well but they were at a time when I couldn’t go. At parties I did see people dancing zouk but it didn’t interest me. I just wanted to dance samba, tango and other dances...

ZTW: And when was this?

Val: It was about 13 years ago, in 2002.

One day I was at a party and I saw Adilio (Porto) and Renata (Peçanha) dancing zouk - and that got me interested in zouk. Before I didn’t really know what was this dance. I started to like it a lot and found a teacher, Erico Rodrigo, and asked him to teach me zouk. He explained that zouk was not his speciality but that he could teach me. Erico already danced lambada and was from the same dance company as Renata and he was one of the first teachers in (famous Brazilian dance school) Escola da Dança Jaime Arôxa. This was the same school where Renata and Adilio came from and during this time they all danced together in the same company. So I started learning traditional zouk and after a while I began to seek other ways to learn. Erico introduced me to other teachers, to Adilio and Renata themselves, and my school had other teachers with whom I could learn some. That was my first contact with zouk.

a zouk class with Val Clemente - Val spreading his positive mood 

a zouk class with Val Clemente - Val spreading his positive mood 

ZTW: During your classes there’s a very positive atmosphere and you’re quite known for your good sense of humor. How do you maintain a such positive mood when you’re working long days and nights, and traveling many months in a row?

In reality, half of my energy come from students themselves.

Val: I think there is a circle of energy, I strongly believe in this. Some of the first times when I started giving lessons I thought about giving energy to people and receiving energy from them in return. In reality, half of my energy come from students themselves. Sometimes people go to classes and they don’t realize they have this energy to offer. So I try to offer my energy and then the students start sharing their energy as well.

When I'm traveling, I'm sending the same energy. A part of the energy I give and a part of the energy I receive - there's always this exchange. And I’m in a good mood because I like this, I like to see people laugh!

ZTW: What is the most important thing in learning zouk in your opinion?

Many people talk about how in zouk we dance close together. And people ask me, why is that? It’s a cultural thing.

Val: I think the most important thing is - not only in zouk, but in any dance - the foundation. But not only the technical foundation. I prefer talking about a general foundation; it includes the technical foundation and the cultural foundation. I think there’s a personal, psychological foundation, too. Of course we need to understand the key movements; it’s like learning to read or write. But you also need to know something about the culture of the dance. That's when we begin to understand more about it.

For example, many people talk about how in zouk we dance close together. And people ask me, why is that? It's a cultural thing. In different cultures is not so ok to dance too close to each other, people don’t like to dance together. But in Brazil it’s normal to be close. So it's natural that a Brazilian dance has that too, right? In forró we dance together, in samba we dance together, too.

People should discover the cultural and the general foundation to understand the dance better. I think this is important and it’ll make it easier to understand all the rest.

ZTW: Is there a question relating to zouk that your students ask you the most? And what is your answer?

When people don’t understand the foundation of the dance, they get their minds stuck on the hardest thing.

Val: Students ask a lot about the head movements. For me this is just like the question you just asked. When people don't understand the foundation of the dance, they get their minds stuck on the hardest thing. For example, if you go to an acrobatics class, you think you have to be able to jump and roll three times. But the teacher will explain: first you need to learn to roll on the floor.

People who ask about the head movement find it very difficult. But it isn’t. It will be difficult if you do not understand the foundation first. When you learn the foundation it will be easier.

ZTW: There’s a lot of discussion nowadays about ‘how to categorise zouk styles’ and there are many names for different styles; traditional zouk, lambazouk, neo zouk, black zouk, flow zouk, soul zouk, vero zouk... Do you find yourself in a certain category?

All the things you divide into many little things, remain small.

Val: When people ask me what zouk style do you dance I say, "I only dance zouk". They can look and see my way of dancing and decide whether they like my style or not. Some people try to put a name on my zouk style - many people call it modern zouk. But I don't like it. Why is that? Because I think zouk is a thing of its own.

I think all the things you divide into many little things, remain small. So in my opinion all the zouk styles should have more or less the same foundation. This way it stays easier, and we continue to understand and speak the same language.

ZTW: So do you think it’s better to focus on just one style of zouk or learn several different styles?

I think all dancers should learn a little of each style.

Val: I think nowadays zouk is very big. In my opinion it's ideal that a person first learns the foundation of zouk, any style of zouk. It's important to learn the foundation to understand the differences between the styles. And I think all dancers should learn a little of each style, because you never know what is the style that will fit your body the best. So you need to try. I don't like that people say that they dance one style and they haven't tried to understand the other styles. If you tried, and you know it's not something you like, then that’s ok. But first try.


ZTW: Your slogan is “zouk needs you”. Zouk is not a very well-known dance. In your opinion, what could be done to make zouk more known or more popular, or do you feel it’s better that zouk is not as popular as, for example, salsa or samba?

Val: I think zouk has all it needs to become as popular as the other dances. Firstly, we already have zouk happening in many countries. Today we have - if I’m not mistaken - about 60 countries dancing zouk. For zouk to become more known we have a very good road laid out for us as there are a lot popular music such as music by Michael Jackson, Rihanna, Beyoncé, that we can dance zouk to.

There are professionals who study every day to improve zouk and then there are professionals who study for only to better themselves.

I think zouk does need to become bigger. But I'm afraid, because there are many professionals who do not work that much with zouk. And they're not showing a good quality of zouk. When we talk about salsa, everywhere you find salsa you'll also find a good salsa teacher. But in zouk we're not at that level. There are professionals who study every day to improve zouk and then there are professionals who study for only to better themselves. So we need more people who want zouk to grow and get better.

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Val Clemente bio

For over a decade Val Clemente has been dancing and teaching a wide variety of dance styles, including Brazilian zouk, samba de gafieira, tango, bolero, soltinho and forró, among others. He started his dancing career in Rio de Janeiro at Centro Cultural Conexão and continued at Escola Carioca de Dança, where Val taught and directed a dance company for several years. Though Val still lives in Rio, he also travels around the world to give workshops.