Hmmm... what are the questions I never dare to ask the international zouk pros? And who do I know that would give me straight up answers?
It’s a rare and precious experience to get to work with something you love - and with people you admire and enjoy spending time with. Olaya and Papagaio are one of my first zouk idols - their dancing swept me off my feet in 2011 when I went to my first zouk festival trip and the feeling hasn’t faded over the years (quite the opposite). So when I finally had a chance to interview them, I jumped to the opportunity with all my long thought-over questions; What is the most important thing in learning Brazilian zouk? How to motivate students? What could we do to make zouk scene better, and bigger - or do we need to? Why pro dancers have seem to have different mentalities regarding dancing with students in the parties? How to deal with maternity & teaching dance? And.. and... and.......
Luckily, they had the patience to answer all my questions. Thank you so much Olaya & Papagaio for the long & fruitful discussion and your detailed responses!
Who are Olaya & Papagaio?
Olaya Dendê and Gabriel Papagaio Torres are residents of Barcelona, Spain and they’re known for their radiant dancing and detailed classes with Olaya’s witty sense of humour and Papagaio’s infectious energy. They’ve given workshops and shows at congresses all around the world and were a part of the organising team for DansaBrasil congress. They also work on several projects and have classes all year long at DancEmotion School in Barcelona.
Zouk The World: I always start the interviews with this question: When and how did you come across Brazilian zouk for the first time?
Olaya Dendê: For me, I met lambada when I met Papagaio. I saw him dancing lambada in 2000 with his capoeira friends in Barcelona.
In the same year, 2000 we were dancing in Brazilian parties and one day a new guy called Hernan showed up and I could straight away feel he dances with more technique. I started to talk to him and I found out he danced lambazouk and was a student of Gilson Damasco in Argentina. I started training with him, to learn the technique of lambazouk and eventually we started to teach together.
About a year later Daniel & Leticia Estévez López moved from Mallorca to Barcelona and we discovered a totally different way of dancing, watching them dance Mzouk. Our big discovery was in 2004 when Daniel & Leticia organized the first zouk congress in Europe in Barcelona. Then we got to know Gilson & Romina, Berg & Solange Dias and Claudio Gomes & Claudia de Vries from Holland and a lot of other teachers. For the first time we got meet different zouk teachers and different zouk communities and zouk styles - also different from what it is now.
Gabriel Papagaio Torres: I know lambada from the same time I learned capoeira and already when I was very young, in Fortaleza I took part in a lambada championship with my cousin. But really I started dancing in the discotheques, such as Made in Brazil, in Barcelona and Salou. After that I heard for the first time zouk music in Salou with Josy and that gave me an idea to start to use that music in the lambada session to bring something new to the dance community. First zouk song that I loved was Je t’aime. Since then I wanted know the technique and I suggested to Olaya that she should start to do classes with Hernan. When Hernan had to return to Argentina Olaya & I started our dance partnership, in 2005.
ZTW: What do you think is the most important thing when a person is learning zouk?
Olaya: The basics. It’s important to know what you are doing. I think a lot of people put a lot of importance on experimenting, but you cannot experiment with what you do not know. You need to know the rules, what tools you can use, the technique of the dance and also safety in dancing. First master the basics before you can break the rules. Like with any other thing - before you can become a great chef you first need to learn how to cook; before you can write a book you first need to know the alphabet. When you know how to write, you can then decide to write wrong if you want. For me this is obvious. After you’ve learned the basics then later on you can learn other dance styles and decide I like this or that more.
In social dancing we need to connect and to have fun. Of course you can always play - each dance is different! It’s not about whether you make mistakes or not. It’s about trying to understand another person, to lead and follow. Maybe you’re in a funny mood and the other person is in the same mood; then you can experiment. With people you know well it’s easier to even do some crazy things. But it’s not the same when you dance with people you don’t know. You need to connect and try to give the other person a good dance.
Papagaio: I agree with Olaya. It’s important to learn the basics and the feeling of the dance.
ZTW: Is there a question your students typically ask you the most?
Papagaio: Yes. ”How long will it take for me until I’m able to dance like that?”
Olaya: Yes, sometimes they point out another student who they think can dance - and at the same time they feel that they themselves cannot dance. If you think like that you may never get to a point when you think that ”I can dance”. It depends on your effort and your will.
Another thing that ladies ask is that ”How do I know that he will do this step?” Well, the answer is you don’t know. You need to wait, feel and follow. That’s the point of the partner dance.
ZTW: If you could change one thing in Brazilian zouk what would you change? For example do you think there’s something that’s not going right or do you think it’s perfect the way it is now?
Olaya: For me it’s not about something not going right - only with the perspective of time we can say what was right and what wasn’t. You cannot judge in the moment. What's not good is the people trying to learn without being students. Zouk is a dance that involves the whole body so you need to learn it with safety. You’re not dancing alone so you need to learn how to take care of the other person - doesn’t matter what style you’re learning. What concerns me is that people are more focused in creating something new and less focused in learning. Instead of just creating, first try to learn everything there is to learn, all the possibilities because then whatever you create is in a safe way and with knowledge, not just something that pops up in your mind. I see a lot of people trying to create new things, fusions, always thinking about new, new, new - this can come over time.
ZTW: I feel the same - which is strange because in zouk there is already so much. It’s such a creative dance.
Olaya: So much! There are so many styles in Brazilian zouk and so many things you can explore and mix. I understand that professional dancers create new things - you’ve been doing the same thing for 30 years so you want to explore more. But for student who doesn’t even know everything there is, it makes no sense - to me the only explanation for this is that for a student it’s easier to create something new than to make an effort to learn what there already is.
Papagaio: I totally agree with Olaya. Would I like to change something in the dance? No. But on the dance floor? Yes. On the dance floor many dancers don’t care about the basic, the origins of the dance and the feeling of Brazilian zouk. We have to care about this, otherwise the dance will disappear. You should never forget the basics. I would like all the teachers and the event organizers also to really think more about this.
ZTW: I’ve noticed among international or professional dance teachers that they tend to have varying mentalities or interests towards social dancing. At events you can see on one extreme those pros who dance all night long with all the people; and on the other extreme there are those pros that stay away from the dance floor or maybe only dance with other teachers. Of course, this is not only related to the teachers - you can see the same differences with non-professional, social dancers as well. In my experience the two of you definitely are in the first category, quite strongly; always dancing, all night with everybody. Do you do this intentionally or unintentionally?
Olaya: This is a very good question and I know it’s different for me and for Papagaio.
Papagaio: For me it depends - there are both sides. I dance with everybody because I like to dance. But when I’m working, I have to control the situation and dosify. Many people dance with me and they want to have another dance. But there are other people around that also are waiting for a dance. In any case, I love to dance - a lot. And it has always been like this. I put all my energy on the dance floor.
Olaya: Yes, because he’s leading and he can do what he wants. For me there are several things about this.
First of all us teachers like to dance with other teachers because we all like to dance with people from our level, or even a higher level. For us it’s also very important because these events are the rare chances during the year we get to dance with other teachers. I love my students and I love to teach but personally I started to teach because I love to dance. And I also want to dance, to give my 100% and even more, and discover new things about myself. The teacher’s life can be a lonely life in that sense. The teacher is the one who is really passionate about dancing but the students they get the most fun part; they are learning and mostly dancing with better dancers. The teachers are always giving but not so often receiving - yes we get the applause and praise but not always receiving the same energy on the dance floor. So it’s important that in the congresses we also dance with other professionals to be able learn more between each other. Some students complain about this but they only see their point of view.
Another thing is that we have to understand the teacher has been teaching all day. Of course the students have been learning all day too but the teachers also have shows, rehearsals, and physically it’s very tiring. I like to dance a lot but there’s a process I have in the events. I need to warm up well, to mentalize myself and I do put an effort to take myself to the dance floor. Because physically I’m exhausted - I’m not tired, I’m exhausted. And I’m afraid of getting injured, it’s my worst fear. It’s easy to get injured when you’re tired, and if you’re dancing with guys who don’t take care of you. This is what I find totally disrespectful - the leaders are touching my body which my instrument of work so they should realize the responsibility of taking good care of it. Some guys don’t take care of that responsibility and do things that they clearly know they cannot do, that are out of their level or they’re too rough. I enjoy dancing with beginners when they are leading softly. It doesn’t matter if it’s just basic steps, that’s perfect. If it’s out of time - I wish it wasn’t but it doesn’t matter if it isn’t. But if you’re rough, then I take it very seriously. I have been injured once and I do not wish it to anyone.
So there’s a lot of contrast for me. I understand that people come to events to dance with the professionals and it’s part of my work. If somebody is dancing crazy then I always try to say it to them nicely - they might not take it well but I don’t know how else I could do it. I always make an effort to dance with everybody and it doesn’t mean I suffer, I always enjoy when I go dancing and you can see it in my face.
There’s a curious thing about this - at one event one lady asked me ”I always see you at events dancing with everybody and it looks like you are enjoying it. How do you do it because I know you must not be enjoying it that much? Like that guy who is a beginner.” First of all that guy is not being aggressive to me, he’s being gentle and as nice as he can be. I try to put myself in his shoes - he must be afraid, he’s still learning and not in control yet, he’s thinking to himself ”what am I doing, asking this lady to dance with me.” He must have courage so I try to let him know that I am enjoying myself, that he is doing it right. Also the other girls can see that I’m enjoying the dance so they get courage to dance with him too. Also, I always tell people to remember that those beginners, they will become advanced - later on that person might be the best in the party.
ZTW: Comparing zouk to other dances like salsa and samba that are quite known all around the world, how could we make zouk more well known? Or it is even important that zouk becomes more popular?
Olaya: For me it’s important that there are lots of people dancing zouk - but it’s not important that everybody in the world knows zouk. There are a lot of people that know salsa but not everybody that knows about salsa can actually dance it. I prefer a big community but I also prefer quality over quantity. I would rather have three students that can actually dance than 30 students that have no idea. I believe and I hope that quality brings quantity. Of course quantity helps, it’s easier to grow and organize events. But it’s the quality that counts for me.
I don’t know how to make zouk more popular - if you get the answer, let me know! We are always trying to think of ways to make the dance grow. I think one thing that is making it difficult is that many people who see zouk think it’s too difficult. Oh the head moving, oh the body moving, I’m dizzy. Of course it’s more difficult than for example merengue but it’s not impossible. Anybody can learn zouk, and anyone who has learned it has no regrets. It’s super addictive, people love it and it has changed many people's lives.
Papagaio: It’s difficult to get zouk to become more popular. If I compare to for example to forró in Brazil, it’s part of the culture, part of the family lives. Lambada was part of the Brazilian culture but we lost it. First I think that all of Brazil has to recognize that Brazilian zouk is a part of the Brazilian culture. If the dance would be called lambada then the dance would be more popular. Also we need young people to get involved in zouk and to get more history.
Our interview continues with...
- How Brazilian zouk has changed over the past 15 years?
- What makes Brazilian zouk special to Olaya and Papagaio?
- How they motivate their students to practice?
- What does DJ Papagaio feel about the current trends on music in the Zouk parties?
- How Olaya has it been coping with her work as a dancer during her pregnancy?
Olaya & Papagaio
Olaya Dendê was born in Barcelona, Spain and has been dancing since she was 4 years old. In 2000 she fell in love with the world of Brazilian dance and immediately started performing and teaching. Always willing to learn, she’s combined her University studies together with Fitness instructor qualification and Dance Training (Ballet, Contemporary and Jazz). Olaya is considered one of the best Brazilian zouk teachers, known for her colorful metaphors and clear explanations - always making sure her students work hard, learn and laugh! It's also hard to miss her radiant dancing & big smile on dance floor. Olaya’s passion is dancing and teaching, doing anything for her students learn how to dance well, spreading the love and energy of dancing!
Gabriel Torres, most well known by his Capoeira name Papagaio, was born in Recife and spent his childhood in Fortaleza, Brazil. In Spain he trained as a Physical Education Monitor and later as a qualified Physiotherapist. Living in Barcelona, he’s not only a dance teacher and “Capoeirista” but also a very popular DJ. He pioneered the promotion of lambazouk music and classes in Barcelona, and in 2005 began giving classes together with Olaya. Gabriel is a very creative dancer and all his energy goes into the dance floor!
Olaya & Papagaio have given lambazouk workshops and shows at congresses all around the world and taken part in the organising team for DansaBrasil congress in Barcelona. They also work on several projects and have classes all year long at DancEmotion School in Barcelona.