Learn from nature: training methodologies and insights

Updated: Apr 7

"Look at how trees grow. The bigger and more impressive the tree, the thicker its roots, trunk and branches. There is no shortcut to growth, it takes years of nourishment."


Similarly, our capacity to become a great dancer is rooted in our foundations; the stronger and broader our base, the greater our potential to support expression and styling. I’ve been dancing Brazilian Zouk for nearly 10 years and one thing that has become important to me is codifying the learning process into a clear set of basic steps and techniques. Brazilian Zouk can appear a complicated dance if everything is piled on at the same time, my goal is to make the learning process as simple as possible!


To identify how to improve your Brazilian Zouk foundations, consider the structure of a tree:

Roots

Physiology that is the shape, size, strength, flexibility and suppleness of our body.


Trunk

Psychology that embodies our openness to movement, music, connection and instruction.


Branches

Knowledge of the five most important steps, and five most important techniques.


Leaves

Experience of the infinite variations of how the body can move.

"How the tree moves when the wind blows, in other words, our ability to express ourself in dance, is an accumulation of everything above."

Let’s look at each of these four sections in detail:


Roots Physiology has a huge impact over our expression of dance. Our shape, size, strength, flexibility and suppleness will influence the type of movements that feel comfortable to us. This is not to say that everyone has to be of a certain geometry to be a great dancer, but it is realistic to acknowledge that our limitations are guided by our physiological capabilities. If you happen to notice that some movements are uncomfortable or difficult to learn, scan your tree roots and see if there is anything physiological to work on first. Examples include strengthening your legs, arms, core, back or neck, losing excess weight and improving joint flexibility. The deeper we work on ourselves, the more impact it has on subsequent layers.

Trunk Our openness to movement, music and instruction is going to influence situations in our dance journey, such as willingness to listen, confidence, creativity, practice, and muscular habits that impact frame and connection. Essentially our capacity to listen, move, interpret music and connect with others are learned behaviours that developed in childhood and adolescence, therefore as adults it is more a case of unblocking them, rather than learning anything new. The difficulty with training our tree trunk is that is requires a conscious effort to work on such things, and often we ourselves can’t see what is holding us back. Examples include releasing tension in certain areas of the body, overcoming shame, listening to others, accepting criticism, focus, discipline and dedication. Don’t ignore these qualities, working on our psychology is often the most rewarding part of learning anything at all, especially dance that is a full mind and body experience.

Branches Now we arrive at the more juicy and controversial topic of learning Brazilian Zouk. In my experience of learning and teaching, content that belongs in the next section (leaves) is frequently mixed up with the fundamental steps and techniques that make up the core components of the dance (branches). This guide below is the simplest way to understand the fundamental Brazilian Zouk steps and techniques.

THE FIVE MOST IMPORTANT BRAZILIAN ZOUK STEPS


  1. Basic step (passo básico or frente e atras)

  2. Little turn (viradinha)

  3. Lateral (lateral or corredor)

  4. Simple turn (giro simples)

  5. Boomerang (bumerangue or bônus)


We could divide them further and say that considering the followers footwork, lateral is the same as two little turns, and boomerang is the same as one and a half simple turns with half a basic step. However, I find that considering the practicality of teaching, the leaders footwork and the construction of more complicated sequences, these steps are best kept in their packaged forms. The detail of each step can be found here and it is vital that they can be danced with grace in any combination and direction before other aspects of the dance, such as body and head movements, are piled on top. As an exercise, watch a video of yourself dancing and categorise your steps into these five options.

THE FIVE MOST IMPORTANT BRAZILIAN ZOUK TECHNIQUES


  1. Twisting (footwork)

  2. Turning (footwork)

  3. Waves (body activation)

  4. Isolations (body activation)

  5. Linear vs circular (head motion)


The five most important Brazilian Zouk techniques are applicable to every movement we see in Brazilian Zouk. Let me explain them in two groups

. Group 1 Techniques 1 and 2 relate to footwork. Each transfer of weight is effectively a new step, and in order to control the energy of our movement we twist our feet outwards or turn our feet inwards to dissipate the energy over a longer time and larger surface area. This gives our body more time and space to control balance. Technique 1 is a straight step with an outwards twist, while technique 2 is an open step with an inside turn. In other words, as bodyweight transfers from one foot to the next, the placement of our feet are either straight and twisting outwards or open and turning inwards. To clarify our understanding, we can look at the five most important Brazilian Zouk steps and dissect them into techniques 1 and 2 of twisting and turning:

  1. Basic step (6 transfers of weight) = 1, 1, 1, 1, 1, 1.

  2. Little Turn (3 transfers of weight) = 1, 2, 1.

  3. Lateral (6 transfers of weight) = 1, 2, 1, 1, 2, 1.

  4. Simple Turn (3 transfers of weight) = 1, 2, 1.

  5. Boomerangue (6 transfers of weight) = 1, 2, 1, 2, 1, 1.


Regarding footwork, there are only two variables that gives rise to every variations of step we see in Brazilian Zouk. The first variable is the amount of twisting or turning that takes place, usually we train twisting 90 degrees and turning 180, 270 or 360 degrees but in theory this can be any angle. The second variable is the size and direction of step we take, usually we train big steps, small steps and steps in place, but again, in theory they can be of any size. As an exercise, watch a video of yourself dancing and dissect your steps into these two techniques of either twisting or turning, noticing their size and amount of rotation.


Group 2 Techniques 3 and 4 relate to the type of movement active in the body such as an upwards or downwards wave or activation of an isolate region; while techniques 5 is the direction of head movement being linear or circular. Let’s take two examples of common moves to understand these techniques better.

Example Cambre When we perform a basic cambre, we activate an upwards body wave with linear motion, despite the fact that the follower is bending backwards. This is because the hips are the first stage of the cambre to find their position, then the chest and finally the head, hence the sensation of activation is rising upwards through the spine.

Example Balão When we perform a basic balão or head circle, we isolate different regions of the chest in order to guide and support the head movement. As an exercise, watch a video of yourself dancing and identify when your body activates a wave or isolation and whether the direction of head movement is linear or circular.

Leaves This section refers to all creative variations of steps that are possible by changing any of the variables, such as the amount of twist or turn, the size, time and force of weight transfers, the position of the frame and upper body, partner contact, combinations of steps and merging new combinations by overlapping weight transfers. Styling is also relevant such as drawing attention to areas of the body in order to play with story, direction and musicality. As an exercise, watch a video of yourself dancing and identify when you perform variations of movements and from which of the five fundamental steps they originate from. For example if you perform soltinho (a minimum combination of 6 weight transfers) recognise that soltinho is a combination of simple turn (3 weight transfers) and little turn (3 more weight transfers). This modular way to construct Brazilian Zouk helps to free ourselves from habit and create infinite possibilities.

The danger of learning Brazilian Zouk without a modular structure like this is that we spend a significant portion of time and energy nourishing the growth of leaves, without first gaining the support of thick branches. In other words, dancers spend years learning an infinite number of moves without training the source of each. This essentially promotes a type of practice that stimulates habit e.g. always turning to one side. Take a moment to consider the impact of this in our community over time, eventually we disempower ourselves as both leaders and followers adapt to normal patterns. Ultimately if either dancer moves from a place of habit, both dancers freedom to express and create are reduced. Developing a modular technique that is unbiased in its preferred direction, is key to creating limitless possibilities and being a great lead or follow.


Now that you have this information take a look at the structure of your personal tree, your physiology, your psychology, your knowledge and your experience. Reflect on areas of your dance that hold you back, after all you know yourself best. An example for myself would be something like this:

"I would like to add more style and expression in my dance."

1. I have the physiology to control my movements.

2. I recognise that I sometimes lack confidence to move freely without feeling shame.

3. I have the knowledge to lead movements whilst still creating space to style.

4. I would like more experience in how to express movement through my body.


After scanning through my personal tree, the greatest progress for myself will arise when I work on feeling less ashamed of moving my body, and learning new ways to express emotion through movement. I hope that this insight into training is useful, please share your journey with me in the comments below. We can all learn from each other :-)