Washington D.C. residents, visitors join growing dance movement

Kizomba instructor Nina Hassell teaches intermediate partner work to her student on Sept. 1 at Habana Village in Washington D.C. Photo Credit: Deidre Martinez | Lariat Washington

By Deidre Martinez | Lariat Washington News Bureau

WASHINGTON – At the corner of Adams Morgan, a neighborhood in Washington D.C. known for it’s cultural diversity, stands a Cuban restaurant and bar called Habana Village. If you can’t spot it, you can hear it, as the rhythmic thump of salsa music reverberates off the chestnut townhouse into the surrounding neighborhood.

Habana Village is a restaurant on the first floor and a dance hall Wednesday through Saturday nights on the second floor. On Thursday, people of all ages come to learn kizomba — a style derived from Angola that has been spreading across the Latin dance scene. With firm down beats and slower tempos, kizomba relies on partner work to drive the movement. Duos move with deliberate precision as each step carries on to the next.

“I think it’s very elegant,” Federica Velutini-Hoffman, a non-profit worker from Vermont said. “You have to be mindful of the synchronicity of you and your partner. That’s challenging, but also really great.”

As Velutini-Hoffman holds on to her partner, bystanders waiting for the 9 p.m. salsa class appear to be mesmerized by what they see. Similar to how beta fish lazily weave through their tank, couples ebb and flow across the dance floor. In the background, instructors Ezri Benami and Nina Hassel observe and correct technical errors.

“This place has been here for a long time,” Benami said. “They decided that they needed more events because the dates were available. And when the door opened, I didn’t even blink.”

Habana Village has gained a reputation among those in the dance community. This is evident by the people who come visit the Cuba-inspired business.

“I went to the D.C. bachata congress over the weekend,” Christiana Harris, who came to take lessons right after work, said. “So at the congress, I did the beginner kizomba workshop, and they recommended places you could go dance and keep learning.”

Opting for a no-partner necessary approach, $10 buys individuals access to two hours worth of lessons. According to Benami, teaching kizomba to groups of people every week is not a responsibility he takes lightly — traveling across the country to attend workshops taught by professionals in the field.

“I go to every workshop,” Benami said. “An instructor is supposed to continue learning. So as an instructor, I have been dancing every day for two years.”

Locals from all ages can be seen taking classes — and for different reasons.

“I dance because it’s my only form of de-stress,” Tolu Omotodho, who had moved to the area three weeks ago, said. “It’s kind of an outlet for everything. It’s fun. It makes you smile, and it’s life.”

While Benami said kizomba is slowly gaining traction among other dancers, he insists that he is teaching in an area with the potential for even more growth.

“There is enough salsa instructors and enough bachata instructors, but very few kizomba instructors,” Benami said. “There are beginning to be more. Like salsa, there are really good ones and not so good ones.”

The ‘not so good ones’ are actually the ones that are part of a larger problem that is affecting the kizomba dance community. According to the Houston-based dancing duo, Kizomba Harmony, the style has been given a bad reputation because of individuals who incorrectly teach it. The misconceptions that follow have resulted in a number of men who have confused the dance’s sensual nature with that of a sexual one.

“There are a lot of guys that know a little bit, or don’t know anything, and they assume kizomba gives them the opportunity to take advantage of the lady,” Benami said. “I have personally kicked people out of my events.”

Benami is working to prevent these occurrences through his emphasis on correct technique, especially for women.

“The ladies, when they come to the class, they know what is proper,” Benami said. “So they experience what kizomba is. So when they dance with a guy that doesn’t know what it is, they will know.”

Benami said this is important because he has noticed men who try to take advantage of women deliberately seek out “newbies.” Still, as small a movement as this dance may seem, the dance instructor is hopeful.

“I’m a dancer, so the way I look at it, a dance should be a dance,” Benami said. “It’s a small community and we talk.”