How my Dance Partner Turned my Dream into a Nightmare

Kamacho & Luciana Lua at the CONAD Zouk Congress in Guaíra.
Kamacho & Luciana Lua at the CONAD Zouk Congress in Guaíra.

[To read professional translation of the text below in Portuguese click here.]

He was only about a foot away but was yelling at me as if I was at the other end of a football field. He was upset that I wasn’t understanding the step he was teaching me. His movements were spastic with rage.

He went to the kitchen and started punching the refrigerator. With every hit my heart pounded and my mind raced back to a few days ago when I had forgotten to straighten my leg. He had kicked my knee telling me it would make me remember to do it right next time.

I didn’t realize how scared I was until my stomach knotted up so much that I had to run to the bathroom.

Fast forward to a month later after I had badly injured my neck. “You are going to Prague and you are doing the jobs I booked!” He yelled. “I don’t care if that means your neck will be fucked and you can’t dance Zouk for the next 3 months, the next year, or the rest of your life! You are doing this!”

The next day, while he was out, I packed my bags and left. I was scared that if I told him I couldn’t go to Prague and our partnership was over, he would not be able to control his rage.

How did I get to this point? This is my story.

********

The person I’m talking about above is Thiago Camacho a.k.a. Kamacho. He is an internationally recognized Brazilian Zouk star. He has won many competitions, and has performed and taught all over Europe, Russia and Brazil. He is an inspiration for dancers everywhere who watch his playful and creative performances full of impressive head movement for the lady. He has fans all over the world who have taken his classes and are in awe of his technique and his teaching.

Most people I have shared my story with are in utter disbelief. How could someone so successful, who is always clowning around in his classes, who seems to have a smile tattooed on his face, do things like that? Some of these people have known him for years, and swear he is a gentle soul.

Kamacho’s creative yet secretly destructive personality is not particular to Zouk or to dance. It exists across disciplines and communities. These personalities thrive where reputation and success are valued over all else, even respect for fellow human beings.

The few incidents I describe at the beginning of this story are just the tip of the iceberg and give you an idea of why I stopped working with Kamacho.

But I am not unique.

This is not just my story.Kamacho has been through a list of partners. One has a restraining order against him, another has a scar on her wrist from one of their training sessions, and he purposely dropped a third in the middle of a lift. In his mind, it was all their fault. Almost as if they made him do these things…

We have all remained silent. After all, each of us thought, what power does one voice have against the thousands of fans who adore him? And even if the dance community became aware of what he has done, would they think that the good of the many (all the people he has inspired and taught) outweigh the harm to the few (the partners he has abused physically and psychologically)?

I do not have the answers to these questions but I choose to break the silence because I want awareness. I want to protect future victims. I want readers to come up with their own answers to these difficult questions.


 

You Are My Diamond

 

It’s so beautiful from the outside. I’m watching the video of Kamacho and I dancing in front of a crowd of students at a congress in Sao Paulo. We have matching orange shirts that say “Professor” and “Professora.” The “floor” we’re dancing on is actually squares of wood on grass, some more elevated than others, some with gaps in between. As we are dancing, I trip over one of these elevated squares. “Shit!” I thought, watching the footage the same day it was filmed, “now our first demo video is ruined!” But Kamacho brings us back to that same spot, this time lifting me up so I gently float over. He was all about finding creative solutions. Of proving there is always some way to overcome obstacles that are set in our path.

It makes me sad to watch the video. It captured the beauty and concealed the misery. If only he could have been sane—if only he had treated me as a partner and not an object—we could have done so much together.

He used to call me his diamond. I was a precious stone he found that would help him shine. In the worst moments—those where he made me feel like a rotting pile of shit that he so generously offered to clean up—he would sometimes say it, looking me straight in the eyes, “You are my diamond.”

Being reminded I was precious to him made me accept being treated otherwise. I held on to those words, that promise. He told me that in order to make a diamond, you have to put the stone through intense heat and pressure. That’s how he justified what he put me through. It was for my own good.

“Your head needs to be like THIS dammit!!” he said as he cupped his hands over my ears and jerked my head roughly up to the diagonal. My body should have formed a perfect diagonal from the top of my head to the foot of my extended leg, but I kept tilting my head too much and breaking that line.

Proper body placement in dance is achieved and refined through imitation, visual feedback (looking at yourself in the mirror and correcting), and repetition. But Kamacho’s training seemed to include another element that I hadn’t experienced before: making the body remember through pain. Logically, it makes sense: pain is an intense stimulus, one that the body and mind are sure to pay attention to and remember. When I forgot to stretch my leg, he kicked my knee—a prompt for my body to do the right thing.

Perhaps violence was his way of talking to my body when he couldn’t get through to my mind. He did not have patience to wait for the natural evolution of my technique.

We were practicing a trick where I leapt over his back, dived through his legs and finished with him pulling me up to face him. It wasn’t a difficult trick, but neither of us had done it before so we kept repeating it to tweak body positioning and make it flawless. With Kamacho, you couldn’t move on until something was perfect. Both of us had things that needed correcting, but in his mind whenever something went wrong it was his partner who had erred. I remember when I asked about an incident where he had dropped an ex-partner from a lift. He explained that it was because his partner was overweight. She refused to lose those extra pounds no matter how many times he told her. So one day, he decided to just let go. He felt he was not responsible for the consequences.

When we were practicing our trick he decided to apply the same philosophy. Before diving onto his back, I had to run towards him and when I got close enough, jump. Apparently the trick wasn’t working because I was starting the jump too close to him. We tried again. He said I was still too close. We tried a third time. Still too close. He was getting frustrated. On the fourth try, I ran towards him and suddenly I was flying backwards. Somehow I managed to catch myself without falling onto my back.

I was in shock. “Why did you do that?” I whispered. “So next time you will remember not to start your jump so close to me,” was his reply. I could suffered serious injury, but that was my problem. He was not responsible for the consequences.

His lack of empathy was a huge red flag from the beginning and I must have done some serious and successful mind acrobatics to ignore it. After the shock wore off, it was replaced by fear. But instead of backing down, I resolved to keep repeating it until we got it right. Perhaps I thought getting it perfect would mean he wouldn’t continue to use his method to “make me remember” things.

We continued practicing the trick. My mind tried hard to ignore the fear but I couldn’t erase the knowledge that he didn’t care if I got hurt while we were training. Each time I ran to him my body braced itself in case he decided to stick out his hands again.This time his balance was off and he fell backwards and landed on my foot. As pain shot up my leg, I immediately thought my ankle was sprained. Louder than the pain was the worry in my mind: now I wouldn’t be able to finish training! Now how were we going to finish the choreography in time for our European tour? Shit-shit-shit!! I was completely focused on my ankle: I rubbed it vigorously, got up and hobbled to the kitchen, got ice, sat back down and pressed the ice on. The pain was subsiding and I calmed down. I finally looked up at him. He was sitting with his back against the wall, one arm resting on a bent knee. His face was completely blank.

At the time I was afraid it was a deep anger that was brewing within that look. The one that usually led to his yelling at me, telling me that he was wasting his time with me, while I stood there looking at the ground with my stomach in a knot trying to pretend I wasn’t there. I tried to cool down his thoughts before he erupted. “I think it’s OK., it think it’s just bruised, not to worry.” I put the ice down and got up. I began to walk around. “Yeah, it’s fine, definitely not sprained. Don’t worry.” Blank stare.

Through the haze of the horrific, I extracted some gems of knowledge: things I learned from him that truly made me progress as a dancer.  I dramatically improved my head movement technique. I learned what gave the basic step the Brazilian feel that seemed to elude most dancers. Most importantly I learned his philosophy on how to listen to the music. Music is your number one partner, he would say. When you dance, you aren’t dancing with your partner, rather you are dancing with the music. If you are both walking the path that the music carves out, you will be more in sync with each other than if you merely followed your partner. This philosophy of music awareness was something I felt sometimes when dancing, but he made the idea explicit and it made me more aware of the music than I had been before.

He even got to root of my trouble with choreography. I will never forget when he said to me, “It is not the step or your body that is the problem, it is your memory.” He pinpointed an issue I had been in denial about for a long time—my bad memory. I was so determined to improve my dance, to be the perfect partner, that the same day I signed up for online memory training.

I will always value what I’ve learned from him. But was it necessary to go through what I did in order to learn it? As a motivated, hard-working student, did I need his crazy diamond pressure to learn? I think not. Those of us who are highly motivated may actually do worse in these situations.


 

How a Neuroscientist Turned Journalist Ended up Pursuing Her Passion for Dance in Brazil

 

Me all the way on the right—performing in the Nutcracker ballet around age 10.
Me all the way on the right—performing in the Nutcracker ballet around age 10.

 

I’ve been dancing since before I can remember. My mom signed me up for ballet when I was four. When I was eight I would spend some afternoons blasting Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake on my dad’s enormous Technics stereo and performing for an imaginary audience. Dance took all of the emotions lodged inside and sent them through my body in surges of leg lifts, arm gestures and head tilts.

Dance has been my passion, my obsession, the house for my soul. You would think I would have become a professional dancer by the age of 14. But my father the scientist was appalled by the idea of dance as a career. In fact, to him it was merely a hobby.

The first fork in the road came when I had to apply to high school. Living in New York City, there were many prestigious schools: Stuyvesant for math and science, LaGuardia for the fine arts. “You will starve with dance,” was my father’s verdict. We spent the summer studying for the Stuyvesant entrance exams. And when I got home with that green slip of paper that was my acceptance letter, I just could not ignore the joy in my dad’s eyes. He was so proud of me.

Making my dad proud was not easy. When I came home with a 94% on an exam, he’d ask why I hadn’t gotten a 98%. Being critical was his way of pushing me to do more—it was his way of showing he believed in me. But to a teenage girl who adored her father it was heartbreaking. I never seemed to be good enough.

When I was in college, I rebelled from my dad’s reign-of-science by taking Political Science, Literature, Languages, and Philosophy. “What are you going to do with all of that?” he asked. I didn’t know. I took Calculus and Physics to make him happy. I felt like I was constantly walking two paths, never fully on one or the other. I finally chose to major in Psychology, thinking it could combine the two.

Ironically, it was my dad who pushed me to learn Argentine Tango, the first partner dance I ever learned. He became obsessed with it when I was 14 (perhaps wanting to go back to his roots) and decided I would be his partner so that he could practice at home. At the beginning I was resistant. When we started out the Tango community was dominated by people ages 40 and up—a very unappealing environment for a teen. But eventually we got good enough to learn choreographies and perform and I grew to love it.

Tango with Dad
Performing Tango with Dad

While in college in Montreal I met a couple who had learned Tango in Paris, home of a thriving and young Tango community. They were in their early 30s and were hoping people closer to their age would become a part of the Montreal community. I started taking a lesson with them once a week and going out dancing about three times a week. Eventually we recruited more young enthusiasts and built a lovely social circle. We’d organize trips to Tango festivals in Boston, New York, Rhode Island, even to San Francisco and Portland, Oregon. My social life revolved around tango, as often did my school work.

At the festivals I met many wonderful people that taught dance for a living. They traveled all over the country (and some all over the world) teaching and performing. What a wonderful life—I wanted to do that!

I entertained the notion for a while. But, “you’re too smart for that kind of life,” was my dad’s argument. Doubts and insecurities lingered. I had a boyfriend that I was living with. It felt unrealistic.

I graduated. I started a Master’s in Neuroscience. I finished the Master’s deeply unsatisfied with my life in the laboratory. I didn’t want to “waste” my undergraduate and  Master’s degrees so I looked for something that could build upon my existing knowledge base. Science Writing! I started a certificate in Journalism. I broke up with the boyfriend I was living with. With my certificate I moved back to NYC and did an internship with Psychology Today Magazine and then the prestigious Scientific American Mind Magazine.

I was successful. But unhappy. At every fork in the road, the same feeling came back to nag me: the “what if” feeling. What if I had chosen dance?

While doing my internships I began to delve into Brazilian Zouk. I had started with a few classes in Montreal, and was instantly reeled in by the soft undulating body movements and the very uncommon head movements. In NYC I joined a performance team. I began working with a partner on a choreography to compete at a congress in Toronto. I was hooked.

Seeing my articles published in a magazine never gave me the sheer joy that dancing and performing did. I made a decision. I would pursue dance. I was 28—it was now or never.

It was May. I took a part time administrative job and dedicated the rest of my time to Zouk. by September I decided that I wanted to go all the way. I would go to Brazil and train there for four months. I wanted to be a professional, I wanted to get on the congress circuit and teach and travel.

My Zouk friends told me that I had a rough road ahead. Most of the people who were paid to travel were Brazilians. Unless I partnered with a Brazilian, I had zero chance of international travel. And all the girls wanted a Brazilian partner… good luck finding that!

But the “what if” was stronger than any of these so-called road blocks. I didn’t know how far I would get, but I was going to put myself out there and try. Try my hardest. The universe could decide to take it away from me, but for now, no human voice could deter me.

I had taken a leap of faith, and even my dad’s anger and protests at this insane decision couldn’t stop me. I felt invincible.

Thus armed, I headed for Brazil.


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