Zouk keeper

In the French West Indies, doing the zouk-love, you must be unafraid to lock bodies with a stranger.

Published January 21, 2000 5:00PM (EST)

To zouk-love, as the dance accompanying the zouk music is called in Guadeloupe and Martinique, you must rid your being of rock 'n' roll. There can be no trace of it left in your veins if you want the rhythm to flow inside you. You must be unafraid to move close to a stranger, real close, to lock your body to another's as if in foreplay. It is in the hips, the rhythm -- isolated, separate from the head or shoulders, chest or knees. And it is never, never in the brain.

Here's how it happened to me: I am in Gossier, a trendy tourist area just outside Point-`-Pitre with lots of luscious waterfront hotels, in the middle of the night. There are wealthy young travelers from France, Italy and Brazil, draped in linen and wandering the steep and narrow streets with no place to go, lots of plastic and some time to burn. I am with my Creole friend Jean-Michel, headed toward a nightclub. The tourists spill off the curb into the streets with abandon and we must drive slowly. Accidents happen, Jean says, even on vacation.

We have just eaten a chocolate-filled crepe, the French West Indian fast-food answer to L.A.'s taco, and we have had a few shots of aged rum, straight up, in brandy snifters -- the way it is meant to be drunk. It is a very special moment in our friendship. We are alone, without our families.

"You can't tell your husband how I touch you when we dance," Jean says, driving into the parking lot. "He will kill me."

I laugh loud, from the gut. There is no sexual energy between us, but plenty of passion. And I am so completely eager to leave rock behind. It never held much for me to begin with. "You move like a snake naturally," he says. "It will be easy for you."

The room is darkly lit and fever-hot. There's a pool table in the corner; men with cues in their hands and cigarettes between their lips lean against the wall, looking cool and rough. All doors and windows are opened onto the tropical night, heavy and sensuous as an orchid in full bloom.

Jean pushes me into the arms of somebody he seems to know, but I don't, a man with African features who smells of earthy coconut oil. His shirt is silk, purple flowered, and it's stuck tight against his sweaty body. This man grabs my hips and thrusts them toward his. There is no give in his strength and I can hardly move.

The music is so amazing that I want to lie on the floor with this guy, whose body rubs me in a way that would disgrace most Americans. I make sure Jean is close because I am very excited and unfamiliar with the cultural norms here. If I lose myself to this music, to this movement, will I be asking for something that I can't get out of?

There is sex happening all around me -- not sex the way most people know it, but sex as desire, as elixir. I bury my face in this man's chest and let him push my hips from side to side. Grind, grind, grind -- the horns drive the beat, which is constant and throbbing. I look into this man's dark rum-colored eyes and find fear and surprise and longing and an eroticism I have never experienced before. The drums, the sax, the Creole song commingle to create a kind of French West Indian mating call. Not the boom, boom, boom of rock 'n' roll, but the slow-pace lilting cadence of Creole passion.

Sweat drips from my forehead, mixes with mascara and stings my eyes. I close them tight. The room spins. Grind, grind, grind -- I am drunk from the beat, from the smell of life, from the longing saxophone and the dreamy voices of Kassav', the group that has made zouk famous in Europe.

Jean grabs me and pulls me toward him. "You are good," he says, "for a white woman." The upper-body stiffness goes away in Jean's arms, where I am wanted for my heart, not my flesh. "Now isolate your chest and move it in the opposite direction of your hips. Let the shoulders go a bit. Too much," he says. "That's the USA in you. Sway the body and keep your feet on the floor, woman. No jumping, not ever."

The Creole ladies gather around the wooden dance floor and stare as one of their men, sweat dripping from his face, down his neck, from his arms, takes an American tourist to ecstasy before their eyes. Haughty, stunningly perfumed, with dresses short and tight and brightly colored, they applaud. There is something strange and exotic in my marrow, and I am left changed, forever.

By Pamela Klein

Pamela Klein is an editor at the L.A. Weekly with a savage passion for the Caribbean.

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