Tribal Corner
San Francisco 2003: The San Francisco Experience in 2003
Alaine Haddon-Casey

Well, it's hard to know where to start! I barely had time to unpack between the Singapore workshops and training and performing in California . On the way to SF I included a short stay in Sydney to catch up with Susan Brown, who had just returned from three months training and performing with Fat Chance BellyDance (FCBD,) Devi from the Blue Mountains and Ruth from Seattle, USA. We decided the best way to maximise our time together was to share a hotel room for a few days and settle into some serious catching up and ‘move swapping'. The big news is that Susan is now affiliated with FCBD and will be returning to the US to dance with them!! Devi and Anthony have a beautiful baby girl and Ruth is coming over to Perth to do some workshops and classes with Gypsy Trail ATS and Diaspora students (more information on these workshops go to the ‘classes' and ‘events' pages).

I left Susan, Devi and Ruth preparing for Susan's tribal workshop at the MED Festival and boarded the plane for the long haul to SF. I was looking forward to staying with Jessie, one of my teachers and a member of FCBD. Jessie has been with FCBD for about 7-8 years and although in the middle of a punishing dance schedule and Uni exams, she graciously settled me in her apartment where I found myself sharing with her three cats and a large boa constrictor. The location was great, ‘on the flat', literally a five minute walk from the FCBD studio and around the corner from Reda Darwish's bellydance shop. After a quick shower we headed off to the studio. It was the last day of American Dance Week and FCBD was holding a Student Salon.

The studio was a mass of colour and sound. Carolena looked fabulous (as always). It was great catching up with my teachers and students that I had met the previous year. The coffee was on. I felt at home straight away. Set up like a café with tables on either side of the room, the chorus arranged themselves at either end of the ‘aisle', the duos and trios taking the middle. It was great to see them demonstrating several different formations to change dancers in this type of ‘restaurant' setting. I was as always, in awe of their incredible execution of the tribal vocabulary and the sheer dynamics of the way they showcase group improvisational performance. Making notes of the new moves and variations I added to the list of things I specifically wanted to work on during training.

I thought the list was pretty well complete but after the Salon, I settled myself in front of the TV to check out their recent performances. I didn't think it was possible, but Carolena has ‘pushed the envelope' even further! After an hour or so my notepad was full – as was my training schedule for the next few weeks. This trip was to be much more technique specific on both old and new moves and combinations. A good proportion was spent on turns, particularly the wraparound, barrel, Arabic and Turkish series. FCBD had added a number of moves and variations to their basic vocabulary and I was determined to learn as many as I could.

The first week was pretty intense with classes, research and workouts taking up most of the time. I was working my way through the list, practicing at ‘home' and had arranged a time with Karen to work on the tricky barrel turn and a couple of other moves that I wanted to refine. Then came ‘Bad News'. Michelle, my dance partner had left Perth a couple of weeks earlier to take up a position teaching dance in Oxford and could not get away from the UK in time for the Festival. I called Trish at Bashirah. What a woman! After some quick rearranging, she hopped on a plane and arrived a few days later. After a quick introduction to the cats and the boa constrictor she was ready to hit the road. First stop Reda's shop. She realised that she had been dancing to his music for the past five years and wanted to check out the cd's. Happily Reda was between recording sessions that week and had dropped into the shop for a couple of hours. Within minutes it was clear that a mutual admiration society had been established and given there wasn't a tassel in sight I left them to it and headed back to FCBD. When I returned later to pick her up she had a new friend, a full bag of goodies, a couple of signed cd's and a gig dancing to a live band at Café Al Fanud, a Moroccan restaurant in the Mission District. Being a true dance gypsy she'd packed both tribal and regular dance costumes and was set to experience everything SF had to offer.

In between trying to find the ultimate deli sandwich, and my regular FCBD classes, we squeezed in classes in with Romani. They use the ATS vocabulary but have added variations specific to Romani. I discovered that you can tell a Tribe's antecedents by watching the way they execute specific moves. A number of Romani members emerged from Ultra Gypsy (UG). Some of their variations on the Basic Egyptian are very clearly UG inspired moves while the Romani vocabulary includes some great turns and diamond steps.

In addition to FCBD and Romani I also had time scheduled with the ever-smiling Kajira. I had some great one-on-one time with her to master some other multi-directional variations while Trish sat in the sun sewing her coin bra. Returning to Santa Rosa for the weekend of the Festival was particularly enjoyable, as Kajira and her husband Chuck kindly offered us their spare room for the duration of TribalFest and at the end, waved us off with copies of ‘The Tribal Bible' and the brilliant film Urban Ghawazee: The Story of ATS. In between our performance and workshops (belly flutters and Zambra Mora) we were kept busy, with Trish on door and me filming everything in sight, helping out Gwen on the FCBD/Flying Skirts booth and being ‘go-fer' when needed. It was a wonderful weekend.

TribalFest is itself a great learning experience (see Gallery) . The standard of dance and workshops is as high as you would expect with the best of the US Tribes and teachers all in one place. The program is tight with continuous dancing, workshops and vending (yes, I bought yet another suitcase!) and every element of the production from backstage to sound and lighting is seamless and professional.

Each Tribe has its own ‘personality'. Gypsy Caravan with their own band has a strong folkloric feel with dancers also playing frame drums. United We Dance threw off the headwraps and went ‘green' with the most amazing headpieces and peacock feather eyelashes; they not only danced improv' like the true ATS dancers they are, but did it with a true Sonoma County lightness of spirit. Urban Tribal was totally ‘SoCal” tall, Southern California dancers with eye-popping moves and costumes and Romani reflected the spirit of Berkeley . Strictly ‘East Bay' – edgy and on the fringe with PVC bra's, studs instead of coins and believe it or not – black studded ‘beanies'!

And the highlight for me? Once again the goddesses of Fat Chance dominated the stage with Helm playing live. This year their student tribes – Third Tribe and Second Skin merged more, giving a fluid changeover. FCBD unveiled a new costume, giving an extra dimension to their spins and turns. Carolena's drum solo was awe-inspiring as usual with her signature regal posture and plenty of the beautifully controlled stomach flutters for which she is famous.

For Trish and I the most difficult part of the first day was performing before Fat Chance BellyDance. But we felt blessed that we didn't have to follow them! In true improv' style we selected the music on the road to Sebastopol the morning of the Festival. In between her door duties Trish wrestled with her headwrap and climbed into her costume. We kept to pure and simple ATS as Trish had only be dancing ATS for a few weeks. We were grateful for the heart warming feedback and positive criticism from my teachers and dancers in other Tribes. This feedback added a challenging and tiring dimension to my classes in that final week.

Trish was awestruck by the Hahbi ‘Ru dancers and musicians. John and Rebaba recently returned from their 2002 research trip to Morocco , and boy does it show in their performance! They are tight, dynamic and know how to ‘theatricalise' folkloric dance with expression and gesture. Trish said later that she had goosebumps from the sheer beauty of their performance. She was so inspired that we spent our last hours in SF trying to locate a Hahbi ‘Ru video!

TribalFest gave me the opportunity to make new friends, consolidate old friendships and ‘play' with dancers who understand Tribal, its moves, philosophy and in particular where it fits in the MED genre. And the best bits? Sharing it with Trish. Learning and consolidating technique and watching members of different tribes getting up on stage at the end and dancing improv' as one body. That is the true strength of Tribal for me – knowing the movements and the cues so that no matter what the leader is doing, everyone can read the cues and dance together whether they are from Texas, California, New York – or Western Australia!