WHAT IS AMERICAN TRIBAL STYLE?

When we think of the term ‘tribal’ in relation to belly dance, we generally think of the traditional folkloric styles associated with the many tribes in the Middle and Near East and North Africa. These originate within the tribal community and are distinguished by a series of common steps, gestures and clothing quite specific to the tribe and its culture. The culture of the tribal community may remain largely unchanged unless significant events and influences force an adaptation of traditional patterns.

Now imagine you are a gypsy, or Romani. Your people of the Domba castes originated in the North Central of India. Your community was relatively stable, until the early 11th Century when, to escape the raids of a series of warlords, your people moved North into the Upper Indus through Kashmir, settling for a couple of generations until plundering warlords forced them to migrate once again. Following the Silk Road to ancient Persia and later to the Caucasus, Armenia, Byzantium, Greece, Serbia and Constantinople, this extraordinary exodus continued. By the 13th Century the Domba (now Roma) entered the Balkans and by the 15th Century many Roma migrated to Europe, from the British Isles to Spain, east as far as Poland, north to Norway and south to Greece.

During this far reaching migration, the language and culture of the original Domba incorporated many of the cultural influences of the tribes and communities along the ‘Gypsy Trail’. It is these travels and influences along the gypsy trail that form the basis of American Tribal Style (ATS).

What are the origins of ATS?

Tribal, interpretive dance was performed by Jamila Salimpour’s troupe Bal-Anat in California in 1968. One of Jamila’s students, Masha Archer, expanded the folkloric/interpretive style, teaching it to her own students, one of whom was Carolena Nericcio, (now) director of the famous Fat Chance Belly Dance troupe (FCBD).

Carolena further developed the genre through further research into folkloric, oriental and Flamenco dance, and training in Kathak. She is credited today with developing the specific vocabulary of movement, base choreography and group improvisation style that, combined with the distinctive FCBD costume and presentation, has become the cornerstone of American Tribal Style (ATS).

ATS does not pretend to be authentic to any one region. It proudly fuses different styles and regional influences, taking dancer and audience on a wonderful journey along the Gypsy Trail.

So what are the main elements of ATS?

ATS incorporates the earthiness of Near and Far Eastern and North African dance with the precision of Flamenco, fusing a number of tribal elements that reflect the journey along the Gypsy Trail.

These elements are incorporated within a general tribal philosophy founded on the strength of women in communities, mutual support and physical health and well being. It assumes that, as in any other tribal community, dance is community based and interpretive within a set series of movements, and that there is room for individuality within a tribal setting.

The Dance:

Although choreography is adopted for larger venues and performances, the main basis of ATS is group improvisation. It is the group improvisation that defines and separates ATS from many other group dances taught today.

ATS merges a range of dance elements, such as the strong posture, proud chest and strong arm movements of the Flamenco, with the influence of countries such as Turkey, Egypt and those that line the North African coast. It uses as its basis a set vocabulary of movements commonly associated with raqs sharqi and folkloric dance - hip lifts and drops, hand floreos, tribal arms, head, hip and torso isolations, shimmies and travelling steps. These movements are learned in combinations or sets of movements to form a simple common dance vocabulary and posture, unique to the ‘tribe’. Once learned, as with any tribal or community dance, this specific dance vocabulary frees the dancers from the need to faithfully follow or count steps in a set choreography, enabling dancers to interact with each other and the music, and to follow cues initiated by the designated ‘leader’.

The dancers also learn signals or cues to indicate distinct movement patterns and transitions. While dancers basically perform the same steps at the same time, leaders in the chorus and in the front line choose the order of movements and variations offering an ever-changing interpretation of the music.

Group Improvisation:

This technique of group improvisation, where one dancer initiates a move and the rest of the troupe follows her is one of the most defining, disciplined and challenging features of ATS. Often the lead will change from dancer to dancer as the song progresses. This transition occurs from the ‘chorus’.

Dancers form a continually changing ‘chorus’, with movements decided and led from the dancer at stage left. This dancer later moves to centre stage performs for a while either alone or as a duo or trio, then returns to the chorus. The ‘front’ line or centre stage may comprise an individual dancer, duet or trio.

To achieve this, dancers have to work as a whole; as a community. Improvisation as a troupe (within a learnt format) is based on sight lines, angles, learnt step patterns, cues and transitions. This is largely achieved by ‘drilling’ transitions and working with a partner. Once learnt, the dancer is free to concentrate on her fellow dancers with the body’s ‘muscle memory’ working almost automatically.

ATS dancers must connect with each other, ensure that they are situated to enable clear sight lines, and they must trust their fellow dancers, and be willing to lead and to be led in turn. This allows each dancer in her centre stage performance to display her own dance signature, and when returning to her place in the chorus, to ensure a ‘seamless’ performance when re-joining her fellow dancers. Within this structure there is a wonderful sense of equity and support for individual dancers, and for shy or nervous dancers, the capacity to share the centre stage with a trusted ‘belly buddy’ encourages self-esteem and confidence.

It is this interaction and visible respect between dancers, uniformity and precision of movement of the group and the connection that occurs with each other and the audience when the dancers create the dance in unison, that contributes to the mesmerising effect of the ATS performance.

Costume:

The ATS costume also reflects the Gypsy Trail, with elements adopted from many countries. It is a curious reversal of the adoption of American bra and belt (bedlah) by many Egyptian, Turkish and Lebanese dancers and which are now ironically regarded as ‘traditional’ costuming by many.

The tribal tassel belt is generally built on a base of an Indian mirrored dowry piece and is decorated with Indian, Afghan, Egyptian and Spanish ‘dowry’ pieces of jewellery, tassels made of different threads and textured wools, coins, metal and wooden beads and mozunas. All are gathered and added as through the dancer has walked the Gypsy Trail as a traveller and has placed the most precious pieces on her clothing for protection and display.

Skirts are large – 5 metres – and are reminiscent of the tiered Flamenco style. Moroccan-style pantaloons are very full (2 metres per leg) and midriff tops have ¾ sleeves and are either based on Indian mirrored cholis or are plain with a coin bra over the top and open back. Hip shawls are often worn under the tassel belt, often Spanish or Russian in appearance, with long fringe. Locally, we tend toward shawls with origins in Indonesia or Malaysia. A headdress is always worn, generally a turban inspired by for example, the Tuareg in Northern Africa or those of the Indians. The turbans are elaborately decorated with additional scarves and jewellery.

A ‘dowry’ approach is adopted toward the belt and the jewellery. The more jewellery, the better. Many bracelets are worn, preferably three or four. Rings, necklaces, earrings and possibly nose rings. Berber women also wear jewellery on their feet. Earrings and brooches can be fastened on the turban, as can additional necklaces.

Facial, hand and feet decoration is also quite common, with bindi’s and ‘eyeliner tattoo’ markings on the face to designate tribal identity, and mehndi patterned feet and hands.

These costumes are rarely ‘ready-to-wear’ and definitely do not include sequins, diamantes or lurex! They reflect the colours, textures and ethnicity of a range of regions, and for the contemporary member of the ‘urban’ tribe, can represent many rewarding searches through second hand stores, ethnic shops and mum and grandma’s jewellery box and wardrobe.

In my experience, these costumes are best made in the company of other women ‘tribe’ members, where articles, threads, fabrics, hints, tips and practical assistance can be ‘traded’ while the foundations of trust and support are further consolidated between dancers in an informal, fun and constructive setting.

Music

Music is generally based on folkloric/tribal music with a 4/4 rhythm, although other rhythms are now being increasingly adopted. Simple music with strong rhythm sections dominate much of the music used in this style The main base is a strong tabla beladi base and powerful mizmar.

Zills are used throughout the dance and the zaghareet is often the signal for the beginning and end of a piece. Neither is popular with the neighbours but both are great fun to practice.

Is it for you?

ATS has many elements that appeal, particularly to the dancer who prefers the support of a group and the opportunity to showcase her best moves in a brief time period, rather than the traditional 3-5 minute solo.

It is helpful to have been exposed to other forms of MED dance to understand the cultural origins, context and feeling of the ATS ‘fusion’ of movements, and to develop the strength and flexibility to execute movements completely and well. However, this knowledge and experience is not a necessary prerequisite to ATS, and indeed, many students have found that the challenge lies in ‘letting go’ of previously learnt dance patterns and posture.

ATS requires a degree of courage, in that rather than each dancer individually focussing on the ‘principal’ dancer or teacher, as is often the case in troupe work, dancers must connect with each other. There are fewer interactions with the audience, more with your fellow dancers.

ATS is not sequined or flirtatious. It reveals only the midriff, face and lower arms and relies for its impact on precision, group ‘mind’ and strength in its presentation.

It’s philosophy is based on the unique strength of the tribe as a collective as well as the individual strengths of its members. Competitiveness between dancers has no place in its seamless performance. ATS is not just troupe work or choreography, but requires an essential connectness and interaction between the dancers, discipline to learn and know the movements and courage and insight to both follow the leader, and to be the leader.

For more information on this form of dance you may enjoy a wander through the Fat Chance Belly Dance website at http://www.fcbd.com/. This site offers an inspiring scrapbook of photos, and arguably the most comprehensive selection of tribal music, costume, jewellery and instructional and performance videos through their on-line merchandise catalogue. I can fully recommend the FCBD ordering and shipping service.



Alaine Haddon-Casey
©March 2002