American Tribal Style in San Francisco

By Alaine Haddon-Casey

May and June were incredible. Living and training in San Francisco for a little over three weeks, home for a week, then off to the Blue Mountains for another 20 hours of training with the Assistant Director of FCBD, Karen Gehrman.

San Francisco was exhausting. Many hours of intensive training with FCBD, many spent one-on-one with Carolena, plus additional training with as many classes as I could fit in. So, where to begin….

Jay and I arrived in SF on Saturday, the last day of American Dance Week. FCBD were performing in Santa Cruz that evening, so the studio was closed for the afternoon. However, Carolena extended an invitation for coffee at the studio the following day. It was wonderful to finally meet her. If you can imagine someone who walks into a space silently and yet whose presence makes itself felt over the din of the zills. Her ability to observe and listen gives the impression that she knows what every dancer needs almost instinctively, but this is deceptive. She knows because she is constantly observant. Her smiles are rare; her comments to the point and her ability to analyse and correct movement had me moving in ways I never dreamed possible. Carolena is passionate about her art and she transmits this to her dancers.

After settling me with a coffee we drew up a training schedule and she gave me a class list, inviting me to join in all classes from basic through to advanced. Carolena also made the studio available to me during the day when it was free. She then casually stated that FCBD would be arriving shortly to rehearse for the American Tribal Dance Festival and that Jay and I were ‘welcome to stay and shop, watch videos, drink coffee or whatever…’. Half an hour later the dancers I had only seen on video started to filter in, followed by the musicians of Helm!! OMG! I was in improv’ heaven; talk about a powerful experience! Accompanied by the beat of Helm (complete with a PVC pipe didgeridoo!) and FCBD’s zaghareet and zills, I worked my way through my students’ shopping list of music, videos, costuming, zills and jewellery. (Note to self: buy another suitcase)

Carolena had suggested that we seek accommodation in Noe Valley – a quiet neighbourhood - and only a short walk to the studio. She was right - to a point. SF is itself only 7 miles by 7 miles square on the map. However, the hills add a dimension that seems entirely charming until you actually set off on foot with your dance bag. The walk to the studio did indeed take about 15 minutes, cutting through the colourful Mission District, with its Hispanic population and music. Downhill all the way, I soon found that a tail wind could take an easy 5 minutes off the journey. It was at 18th Street, on the third day, when I was leaning waaaaay back to avoid pitching forward that I developed my theory…the reason the SF dance troupes are great at anything requiring a deep bodywave is a direct result of walking around in typical San Franciscan style! I found the strength built up in my back very useful. Somedays when the wind gusted between tail wind and head wind I bodywaved my way down the hill with no conscious effort at all! I didn’t want to waste this newfound skill, so I decided to incorporate a few into my performance at the American Tribal Dance Festival.

Getting back ‘home’ was a whole other story. Uphill all the way. Up streets with the most punishing inclines with my toes almost touching my shins! The time taken to get home largely depended upon the ability to climb hills, the degree of workout in the studio and the wind factor. Towards the end of my stay, when my fitness levels had increased a thousandfold, a brisk climb up to Guerro and 18th could take 20-25 minutes. On one particularly windy day with a head wind the trip home took 45 minutes with minute progress made between gusts and dependent upon the availability of railings and trees to anchor to when halfway up the hill. I think I mastered the art of looking nonchalant whilst hugging a tree half way up 23rd Street.


On the first day Carolena started with ‘the posture’. FCBD has it’s own characteristic posture from which all moves are developed. It relies on developing the stomach, back and shoulder muscles to enable the movements to stay balanced and to avoid fatigue and injury. Once I was ‘in posture’(well, as best as a tribal ‘rookie’ could manage at that stage) she had me run through the ATS moves that I was familiar with making corrections and suggestions. These corrections largely linked to balance and the ability to send cues and transition easily between moves. This was way different from the videos – so much more detailed (naturally)!

Carolena then joined me and we danced in duet. This pattern was to form the basis of most lessons. For the first half-hour Carolena would instruct on specific techniques. The, when she felt I ‘had it’ (well, the general gist of ‘it’) she would lead and correct, then give and take leadership. With Carolena following I really had to work on sharpening my cues! Zills were worn constantly and played throughout the fast moves. At the end of the first lesson, my arms and shoulders were ready to drop off and my legs were like jelly. Then she gave me my ‘homework’ for the evening.

By the time I had ‘climbed’ back to Noe Valley I was ready for a half hour in the steam room before I abseiled down the road to the New York Bagel Shop for a carbohydrate fix. After a little rest and a UFO sized bagel and schmear I started on my ‘homework’. Two more hours of stretches, strengthening exercises and core ATS moves – taxeem, shimmy, pivot bump and Arabic families, the Camel walk, the ‘circle family’ of movements, torso and rib cage rotations and circle step, hand floreos, head slides and of course, the basic Egyptian with variations.

I slept well that night.

The second day found me once again with my back leaning almost parallel to the footpath on my way to the studio. I had a tail wind, so had an extra 5 minutes to slow down to an amble on the blessed flat terrain of Mission street and to admire the incredible murals. Once at the studio, Carolena had a treat for me – coffee brewing and a happy welcome from Bebe, her huge black standard poodle. Her instincts were amazing. Having Bebe playing while we danced increased my comfort levels. While she drilled me on technique and variations we talked about life, the universe, dogs, dancing and well, everything. With Bebe chasing her favourite squeaky toy Carolena worked me through a series of turns: the propeller, torso rotation turn, crossover reverse and corkscrew. My hands were beyond zilling but they would be loosened up by the following day.

That night I returned to the studio to join two classes, Basic and Group Improvisation. The group improv’ class was incredible. They were so in sync. The students were welcoming and fortunately Carolena’s work the previous two days had started to pay off. I couldn’t keep up with everything, and I didn’t know all the cues, but in the last 15 minutes I started to ‘feel the dance’. I was to enjoy this class and all the students in it during my stay. Many of the students were members of the ‘Third Tribe’ and ‘Second Skin”, the intermediate and advanced performance level students. They were truly a community of dancers and took me into their tribe. They were supportive and patient.


Wednesday nights there were no classes as FCBD performed at Amira. Jay and I took a group of friends for dinner and to see how three dancers could really work that tiny raised strip of stage in the middle of the restaurant. The videos don’t do them justice! We were so transfixed that we didn’t even notice when the candle on the table set a paper napkin alight! It was only when Nancy berated Mike for beating it out with her $300 Italian shoe that we realised that we had almost set fire to the restaurant. A bottle of white wine did the trick, and slightly damp and smelling distinctly smoky we pooled our money for tips. We felt better when table 14 repeated the arson. Assisted by the newly experienced ‘expert’ firefighters from table 11, all was soon under control. (Note to self: Bellydancers, flaming candles and paper napkins are not a good combination!)


The following day Carolena led me through the beauty of the arrhythmic taxeem and arm work that distinguishes FCBD from every other tribal group. By now my arms were holding up reasonably well and I could feel the muscles in my upper back engaging to more comfortably control the movements. The FCBD taxeem body of movements has a beauty that evokes North India, Spain and the Middle East. It is slow, intense and controlled. I loved it so much that these slow moves and the beauty of the hands and arms are now given particular focus in class. I am delighted that the students share my love of the distinctive FCBD taxeem.

That night I returned to the studio to participate in the Intermediate class. In this class they worked in duos and trios, emerging from the chorus and using the full range of movements to whatever music was played. It was a challenge, but by this stage, Carolena’s perfectionism had helped me to spot the cues, and the movements were on the way to being drilled. Nevertheless, I declined to lead at this point; I wasn’t ready for that yet.

Friday was easier. By now I was feeling fitter and stronger. The hills were easier! Carolena drilled me through cues and transitions with fast moves, and with Bebe accompanying us, it felt like it was starting to come together. That night was even better; back at the studio I joined the Basic and the Cues and Transitions classes.
After a few sessions with Carolena and the walks to and from the studio, the Basics class felt like a warm-up. Just as well, because the next class worked through transitions from and into four standard foot placements. We drilled these with a partner, once again working from the chorus and exchanging the lead and follower position. I wasn’t brilliant at leading, but thanks to a very patient partner, after about three changes I found the movements and transitions that were the most comfortable for me, and we were off and dancing.

Saturday was the BIG day of the week. The studio has classes from 11am-6pm. This included Basic to warm-up, then Techniques and Variations, the latter my first real introduction to techniques and variations in a group setting. The chorus formed almost immediately and not only did this tax my memory for the huge vocabulary of movements, but also included the dreaded barrel turn! (Note to self: ask Carolena to teach me the barrel turn on Monday!)

After a quick swig of water, my third class was about to start. Rina Rall was in the studio ready to teach ‘Flamenco for Bellydancers’. Rina was FCBD Assistant Director for a number of years and was instrumental in developing a number of the Andalucian influenced movements. Rina is taking some time out to complete her academic and Spanish dance studies, but she returns once a month to share her knowledge. She worked almost exclusively on body and arm placement through turns and increased the speed of the turns and consequently the ability to transition in and out of them quickly. Although not easy, thanks to her ongoing correction of posture and balance these movements were nevertheless introduced in such a way as to increase our confidence in our ability to perform swift, balanced stops and transitions.

Rina was closely followed by 2 hours of Advanced Performance Preparation. This dealt with all aspects of performance, angles, levels, partnering set and music construction and various ways to change leads. By this stage jet-lag caught up with me big time!

The following two weeks followed the same pattern – abseil to the studio, climb back, eat, do at least 2 hours of ‘homework set by Carolena, abseil back to the studio for class and home to collapse in front of the fire.

Carolena, her teachers and the terrain of SF combined to increase my strength and stamina, improve my posture and balance and gave me greater confidence.

Carolena the dancer is incredible – you’ve seen the video’s, I don’t need to add much more to that except to say that the nothing quite captures the ‘feeling’ of watching her live performance. Carolena the teacher is patient, clear and thoughtful. She not only knows her ‘stuff’ but even more importantly, knows how to impart it constructively. But you know, the most consistent question I’ve get is ‘but what is she really like…is she really that intimidating’? I can only answer that from my perspective as an unknown ATS student arriving in her world for a brief period of time. So, from my perspective, yes, she was intimidating. Her talent and her natural reserve make an awe-inspiring combination. However, she is totally committed to women’s health and well-being, so this in itself indicates that she is more interested in building up health, positive body image and self-esteem; she excels at this with her students. She doesn’t do that as successfully as she has by scaring them half to death, but with patience and by holding each student in high regard in terms of their dignity and potential. Her smiles are rare, but worth the wait! So yes, she was intimidating initially. But she made me a better dancer, built up my skills and confidence and I felt good about myself even when I was making a complete hash of some of the moves and had to drill them over and over again. She didn’t just leave my dignity and self-esteem intact but she built it during those lessons. Her little kindnesses warmed me and made me feel less alone over there. For heavens sakes, the woman shared her dog and made the best coffee in San Francisco. What more can I say!

The format and style of teaching ATS has influenced my teaching to the extent that students are now experiencing the FCBD format and philosophy. I can’t give them the hills but I can give them the drills.