Tribal Musings,...by Australian
ATS Gypsy Trail's Goddess, Alaine

Alaine Haddon-Casey

As an Australian ATS dancer and teacher, it is great to be able to exchange links and to further consolidate the 'sisterhood' of ATS dancers. The word 'links' is truly appropriate. Through exchanging links we develop communication links with other ATS dancers.
Where we can I think we all try to help each other out - it makes sense. We're a small portion of the MED genre and we're pretty well spread throughout the US and the world; our exchange of web 'links' is just one way of demonstrating the tribal philosophy of support within our form of belly dance.

It occurs to me that in many ways ATS dancers, whether in the US, Australia, UK or Switzerland are indeed part of a greater tribe; a sub-culture of the 'belly' dance genre:

We are readily identifiable. Our costumes no matter how varied all seem to be based on the 'classic' ATS costume designed and well documented by Fat Chance Belly Dance and it's antecedents and adopted in whole or part by ATS dancers worldwide.

This is nowhere more truly demonstrated for me than at TribalFest. Each Tribe has its own 'personality'. Gypsy Caravan with their own band has a strong folkloric feel with dancers in Ghawazee sleeves also playing frame drums. United We Dance (UWG) threw off the headwraps and went 'green' with the most amazing headpieces and peacock feather eyelashes, 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'! In the midst of the differences were the common costume elements, the three tiered skirt, the coin bra, oversized headpieces fashioned whether fashioned from 'foliage' or fabric, truckloads of vintage Kuchi jewellery, facial tattoos, pantaloons and tassel belts.

We are also identifiable by our use of the basic ATS movement vocabulary: This 'vocabulary' is well documented through the video instructional and published works of Carolena Nericcio (FCBD), Paulette Rees-Dennis (GC and Kajira Djoumana (UWD). It is the work of these three women that has taken ATS outside California and in fact, outside of the USA, extending the small ATS family into a worldwide dance phenomenon! There is always great responsibility in owning and distributing information. With authority comes responsibility and I wonder if, when these incredible women entered the worldwide marketplace, they realised what they were doing when they took on the responsibility of educating hundreds of ATS enthusiasts throughout the US and the world?

Although FCBD is my 'Mother ship' I particularly enjoy watching and learning from other groups and TribalFest provides a wonderful opportunity I discovered that you can tell a Tribe's antecedents by watching the way they execute specific moves. The FCBD and Gypsy Caravan 'genealogy' shows in the variations, posture and execution of the basic steps. A good example of genealogy at work is Romani. Some Romani members emerged from Ultra Gypsy (UG) and this is demonstrated in a number of their basic movements. Some of their variations on the Basic Egyptian are very clearly UG inspired moves while the Romani vocabulary also includes some great turns and diamond steps that are their own.

ATS is uniquely American. There is very little that is new in the universe, undoubtedly there are many sources of inspiration and change. ATS took the commonly held vision of belly dance and fused it with women's dances around the world. It is often forgotten that many of the movements and steps of what is commonly regarded as a uniquely Middle Eastern dance are reflected in many forms of women's dances worldwide. ATS is in the words of one audience member 'evocative, not provocative'; reflective of women's experiences across all cultures.

ATS is both restrictive and free-ing: There is no need to seek the approval of other dance forms or cultures in the development and performance of this dance. This translates into an attitude; a way of approaching the dance, fellow dancers and the audience; an attitude of strength and assertiveness, joy and support when dancing with the group. ATS dancers are not merely counting and executing steps in a choreographed set that appears as a group of individuals each performing a solo dance for the pleasure of the audience.

ATS dancers must connect with each other; they must trust and relate to each other, otherwise the cue would be missed, the energy and synchronicity lost. Restriction to learning the basic vocabulary is necessary initially as without a shared 'language' we face difficulties dancing together. Once this shared language is mastered, then comes the freedom to dance 'on' the music, to experiment with the development of new steps and different forms of music. So, as with most things, we learn the fundamental rules well in order to be able to formulate new moves and variations that complement and enhance our dance and to stamp it with our own special tribe 'signature'.

Imitation and duplication: ATS is a clearly documented style. Imitation is inevitable - as with ballet, Spanish dance, tap and contemporary dance. All are specific styles with documented steps, posture, attitude, aesthetic and ways of using the body to express the message of the dance. Once a style has caught the public imagination it is natural that as with for example, ballet, many young dancers inspired by the great ballerina's have an earnest desire to master the specified movements of the experts in that dance. So it is with ATS. We look to those in authority in ATS to show us how to achieve the dance. Just as the little girl in the pink tutu may never make it to the heights of a principal ballerina, so many of us may never make it to the heights of those dancers regarded as the best in ATS, but it doesn't stop us from wanting to be the best ATS dancers we can be.

Dance Culture: All forms of dance have their own sub-culture within the broader dance heading of dance arts. ATS has taken its place largely under the MED heading although whether this is truly the correct place is disputed by some.

Notwithstanding this ATS has proven itself to be acceptable to mainstream dance audiences and is perhaps more appropriately placed under the general heading of community/ethnic/multi-cultural dance. Although reluctant to weigh in on any general debate on whether ATS fits with Middle Eastern or 'belly dance' I will say this, in almost 10 years of studying a number of Middle Eastern dance forms in the US, UK, Canada and Australia, I have always considered the denigration of ATS by dancers wearing costumes clearly influenced more by Hollywood and Las Vegas than Middle Eastern dress and who perform 'arabesque' moves inspired by male dancers, who in turn have been inspired by the Russian Ballet just a little too myopic to warrant serious discussion. I consider that we are all learning and performing 'fusion' and we should just look to those we consider our most respected teachers. In the words of an Western Australian indigenous dance teacher 'no culture remains static - what we perform today is contemporary because it is performed today and we are people living here today'.