Monday, April 14, 2008

The Trouble with Tribal (Fusion)

I think tribal belly dance is going through a bit of a crisis right now. The problem? So many new dancers and so little definition of tribal's identity. With the explosion of soloists dressing up like The Indigo and posting videos of themselves on YouTube, I feel like these dancers don't know where their roots lie. With so many dancers out there without the resources or instructors to learn American Tribal Style (ATS)--the root of "tribal fusion bellydance"--I see the misconceptions and innocent ignorance going global. Dancers without access to ATS classes will call themselves "tribal fusion" and yet despite their costuming, they dance like oriental/cabaret dancers. It's like watching a hip hop performance by a dancer in a ballet tutu... and calling herself a ballerina.

After seeing video upon video, I think I've figured out what makes a dance "tribal". Of course sometimes the line isn't so distinct, and it doesn't always have to be... but I believe that a dancer should know the implications of what she calls her dance.

As I made the journey into becoming a tribal-inspired bellydancer, I tried to identify the core characteristics of tribal bellydance. These elements, when integrated with other dance forms, make that integration a form of "tribal fusion bellydance." Without those core elements, the dance can't be called "tribal fusion bellydance" but rather "fusion bellydance". And, for the record, there's nothing wrong with fusion bellydance as long as its performed well. Just don't call fusion bellydance "tribal".

Why even narrow these characteristics down? Why do I care?

I think I care because I like to know the roots of what I perform. Boiling down a dance to its bare essence helps me figure out whether I'm staying true to a dance form or style. I want to perform tribal fusion bellydance; therefore, I need to find out what defines "tribal bellydance".

Everyone has their opinion of what makes a fusion "tribal", but here are the core elements I believe should be part of a tribal fusion performance, and note how none of it has to do with the costuming:
  • Arms and hands: floreos (ATS-style), high elbows, and strong ATS (flamenco-inspired) arms.

  • Upper body posture: A lifted chest, using the muscles in the upper back. A relaxed upper body is more casual, less stylized, and, frankly, more oriental/cabaret.

  • Use of classic American Tribal Style steps, integrated into a routine and not just thrown in to fulfill the "tribal" requirement.

  • Open facial expression. True ATS dancers smile. Tribal fusion doesn't require a frown.

  • A sense of grounding into the floor. Tribal is inherently earthy.

Note that "locking", "popping", and "ticking" are not mentioned. These are breakdance/hip hop movements that many tribal fusion dancers have integrated into their performances. These robotic and staccato movements are not essentially tribal, nor are they essentially belly dance. I have seen many cabaret and oriental dancers integrate these movements into their performances, and yet they still remain essentially cabaret because they lacked the other above mentioned characteristics. Popping, locking, ticking, and strobing are part of the "fusion" of "tribal fusion bellydance." I'm surprised at how many people I encounter who believe that these are essential to tribal style bellydance.

This also goes for the recent "vintage" trend that is so hot right now (and when done tastefully, can be stunning!). Neo-Victorian/Edwardian/Roaring 20s/burlesque-inspired costuming does not make a dancer "tribal fusion." As beautiful as the costuming may be, it, in and of itself, is not essentially tribal.

A costume does not make a dancer tribal. If a costume made a dancer "cabaret", then Carolena Nericcio's performance in San Francisco Beledi would be cabaret... and when you see this performance, it's SO tribal. (I wish I could find a screen capture online, but I'm not finding one.)

There are a few things that I feel like should be left out of a "tribal fusion bellydance" performance because I feel that they are contrary to the essence of American Tribal Style. These, of course, are only my personal opinions:

  • Cabaret facial expressions

  • Lifting the hair with the hands

  • Suggestive movements such as wide hip circles a la Dina.

  • Wild shoulder shimmies. ATS dancers do perform shoulder shimmies, yet they are subtle and "quiet".

Lastly, I believe that anyone who calls themselves a "tribal fusion bellydancer" absolutely MUST have studied with authentic American Tribal Style instructors. In this, I would expect anyone who calls themselves "tribal fusion" would be able to dance with others who know American Tribal Style and perform a decent group improvisation. If you've never studied American Tribal Style, what are you doing calling yourself tribal fusion?


the ineffable b said...

Thanks for this fabulous post. Really, the depth and very concise description of tribal is spot-on.

I was first trained as an Egyptian Cabaret style dancer, then found Tribal later on. When I first learned tribal, I learned a lot of cabaret style movements thrown in and, being a bit ignorant and a baby dancer, had no idea they were cabaret. That is, until I started researching and studied with Caroleena at a PURA workshop. After that point, it was like a light shone onto what Tribal Bellydance was as a dance esthetic and I felt much more empowered to understand what I was doing right and wrong.

My troupe had to cut or modify a lot of our old moves because we realized they weren't essentially tribal. These included, as you pointed out, big chest shimmies, dropped arm placement and big hip circles.

Now that I teach, I try to stress the finer points of what makes something tribal bellydance versus fusion as well, so that my students have, hopefully, a stronger grasp than I did at the time.

Also, kudos for pointing out that strobing, pop/locking and tick-tocking aren't tribal but are a form of fusion. So many younger dancers I talk to think these are the essence of tribal bellydance and I'm like (headdesk). They're awesome for fusion and wonderful when fused correctly, but not one of the core elements.

Thanks again!

Amy said...

Good post. I love to see really good tribal fusion (such as the n.o.madic tribal clip I posted in my blog). I can see where it comes from, the stuff that is familiar from my ATS stufies, I can see how they modified ATS (movements, costuming, music choices) to make the fusion. It makes my brain start working, and I get ideas on how I'd like to work in my own changes for our style.

I also like that Zafira is using the term "romantic bellydance". To me it does sum up what they are doing right now (though I love their older folkloric/world fusion stuff too).

hocake said...

Tell you what, I empathize with your blog...but I just think it is funny that now that ATS has started to incorporate more cabaret moves, and has, according to Rose Harden, begun to change the "rules" on arm positions... now that ATS says it is okay then its okay...but if a cabaret dancer had incorporated cabaret moves into an ATS style dance BEFORE ATS decided to add cabaret moves, then it would not have been okay!!!
I personally think its silly to have all these categories. I learned cabaret, which was way to Las Vegas for me. I learned ATS, which was way too goth and overdone, and those damn fake dreadlocks have got to go. Most importantly, I have a background in breakdance, flamenco, and West African dance. And INGENUITY. I didn't add breakdance moves to bellydance until I saw Zoe do it...but I should have, I just didn't think of it. Is it only okay that Zoe does it? Do I care? I also add my flamenco hands, not because ATS taught me. I add West African moves as well. So I call it Tribal Fusion. And its okay, not because I took a bunch of ATS workshops with Troupe Salamat, Rachel, Zoe, Rose, and Jill...because I purposely did NOT want to follow the ATS rules. I took from it what I wanted to make the dance my own! Nothing in America can claim to be traditional enough to not allow others to create their own tradition. You ATS people all look the same. Yes, be well versed in the dance forms before you fuse them together and call them Tribal Fusion. But I am sorry, I do not agree that you have to come from ATS to do Tribal Fusion. People need to lighten up.

Anonymous said...

Wow I guess maybe there may be a definition to Tribal Fusion.
When you live in a highly populated metropolitan area I guess you can be precise and draw a line between Tribal , Tribal Fusion and Cabaret.
Some of us out here are trying to spread the love of Dance whether it be a little Tribal, A little Tribal Fusion or even a titch of Cabaret Style to people that might take the step to do something good for their health like learning to try dance and it takes a lot out of an indavidual to decide to make this step. Ya I want a healthier lifestyle and I want to learn to dance and loose weight.
I am so happy for you to be able to have the luxury of teaching a specialized style to advanced students and you had the ability to find such few and far between candidates to teach.
Spreading dance takes great patience and lots of time to build confidence and positive relationships with people.
Thank you so much for pointing out the differences out in ATS,Tribal Fusion and Cabaret.Keep Dancing and Peace!

Anonymous said...

As a newer dancer (well, not *new* exactly but I like trying out various forms and I have never really gone past "beginner" in any form) I really appreciate the thought that went into this post. Tremendously informative and really breaks down the styles.

I agree it is really important to know what the roots and fundamentals of any form are. There is a difference between someone breaking rules he or she is firmly grounded in vs. someone who hasn't a clue and it is very obvious when you see either one in a performance setting.

Lotus Tribal Arts said...

Great Post. I totally agree. And to the perosn "empathizesing" I believe that what the poster is saying, do your home work, and if you are performing any style, learn it first. if you are fusing, learn what the original style is so that when you fuse something it is a fusion of a real dance form. I see it all the time too. So I totally agree. One of my students forwarded this post to me. Thanks Crysta.
Lotus Dance Studio
We teach and perform ATS and Tribal Fusion.

Marigold said...

American Tribal Style is not the "root" of "tribal fusion bellydance." Tribal style originated with Jamila Salimpour. American Tribal Style is only one of the branches of U.S. Tribal Style, albeit the best known one. American Tribal Style was started by Carolena Nericcio who was a student of a student of Jamila Salimpour. Other students of Jamila went on to start their own versions of tribal style which would not be considered American Tribal Style, but are tribal style nonetheless. So, basically, tribal style is NOT defined by American Tribal Style. Also, I believe, Jamila focused a lot on cabaret moves, although not cabaret-style costuming. So, the bottom line is, you can be tribal style, tribal fusion, whatever, without dancing American Tribal Style. Of course, if you are considering yourself American Tribal Style then you should know the core elements of that style.