Friday, October 29, 2010

Defying Definition Part I: The Time Before the Style Wars

The topic of this post has been wandering my brain for quite some time, and I think it's time it gets out from between my ears and to your eyes.  (Aren't you lucky!)

One of the most prevalent issues my students bring to me is identity and definition:  "What style should I be? If I do X here, but Y there, what does that mean? How will people perceive me? What should I do? OMG STYLE!"

When I first started bellydancing, there was very little talk of "style" in the sense of "what kind of bellydance do you do?"  Sometimes it meant what specific culture (Egyptian? Turkish? One of my instructors just called it "Arabic"...), or it referred to what a specific performer/instructor brought to the dance (that's so Dalia Carella, so Shareen El Safy, so Nourhan Sharif, etc).  That was pretty much it.  Bellydance was bellydance.  Sometimes it was folkloric (this is a scarf dance, this is Khaleegy), sometimes it had a Gypsy flair (big skirts! fans!), but it was all definitely bellydance.  Pretty much in the early days of the internet and prior to that, whatever your teacher told you was the word as you knew it - if she told you about any particular kind of style or difference at all.

And then there was Tribal.  More specifically, there was American Tribal Style brought to us by Fat Chance Belly Dance in the mid 1990's a la video tape.  My very first bellydance VHS actually was "Tattooed One" - carefully chosen from so many options in Artemis Import's huge, extensive, and very photo-copied/cut-and-paste physical catalog.  Back in Rhode Island, in 2000, there was no such thing as Tribal anything in terms of classes, just a good 30-40 years experience of bellydance passed on by a few local legends.  I spent hours researching it online, reading the many articles and interviews on Kajira Djoumahna's website (back when BlackSheep BellyDance was "United W Dance"), reading the archives on the med-dance list trying to figure out the differences and similarities, and just learning about as much about bellydance in general as I could. When I asked locally about Tribal, I got a mixed bag of answers, but the best advice was to "go to the source".  (Not able to quite do that at that moment in time, I was able to bring someone to Rhode Island who had at least done so - a Boston dancer who had gone out to SF to study it a bit -  and so we had the first Tribal workshop in RI.  I can't say that I fell in love with it in the format it was presented, but it didn't dissuade me either.)

In 2001 we moved to the Bay Area of California, and the Tribal vs. Cabaret War was kicking off - at festivals and haflas, in online forums and discussion groups, in organizations and across communities.  While there were still arguments discussions about what was more "authentic" - Egyptian or Turkish, modern or classic, American Cabaret a la 1970's, 80's, 90's - the main rage across the internet was Is Tribal bellydance? (And really, keep in mind, back then, Tribal meant Tribal as in American Tribal Style - it hadn't yet been a catch-all term or attached to the word "fusion.") And Tribal-only events began to spring up all over (Tribal Fest in Sebastopol, California was the first to be dedicated to Tribal-style in 2000).  And then more experimental/alternative forms of bellydance began developing and also making an appearance at those events. 

Now is probably a good time to mention that part of the initial appeal of Tribal for me (besides the costuming and earthy movement) was that dancers I saw on "Tattooed One" (and the few Tribal websites of the time) were mainly from the alternative crowd.  They were covered in tattoos, they had piercings and oddly colored hair peeping out from their turbans, and they were all different sizes and ages.  They were definitely not the kind of woman that sprung to mind when one thought of a stereotypical bellydancer.  Having been raised as an artist from a mixed household and pretty much an outsider all the way through school, that acceptance of being different but still beautiful really spoke to me.  And I know a lot of other women felt the same way.  It wasn't so much about it being a different style of bellydance as it was about being open to a different lifestyle/identity.

And that infusion of more "marginal" folks helped push definitions, boundaries, and bring new creative thought to the dance.  In 2003, I launched the Gothic Bellydance Resource ( to document the development and growth of that mode of thinking (in both cabaret and tribal forms).  Tribal Fusion birthed in California and began to grow and change.  Other dance forms like Ballet, Modern, and Jazz found their way more prevalently into bellydance.  East Coast! West Coast! Southern! Euro! Asian! More alternative bellydance events took flight, more workshops on fusion took place, new names charged onto the scene.

(I guess at this point you could say Tribal is like a gateway drug, because the relative acceptance of the original Tribal (ATS), made way for all sorts of fusion to come running in the through the bellydance door (for better, for worse.) Ahem.)

Whatever it was (or all that it was), Tribal became hugely popular as we moved further along into the middle of the first decade of the 21st Century, and most of the events where Tribal had felt a cold shoulder open up and expanded to include it - on stage, in workshops, in the vending room.  And somewhere along the line, the question of "Is Tribal Bellydance (and should we allow it)?" changed to "What IS Bellydance?"  And with that came a lot of navel gazing.  And it's from this deeper examination of the dance, what makes it what is, where it comes from, and where it's going has made us a lot more focused on what we are doing, what style are we?  This is both a good thing and a bad thing. 

Next Up: Part II: Unburdening

1 comment:

  1. very informative, great topic, i, @55yo, was tattooed b4 it was for ladies, but being diff, really sorts ot true friends quickly enough. i have learned so mch about younger gens music through tribal, and what we have n common as women, dancers, our nature to express ourselves,which makes me appreciate the music of yonger generations. i believe this union of anything promotes a natural balance,thanks for history of tribal,gypsy