Introduction to Tribal Bellydance
First pulished in the ISAMETD newsletter

So what is tribal style belly dance? Although tribal has evolved and diverged into many individual styles, in its most fundamental form, it is a dance created in the moment by a group of dancers. It's a dance where the dancers are not focused solely on the audience, but on each other as well. The audience remains an important part of the experience; however, the interaction between the dancers is integral to the dance.

Tribal belly dance is made up of a shared vocabulary of movements, drawn primarily from Middle Eastern dance. The leader of a group of dancers chooses from among the moves in the shared vocabulary, improvising a series of steps that are followed by the rest of the dancers. Most movements are cued by specific gestures or sounds, although slower moves are often not explicitly cued. Instead, the leader relies on her fellow dancers to pick up on the subtle communication of the next move, such as the dip of a shoulder or the shifting of the weight for a maya. Everyone who is dancing has to pay attention to the leader and to the rest of the dancers in her group!

So what isn't tribal style dance? While a distinctive set of costuming elements has become associated with tribal, it is not the costume that makes a tribal dancer. While an improvised solo may be a portion of a tribal style performance, the heart of the performance is really an improvised group performance. Even then, improvised solos often flow back into the group performance. The focus in tribal style dance always returns to the group.

While different groups of dancers may have slightly different "accents," the flow of the dance remains the same and dancers can almost always dance together, creating a unique dance in the moment. The group improvisational nature of tribal style dance is truly its defining feature.

Although tribal style belly dance has its basis in Middle Eastern Dance, there are also movements taken from other dances from different cultures. One might also find movements and gestures from India, Spain, and Eastern Europe blended in with the Middle Eastern and North African elements. The result is a beautiful blend of many indigenous dances but is not representative of any one particular culture.

Jamila Salimpour is credited with being the grandmother of this style of dance. She developed a nascent set of moves for the Renaissance Pleasure Faire in California in the late 1960's. Bal-Anat performed for many years at that Faire to the delight of their audiences. She taught Mascha Archer who founded the San Francisco Classic Dance Troupe. It was here that Carolena Nericcio studied for seven years until she left to create her own dance company, FatChanceBellyDance.

Carolena founded FatChanceBellyDance (FCBD) in San Francisco in 1987. She created the system of standardized cues, movements and formations now known as American Tribal Style (ATS) bellydance. Since its inception, many well-known performers have learned American Tribal Style from her: Kajira Dhjoumana of Black Sheep Belly Dance, Paulette Rees-Denis of Gypsy Caravan, Jill Parker of Ultra Gypsy, and Rachel Brice of the Indigo are all FCBD alumni. She is considered the founding mother of tribal style belly dance as we know it. She and FCBD continue to teach and perform all over the world. Visit FatChanceBellyDance's page for more information.

While developing the ATS moves, Carolena also created the "tribal aesthetics" and introduced the costuming pieces that are now considered staples of tribal belly dance style: 3-tiered skirts with pantaloons, cholis with coin bras, turbans, and tassel belts. While these items are not necessarily unique to this style of belly dance, when put together, they are decidedly indicative of the tribal aesthetics. However, tribal aesthetics does not constitute tribal without tribal moves.

Kajira Dhjoumana went on to create Black Sheep Belly Dance and its format of moves. A major difference with the FCBD ATS format is the ability to lead from the right side of the group and to also perform movements with the left hip. Kajira has created a set of instructional videos for this format and teaches workshops around the globe. She is also the author of the 'Tribal Bible' which is considered one of the definitive resources for tribal style dancing. She also co-produces Tribal Fest every year, which is held in California and is 5 days of performances and workshops for attendees. See Black Sheep Bellydance for more information.

Paulette Rees-Denis left FCBD and founded Gypsy Caravan (GC) in 1991 which is based in Portland, Oregon. Paulette developed her own set of movements for the Gypsy Caravan format of tribal style belly dance. Gypsy Caravan performs and teaches around the world. She also started Tribal Quest North West in Portland, a "five day festival of tribal inspired music and dance." Gypsy Caravan also has a group of musicians who perform with and without dancers and have also released several CDs of wonderful music. Go to Gypsy Caravan's site for more information.

These are not the only versions of tribal style belly dance, rather a broad overview of the roots of the genre. Delving into the world of tribal belly dance, one will find a long history of love and respect of the culture and history of the dance. Although the styles differ somewhat between formats, some things remain similar: the proud regal carriage, the systems of cues and movements, and the fluid improvisation are common to all formats, but one can also find that joy, camaraderie, and celebration are also universal in tribal style belly dance. We hope your journey is as rewarding as ours.

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