The Gilded Serpent

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Tribal Bible Reviewed
by Shelley Muzzy/Yasmela

American Tribal Style Dance’s popularity is undeniable and the ATS movement and its various offspring have grown rapidly in the last 10 years. Kajira Djoumahna, author of the definitive Tribal Bible, has just released the second edition of this book. The new expanded Tribal Bible has taken 3 years to reach the public, and it is full of all things “tribal”. This thick over-sized format book with a full color collage on the cover of dancers in the genre known as American Tribal is a must for anyone interested in tribal style dance and/or the history of the dance form we know as bellydance.

With the dearth of historical studies about Middle Eastern dance and the phenomenon of its popularity in the west, The Tribal Bible is a welcome addition to a slowly growing body of literature.

The Tribal Bible, second edition, begins with a definition of American Tribal Style Dance as dictated by the guru of tribal, Carolena Nericcio of Fat Chance Belly Dance, considered the founder of the genre. Definitions of some of the offshoots that are similar but that don’t quite conform to the strict ATS appellation follow. After a lengthy and confusing attempt to label the myriad variations of tribal style, Kajira moves on to the history section. She traces the evolution of ATS from Jamila Salimpour’s seminal early 60’s and 70’s troupe Bal Anat and from the interpretation of Middle Eastern dance that sprang up on the West Coast at that same time. As one would expect, there is a long section on Fat Chance Belly Dance, the troupe who coined the name, American Tribal Style. There are several excellent interviews, beginning with a fascinating piece with Masha Archer, Carolena’s teacher, followed by interviews with Carolena Nericcio and Suhaila Salimpour. It would have been nice to include Jamila’s comments on her own very important and influential contributions to the modern Middle Eastern dance movement, but I know how difficult getting an interview with Jamila can be. Instead we must be content with her daughter Suhaila’s childhood memories.

Following the history is a section called “Arborescence, the Old School.”The analogy to a tree with many branches is apt. This chapter includes a long interview with John Compton about the evolution of his premier folkloric troupe, Hahbi’ru. I loved this part. The interview captured John’s distinctive personality and traced the fascinating paths of some of the dancers who left Bal Anat to start their own groups. Kajira includes written portraits of some of these early pioneers and their varied approaches to combining folkloric dance with more traditional “bellydance”as well as other dance forms.

The next chapter, titled “Arborescence, The New School”, transitions us to the present with sections on Gypsy Caravan, Lunatique, Portland’s Circle Dance Company, Read My Hips and other early tribal troupes who splintered off from FCBD. There is an interesting section on tribal groups in other parts of the world, and an essay on tribal style as solo work that I found particularly intriguing since the very essence of ATS and tribal is the concept of group improvisation. Kajira relies heavily on contributions from outside sources, so the writing style throughout is somewhat uneven, dependent on the literary abilities of the writer. Chapters on the roots and history of costuming and jewelry, make-up and henna follow. These latter sections include tips and ideas and of course, lots of pictures. In fact, one of the nicer elements of the book is the copious amount of photos. There are extensive photos of costumes and jewelry, many of them photos from the author’s collection and the collections of other dancers. It was nice to see photos that were different from the tired old ones we always see. They would be even more exciting if the quality of reproduction was better.

The chapter on music includes a glossary of terms with some simple explanations of rhythms. There is a section on finger cymbals and an interesting section on Turkish spoons. Kajira does a good job of explaining why tribal dance relies so heavily on strong, simple rhythmic structure and simple steps and offers suggestions for expanding group repertoires to include more complex musical compositions from other areas of the Near East. There are suggestions for appropriate music and a short sub-chapter about working with live music.

The next chapter, Movement, is a large section of the book devoted to a breakdown of movements with detailed explanations. Of course we all know you can’t learn to dance from a book. There is no substitute for a live warm body. Kajira reiterates this point, so this section may be more helpful to dancers already steeped in the ATS technique. I’m sure there are some good ideas and suggestions for innovation within the form in this part, although it was definitely geared to dancers who already had the background. Throughout the book Kajira takes opportunities to encourage dancers to further their study, do research and to search for ways to expand their understanding of the dance and music.

Among the several excellent pieces written by other tribal dancers included in various chapters, I was particularly impressed by a piece by Natasya Katsikaris called “The Importance of Knowing and Honoring our Cultural Sources”. I found it well written and articulate. There are numerous passages about what tribal style means both to the author and to those involved in the form. For a lay person like me, it almost feels like proselytizing. But this is the perception of an outsider. I wonder if this book could have been written with less evangelical fervor and more objectivity? If you are involved in the tribal culture you will find ample support for your feelings and theories throughout this volume.

“Gypsy This and Gypsy That”is a lengthy chapter on the Rom (Gypsies). Obviously this is an area of great importance to Kajira, as her devotion of so much space to it confirms. Unlike the rest of the book, which attempts balance, this chapter is very passionate. Because of this, the writing loses some of its professionalism. While I applaud Kajira’s efforts to draw attention to the political correctness of the term Rom, as opposed to the pejorative Gypsy, and I understand her desire to educate us, I found any comparison between the misconceptions confronted by bellydancers and the genocidal persecution of the Rom throughout history naive.

The perceived slights of middle class American women dressed up in fantasy clothing dancing to co-opted music and the plight of an entire group of people that has been systematically targeted for extermination is insulting.

One path is chosen; the other is the karma of birth. To imply that because the public reacts to an image of “bellydancer”in a negative or salacious manner means we can somehow relate to the accumulated pain of an entire group of people encourages an insidious kind of cultural imperialism. I’m sure that this was not Kajira’s intention; however, if I drew this conclusion, I’m certain there is at least one other person who will do so as well.

The Tribal Bible is an “apologia”for the form, if you will…it seeks to enlighten us on many levels. I do feel at times as if the author is talking about a life style rather than a dance form. And I suppose to some dancers, it is a way of life. There is repeated emphasis placed on the concepts of bonding, healing, empowering, and connecting throughout the book. From the sound of it, American women are desperate to connect, to be part of a tribe, to belong. ATS seems to be the answer for some of us. With all the talk of inclusiveness and tribal style being the refuge for rebels, the Tribal Bible sets out a lot of rules. As in any group that seeks to define itself, I can’t help but think of Animal Farm:  “All animals are equal but some animals are more equal than others.”  While this may not apply here, I urge the reader to be careful about drawing hasty conclusions. This is a book of the history of a certain style, not of the entire form of Middle Eastern dance.

In the chapter 8, “Imitation, Innovation and Ethics”, Kajira writes,

“Remember that this is a dance of OURS. Our very own American Style Bellydance!…We don’t have to adopt or support another culture’s moral or religious standards if they are not comfortable for us personally. We don’t have to buy into any political agenda. We don’t have to feel bad because we’re not of Mediterranean descent, olive skinned or don’t speak another language.”

I think I understand what Kajira is saying, and I applaud the fact that she urges us later in this chapter to study our roots and to honor them, but there is something that bothers me about this statement. ATS is not bellydance as the rest of the world, including its root cultures, understands it. It IS an American creation, but it still introduces itself as “bellydance”and borrows heavily from the form, even though many practitioners qualify their declaration by adding the word “tribal style.”It is easy for outsiders to become confused, and indeed, as a community we are still in the process of defining ourselves. No one should feel bad about the things over which they have no control, but it is important to consider the consequences of taking the bits and pieces of a culture that you find useful or comfortable and discarding the rest because they don’t fit. Sometimes it’s healthy to challenge our comfort zone. It forces us to expand our levels of tolerance.

Throughout the book there are some rather broad assumptions drawn, a few things left out, and some leaps of faith required, but it is impossible to cover everything in one book and to please everyone. I felt the author missed an opportunity to place herself and her dance style in a more global context. In the end, every book is a subjective work of the author’s logic, research and imagination. Practitioners of ATS or any of the ATS offspring will especially appreciate the Tribal Bible. The interviews with Masha and Carolena and John are wonderful. The photos alone make the book worth owning.

Despite some bumps and rough spots, this is an important book.

If you are interested in the history and evolution of Middle Eastern dance in all its various manifestations, this is a good chronicle of the American Tribal movement. If I were a Tribal Style dancer, I would rush to get a copy of the Tribal Bible before it runs out of print again! Kajira did an admirable job of pulling lots of disparate facts together.

She covers it all, including cultural co-opting, and she works very hard to be fair and unbiased.

The Tribal Bible concludes with a chapter on ritual dance, the author’s conclusions, an update from the first edition, and a series of testimonials from dancers who are involved in the style, as well as a nice list of resources. Kudos to Kajira Djoumanha. This book is a huge undertaking! It is readable and entertaining, a laudable overview of the tribal dance phenomenon. Sometimes ponderous and rambling, it is still a worthy contribution. It’s a pricey book at $40, especially when I have paid less for better quality, but it is self-published and I have no doubt cost a fortune to produce. It is an important work in a field where little is available. If you are at all fascinated by the genre, you need to get this book. It is packed with information and great pictures and good ideas, just be sure to pick your way carefully through it and realize it is a book written for a very specific target group. If you are in that group you will love it. If you aren’t, you may still find it interesting and worth your time.

The Tribal Bible, Exploring the Phenomenon That is American Tribal Style Bellydance, by Kajira Djoumahna. Retail:$40 Wholesale and quantities available. Publisher, Distributor & Author: Kajira Djoumahna, PO box 14926, Sant Rosa, CA 95402-6926., 707-546-6366

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