An Intro to Tribal Fusion Belly Dance
by Jasmine June
posted October 28, 2010
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The “fusion” in Tribal Fusion Belly Dance makes this dance genre elusive and tricky to define. Two dancers could have nothing in common except a few core movements and a couple costuming pieces, and yet both could define themselves as Tribal Fusion dancers. While this can be confusing, both to outsiders and to Tribal Fusion belly dancers, the freedom that fusion grants is exactly what makes the genre so attractive.
The other side of the coin is that sometimes Tribal Fusion Belly Dance is interpreted to be completely open-ended. This can lead to dancers changing or ignoring technique, musicality, and proper training.
Since Tribal Fusion Belly Dance is a relatively new dance form, it is especially important to treat the genre with a level of professionalism, or else one runs the risk of discrediting the work of dancers who have dedicated their lives to creating and elevating Tribal Fusion Belly Dance.
When one thinks of dance, history is not a subject that typically comes to mind. Dance is physical, immediate, energetic, and personal. History is academic, long-term, and based on a collection of facts. However, in understanding a dance genre, it is important to know and comprehend its roots. Tribal Fusion Belly Dance did not suddenly appear out of thin air. Even in advanced classes, people have credited the origin of Tribal Fusion Belly Dance with the wrong person.
Most people can agree that the poster girl of Tribal Fusion Belly Dance is Rachel Brice. Yet she herself writes, “The real dance heroes that created and fed my personal dance lineage: Jamila Salimpour taught John Compton and Masha Archer, who taught Carolena Nericcio, who taught Jill Parker, who taught Heather Stants, who taught Mardi Love, who all taught me.”
It is this lineage of teachers that has created Tribal Fusion Belly Dance. In the 1960s, the belly dancer Jamila Salimpour created the company “Bal Anat” and performed with her dancers at California Renaissance fairs. The need to fit belly dance into a renaissance style led to a show that drew from the tribal dances and costuming of North Africa and the Eastern Mediterranean. Props such as masks, snakes, and swords added a theatrical element to the dancing.
Jamila Salimpour taught Masha Archer, who formed the “San Francisco Classic Dance Troupe”. As a trained painter and sculptor, a core part of Masha’s teachings was the goal of creating art through dance. One of her students, Carolena Nericcio, took this goal to a new level by creating an original dance form, which is called “American Tribal Style” belly dance or “ATS”. It is from ATS that Tribal Fusion set its foundation.
The central element of ATS, according to Carolena, is “a method of improvisational choreography, using a vocabulary of natural movements and cues allowing the dancers to communicate via gesture when dancing together.” Carolena’s company, Fat Chance Belly Dance, demonstrates this concept by dancing in a chorus line, from which dancers can come in and out of as duos, trios, and quartets.
Theresa, Jill Parker, Rina Rall, Beth Frue, Suzanne Elliot, Carolena, (Paulette not pictured)
ATS also draws from the earthy, grounded movements of folkloric dance, as pioneered by Jamila Salimpour. Tribal elements derive from textile costuming, elaborate jewelry, tattoos, body paint, hair pieces, folkloric music, and the “tribe” of dancers created through group improvisation. ATS costuming mainly consists of a long, flowing skirt (reminiscent of the types of skirts worn by Flamenco dancers and certain Gypsy cultures), choli, coin bra, and tassel belt. Pantaloons, hip scarves, and turbans are also incorporated. This type of costuming is very different from the sequined costume traditionally associated with belly dance. ATS dancers tend to have more of their body covered, and use heavier fabrics and textiles. The combination of tribal influenced costuming, music, and movement is what sets ATS apart from other styles of belly dance.
Tribal Fusion Belly Dance draws from two components: “tribal” and “fusion”. Jamila Salimpour, Masha Archer, and Carolena Nerricio are the keys to understanding the tribal element, but where does the fusion come from? It was the collaborative nature of Ultra Gypsy, under the guidance of Jill Parker, that nurtured the desire to personalize ATS by creating unique fusions.
Jill Parker was one of the founding members of Fat Chance Belly Dance and has been referred to as the “mama of tribal fusion”. She formed the Ultra Gypsy Dance Theater company in 1996 and expanded on the ATS repertoire of movement, costuming, and music. Jill Parker maintained certain elements of ATS while integrating other dance genres into her style.
How many faces do you recognize?
back row: 1-Janice Solimeno, 2- Deborah Campbell, 3-Jill Parker, 4-?, 5-Carrie Arata, 6-Molly, 7-Lee Kobus
second row: 1-Keri Langwell , 2-Shaina , 3-Rose Harden, 4-Jo Dankosky (Braden) , 5-Sharon Kihara, 6-Kyrsten Mate, 7-?,
Musicians: 1-Elliot, 2-Hector, 3-Lila Sklar, 4-Tobias Roberson
She fused ATS technique with burlesque, cabaret, flamenco, and other forms of dance. As well, she welcomed the input of her company members, which led to choreographed pieces that featured tribal elements along with a myriad of other influences.
Many of the big names in the Tribal Fusion Belly Dance scene were members of Ultra Gypsy. These names include Rachel Brice, Rose Harden, Sarah White, and Sharon Kihara, along with other prominent dancers who are shaping the face of Tribal Fusion today.
Another dancer who has influenced the Tribal Fusion genre is Suhaila Salimpour. She is the daughter of Jamila Salimpour, and while she was not a member of Fat Chance Belly Dance or Ultra Gypsy, she did pull from similar influences as Carolena Nericcio and is often referred to as a Tribal Fusion belly dancer. Her unique technique and training style has influenced many belly dancers, including those who classify themselves as Tribal Fusion.
At this point, Tribal Fusion Belly Dance has undergone a pyramid affect, in which teachers have trained students, who have branched out and trained more students, and so forth. As fusion is a staple of the genre, with each new teacher has come a new version of Tribal Fusion Belly Dance. Tribal Fusion is like an umbrella, with little sub-genres huddling underneath. There is tribal fused with hip hop, tribal fused with flamenco, tribal fused with goth, and the list goes on.
Music is another important feature that puts the "fusion" in Tribal Fusion. Being an American creation, Tribal Fusion Belly Dance allows for the influence of American music.
It is not uncommon to see Tribal Fusion belly dancers performing to folkloric music, jazz, hip hop, electronic music, and even rock and roll. Of course, a Tribal Fusion dancer can also choose to perform to music traditionally associated with belly dance. The differences in musicality can cause Tribal Fusion belly dancers to appear very dissimilar from one another, even if their dance technique is the same. Again, this is the beauty of Tribal Fusion Belly Dance and the individuality it gives to the dancer.
What this means is that the current popular Tribal Fusion Belly Dance companies can vary quite a bit from one another. For example, the minimalist costuming and modern dance influences in “Urban Tribal Dance Company”, directed by Heather Stants, is a stark contrast to the ornate costuming and vaudeville influences in “The Indigo”, whose members are Rachel Brice, Mardi Love, and Zoe Jakes. Yet all of those dancers can trace their training back to Jamilia Salimpour, and similar dance technique shows up in their choreography. .
This wide variety of Tribal Fusion Belly Dance styles is why it is crucial to understand the history of the dance. If not, there is a danger of becoming lost amidst the numerous branches of Tribal Fusion and not fully comprehending the dance as an art form. There is no simple definition of Tribal Fusion Belly Dance, just as there is no simple definition of belly dance in general. However, this should be seen as a good thing. The very fact that Tribal Fusion Belly Dance is a complicated genre to dissect is what makes it so unique in the first place.
Furthermore, the encouraging nudge the genre gives towards individuality and uniqueness empowers the dancer to express herself in a way that is right for her. There is something beautiful and scary about truly owning your dance style. Tribal Fusion Belly Dance combines ATS with a bit of this and a bit of that, and a whole lot of the personality of the woman who is dancing.
Rachel talks to us about her love and connection to the North Beach disctrict of San Francisco and her coming tour.
This interview was done in February of 2009 while she was touring with the Bellydance Superstars.
She is touring now with Serpent Rouge along the left coast. See her website for schedule
Ready for more?
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in the beautiful volcanic natural park of La Garrotxa near the picturesque village of Santa Pau.
- 10-11-06 The Soltice Festival, Belly Dance in Spain- Part 1, Photos by Lynette
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in the beautiful volcanic natural park of La Garrotxa near the picturesque village of Santa Pau.
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- 1-17-07 Western Dancer’s Guilt, a Response to Naajidah, by Miles Copeland
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