Gilded Serpent presents...

Tribal Fusion: An Evolving Dance Form

Zoe Jakes by Lynette Harris

by Jasmine June

When Jill Parker founded Ultra Gypsy in the early 1990s, Tribal Fusion Belly Dance was in its first evolutionary phase. It was a brand new genre, incorporating influences from the modern primitive movement and queer alternative lifestyle, along with Jill’s dance training and experience with American Tribal Style (ATS) belly dance.  With a foundation of ATS, Jill expanded upon her training and fused different styles to form what is today called Tribal Fusion belly dance.

The biggest contrast between ATS and Tribal Fusion was that improvisation was the basis for ATS while Tribal Fusion, at least in its earliest phase, had a strong emphasis in choreography. This allowed Jill to play around with musicality and to explore musical genres that were appealing to her.

Another original deviation was that Jill’s dance partner and original Ultra Gypsy member was a man. Her friend, Michael, while training and sometimes performing with Fat Chance Belly Dance, was slightly out of place in a form that focused on the celebration of women. However, he and Jill were kindred spirits, and even performed together as go-go belly dancers at a night club that emphasized the queer alternative lifestyle. The importance behind this is that it conveys the openness and acceptance that has defined Tribal Fusion since its conception.

Several prominent dance figures came out of Ultra Gypsy and added their own pieces to the Tribal Fusion evolutionary game. For example, Rachel Brice has been credited as the first Tribal Fusion soloist. This is not to say that Jill or anyone before Rachel didn’t perform solos. What is meant, is that Rachel was the first to really run with performing as a solo Tribal Fusion dancer, and in doing so paved the way for future Tribal Fusion soloists. According to Heather Stants, Rachel’s “approach to isolations and yoga-infused dance training has crossed stylistic boundaries and expanded the number of Tribal Fusion enthusiasts worldwide”. As such, Rachel was a pioneer of sorts, even though the genre of Tribal Fusion already existed.

Heather Stants by TabooMedia.comHeather Stants herself played an important role in Tribal Fusion’s evolutionary history. She founded the Urban Tribal Dance Company in the early 2000s, with an intent of “emphasizing flexibility and athleticism with a more streamlined costume to highlight movement”. This was a sharp contrast to the elaborate costuming that had typically characterised Tribal Fusion.

As fusion is a core element of Tribal Fusion, it is in the nature of the genre to change and evolve. Tribal Fusion dance companies, like UNMATA, have taken the improvising techniques of ATS and fused them with Jill Parker’s love of choreography to create performances that use cues to sync a string of choreographed combinations. Dancers, like Zoe Jakes, have become poster girls for specific music groups and have created a trend of dancers aligning themselves with a “signature” musician. For example, when one thinks of the group “Beats Antique”, Zoe Jakes is the dancer who comes to mind.

There have been countless fusions and adaptations involving the Tribal Fusion genre, perhaps to the point where things have become a bit muddled. This became apparent for me after attending Tribal Fest 2009. While most of the festival showcased amazing dancers that were true to the tribal spirit, a few acts had me scratching my head. Where was the belly dance? Heck, where was the tribal?

If neither tribal nor belly dance are a key component, I wondered, then how can it be called Tribal Fusion belly dance?

I had the good fortune of meeting up with the Tribal Fusion mama herself the other week and got the low down on what is crucial for the dance genre’s continuing evolution. Of all people, Jill Parker is the one you’d want to listen to if you are a Tribal Fusion belly dancer or if you are thinking about taking up Tribal Fusion belly dance.

First of all, let me just say that Jill not only encourages people to develop their own Tribal Fusion style, she thinks it’s an essential component if you are going to be performing or teaching on your own.

If not, then you are simply stealing the style of someone else. As well, if you are not able to develop your own style, then you are not ready to go it alone.

Until a dancer has received a diverse amount of training, he or she should focus on performing or teaching under the umbrella of an instructor’s dance company. The only leeway with this is if a dancer completes a teaching certification program, and even then, the dancer should be clear when teaching the technique that it is the technique of so-and-so and not her own.Tobias and Jill

The reason why the above is so important to the evolution of the Tribal Fusion genre, is that it forces a dancer to be properly trained before performing for people who may not know much about belly dance. A level of professionalism is key if people want Tribal Fusion to be taken seriously as a dance form, and a problem arises when new Tribal Fusion dancers think they can perform on their own after only studying from one teacher.

This brings me to Jill’s next big piece of advice: when thinking of Tribal Fusion, the “belly dance” is always in parenthesis. Meaning that you ought to know how to belly dance if you are going to call yourself a belly dancer. The big names in the Tribal Fusion scene have done a lot of legwork, so if their students are only performing with them, then the students have mastered enough belly dance to be part of that particular company (although they can certainly benefit from training with other teachers). However, if a dancer is going to perform or teach outside of a company, then there is more belly dance technique that first needs to be learned.

Tribal Fusion belly dance has its roots in traditional forms of belly dance and the influence of these styles are not to be underestimated.

For example, a hip hop dancer can’t take a few Tribal Fusion classes, fuse some technique with hip hop and then call it Tribal Fusion, because there isn’t enough belly dance in that equation. It would be hip hop fused with Tribal Fusion, but that’s a distinct difference.

Another key point Jill touched on was to learn traditional musical rhythms.

Tribal Fusion is a dance form that allows for a diverse use of music and musicality. However, if a dancer is going to belly dance to rock music, for example, it would be helpful for her to know how to keep rhythm with the percussion. A skill like that can be learned in drum solo workshops or by training with Middle Eastern drummers. Musicality is such a crucial component of the Tribal Fusion genre, and it is therefore essential that a dancer be well versed in how to belly dance to different types of music- much like the Egyptian belly dancer who knows the difference between a saidi and a baladi.

Jill spoke a lot about integrity- of staying true to yourself and what you want to express, of not stealing a style from another dancer, of giving credit to your mentors, of taking good care of your body, of knowing the history and lineage of your dance genres. These are all important points in ensuring that Tribal Fusion will continue to evolve in a way that celebrates not only the fusions that are being incorporated, but also belly dance itself.

(1)-Author wishes to acknowledge Heather Stant’s article- "Tribal Fusion" for several quotes included with the “Evolution” DVD put out by Hollywood Music.


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