Lost in Translation
by Marion Nowak
posted January 13, 2011
Belly Dance has come a long way since the days of specific dos and don’ts. Our dance is actually evolving so fast, that before we realize, new terms and phrases crowd our class conversations and challenge our basic knowledge. However, that which it has created is concrete evidence that our dance is changing!
The underground movement of gypsy-hearted women dancing together in studios that were scattered far and wide, has filtered into many other branches of Belly Dance, and at the same time, has opened many doors for those talented few who needed their break in a genre that just has not been taken seriously.
Tribal Fusion Belly Dance, as most of us in the industry know, is a derivation of American Tribal Style, which incorporates Cabaret Belly Dance and anything from Ballet and Hip-Hop to Contemporary dance and Bhangra. Obviously we all have our own interpretations, but let’s keep this simple. My question is; when have we gone too far and lost the essence of Belly Dance in our fusion performances?
This question not only relates to Tribal Fusion Belly Dance, but to any Belly Dance. I’ve been polluted with images and performances that (for safety measures) throw the word “fusion” into any choreography that is being created – just in case people don’t “get it”! To me, this is wrong, and what is worse, is that our audiences are getting the wrong impression of what true “fusion” is.
If you find yourself honestly passionate about your dance, you are one of us who have sat up nights, searching for inspiration on the web and YouTube, reading books, and listening to music that might just hit the spot. We watch theatre productions (and God protect the one who changes the channel from “So You Think You Can Dance” to sports!).
I’m one of those people who, even after pounding my mind with media images of dance for hours, still knows my limits. Surely, I would not try fusing a Jazz routine with my Belly Dance, unless I were a professional Jazz dancer myself, or had the ability to learn quickly due to my previous training in something else… or just had the talent. What I’m trying to say is, don’t complicate things for yourself! Keep it real. As a true professional artist, you will be able to fuse anything with your Belly Dance, but still pull it off as a Tribal Fusion / Fusion Belly Dance performance. Your audience cannot be confused if you guide them into the right direction from the get-go!
Another big problem that has popped up recently is what confusion “fusion” is creating for costuming.
Again, I am not referring to those talented dancers who keep their limits in mind. I started seeing not only bad creative guidance, but costumes that were just not representing anything about the movements of the dancer. One had the potential of being entertaining, but because of bad taste in costuming, it became painful to watch and failed – feathers and all!
I had a chance to get some feedback from Moria Chappell (Bellydance Superstar) and asked her what her opinion was. Moria, I think, is a great example of someone who clearly understands the dance fundamentals and not just from a technical point of view, but from a creative one too. She says that the blessing and curse of labeling a performance “Tribal Fusion” style is that it allows the utmost in freedom of expression, but unfortunately, can also give a sense of permission to do anything on stage and call the concoction "fusion".
Moria says, “Masking sloppy technique with cheap costuming and putting it all to break-beat music does not make you a fusion dancer. Fusion is like a good marriage; both components have to be very strong before the two work as a combination. ”
Tribal Fusion Belly Dance is also not supposed to be easy. An actual Tribal Fusion performance has to stem from awesome technique and artistic expression. It is not something you can put together a couple of days before you perform. Moria continued to talk about the myths surrounding Tribal Fusion and said, “It should actually take double the work to pull off. To that end, wearing dark colors and having tattoos does not inherently mean the dance is ‘Tribal’. Tribal Fusion is a particular dance form that has many mothers and grandmothers each of whom should be studied before creating a new branch of the tree.”
A great example of an experiment gone right would be Zoe Jakes and Elizabeth Strong’s performance at the Tribal Fest after-party this year. Their costumes draped their bodies well and the classical-type music added to their performance. In the end, the Belly Dance essence was still there, but fusion happened. When I asked Elizabeth what her thoughts were she said that it is nice to add in a couple fresh elements, but less is often more. “Making thoughtful choices about what makes an effective fusion piece gives your art more power and feeling. Belly Dance Fusion within the Tribal scene has gone through a growth spurt over the past several years, and I must say that we have had some rather awkward growing pains.”
Many dancers, especially those based in the US, have had great resources, not only from a training point of view, but also as far as festivals go like Tribal Fest. The festival in all its glory has become a great platform for dancers who are experimenting; so try to get there when you plan your next trip or try to follow and learn from the dancers who usually perform there. Kami Liddle and Sabrina Fox also accomplish a great duet on the Tribal Fusion DVD; Tribal Fusions Vol 1: The Exotic Art of Belly Dance. This is a great one to watch g if you’re struggling to figure out how to braid fusion into your dance tapestry, as it subtly shares traditional dance fused with Belly Dance.
Talented writer, Asharah, regularly writes about dance and in 2008 she said that what she sometimes experiences with fusion is like “watching a hip-hop performance by a dancer in a ballet tutu… and calling herself a ballerina.” What Asharah means is that too often dancers desperately want to do something different, but simply cannot.
Ashara says her main concern is that the term “Tribal Fusion Belly Dance” is also being used by inexperienced dancers to describe any sort of Belly Dance that they wish to perform that is not traditional and is has been used to describe Belly Dance and other performance art that is not essentially Tribal at all.
Please keep in mind that we sometimes also see the same problems re-occurring with Oriental Belly Dance. Dancers have a tendency to bring in music and props that don’t work and throw in a new dance class move here and there to validate their performance. I don’t want anyone to get confused here, but those are not the elements that make a fusion performance. Your goal with any kind of fusion is to slice off enough of the genre that you’ll use, demonstrate it without hesitation and still be able to make it look in its place.
Another important thing is to continue training; you can’t call yourself a performer if you don’t train like a performer would or call yourself a teacher and not get any training anywhere else. By training I mean actual weekly classes; not a three hour workshop once a year with the flavor of the week. Maintaining your ability and making it stronger will only make fusing easier and you will come across as a dancer who not only knows what he/she is doing, but shares knowledge and can answer questions. (Also, don’t put yourself out there if you are honestly not comfortable.)
Despite all of this, I know that rules are there to be broken; especially in Tribal Fusion Belly Dance, but always stay focused on what you are trying to accomplish. Never try to break what you cannot bend first– that’s my advice to all you fusion fanatics out there. Keep dancing!
Ready for more?
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