by Laura Tempest Schmidt
posted April 17, 2011
There has been a great deal of discussion in the Bellydance community concerning the topic of fusion. Usually on the table are the questions are what makes it fusion, how far is too far, why do fusion in the first place, what makes it good vs. what makes it bad.
I am certainly no stranger to fusion – dance or otherwise. I am physically the result of the fusion of multiple disparate cultures and religions, cultivated over several centuries on both sides of my family. In my artwork, I have always mixed together not only different concepts but also the media that I use. My spirituality is also the result of much blending over gathered experiences over my life. You could say I’m wired to fuse.
I’ve also been in the Bellydance community for over a dozen years now, and have been at the forefront and in the trenches, studying, tracking, and creating when a lot of the current fusions were conceived. I’ve spent a lot of time discussing history and issues with individuals who have been the movers and shakers of this dance over the last 40+ years, making for a lot of different perspectives on the dance, opinions, and personalities, as well as making a lot of food for thought as I approached my own dance. So I’ve done a lot of thinking (and then doing) about fusion, and I would like to share with you some things I’ve discovered.
Considering How Fusion Works:
When considering the concept of fusion dance, I believe there are two main kinds of fusion: layered and integrated. A layered fusion is when two different concepts are brought together, and essentially are layered on top of each other, but aren’t blended together.
Layered fusion happens when you bring two very different dances together (for example, Classical Indian Dance and Bellydance). While one can overlay Classical Indian Dance hand movements and arm positions (mudras) with Bellydance moves, the moves, per se, do not lend themselves to being combined together–the way the weight is applied when moving is totally different between the two systems. So most likely when someone presents a fusion of these two dances, the movements will alternate between Bellydance and Bharatanatyam, the make-up and costuming will most likely be more Indian-influenced than Arabic, and the music may be a mix of both. (Solace’s “Satya” album comes to mind.)
Integrated fusion is produced when you bring together two different concepts that allow for them to be blended together to a certain degree, either creating moves that are a hybrid of sorts, or adding an element that changes the inherent quality of the original move. Gothic Bellydance is one kind of integrated fusion, and Steampunk Bellydance is another. Gothic culture brings its own aesthetic, music, attitude, and club moves to the dance, all of which add a distinct quality to Bellydance that is not limited solely to the look of the costuming, but how the movements are expressed and altered.
Gothic Bellydance has taken years to develop fully and define itself more exactly, but it has developed. Steampunk has different origins, but there are very specific things that are unique to it as well.
Is the result of fusion a new thing? What is style anyway? Is a fusion a new creature?
Two common arguments against certain kinds of fusion used to discredit them are either: “Well, it’s not a new thing unto itself.” or “It’s too dissimilar to the original; it’s become something else.” Honestly, I don’t think that most fusionistas are looking to create a whole new creature, but rather a hybrid of sorts of their favorite elements. Perhaps what’s really tripping folks up (besides their own perceptions and opinions) is semantics. When I think of something as “X style of Bellydance”, to me it means that it’s a variation of Bellydance. It is still clearly under the umbrella of Bellydance, but it is no longer just regular Bellydance. The incorporation of elements, either through layering or integration, has modified the structure of the dance. However, it can still be bred back to either parent.
The pertinent fact is: style doesn’t inherently refer to the creation of an entirely different beast.
Webster defines style as a “distinction or title” or “a distinctive manner of expression”. Inherently, style is a modifier, an adjective or adverb. In other words, it describes a “type” of something. In fashion, a person’s style isn’t defined just by how they wear their clothes, accessories, make-up, hair, body type, personality, or behavior, but all of these things together.
If we were to simplify things, (we could break this down into subsections in each) Turkish Style involves movements that originate from the pelvis, fast and flashy accents, an external flow of energy outward, a preference to a certain look of costuming, and Arabic music plus Turkish rhythms and instrumentation. On the other hand, Egyptian Style has movements that originate more from the hip and abdomen, more “earthy” moves, an internal flow of energy, another preference for costuming, and orchestrated Arabic music featuring more Egyptian rhythms and instrumentation. Still both are Bellydance, and they have overlapping moves and music. Nevertheless, they are seen as different styles. Obviously, they can be integrated together. Otherwise, we wouldn’t have yet another style: American Cabaret Style, which brings elements of not only Turkish and Egyptian styles, but also Lebanese, Greek, and whatever else was lying around in the melting pot of the ‘60s, ‘70s, and ‘80s club/restaurant scene.
American Tribal Style and Its offspring, Tribal Fusion:
ATS is often described as a system of improvised group movement based on the fusion of Bellydance, Flamenco, and Indian Dance. Essentially if you break it down, there’s the background of American Cabaret Style (movement and some North African/Tribal-inspired costuming and jewelry), there’s the upper body and arm carriage, hand-floreos of Flamenco (and the big skirts), and cholis, bindis, and jewelry of Indian dance/culture. So a large portion of what identified the style as ATS is, in actuality, the merger of costuming elements with some accents from other dances layered and integrated into Bellydance–then, taking those movements and making a system out of them to use for “group improvisation”. It took several years to arrive at its development, and was codified primarily by the original Fat Chance Belly Dance instructional videos. This system was then modified by others to create similar systems. (Gypsy Caravan and Black Sheep Belly Dance to cite two major offshoots.) They tweaked the original moves, adding different cues and variations to the group improvisational part. Are they entirely new systems of ATS? No, they are different styles, and they can still take original ATS moves and use them.
If we go back 8 to10 years ago, we’re looking at a whole different animal than we are now when we hear the term “Tribal Fusion”. Back then, Tribal Fusion described either ATS pieces that were choreographed and incorporated other non-Bellydance elements, and/or were performed solo. Additionally, it was used mainly in reference to a few specific groups located on the West Coast. Ultra Gypsy, Romani Urban Tribal/ Bellygroove, and Urban Tribal of San Diego come to mind first, but there were many others as well. These groups, as they grew, sought to differentiate themselves from each other, incorporating different elements, and are best identified by the women at their helms: Jill Parker, Frederique, and Heather Stants. Enter also, Rachel Brice, whom I first remember seeing performing solo in 2002 at Summer Caravan. Her dance distinguished itself by her extreme isolations/upper body work, yoga-inspired movements, and stationary stage positioning. Frederique’s solo dance incorporated more hip-hop movements, while Heather’s brought in more modern dance flow and grace. Costuming diverged, from even more embellished to extremely simplified.
So, what brings them under the heading of “Tribal Fusion” is their personal styling.
Essentially, what Tribal Fusion has become, in its best-defined areas, is an expression of personal styling. It’s not just one particular group of defined movements, but rather a collection of personalized movements, defined by the fusion elements dancers have chosen to incorporate, plus their choices of music, costuming, and staging. Where it gets more tricky (in terms of Bellydance) is how far down the lane it has traveled from its origins, and ultimately, that can only be determined on a case-by-case basis. Some groups have moved so far out of the Bellydance realm that they would best defined as “World Fusion Dance” or “Urban Fusion Dance” (such as Unmata), but even that becomes a loose umbrella-term, because it depends on what each group incorporates; therefore defined by their personal style.
People also seem to forget that fusion was happening well before the advent of Tribal Fusion, and it was happening with Cabaret/Oriental Style. Dalia Carella has long had several styles of Bellydance that she performs, “Dunyavi” being one of her most well-known styles. Amara (then SoCal, now Texas) started Evening of Experimental Middle Eastern Dance (EEMED) in 2001. Dhyanis ran the Living Goddess Dance Theater for 13 years (ending in 2005, I think), which offered a place for fusion and experimental presentations of, mainly, Cabaret Style dance.
Gothic Bellydance is a fusion that can be combined with either Cabaret or Tribal Styles because of the way in which it enhances the movement vocabulary and presentation. Because of this, it automatically becomes an umbrella-term as well with Gothic Tribal and Gothic Oriental dancers congregating underneath it, and then further broken-down to specific accents within the Gothic culture (such as Industrial, Cyber, Romantic, etc). I currently view Steampunk Bellydance as also partially under this umbrella, or at least, a very close cousin. Also, I am sure that, in a few more years, clearly, it will have its own very distinct parasol and related subcategories, because I can see them clearly, now developing around the world. Essentially, both Gothic and Steampunk pass a very specific test.
- Are the moves clearly originating in Bellydance? Yes.
- Are there several key factors influencing how those moves become differentiated from the original moves? Yes.
- Would I take those fused movements and perform them in a traditional Bellydance set? No.
- Can I incorporate traditional movements in the same performance in a way that makes sense? Yes.
So, it comes from Bellydance. Clearly, it incorporates specific elements to change the character of those moves, and those changed moves would not make sense performed outside of that style, in a classic Bellydance setting. However, I could still bring those traditional movements back into the same performance.
I know the answers to this test to be true of most of the movements I teach for both Gothic and Steampunk Bellydance. I can’t speak for other teachers, but I can vouch confidently for myself.
Others ask, “If you remove the costuming and the music, will it still read as its own style?” Well, I believe firmly that in any style, a performance is only complete if the music, costuming, movements, and presentation all correlate. However, if you wanted to demonstrate the specific moves, sans the other integral pieces, obviously, I do it in workshops all the time when presenting and explaining the moves, and without the music. In my movement-based workshops, costuming is only discussed in terms of how it can accentuate a move physically, or detract from it.
What doesn’t work?
Since we have discussed what makes an integrated or layered fusion, let’s look at what doesn’t make for a successful fusion.
Personally, looking back at the history of Gothic Bellydance over the last 10 years, and the more recent emergence of Steampunk Bellydance, there are some key things to point out, relating to what works, what doesn’t, and why. I have spent the better part of the last 5-6 years considering what makes something Gothic, and forcefully driving those points home in the classroom and on the stage. When Gothic Bellydance was first emerging, circa 2002-3, (The Gothic Bellydance Resource was created in early 2003.) it wasn’t so easy to pinpoint what makes it what it is and what doesn’t. A lot of people have tried their hand at it (some successfully, some not), and the evidence abounds on DVDs and Youtube, for better or for worse. One thing is clear, just because someone calls their performance a certain label, doesn’t make it so.
Why? It is because real fusion takes a lot of work and careful consideration to be successful. Not every attempt, even by an established artist, is going to be successful either, especially as a style is emerging. However, the main issue is that some people think that just by switching out the music or the costuming, they are creating an instant fusion, but it doesn’t work that way.
Before we even consider fusion, let’s take a look at “regular” Bellydance. We often tend to glaze over the whole of it, but there are a lot of subtle differences, even within the larger titles. We have classic and modern Egyptian, Turkish Oriental and Turkish Romani. We have the folkloric and folkoric-inspired dances – Khaleegy, Saidi, Melaya Leff – all of these dances have movements in common, as well as some of the music and instrumentation, and some of the costuming, but what definitively drives the point home for all of them is the combination of their specific music, costuming, movements, and presentation, thereby displaying knowledge of that art.
It’s frustrating to see someone totally oblivious to 9/8 or Saidi rhythms or doing a Melaya Leff, looking like she is bored out of her mind, or claiming that she is presenting a traditional Khaleegy dance, while wearing a Turkish Oriental costume. Wearing a big flowered skirt and tossing in a tambourine doesn’t make it authentic Romani. When the elements and characteristics aren’t applied properly, it doesn’t work. It requires a great deal of research, studying, and thoughtful application to know what to apply and when.
In a similar vein, while not specific countries of origin, for many, Goth and Steampunk represent their own cultural identity–the modern village. If you think that all there is to Goth is excessive squiggly eyeliner, vampire fangs, and Halloween music, you’re going to be entirely missing the point. Goth is a culture, with several subcultures, with their aesthetics, literature, music, beliefs, gatherings, etc. Likewise, if you think Steampunk is all about wearing bustles, goggles, and gears, you’re also missing the point and showing ignorance. Steampunk is not as developed as the Gothic culture – yet, but even in just the last several years during which I’ve been personally involved, it has come a long way.
It’s not just about playing dress-up (Although, let’s face it, we all love to.) there’s a rapidly expanding musical genre, a multitude of gatherings across the world where folks share their creations, debate what is/isn’t Steampunk and how it relates to our lives. Its literary roots especially impact how designs and looks are created, expressed, and grown. When we incorporate these characters into stage performance, we’re taking them out of the cosplay arena [dressing up as a character in a book, play, movie, etc.] and to the next level, and it has to be physically expressed through the quality of dance movements and the costuming, because we can’t take our airships on stage with us; can we? I can rehearse a play in my yoga pants, and make an excellent job of depicting a queen through my words and actions, but to hammer the point home for a performance, I need to dress the part to make the transformation complete. When properly assembled, the costuming does, however, make for the best impact, for the overall performance when applied with the right music, movements, and presentation.
Just costume trappings don’t make for an authentic presentation or fusion dance, but unfortunately, a lot of folks assume that it does, and then, they go out, labeling their performances as such, causing the greatest amount of confusion in any style. Fusion has to come from the inside out – intrinsically knowing and understanding what you’re doing, why you’re doing it, and how you’re doing it.
How Much is Too Much and What Makes It Different?
Let’s take this out of dance and look at it another way. Let’s say that Bellydance is a pearl necklace – all real cultured pearls. I’ll let you debate whether they’re more authentically from Egypt, Turkey, or somewhere in-between, but if you wanted to get specific, let’s say that the ones from Turkey are knotted on silk cord, and the ones from Egypt are strung, unknotted, on silk cord. They’re both using the same pearls and the same kind of cord, they’re just applied in slightly different methods.
Ok, so we have our pearls of Bellydance. Now, let’s say we want to put something else in our necklace to accent the pearls, and we think Classical Indian Dance is the thing to do it. Classical Indian Dance will be represented as beads made out of coral. (Both coral and pearls come out of the ocean, but from different creatures.) We cannot put the pearls in the coral or vice versa, but we can string them next to each other, and we can make a gold pendant that has both pearls and coral in it. These combinations would make the necklace a layered fusion. Neither element is inherently changed, but it can be put together so that they compliment each other, and make a pretty necklace. The gold pendant also speaks of another element being brought into the equation, and this could be the music and/or the costuming. Nonetheless, our necklace is no longer just a pearl necklace, it’s a coral and pearl necklace with touches of gold. It does not cease being a necklace just because there are new elements. As long as we keep the portions of gold and coral less than the amount of pearls, it will read more as a pearl necklace.
You can continue to expand on this analogy by adding more jewelry components for each new element you wish to add. Let’s say you want to bring in Modern Dance, and that could be represented by silver beads; if you mix the pearls with silver beads, the necklace reads alternating pearls and silver beads. Or Hip Hop – let’s make that be represented by chain: so, instead of stringing the pearls on silk cord, they’re put on wires and interspersed with chain segments. Once again, as long as the pearls are the main components, it will read as a pearl necklace – not the same as our original, but still pearls mixed with something.
However, if you start mixing pearls, coral, gold, silver beads, and chain, and the pearls are just a small feature in the necklace dotted here and there, it ceases to be a mainly-pearl necklace. You can’t call it a pearl necklace anymore. It is still a necklace, but it’s got too much going on to be clearly any one element.
Now, how would an integrated fusion work with our necklace metaphor? So we have our traditional pearls right? Let’s bring Goth into the equation. The Gothic culture brings its music, its aesthetic, its attitude, and some movement vocabulary. If we equated the differences between Turkish and Egyptian as how the pearls were put on the string cord, we can view the music and attitude of Goth in a very similar light, so instead of a white silk cord, the cord may be black, or it may be made of leather instead. The movement vocabulary and aesthetic could be looked at as different beads, but instead of being very different components, they much more easily can blend with our pearls, so essentially while we could dye our pearls black and accent them with small metal beads – what happens with the actual dance, they become a different kind of pearl – like freshwater pearls. It’s not just a layer of color on the top that can wear off, it chemically changes the composition of the pearl from the inside out. They’re still identifiable as pearls, but they have a different sort of look, texture, and color. Maybe toss in a few spikey beads as accents. Still primarily a pearl necklace, but it looks and feels different from the original pearl necklace. So it’s still a pearl necklace, but it’s a different kind of style of pearl necklace.
A Word About Steampunk:
Okay, so how about Steampunk? Steampunk evolved differently from Goth, though Steampunk dancers have a lot of overlapping elements. Where Goth pretty much evolved first from the music and its related aesthetic, spawning art, literature, more music, attire, and lifestyles, Steampunk started from literature, and that has inspired music, aesthetic, attire, art, community, lifestyles, and is evolving and expanding right now–before our eyes. The music, especially, has grown exponentially in the last several years, and with it, various theories on how to dance to it. Some bring the Gothic Club-dancing to it, some bring in Edwardian and Victorian dances, others bring 1920s to ‘30s dance, and so forth. It depends on the music and the person dancing it.
However, getting back to its roots in literature, when we take these concepts to the stage, we need to consider seriously the story being told, so that the chosen persona flavors how the character will move with the music, how she will dress, and how she will interact with the audience. All of this equates to more than just dying our pearls brown and adding clock-gears to it. If the character is aggressive (like an Airship Pirate), perhaps the pearls become very irregular freshwater pearls. Or if she’s a Lady Adventurer, the pearls are encased in a delicate filigree cage of wrought metal. Once again, it’s still a pearl necklace, as long as the pearls are the primary components, but their overall look and treatment has been altered.
Why fuse anyway?
One last common question: Why do people fuse in the first place? Some want to bring together their loves in one place. Some dancers use fusion as an excuse to avoid things they don’t like. As for me: clearly, I have boundary issues. Like I said, I’m just wired to bring what inspires me together. I can also understand that, for others, it’s a repulsive idea. Some people cannot stand their potatoes and peas touching each other on the plate. I’ll scoop them all up on the same fork; thank you very much! There’s nothing wrong with keeping it straight, and there’s nothing wrong with fusing if it’s done right, and brought to the right venue. I believe firmly that tradition and innovation must coexist in order for any art to survive.
I have always found myself in a bit of an odd spot in the community. I am a big supporter of traditional dance (particularly learning it). North African dance especially sends me into pure bliss! Nevertheless, even while I have studied a lot of traditional dances from North Africa, the Mediterranean, and Near, Middle, and Far East, what I perform the most is fusion. Even though I’m a huge supporter of creativity, I’m also heavily focused on doing it right. I don’t like to go around declaring myself “the Gothic/Steampunk police”, but I will emphasize (in my classes, workshops, and writings) what to do and what not to do to make a successful performance. I think (due in part to the heavy “under construction” phase the Steampunk culture is undergoing) I’m also not seeing a lot of performances that satisfy what I believe is Steampunk Bellydance either. Gothic Bellydance followed this path as well, and that dance culture was much further along when it became fused, so I expect things to continue to grow more and more interesting as time goes on.
Lastly, I believe it is an excellent idea to challenge whether a performance is fusion or not (as long as it’s brought to the table as constructive critique vs. negative blanket statements, existing only as criticism). When we constructively critique by considering what works, what doesn’t, and asking why, we foster growth and new development. We make the dance better, stronger, and more beautiful by our exploration of both tradition and innovation.
Ready for more?
- 5-30-08 Welcome to the Gothla! Dancing Along the Sulk Road Review of 3 DVDs
The costumes are fabulous. It’s almost like—who needs all that dance technique if you’re wearing an enormous leather headdress that makes you look like an alien refugee from Star Wars? Tempest’s approach in particular is a painterly one, not surprising from a student of the Rhode Island School of Design.
- 10-25-04 "The First Tribal Cafe"
It was the first all tribal belly dance event sponsored by MECDA IE and took place on August 21st, 2004 in Montclair, California.
- 5-24-04 "Dancing Darkly"
This may come as a shock to many, but Gothic Belly Dance isn’t really a new phenomenon, and it’s not just centered in California. First of all, it’s simply a merger of two entities that go well together, like peanut butter and chocolate.
- 5-31-02 "The Art of Tempest"
The first image, "Dance," is inspired by the Minoan priestesses and is a monotype/mixed media
- 2-26-11 Not So Steam punk Belly Dance by Jasmine June
Since Tribal Fusion is also easily accessible, there have been dancers who begin performing and calling themselves professional when really they are just hobbyists. A professional belly dancer would never label her dance genre based on an aesthetic.
- 12-14-10 Tribal Fusion: An Evolving Dance Form by Jasmine June
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 Parker to play around with musicality and to explore musical genres that were appealing to her.
- 11-3-10 An Intro to Tribal Fusion by Jasmine June
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.
- 4-13-11 The Controversy, Learning to Love Eternal Debate
The path of artistic innovation is not a forward pointing line; it is a pendulum. Art doesn’t move foreword cleanly; it bashes against ideas and is repelled by them! Movements emerge from conflict, not despite it.
- 4-11-11 As the Music Fades, Egypt’s January 25 Revolution’s Impact on the Muscians and Dancers
Read more: Gilded Serpent, Belly Dance News & Events , As the Music Fades: Copyright 1998-to current date by Gilded Serpent, LLC
We can’t attain what they had in the past because we are not free. Our minds are full of work and what we should and shouldn’t do. There’s no time for good art. Politics mixed with religion does not make for an atmosphere where the arts can flourish.
- 4-10-11 Sound-Byte Bellydance, Part One: Evolution of Bellydance
Through her clear description of what she wanted to learn, I was able to look inside our recent dance evolution and see what we dance teachers in the west have done to change Bellydance here in the U.S., how we have changed and modified it into something it never was in the lands of its origins.
- 4-7-11 Our Changing Dance World, a Response to Leila’s "Dance for Dancers"
Of course, we learn musicality and so forth, but where dance classes in some places are an hour long, teaching long choreography is not sustainable to an instructor.
- 4-6-11 Video Interview with Shadi of Diamond Pyramid on the Community Kaleidoscope
Gilded Serpent interviews Shadi of Diamond Pyramid regarding the business scene since the Egyptian Revolution less than a month before this interview. This interview was conducted at the Belly Dancer of the Universe Competition in Long Beach, California on February 20, 2011
- 4-5-11 Rakkasah West Fest 2011, Friday Evening, Main Stage Only,
Aisha, Arabian Jewels, Azura, Dancers of Denile, Ariellah and Deshreet, Tatseena and Dreams of Cleopatra, Elnora, Ghanima, Goddess Force, Halima, Diana, Inami, Khalilah, Latifa, Kiyoko, Leila Haddad, Shaida, Shadya, Tanya, Zia!