Belly Dance ‘n All that Jazz
Trends in Tribal Fusion
by Jasmine June and Kimberly Mackoy
posted July 24, 2011
In the past few years, dancing to Jazz music has become a trend in the Tribal Fusion Belly dance community. There are a number of reasons why Jazz influence is particularly en vogue recently. Everything old is new again. Prohibition-era fashion is sparkling onstage, speakeasies are once again in high style, and the flapper mentality is spreading like wildfire in the Tribal Belly dance community. In the midst of this, it would be very surprising if Jazz and Belly dance did not co-mingle. Jazz music is a decisively American genre, while the Arabic music (to which Belly dancers traditionally perform) is obviously from Middle Eastern roots. Yet, Belly dancing and Jazz go together in such a way that performances are seamless in combining a Middle Eastern dance form with an American musical genre.
This is a welcome place to explore, because it’s very much in line with the aims of Tribal Fusion—new sounds appeal to the eclecticism of fusion in the dance, and this new combination is both American and global, allowing it to be adopted in a similar spirit of rebellion that spurred Tribal Belly dancing as a movement in the first place.
While it’s fair to say that not all Jazz lends itself to the movement vocabulary or intentions of every Belly dancer, the range of Jazz musical experimentation is wide, and Jazz has historically crossed paths of many cultures and continents. As a result, there are a lot of interpretations that work, and the moods, tempos and approaches can vary a lot. At this year’s “Tribal Fest”, for example, Charleston footwork traipsed across the stage at intervals, as did more sultry numbers that evoked images of smoky cabarets. Rachel Brice’s sinuous Jazz age choreography solo (which she taught in her workshop) wound through horns that were themselves imagining a casbah-like setting. In contrast, Mardi Love’s choreography centered on an Indigo number for “Le Serpent Rouge” that had more sass and bounced gently through its fancy footsteps.
The reality of Jazz music and its roots clearly show why Belly dancing to Jazz works so well. The Jazz form may have originated in the United States, but the music carries West African and Arabic influences. The similarities between Jazz and traditional Arab music include:
- unequal temperament in tone pitches,
- an exaggerated use of vibrato,
- spontaneous improvisation, and
- the syncopation of rhythm (among other common traits).
The tradition of soloist improvisation within a song is an especially important similarity. A Belly dancer can relate to soloist improvisation in Jazz music the same way she can relate to a drum solo or Taqsim (usually solo instrumental improvisations) in Arabic music.
Another dance genre that is popular among Tribal Fusion dancers is Balkan music. This genre, too, is similar to Jazz in several regards. The use of brass instruments, such as tubas and trombones, are found in both genres, making it an easy cross over from Balkan to Jazz. There are bands, such as the Bay Area band “Zoyres”, that exist as a combination of both Jazz and Balkan music. Balkan and Jazz bands both have that big-band feeling. It’s easy to understand how a Tribal Fusion dancer who is used to dancing to Balkan music could make the transition to Jazz. All that brass, improvisation, and melodic rhythm is enough to make a Belly dancer swoon!
The Balkan trend, which provided a logical segue into the big band sensibilities of New Orleans Jazz and other permutations, has always had a strong Gypsy-Jazz element at play. The big skirts and brash confidence have given a little way toward the sleek and cool, opening up a space for improvising, alongside Louis Armstrong in addition to Taraf de Haidouks. Tribal Fusion pulls a lot from Gypsy culture, too. For example, dance artists such as Jill Parker have included Turkish Rom dance technique in their choreography. It is no stretch, then, to understand the transition to performing to Gypsy Jazz. One troupe inparticular, “Les Trois Petits Oiseaux”, popularises Belly dancing with Gyspy Jazz. The troupe teams up with the band “Avatar Ensemble” for performances that include a call and response feature between the dancers and the musicians that are similar to the relationship between Belly dancers and their Arab musicians. As in traditional live Arab music, Gyspy Jazz and other styles of Jazz provide a fluid “conversation” between the dancers and the musicians, rather than the dancers simply mimicking the music.
Aside from music, there is also a cultural component to Jazz that makes it appealing to Tribal Fusion dancers. Obviously, Tribal Fusion is not a traditional Middle Eastern Belly dance form; yet performing to Jazz music is attractive to Tribal Fusion dancers because it comes from the same country as Tribal Fusion itself–America.
For some dancers, it can be easier to relate to music from one’s own culture than it is to music from halfway around the world.
However, this is not to say that Tribal Fusion Belly dance and Jazz music can’t fit into the Belly dance world. Quite the contrary, both genres evolve from Middle Eastern origins. If mimicry really is the highest form of flattery, then Middle Eastern Belly dancers and musicians ought to feel flattered rather than put off.
Since Tribal Fusion is more subjective than some other Belly dance forms, the freedom to perform to Jazz music (as well as music of other genres) is encouraged.
This freedom also translates into costuming choices. Tribal Fusion dancers who perform to Jazz can often be seen in flapper-style costumes or in costumes with vintage accents such as lace, velvet, and pearls.
In this way, too, performing to Jazz allows a Tribal Fusion dancer to embrace the fashion traditions of her own culture. For example, the Blue Note Rendezvous event in San Francisco has a 1920s cabaret feeling, except that its performers are Belly dancers, rather than traditional Cabaret artists.
Like Belly dancing, Jazz is a genre that unites people. The music comes from a multi-hued society and has spread all over the world. Belly dance, too, has become a world-wide art form. Both Tribal Fusion and Jazz music are unique because they combine elements from two diversely different cultures. The real up-side in performing Belly dance with Jazz music is that it brings the art of Belly dance to a whole new audience! People interested in Jazz music who would not normally venture out to a Belly dance show get an added bonus when they see Belly dancers performing in a Jazz club. The ability of Belly dance to assimilate (almost effortlessly) into multiple cultures guarantees that it will be a genre that will continue to thrive–just like Jazz.
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