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Gilded Serpent presents...
Tribal: Fusion, Bedouin, What's the Difference?
4 DVDs reviewed and compared
by Rebecca Firestone

When Lynette of Gilded Serpent sent me these three DVDs to review, I wondered what they had in common other than the word "Tribal" in their titles. Also, I'm not exactly a wholehearted aficionado of Tribal anything. So, in addition to watching them myself, I discussed portions of this review with a few other dancers who have a strong background in Tribal, but who have chosen not to be quoted directly in this article.

For a long while, I equated Tribal solely with the American Tribal Style popularized by Fat Chance Bellydance. Then one day it dawned on me, finally, that even the Tribal dancers were sick of doing the same 24 moves over and over in group formations, and they were reaching farther and farther into other styles for inspirations to re-invent their dance. One of the styles that emerged from that is what is now called Tribal Fusion, which acknowledges ATS but has its own look.

Tribal Fusion requires a lot of body conditioning, joint flexibility, and arm jewelry. They all seem to do Yoga and Pilates, and there's often an assumption that the people who come to their classes already share this background. This leads to an emphasis on obvious physical virtuosity far beyond what you would get in most folkloric dance classes (which can be demanding in their own way).

However despite many claims to being original, there's a very common look and feel to all of it. There's East Coast Tribal but I can't distinguish it from West Coast... and they don't really change the mood or the feeling of their dance to match the music, other than to match the tempo. Furthermore, the top stylists are still, according to my insider sources, doing the same things they were doing ten years ago.

Tribal Fusions:
The Exotic Art of Bellydance
another DVD from the Bellydance Superstars
2.5 zills

This performance DVD from the Bellydance Superstars features a series of short, mostly solo performances by Rachel Brice, Sharon Kihara, Mardi Love, Zoe Jakes, Moria Chappell, Samantha Hasthorpe, Dusty Palk, Kami Liddle, Sabrina, and Urban Tribal. Music ranges from Greek-textured jazz to live Middle Eastern acoustic, to the industrial jazz of Amon Tobin and the moody late 90's trip-hop that sounds like Portishead but isn't.

All the performances are mercifully short - I only say that because there are so many of them. Everyone went on at least twice. Most of the performances looked to me like they were improvised, and they alternated beween live musicians and pre-recorded music. Where they used recordings, the dancers obviously knew the pieces well and knew where the stops and breaks were; they were less successful with the live musicians. The musicians weren't quite enough to be an orchestra.

If you're already into Tribal Fusion or its moodier cousin Raks Gothique, this features some of the top TF stylists showing how it's supposed to look at its best. And these dancers are all very, very skilled. If you are a die-hard traditionalist who thinks Tribal Fusion and Gothic bellydance are a plague upon the land, this won't change your mind, so save your pennies.

I personally found it interesting but not totally inspiring. There was nothing in the dancing itself that I haven't seen before. Best-of-breed certainly, but not new.

There were moments in each dancer's performance where I was engaged, but then they'd do something else that seemed random, or that was done at a poor angle to the camera (poorly framed or positioned). The dancers didn't really have a sense when to stick with a move and when to change it. The element of Goth theatricality (i.e., creepiness) in their stances and their aesthetic is simply not my thing.

I was also bored by the lack of footwork and traveling steps to offset all the time they spent slinking in one place. Folkloric dance often has a lot of jumps and hops, or at least a sternum bounce or two. Even doing a few hops or skips as an accent would have added spice to these seamlessly smooth, controlled, leveled-out moves.

Some of the signature moves on here include the Tribal backbend, the slow Turkish drop, the Berber walk, and intricate abdominal isolations and chest articulations. Hip-hop influence shows in freeze-frame taxim and other moves; the influence was in the moves, but not necessarily the same attitude or rhythmic sense as one would find in hip-hop.

I would have liked to have seen more differentiation among the dancers. Stylistically, it was hard to tell one dancer from another just by watching unless the shot was close enough to really see their faces.

My personal favorite on this DVD was actually Mardi Love. She was the smoothest and had, I thought, the most beautiful hands. She also had more expressiveness and her soft features really played up the romantic, vintage feel of the overall aesthetic.

Rachel Brice has a finely honed technique that many people try to copy, but it's so optimized for her body proportions that it doesn't seem to look as good on other dancers as it does on her. She's much better live - but don't solo right after her, because she literally blows lesser dancers off the stage unless she's dancing together with them in a group.

In Egyptian style Raks Sharki, the emotion is supposed to well up from inside. Here, the emphasis was more on body movement than on pure emotion. I didn't see anyone get carried away by what they were doing. I wasn't carried away either. When I see a dancer I really like, I want to *be* her, or him, right at that moment. My heart leaps at the music and then leaps again when I see what they're doing. With this one, I was interested, but not that engaged.

That could be because they were in a studio setting, and they had no one to interact with. Most of them didn't know how to flirt with the camera directly, and they didn't have a horde of folkloric troupe members to kneel at their feet, clapping encouragement.

They didn't look like they were really "inside the music", which was rather removed from what many G.S. readers would think of as "bellydance music" or "Middle Eastern music". It's hard to do those intricate isolations and not have an abstracted facial expression. The dancing, like the music, seemed a little random. More groove would have been a good thing.

I thought it was well-photographed, showing a lot of close-ups of their abs and torso. I could definitely tell what they were doing. The costumes set off well against the backdrop - a simple yet sumptuous red curtain with variously placed large urns and such.

There was a remarkable consistency among the costumes - they're not identical, in fact they're all very eclectic and individually put together. However there's definitely a look: bare torso to show off those Pilates abs, covered legs with long fringe belts, bell bottom pants, black tops with rows of coins, and heavy jewelry on arms, neck and head. A lot of metal. The arm jewelry showcased and encouraged the use of the arms. The bell-bottom pants completely hide the feet, which are not emphasized.

In fact if you're looking for Tribal Fusion costuming ideas, there's even a backstage part where the dancers talk about their influences and where they got all their pieces: Thailand, India, self-made, Afghanistan, Ethiopia, animal bones, eBay. (No one mentioned sub-Saharan Africa, Europe, or the Americas.) Influences include 1920's vamp, late 1800s, comic books, burlesque, Star Wars, and contemporary high-fashion design.

However, their costuming might look best on the body type that most of these dancers have: pale skin, long, lithe, toned torso, and (for the most part) rather flat-chested. If you're short and pudgy, or unusually proportioned, or dark-skinned, you might need to re-tool somewhat.

Tattoos were also part of the look. I like tattoos, despite not having any of my own. However, a couple of the dancers had tattoos below the navel, and sometimes they looked from far away like overgrown pubic hair crawling out of their very low-rise pants. Fascinating but a little gross at the same time.

There seemed to be a total absence of a developed personality, character, or interactivity. I wanted to see a little humor, or play, or storytelling. And if you just want to create a spectacle, why limit yourself to bellydance? Take the music and figure out what would work best to showcase it. No need to do abdominal pops for the thousandth time just because you can.

I would also have liked to see some choreographic development within each performance. Even with an improvisation, a dancer can introduce the moves she'll be using and then come back to them, developing them more each time, in some coherent flow that echoes the repetitions that might occur in the music.

I've railed about the "broken"-looking postures of Tribal Fusion before. Now I think they're possibly from fusion comics, and also from the Indian dancing-Shiva statues. Other issues included chicken-wing arms - which I've also heard called the "Tyrannosaurus Rex syndrome" - as well as over-lifted shoulders, flapping hands, and expressionless faces. They were ultra-slinky, ultra-theatrical, even jerky at times - sometimes a simple elegance would have been a welcome change from all the vamping.

It would be nice to see more movements traveling through the body from bottom to top, from top to bottom, or one side to the other. This is something I remember seeing in breakdancing that was one of its best features. In bellydance the equivalent would be a shimmy that starts in the hips, goes to the shoulders, and then into a chest pop. Randomly popping bits in and out is mind blowing because the viewer can't figure out how it works at all - but then, sometimes, they don't know where to look next and they miss half of it.

A good dancer, a good choreographer, and a good stage magician can all direct the viewer's attention so that you always know exactly where you're supposed to be looking. We do this mostly through directing our gaze, through hand gestures, and framing. When the movements are too cleverly random and unpredictable, this continuity is lost.

The one exception to the common look and feel was the performance by Urban Tribal with Heather Stants. They, at least, are experimenting and trying new things, in their case seeking a more modern-dance aesthetic. I didn't really like their choreography all that much. There's more to modern dance than wearing simpler leotards. But hey... they're trying new things!

Product available here

Hossam Ramzy Presents
Bedouin Tribal Dance
Featuring Gypsies of the Nile
3 zills

I watched another DVD immediately after this one, Hossam Ramzy's "Bedouin Tribal Dance", a folkloric representation of the Bedouins of the Nile, who are also identified as the Ghawazee. Despite having the word "Tribal" in its title, this DVD is worlds apart from the BDSS Tribal Fusion.

There were a lot more people onstage, including musicians, as well as male and female dancers. They were not trying to be "exotic" necessarily. The dances had lots of character interactions, a stage filled with people, and a down-home family feeling, with people sharing focus and giving focus to one another. (There were no men on the Tribal Fusion DVD.)

The dances, costumes, and music were vary careful recreations of only one area, Egypt, and only one group within Egypt. The female dancers were covered up on their torsos, with bare forearms and far less jewelry. The covering was almost the opposite of the Tribal Fusion look, which has bare midriffs, the lowest possible belt-line, and heavily braceleted or covered arms.

Some of the numbers showed line dancing, including a Debke - you don't see any Tribal Fusion dancers doing Debke, although the old-school Tribal troupes like Hahbi'Ru did.

The dancing was more relaxed, simpler, more casual feeling, designed for endurance at hours of weddings. The presentation overall was designed to maintain a festive atmosphere rather than capture a viewer's attention completely.

These dances were less studied-looking, even though they were carefully choreographed. The dances followed the phrasing of music, which was very folkloric, with repetitive, predictable, balanced melody lines and a constant beat. The female dancers were flirtatious and playful, but not in a vampy way. The aesthetic, like the locale, was designed by natives and would appeal to natives.

This DVD has several performances and also step by step instructions for some of the movements used in the dance. I didn't go over the instructions that carefully, but they seemed remarkably thorough and methodical.

Egyptian folkloric dances are often under-appreciated because they look so "easy" and casual compared to the spectacle and theatricality of Tribal Fusion. This Egyptian folkloric dance, no less than any other, has its own look and feel that makes it authentic.

The DVD's menu screens are absolutely stunningly gorgeous, as is the stage itself. Very textured, with a lot of little details that look authentic but not messy. The dancing and musical performance was very high quality: polished, consistent, well-choreographed and well-staged. The videography is excellent - good color, easy to watch, more group shots.

Hmm... even though I have a lot less to say about this DVD, I think it's of better quality overall. I would recommend it to anyone with a serious interest in Egyptian folkloric dance.

I think a Tribal Fusion aficionado might find it boring, though. The dances, while charming, are completely lacking in the dark edge of fascination that is part of the Tribal Fusion draw.

Product available here

Bellydance Tribal Fusion
with Darshan
produced by WorldDance New York

3 zills

This DVD is primarily instructional, unlike the Bedouin one which is primarily performance. It's actually the second one I've seen of the same series produced by WorldDance New York, the first one being a Tribal Fusion/East Coast Tribal instructional from Sera. This one was well-formatted, with an introductory statement, some warmups and drills, and then three choreographies.

Darshan's background includes Flamenco, Roma, Brazilian Samba, Capoeira, yoga and more. She has worked with Dalia Carella, and in addition is a certified personal trainer and license massage therapist. Her fitness background seems to pay off; she had a lot of good things to say about protecting the spine, and her drills and warm-ups appeared based on a sound and solid foundation; at least, they worked for me.

So why is it rated only 3 zills? Well... I loved the warmups and the drills, but wasn't so crazy about the choreographies that are the bulk of the DVD. Actually, it might not be the choreos themselves so much as the sense of timing in which they were presented.

The one thing I failed to rail against in the BDSS Tribal Fusions part above is the over-busy, frantic, regimented feel of so many American bellydance choreographies. It could be the influence of jazz dancing, disco, high-school marching band, I don't know what, but most workshop choreographies don't have enough rests or pauses or variations in speed. It's like, people won't get their money's worth unless they learn 100 moves and can do them back-to-back without any transitions in three minutes of music.

The influence of "fitness class" hip-hop, which seems to consist solely of lengthy and complex choreographies that must be memorized in 45 minutes or less, makes this problem even worse in Tribal Fusion than maybe in other bellydance styles. I've taken classes which felt literally like the instructor had randomly slapped movements together as if splicing a video, and when I asked what preparation to use in order to get from a hip up to a hip down in the last 7/8 of a beat, all I got was a blank look.

In a workshop choreo, you still can teach those same 100 moves, but add a rest in between some of them to vary the pace, or do some of them half time, even quarter time, just for variety's sake. Or sandbag it for a few counts, repeat the same thing for a bar or two, just to give the learner's brains a chance to catch up and remember the next thing, and prepare for it.

In the choreographies on this DVD, they were not so much rushed as unvarying in pace, and a little too consistently on the beat, hitting every single one. I think the movement combinations themselves were promising. I liked many of the individual movement sequences, and I might try to adapt them. But let's start at the beginning.

I was particularly interested in the introduction, because it included what amounts to a manifesto of Tribal Fusion, an apologia or artistic statement of purpose. I hope it's not plagiarism to quote it in depth:

" I encourage you to... put yourself deeply into these movements and get as much as you can out of them...

" It's interesting to think about the relationship between dance and the times in which it was created... How do we affect the times that we live in? How is our dance affected by those times culturally? Think about that... Anywhere in the world, each place has dances that came about because of its culture, and [these dances have] then affected [that] culture in an interweave of relationship...

" What we do here is significant, what we're building [is significant]... Jamila Salimpour, Fat Chance Bellydance, and Ruth St Denis, are to bellydance what Coleman Barks is to Sufi poetry...

" They brought together influences from ancient arts and then presented an original interpretive translation that resonated deeply with people from these parts and these times... Westerners and around the world [people] can inspire is to look more deeply into the cultures from which they came, and their arts, and take those into ourselves, and create what we can from that. It could be that your responsibility to the times is to dance at the edge of what you can do, and dive as deeply as you can into the cultures that are presented to you..."

I have to say that I liked Darshan's personality very much. She came across as very warm, friendly, confident, and calm. In addition to the artistic statement, she carefully outlined what we would be doing, and also explained some of the differences between what she called "Tribalesque" which is Fat Chance's ATS style, "Contemporary Tribal Fusion" emphasizing theatricality and precision torso work, and "World Fusion". Each of these flavors is represented in one of the three choreographies.

I also really liked the warmups and drills. They seemed more valuable to me than the choreographies. Darshan emphasized sparing the low spine, having a lightness in the hip joints, being grounded, and having a lifted torso.

She showed several exercises and drills that I'd never seen before, and her form was really exemplary. Her arms were always beautifully placed, and her hands, while relatively calm, were still alive, still breathing with the movement. Having excellent form can make even the simplest of movements breathtakingly beautiful, and watching Darshan's demonstrations during these warm-ups was the single most worthwhile part of this DVD. The drills were excellent, and she repeated them plenty of times, remarking, "You can never have too much drilling" - I totally agree.

A few things to make your practice go better. First, have adequate floor space, because she does travel. Second, have the TV or monitor at standing eye level. Third, put your mirror behind you so you can check yourself periodically but it's not a distraction.

Please note: this DVD is not for beginners. She uses a lot of Pilates jargon such as "engage your navel" and "use your core" without ever explaining what it really means to do these things. I think you really need to have a few private lessons in Pilates from an instructor with a keen eye and the ability to answer questions in order to really understand what Darshan really means here.

During the warm ups, she uses positive encouragements such as "stretch to show your beautiful neck" that not only acknowledges the student as the center of attention (rather than the instructor's ego), but also gives a clear image of what to strive for. This came across as geniunely affirming rather than as superficially flattering.

The combo/drill section was also good, and showed a variety of moves and isolations. A few missing pieces, not too many. I would have liked her to explain the role of the neck in the ribcage lifts, but hey, no one talks about necks, ever. Pilates-trained bellydance geeks talk about lats, and psoas, and trapezius, and glutes, and lower abs, and this, and that, but necks don't seem to exist. You can see it on her, though. Also, at one point she carefully broke down a combination into 8 careful counts, but never explained the transition for how to get from 8 back to 1.

Let's see, how was the photography? The initial remarks, and also a couple of solo studio performances by Darshan, were in a warehouse type space that had "vibe". It was OK for visibility, but not great. However, a section of the drills and also the choreographies were filmed as a cut out over a background that showed her entire body outline much more clearly. You could see what her feet were doing, too - unlike a lot of instances where the instructor's wearing those huge flare pants, in black of course, against a black wall, and you can't see what her feet are doing or even which way they're pointing. In this DVD, there were occasional foot shots added in, which were very helpful.

Music: I really, really dug her musical choices. They're not "Middle Eastern" at all for the most part. But I recognized a lot of the music she used, from Amon Tobin to Raquy and the Cavemen. She also used some great hip-hop/rap. Compared to the "creepy Goth" industrial sound, which to my ear has no musicality whatsoever, these tunes were a welcome return to, well, to music.

In the choreographies. There was a subtle yet clear distinction in her demonstration of the three flavors, and a good use of the diagonal profile to frame some of the movements and postures. She also included signature moves from each flavor, such as the ATS arm-swim twist front-middle-back-middle combination (I don't know the insider name for it, but it's everywhere in ATS).

The first choreography is "Tribalesque" to one of my very favorite Raquy songs, titled "Gravosko". My only objection to this choreo was that it appeared to have NO relation at all to the music. Maybe it's just that I would use a different emphasis, or maybe I wouldn't even try to bellydance to "Gravosko" which is more Balkan-influenced than Middle Eastern anyway. It seems to call for a different sort of dance.

I can't even remember the "Contemporary Tribal Fusion" choreography. My notes say only, "As kata, sequencing exercises, very useful... Do people ever go beyond this false sense of success from quick mastery of individual moves and short combos? Very good, useful, variety... Too many isolations, too much ooey gooey..."

A kata, for those of you who have never taken karate, is a martial arts "form" or official choreography that is a memorized sequence of movements, often very artificially stylized. In the days before books and DVDs, these forms were probably the only way to encode enough information for people to take it home with them to practice. They were never intended for use as is, in actual combat; they were to train muscle memory in complex ways. They were also a quick way for people from the same school or system to gauge one another's skill.

The third choreography, titled "World Tribal Fusion", was my favorite. It had a more African feel, larger movements, and supposedly had Salsa in it (I dunno, never took Salsa dancing). It had some hops in it, which were fun to do.

She then did a performance using all three choreos, to a single song. Some bits went very well to the music, and others, not at all. I could see how to apply the movements to tailor to the music, even when I didn't like how it was working in what I was seeing on the DVD. Can you really take one choreo (or kata) and just slap it into something else? I think the answer is yes, as long as you change the feeling or attitude with which you do the movements to match the music.

In the last section, she does a studio performance. The quality of the video here could have been better. I liked watching her. I think Tribal Fusion fans will really get a lot out of it. My issues with her musical interpretation will not be a concern for everyone, and she is mature enough as a dancer to be worthwhile despite these nitpicks.

Summary: good dancing demo, good warmup, good drill, and finally, a Tribal DVD that's more than just three basic moves. Lots to dig into and take away, but in smaller pieces.

Product available here

Odissi Dance
Colleena Wedding
3.5 zills for those interested in this style of dance

Lynette didn't ask me to review this one. I got it last summer at Middle East Camp, and the only reason to mention it here is that it's an introduction to a very, very traditional art form, and is an interesting contrast to the contemporary invented art forms presented as Tribal Fusion.

Odissi temple dancing is possibly thousands of years old. Colleena has spent the last 6 or 7 years living in India, studying this dance form full-time.

A friend of mine, in describing a Ukranian Orthodox wedding he attended, said, "Orthodox means LONG." I'd also add that "Traditional" often equates to "Tedious and boring". Other traditional arts have been re-worked, re-interpreted, some might say dumbed down, to make them accessible to people primarily interested in a one-hour fitness class at their local gym. Tae-Bo comes to mind, and even most martial arts have been modernized extensively to make them commercial (taught at gyms) or semi-commercial (taught at dedicated schools that are part of a commercial franchise). But what is lost in the translation?

This DVD does not present a watered-down version of anything. What Colleena shows on this DVD is primarily a series of 10 introductory stepping exercises called choka, that students are expected to do for a year - a whole year! - before they ever get to learn ANY choreographies. The exercises are supposed to be done every day at sunrise.

Colleena demonstrates these drills in a beautiful temple built from light colored stone, with her guru playing a drum and counting in the background. She also shows the prayers and offerings that are made before every practice, similar to some of the chants that are done in some types of yoga classes - the prayers acknowledge the great masters and deities of the past.

The stepping drills themselves - I shouldn't call them stepping drills, really, they're complex movements involving the entire body, but especially the eyes, head, hands, and feet. The challenge in Tribal Fusion, and also in hip-hop, is the rapid-fire sequencing of single-part isolations. The challenge in these Odissi movements is coordinating every part of the body to make every exercise into a single, integrated movement. No wonder it takes a year!

Another reason they might require a year on the basics might be to train and condition the joints for dancing on those super-hard stone temple floors. If you tried those drills for the first time at an intensive weekend intensive, you'd probably damage your knees. A third reason would be to weed out those seeking instant gratification.

It was interesting to me that Darshan (in the previous video reviewed) talked in her opening statement about diving into other cultures, but there didn't seem to be any evidence of them in her presentation. Another word for cultural context is, of course, "cultural baggage".

Colleena included the cultural context in her locale and in her dress, but most importantly through the presence of her guru. Her guru clearly endorses her project through his participation and support.

I don't think most Westerners understand the validity and importance of the guru-disciple relationship, how sacred a trust it is on both sides, possibly because that relationship has been greatly distorted and abused in Western contexts. To most Westerners who fancy themselves to be liberated, individualistic freethinkers, only a terribly insecure, weak-minded or needy person would ever choose to "submit" or "surrender" to a guru's care - and the gurus themselves are nothing more than greedy, licentious con artists milking a gullible public and exploiting their followers.

In Tribal Fusion, there are no gurus, no elders, no one that the dancers have to respect to or listen to even when they don't want to. There is no sense of the past as a whole cloth.

The past can be limiting, or it can be viewed as something that, having evolved over so many years through so many people, has a richness and a texture that can never be duplicated by the efforts of a relatively small and homogenous group of people.

Since this DVD isn't really a bellydance video, I can't rate it for bellydancers. I don't think most of us are going to do those stepping drills at dawn every day for a year, all on our own. The style itself is so different from any sort of bellydance that I don't know if it would help a bellydancer all that much. On second thought, the detailed use of the eyes, hands, and torso might be a very good thing, for the right dancer.

As a documentary, it doesn't have quite enough there. However, it is a unique document presenting a detailed but tiny slice of an art form that I knew very little about, beautifully and clearly filmed, and I believe accurately and faithfully represents the material. It was a little expensive at $45, probably because it wasn't funded by any commercial promoters. For me, at least, it's a keeper.

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