ad 4 Artemis

Gilded Serpent presents...

Welcome to the Gothla!

Dancing Along the Sulk Road

Bellydance for Beautiful Freaks by Tempest
Gothic Bellydance Revelations
Gothic Bellydance: the Darker Side of Fusion

Review of 3 DVDs by Rebecca Firestone

video of Tempest by Lynette

When will Lynette ever stop sending me these DVDs? I have told her that it's not fair to have an outsider review this stuff. Now I have two Gothic-themed bellydance items on my desk:Bellydance for Beautiful Freaks by Tempest, and Gothic Bellydance Revelations, a collection of 23 performances by several leading artists in the Gothic bellydance scene. A third one came soon after, Gothic Bellydance: the Darker Side of Fusion. All these titles come out of World Dance New York, which has been prolifically releasing belly dance and Tribal Fusion-related DVDs.

What Is Gothic belly dance? To paraphrase Tempest from her DVD:

Raks Gothique is separate from Tribal. Tribal is performed as a group interacting as a harmoniously flowing unit. Gothic bellydance is about the individual and expressing gothic moods such as a dark elegance, mystery...with perhaps a sense of danger. It can be very dramatic. Gothic bellydance can be more classic one day and more Tribal the next.

What is Goth Culture, Anyway?
Before we delve into the DVDs themselves, we should consider the Goth subculture that informs them with its moody, dramatic, and theatrical aesthetic. After hanging out in San Francisco for a while, I thought Goth meant you were cold, vapid, heavily made up, possibly on hard drugs, vain, often sporting dreads, tattoos, and piercing(s) to make an unmistakable statement: "Fuck my day job". (Apparently, this is only one variant.) My perception, again informed by local experience, was that people who identified as Goth seemed rather pretentious, with a tendency to appropriate the props and trappings of decadence and danger—swords and knives, bondage and blood—without quite grasping anything beyond their allure. Based on my observation, there was one mood: depressed, with only one archetype: vampire, and only one theme: death. The color scheme was all black, with occasional touches of red or violet. A Goth who's a morning person? Forget it!

It's About Attitude
This narrow-minded stereotype is over-simplified. According to these DVDs, it's more about attitude and drama than about specific fashions or dance style. The artists' fantasies could be anything from Dickens Faire, pre-Raphaelite art, or Star Wars.

Equating Goth with a mood instead of a specific fashion or look makes it potentially more cross-cultural. Right now, it's a very white-skinned crowd, though. I wonder, are there Goths in Africa, or India—or in Uzbekistan, following the Sulk Road?

This book has Goth dance steps!

One might think that someone from an area that's recently experienced upheaval or violence would be less drawn to eroticized images of death. But then there's Weimar Germany, that outpouring of creative angst and sexual freedom that lasted from the turn of the century until the Nazi Party came to power in the 1930s, and wait, don't the Tantriks of India embrace both eroticism and death? Hey... Goth Tantra! Oh wait. Already been done, although not under that name.

And what about older Goths? If Goth is an attitude, what about Grandma Goth? Would she be a wild harridan in black leather, or would she be a sweet little old lady with a gentle smile, reading glasses, and suspiciously long black knitting needles? Also, a lot of Goths are apparently Vegan, but maybe that's a local San Francisco thing. The thing is, I missed out on both Goth and its predecessor, Punk. As a moody teen, I listed to The Doors and King Crimson—the one being an acid-inspired LA lounge band, and the other being surrealistic art-rock.

Visual and Emotional Realms
It turns out that Tempest's idea of Goth is probably closer to an arty, disaffected, romantic teenager who just wants to express herself than to any specific stereotype of appearance or behavior, and the Revelations title was specifically and consciously inter-denominational when it came to style.

This openness is a nice change from the we-all-want-to-be-just-like-Ultra-Gypsy individualists who look right through you if you don't know their moves or kiss their ass enough. Tempest even makes fun of Gothy coldness by saying that old-school Goths are the toughest audience you can have. They stare coldly and standoffishly at you... and that's if they like you!

Is Gothic bellydance just old wine in new bottles? If it is, it's a beautifully designed bottle, with an elegant label in a dark-looking font.

Aesthetics are a huge part of it. Dance technique, so highly prized in other genres, is seen as important, but not required, and I can't think of any unique Gothic bellydance signature moves. It's really the costuming and the mood that makes it special.

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 graduate of the Rhode Island School of Design.

Another improvement is the mood. Yes, it tends towards the dramatic, sultry, and sometimes depressive. However... they're working on an emotional level, going beyond stone-faced Tribal or glitzy cabaret into a more personal realm of myths, fantasies, and visions. The word "storytelling" is misleading, since there is little plot development or character interaction. The dance on these DVDs is not based on sequential thinking. Its impact is visual, symbolic, and emotional.

Goths as Outsiders
A lot of people ended up first in Tribal—and later in Raks Gothique—because they've been shunned or sidelined in the Cabaret bellydance communities for being large, for being tattooed/pierced, for being too passionate for the watered-down version of Cabaret bellydance that sees only one possible bellydance career: "prancing in sparkles in a Middle Eastern restaurant."

Here's a quote from a feedback page from one of Tempest's workshops:

"I had grown tired of being sidelined in student choreographies for being a large woman... I began to wonder how much power The Island of Misfit Toys could wield if the dentist elves and polka-dot elephants had their own group ... where talent and stage presence and passion were the requirements for participation... I was that productive kind of angry you get into when wanting to scream 'F*** you, I hate cutesy choreography with no goddamned teeth!' turns into a plan..."

Tempest's DVD was like having a big sister, someone to coach you up for dancing at clubs and help you through the beginner "gotchas" –like dancing in platform boots or doing undulations safely while wearing a boned corset.

I got curious and poked around the Internet. I found the term "Gothla" as a substitute for "hafla", and references to a Durga Tour, which was a workshop tour with Tempest, Sashi, and several other dancers.

I knew Tempest personally. She was very accessible in person and way too nice to be a Goth. When she announced her new web site on "Raks Gothique" on the now-almost-defunct MED-dance list, the flamage shocked even me: "Puh-leez!" shrieked one writer. None of the protesters took the time to describe exactly what it was that was wrong with it; they just exploded like a pile of loose grenades. One of the Durga Tour organizers writes, "We took no end of s*** when we announced the tour—pot shots and digs and disparaging remarks...mostly, I think, for the sheer audacity we showed in not asking anybody else for guidance or...permission to have an event."

I guess I'd have to support them in that.

Why the hell should they have to ask permission? How are they harming anyone by living a rich fantasy life? Are they stealing students or gigs from anyone? Are they equating bellydance with stripping in a way that makes it harder for other dancers to stay legit? Are they misrepresenting endangered cultures? Not on these DVDs.

But Is Their Technique Any Good?
Sometimes, yes, although the greatest technicians were not the most effective choreographers or storytellers, and vice versa. Even if they are well-intentioned bunny-huggers at heart, not all Gothic bellydancers are great dancers. Some of them are. Some of them...well, let's just say that they provide a needed outlet for those trapped arty types still living at home with their parents. When Tempest first started getting her name out there, in a way that many people felt was premature, her dance technique was the elephant in the living room at some of the South Bay MECDA shows. It was awful. Gotta say that, sister. I didn't see the MECDA show, but I saw Tempest perform on several other occasions and the smoothness, the solidity, the core strength: it just wasn't happening.

So maybe this is all just sour grapes, but it seems to me that to succeed today as a bellydancer, all you need to do is design a nice web site for yourself, get yourself on YouTube, get on Tribe, get a credit in a self-produced movie, learn how to write a good grant proposal, and write yourself up in Wikipedia. Tempest describes herself as the "GothMutha of bellydance". Isn't she a little young to be giving herself such grandiose titles?

On the other hand, Tempest is clearly filling a need for someone accepting and supportive who has crafted a charismatic image that beginners can step into. Apparently, she has traveled "all over the planet" (her web site) giving workshops to women who are just dying for this kind of creative outlet. They love it, and they love her performances.

On this DVD her technique is okay. It's got a slight awkwardness and innocence to it that might be more accessible to a beginner dancer than the ultra-isolated, super-athletic pops and locks from someone like Ariellah. It's more lyrical. On the Revelations DVD, several of the dancers had absolutely gorgeous technique, particularly Ariellah, Sashi, and Neon. The dancing on the Darker Side DVD was more uneven in quality. It had some big names on there who were good: Ariellah, and Neon, but also some performances that frankly, I skipped over—after the first few minutes.

Goth and the Occult, Burlesque, and BD/SM
The other elephant in the room at the time of Tempest's rise to self-styled fame was Princess Farhana's bellydance Burlesque performance at a South Bay MECDA show a few years back, which some people found to be of questionable taste. By amazing coincidence, Tempest appears in Farhana's soon to be released movie about a year of her life. Maybe because both Gothic and Burlesque versions of Belly dance are dismissed by the "Cabaret mainstream", they've come together as fellow outcasts?

None of these DVDs contained material that was degrading, disturbing, or was in poor taste. There was no vulgarity. Most of it would get a PG rating. [see author's additonal note at bottom of page]

There was no girl-on-girl almost-naked lesbian floor action under the name "bellydance", and no scenes of overt torture or violence. (Sashi's piercing performance at Tribal Fest, which was not at all PG, was not featured on any of these discs.) I didn't see any advanced references to astrology, alchemy, medieval grimoires, or mystic pantheons.

One way in which these were stories was in their vocabularies. Instead of developing a choreographic vocabulary, and taking a choreography-centered approach, some pieces had unique visual and symbolic vocabularies. The symbolism might best be described as Romantic/Classical (cups, roses, robes, pillars, urns), Anne Rice (vampires, roses, blood), Catholic-school (crosses, cups, references to Hell), the shadow side (death, Hell, rage, desolation) or a mise-en-scene (sci-fi/fantasy cover art, speakeasy). I didn't see any references to the so-called Dark Arts in these performances. Although there were no overt occult references on these DVDs, in actuality, I've seen considerable interest between Goths and some of the “magickal” communities. (Note: that's magic spelled with a "k".)

There's also some overlap between Goths and the leather/fetish crowd. In San Francisco at least, it almost seems like they're one and the same—white skin, black leather, red blood—heavy on the visual. BD/SM [bondage, domination, sado-masochism] was not featured on any of these DVDs.

Gothic Bellydance Revelations

This one's almost 2 hours long! It contains series of 23 performances from dancers, including Ariella, Sashi, Jenivivia, Sera, Neon, Tempest, and Ayshe. All the numbers were filmed on a large, bare theater stage with professional lights—but no scenery. The majority were solos, with a few troupe performances. The styles vary from Tribal Fusion to Cabaret. Some of them didn't seem very Goth.

Best dance technique: Ariellah, Sashi, Neon.

Here are some sample notes: Vampires, candles, roses, smoldering stares, masked balls... A tender-faced innocent is initiated into the vampire cult at a club. A-hah! —finally: a costume that solves the old "but I can't bellydance in a corset" dilemma.

The lighting was much better than you'd find in an actual club. You can see what everyone is doing and the costumes look great. All white looked good in the blue, focused light.

My roommate came in while I was in the middle of watching this one and quipped:"Expressionist modern dance for tortured souls who know how to belly dance..."

If you use this DVD as background entertainment a la MTV, you should put it on shuffle with some other collections that aren't all bellydance, for variety's sake. The striking imagery might be even better with the sound turned off. You could even run it on fast-forward for a stop-motion effect.

Musical choices ranged from mainstream to metal: Jehan, Xymox, Corvus Corax (bagpipes with a back beat), Velvet Acid Christ, with song titles like '"My Dear Ghoul" and "Initiate Among the Forsaken" (an outsider theme). Question: With all these musical styles and themes, why are they sticking with just bellydance? Answer: They don't, they just use the word "bellydance" in their descriptions because most of these dancers seem to identify as a bellydancer first, and then add in other styles. It's hard to say whether they've had formal training in choreography as a discipline, but I don't think so.

Even the brilliant technicians didn't develop their choreographies. (Getting up off the floor is not "development".)

There was some Modern dance influence, although I didn't think the half-bedlah with body stockings or the nighties worked. Ditto the red cabaret bedlah under a hooded black monk's robe. The writhing, sensual movements of bellydance didn't always go with the mood if they were using industrial-noise music. For those, I thought they needed more violence or vigor in movement. The bagpipes seemed also to call for a different dance.

“Experimental” doesn't always work, but I'd rather see an experiment that doesn't quite work than the same old tried and true formula. Mavi did interesting sword passes, instead of just head balancing; she was one of the few who explored the physical properties of her prop. I didn't think every idea worked, but how will you know unless you try it first? All of them could have used more development, could have gone beyond the use of dramatic items as mere props. There was a shamadan with red candles. Hmm. Where's the wedding? Many of them could have focused on using their props better, as in manipulating them rather than just presenting them for visual effect. There was a snake dancer too, who seemed a little rough with her snakes.

One seemed a joke. A woman came out doing poi spinning with spiked balls, in Conan the Barbarian style. I wish she'd actually mastered poi spinning instead of using them as a prop. She was the only one over 30, and I honestly don't know if that was intended as a joke, too.

I think that viewers who are already into romantic imagery, who love to be swept away by beauty and drama, will absolutely adore this DVD, especially if they watch it from an already heightened emotional state, and its PG rating means you can buy it for your teen-age nieces!

Watch for: costuming ideas, dance technique.
Skip: the all-drapery numbers where no dancing occurs.

Belly dance for Beautiful Freaks
I'd recommend the Beautiful Freaks DVD for teenagers, or Goths with no previous dance experience and perhaps even no fitness experience. Tempest's verbal instructions and remarks were all things I could wholeheartedly agree with. Pretty arms, pretty hands, strong shoulders, stage presence, mood, telling a story with the dance... if you listen to her talking, it's a good instructional for beginners.

The title is ironic. I don't think Tempest is that freaky, or that beautiful. She only has one visible tattoo, and no obvious piercings. What's so freaky about that? She's not a glamour girl; she's more a nerdy kid with an East Coast liberal arts me.

Ah, but true freakdom comes from the inside out, does it not?

First, she leads a very basic warm-up. By "basic", I mean that if you are someone who's never, ever taken a fitness class in your entire life, and who always hung out on the sidelines during gym class, you might like this warm-up. It will get you back into your body. It hits the right stuff, and Tempest's remarks on taking care of your body did, too. Four combinations, shown one right after another, follow the warm-up, and then Tempest breaks them down into drills. Finally, there's a performance and some credits (which did not include crediting the music.)

The performances included several different archetypes, from "French Cabaret Singer" to "Greek Priestess" (my monikers). The priestess one looked great on the 4x fast forward, which turned it into a series of stop-motion paintings like a graphic novel. (A very long-winded graphic novel with no dialogue or plot, but a graphic novel nonetheless.)

She mentions Ruth St. Denis and Theda Bara as her influences. I wonder how she'd do as an actress in a silent film? She talks about "dramatic embodied storytelling". In the first Revelations DVD, I had seen themes, but no actual plot, no character interaction, and no outcomes. Hip-hop videos often have humorous themes, mini-subplots, like commercials. These didn't go that far. It's ironic to hear Tempest stress over and over again how important technique is, but she doesn't have much. If you want that fabulous serpentine Tribal technique, you won't find it here.

I think Tempest should do the voice-over and then have someone like Ariellah do the demonstration. Of course, maybe Ariellah could have someone like Tempest create choreographies for her so she can go beyond improvising the same tricks to different music.

Tempest says, "This is an art. Don't try to count it out or fit everything into 1-2-3-4. You don't want to be in your left-brain. Make it a story rather than thinking about movements." Also she said, "It's not about looking Goth and dancing to bellydance music or dancing to Goth music in regular bedlah. Instead, strive for a deep sense of drama, a theatrical presence or a ‘strange presence’.” The attitude is conveyed through facial expression. Tempest suggests that a typical Goth bellydance facial expression could be playfully evil, an "I'm going to eat you for lunch" expression. (See Ariellah's performances on Revelations and Darker Side.) However, Tempest is not evil, she's cuddly, and that's actually a good thing. There are people out there who really are evil, who will suck the life out of your body to feed their own egos, but she's not one of them.

She warns against "porn face" (a gaping stare). Thank you Tempest! One thing I dislike about the bellydance Burlesque style is the open-mouthed leer that some dancers use in lieu of a more playful coyness.

"Think about an archetype but don't take your self too seriously" was another piece of great advice.

Gothic Bellydance: The Darker Side of Fusion
At $12.95, this was a bargain. Lavish graphic design on the DVD almost makes up for amateurish dancing.

Unlike Revelations, the dancing numbers here weren't shown on a stage. Instead, the first few numbers were superimposed over a series of images, mostly of winter trees and gravestones. I don't know if that makes it "darker" –darker than what? There was nothing creepy or inhuman or evil really, and I'm just as glad that it wasn't deeply disturbing. Overall, the dancing is not as good as on Revelations. Some of the performers were not quite ready to be professionally filmed. Although many used veils or other props, there wasn't much mastery of the props.

I played it straight through. The lack of titling between numbers made it hard to know whom I was watching, although they're listed on the menu.

The most interesting to me was an ATS duo who did a knife dance. Their 4-count cadences, which sometimes looked a little too regimented, were probably improvised. The dancers used a backward grip that I'm guessing was inspired by a type of Egyptian knife dance (demonstrated in passing by Sahra Kent many years back), but I don't think their actual movements were. The two dancers had very good intensity, excellent rapport with one another, and nice classic ATS technique.

Ariellah once again stood out as the most accomplished and charismatic dancer. She's got the internal strength to make the Tribal Fusion style look good. Her best power pose is with arms overhead. She has gorgeous stage presence, and a nice body; so why's she hiding her beautiful tattoos? She looks like a minx or a little vixen: very piercing gaze, coy sweet smile, plays to the camera. She's a little too hip-hop; it's distorting her stance, and the chicken-wing arms with elbows tucked in should be more of a transition and less of a home base. Sometimes I found her constant hand movements a little distracting.

Graphic design is not enough. Images of gravestones and winter trees aren't enough either, although I was on the fence about it. Swooshing some shiny fabric around under a dramatic lighting is not enough, either. The DVD is actually a work of art, in the videography and composition, but not the dancing—and that may be okay.

Ending credits include dancer contact information, making me think "Hey, I just paid $12 for a self-promotional piece."

Links for Further Study
Gothic bellydance might be best if it is only one flavor in an already accomplished artist's repertoire. Here are a few of the more interesting items I came across in my Googling:
(These have nothing to do with the DVDs in this review; I just thought the links were cool.)

  • - a Gothic Tribal Fusion dancer. Her Far Asian fusion stuff looks interesting; from her posture in the photos, I think she's trained seriously in martial arts.
    She goes beyond bellydance. She also lists her teachers and lineages.
  • - "belly Horror" (she's German). Campy and rather fun. Wide range of styles.

Author's additional note: I had said that there was nothing vulgar or in poor taste but apparently there's a lesbian BDSM scene on the "Gothic Bellydance- the Darker Side of Fusion." You might have to re-think the idea that you could buy it for a teenager. See Amulya's review linked below.

Have a comment? Send us a letter!
Check the "Letters to the Editor" for other possible viewpoints!

Ready for more?
3-3-08 Academics and Belly Dance, Two Books Review by Rebecca Firestone
Belly Dance: Orientalism, Transnationalism & Harem Fantasy edited by Anthony Shay and Barbara Sellers-Young & Choreographic Politics: State Folk Dance Companies, Representation, and Power by Anthony Shay

11-29-07 Tribal: Fusion, Bedouin, What's the Difference? 4 DVDs reviewed and compared by Rebecca Firestone
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.

7-27-06 Shades of Goth Fall Upon Belly Dance Gothic Bellydance: The Darker Side of Fusion DVD Reviewed by Amulya
produced by WorldDance New York. " There have been heated discussions on several Belly dance forums about this DVD..."

5-24-04 Dancing Darkly: The Phenomenon of Gothic Belly Dance by Laura Tempest Schmidt
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.

5-26-06 Sashi - Kabob by Lynette, Warning, possibly disturbing graphics!
The punctures appear to go under the skin into the subcutaneous fat layer and not through muscle tissue.

6-26-06 The Spirit of the Dance: A Response to the Criticism of my Tribal Fest 2006 “Pierced Wings”Performance by Sashi
I was originally hesitant to write this article regarding my Tribal Fest 2006 “Pierced Wings”performance as I personally believe that a performance should not have to be explained by the artist, rather it should rely on what it evokes in others.

5-13-08 The Ancient Art of Keeping Your Mouth Shut by Neon
Even one’s casual presence in the forums infested with negative-spirited discussions

ad 4


 Gilded Serpent
 Cover page, Contents, Calendar Comics Bazaar About Us Letters to the Editor Ad Guidelines Submission Guidelines