There is no high council of tribal fusion" I'd like to talk about why I don't feel you need to learn ATS (American Trobal Style), ITS (Improvisational Tribal Style) or SGI (Spontaneous Group Improvisation) to become a tribal fusion bellydancer.
Before I get into the nitty-gritty of the post, let me clarify: I love watching ATS, ITS, and SGI. A highly-polished troupe performing these styles of dance presents a really exciting performance. I especially love advanced ATS troupes specifically for their dynamic formation changes which turn the dancers into a living kaleidoscope. I also think that these styles can be a very good introduction to bellydance for those who are intimidated by dance and performing, as the "follow the leader" nature means you don't have to stress about remembering a group choreography or carrying an entire performance as a soloist. I spent a couple years learning and dancing ITS with Anaya Tribal in Tempe and I enjoyed my time with them.
That said, although tribal fusion evolved from ATS/ITS/SGI roots, it is now its own distinct dance. I feel like if you want to be a tribal fusion dancer, whether as a soloist or as part of a troupe, you will be best served by finding a really good tribal fusion teacher who will teach you how to dance the style you want to dance. A good teacher will teach you the basic tribal moves taken from ATS/ITS/SGI, such as Basic Egyptian, Arabic, Maya, Snake Arms, etc, but they will also teach you the skills that set tribal fusion apart from the dances it evolved from.
Taking an ATS/ITS/SGI class will teach you those basics, too, but it will also teach you a lot of things that you will not need in tribal fusion, and some that will actively hinder your growth as a tribal fusion dancer. These skills include:
-Cues (not needed in tribal fusion)
-Follow the Leader (also not needed)
-Combinations (some people do use combos in tribal fusion)
-Formations and Lead Changes (again, some basic knowledge of formations can be good when dancing with a troupe, but lead changes are not needed)
-Very specific ways of pairing movements in different parts of the body (ie, we always use these arms with a maya)
-A specific movement vocabulary which is designed to be assembled into group improv on the fly, and which will usually include a set of rules (ie, we always do this move twice, this move can be done in 1/2 and 1/4 turns but that other one only has a full turn version).
-Dancing as a group (this can be helpful for tribal fusion troupes, but not for the soloist)
Studying with a well-trained tribal fusion teacher will give you the following skills that are not usually covered in ATS/etc classes:
-Traveling movements. While some group improv formats have combos that involve traveling, it is not as involved as movement can be in tribal fusion, especially as a soloist who needs to fill a whole stage.
-Complicated layering. You will learn exciting, sometimes brain-numbingly-difficult combinations of layers, which will make you a versatile dancer and able to more quickly pick up new layering tricks in workshops.
-A wide variety of movements, drawn not only from ATS/ITS/SGI roots but also from traditional bellydance, ballet, jazz, hip-hop, lyrical, Latin, African and other dance styles, depending on your teacher's background and tastes.
-Musicality. Although some very experienced and talented ATS/ITS/SGI groups show amazing musicality, for the most part these styles accompany the music rather than interpreting it. Because the tribal fusion vocabulary is less specific and involves either working as a soloist or as part of a choreographed movement, there is more opportunity to really interpret the music at even a beginner level.
None of this is to suggest that either of these styles is better or worse than the other. They are both beautiful, valid dance forms that people are attracted to for different reasons. Some people enjoy performing both, and in fact there are many troupes whose performances contain a mixture of group improvisation, choreographed tribal fusion group pieces, and solo numbers which may be improv or choreo.
In closing, I would like to say that dancers who chose to solely pursue tribal fusion bellydance should at least educate themselves on the influence of ATS and major ITS and SGI groups on the growth of tribal fusion. You don't need to take an ATS class, but you should definitely sit down at your computer and watch some Fat Chance Bellydance on YouTube, read up on the evolution of tribal fusion, and be aware of the roots of the dance you're performing so that when you are asked about it by the general public, you can give an educated and enlightening response.
Come back tomorrow to read about my specific experience with being an ITS dancer who switched to tribal fusion.