Thursday, October 10, 2013

There is no high council of tribal fusion.

So, the wonderful thing about the internet is that things that were posted years ago will suddenly and randomly make a comeback, as one person comes across it again and posts it, and then other people agree with it so they post it... That's happening right now with a post someone wrote quite some time ago about the state of tribal fusion. To say that I disagree with that particular blog post would be a bit of an understatement. It annoyed me enough that I felt I had to get something off of my chest:

There is no high council of tribal fusion.

No one gets to tell you what can and can't be done in tribal fusion, or who you have to study with or how you have to dance. No one gets to dictate your facial expression or what moves you're allowed to use. No one gets to tell you that you aren't tribal enough. There is not a secret cabal of bellydancers who have codified exactly what percentage of your movement must have originated from bellydance, and which styles you're allowed to fuse, and how many sparkles your costume may have.

Are there rules to tribal fusion bellydance? Of course there are, but they're the same kind of rules that would apply to any dance form. Off the top of my head, they include:

-Study with the best teacher(s) you can. Depending on where you're located, that might be an ATS, ITS, Tribal Fusion, AmCab, Egyptian, Turkish or just general bellydance skills teacher. If there is not a good tribal fusion teacher in your area, you'll have to use videos to take the basics you're learning and modify them to fit the aesthetic you prefer. If you have the opportunity and money to study with multiple teachers in different bellydance styles, that's even better, although you may not want to do that right away as a beginner as it can get confusing. But if you learn multiple styles, you get different approaches to the same moves, some different moves, different ways to interpret the music, etc etc, and you can combine them to create your own personal style that works well in your body (obviously that only applies to soloists, in a troupe you'll want to do your best to do the moves exactly how your director does them).

-Study the kind of dance you would like to add to your tribal fusion. If you study with a tribal fusion teacher, you'll probably get a little bit of ballet, jazz, hip-hop or maybe Latin dance, depending on your teacher's tastes and backgrounds. But once you know what other non-Middle Eastern elements you prefer in your fusion, it's good to take classes specifically for those styles. For instance, I love the extensions and turns from ballet, so I take ballet classes. I also take Femme Cardio because it's a good workout, makes me think on my feet, and gives me some different movement to try to absorb.

-Practice hard. Practice the things that you're bad at so you become good at them. Practice the things you're good at so you become amazing at them. Practice things that feel weird. Drill moves. Put on random music and do improv. Give yourself emotional and artistic challenges. Master some props. Practice your costuming and makeup skills, too.

-Make good choices. Choose music and movement that is appropriate for the venue. Choose a costume that is appropriate for the mood of the piece and the style of movement you're going to be doing (no floorwork in delicately beaded vintage skirts!). Early on in your performance career, while you're still developing your style and your sense of what is appropriate, you may want to work with a mentor who will help guide you until these things become second nature.

-Dance with integrity. As long as you are making good choices based on your knowledge and capabilities (ie, fusing the bellydance you've been studying diligently and the jazz you've been studying diligently, instead of saying "I want to do a belly-tango fusion tomorrow so I'll just watch a few tango performances tonight, no big deal") and you dance the very best you can, and interpret the emotions of the song you're dancing to, you'll be fine.

I think it's important for us to remember that tribal fusion bellydance is a very young artform. There's going to be a lot of experimenting, and there may be offshoots that thrive and become their own style, and offshoots that last only a year or two and prove to just be a passing fad. It will probably be decades until it settles into a semi-permanent form with a specific style of costuming and a core vocabulary of moves, and even then there will be differences, just as traditional bellydance isn't just one thing, but encompasses folkloric dance and fauxloric dance (inspired by traditional dances but completely made up or given some theatrical spin), and Egyptian, and Turkish, and Lebanese, and AmCab, and probably a few others I'm not listing. So just chill out. Stop trying to apply your rules to it, sit back, and let it evolve. You don't have to enjoy everything that you see, and sometimes you will see some objectively bad dance performed by people who rushed to the stage without taking the time to really develop your skills. But no one is the one high judge of what counts as tribal fusion.

I'd like to thank Gothic Charm School for inspiring me with the concept of the Secret Cabal of ElderGoths. The Lady of the Manners has such a way with words!


  1. Yeah - I've seen that one pop up recently, and I don't know what things were like in 2008 but it ain't the case now. The thing about the tribal fusion posture? That's ATS posture, not fusion!

    1. Exactly. Good posture is really important, but ATS isn't the only good posture.

      I do think that we still have SOME of the same problems now that were a problem in 2008. I've seen a lot of bad, clueless dance performed under the description "tribal fusion" but then again, I've also seen some really bad, clueless dance performed under just about every label.

      I think one of the problems in tribal fusion has been that baby dancers see someone like Mardi or Rachel perform with low, close arms, and on them it looks GREAT because they still have energy in their arms and they know how to move their bodies properly within that tight frame (and when to leave that tight frame for something wider), and without the proper training, a newbie just looks like they have chicken wings when they try to emulate their idols. But the answer to that problem isn't "study ATS" it's "practice whatever you're doing with strong arms."

  2. Do you mean Asharah's article? There's a difference between tribal fusion and bellydance fusion, and I'd say that it's legitimate to say that if you want to call it "tribal", you should have ATS or another tribal style in your background. It's fascinating to follow the evolution of dance, and often new styles aren't named or defined until they've been around a while. It's helpful to have names and definitions so that we can discuss and compare them, and someone, preferably experienced dancers/dance studies specialists, needs to create those names and definitions. But a dance doesn't need to be called a certain name in order to be high quality, so why is everyone dying to be called tribal?

    1. That is the article I'm talking about :) I don't disagree with the idea that if you want to perform Tribal Fusion you need to have an ATS background. I think if you want to perform Tribal Fusion, you should study with a qualified Tribal Fusion instructor.

      Even if we assume that since this article was written 5 years ago when people were still sometimes using ATS as a catch-all term covering ATS, ITS and SGI as opposed to specifically meaning FCBD style group improv, I just don't feel that you need that particular foundation to dance tribal fusion. ATS-type dances teach cues, combinations and formations that you just don't need as a tribal fusion soloist, while not teaching you thinks that you could use, such as good traveling moves to cover a lot of ground on your own, layers, locks, etc.

      And even if we set aside the whole "you need to know ATS" and assume that the writer would be fine with you getting some ATS-style basic moves from a qualified tribal fusion dancer, I'd still disagree strongly with her stated rules about not fusing in Cabaret bellydance moves alongside your tribal (I will lift and toss my hair as much as I please!) and with wearing an ATS smile at all times. An ATS smile is great for ATS where you want to present a happy, smiling group of dancers all interpreting the music in the same grinning way. It is not great for a Tribal Fusion dancer who is perhaps interpreting a sad song, or an angry song, or a song that might suggest a shy, playful smile or a sly, knowing smile instead of a "YAY we're sisters in dance!" smile.

      Honestly, I don't think tribal fusion is the best name for what we do, because even when you still include tribal-style moves like the Basic Egyptian and the Arabic and good, muscular tribal-style mayas and taxims with powerful snake arms, the aesthetic is not very tribal anymore. Most fusion dancers don't really seem to go in for the drawn-on facial tattoo makeup and while we may still wear Taureg jewelry and Rajasthani textiles, they're mixed in with vintage Assuit and Victorian lace appliques and velvet skirts. Or we might be wearing Melo-style pants and a simple top to do something really acrobatic with crazy floorwork. But just like bellydance isn't the best name for bellydance and football isn't the best name for American football, people keep calling it that because it's what it's been called.

    2. It sounded to me like she was presenting generalizations about what constitutes "tribal" influence in our fusion rather than hard and fast rules about what is and isn't allowed. After all, as beginners, we're told not to touch our bodies... then we see famous Egyptian dancers doing so in a very classy way. Like telling a child, "No hitting people!" it's a good general guideline to follow until you are experienced enough to make a well-educated, conscious choice about when to break the "rules" instead of not even being aware that such a thing exists.

      About the smile thing, I think you totally missed what she said. Asharah didn't say that all tribal fusion dancers need to paste on an ATS smile--she said "Tribal fusion doesn't require a frown," and that's totally right. So many tribal fusion dancers learned to keep a distant facial expression during their dance simply because they were imitating Rachel Brice's early stage fright! It's always important to adapt your expression to represent the emotion of the music.

      I think you get to the meat of the matter when you start talking about nomenclature. Do we start calling what we do by fully accurate but cumbersome terms like "vintage American Cabaret fused with 1920's and a bit of hip-hop," skip the description problem by calling it "fusion bellydance," or call it "tribal fusion" even though a lot of the tribal element simply isn't there anymore? In cases where the dance involves more cabaret-specific moves than tribal-specific ones, I'd go for option number 2. I'd also use it for dancers like Mira Betz who deliberately avoid cab or tribal specific stylings in favor of something that can only be called "bellydance." Just because a particular name has become an institution doesn't mean we can't change it to be more accurate, and the only way to do that is by raising awareness and thoughtfully discussing it, so thank you for doing so! :)

    3. I'm gonna go ahead and link to the post we're discussing so anyone who wants to wander in can see what we're talking about:

      In regards to the smile issue, I see what the problem is: * Open facial expression. True ATS dancers smile. Tribal fusion doesn't require a frown.

      I read that as "True ATS dancer's smile" as in she was saying you should have a smile like an ATS dancer would, when actually she's saying that ATS dancers smile. Which is true. But the fact remains that tribal fusion =/= ATS, so while she is right that fusion does not require a frown, it also doesn't require a smile. It requires an authentic facial expression that fits the music you're dancing to.

      I really would like to see more and more people just call it fusion bellydance, though. I'd stop using the word "tribal" altogether in my on-line presence if not for the fact that lots of people still use it as a search term and I want to show up when people google that sort of thing :P

    4. Ha! The first time I put my improvisations online, I called them "Fusion Bellydance" and thought I was the only one that felt that way. :D


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