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This "article" came out of an e-mail sent to me by a fellow dancer who had some good questions about tribal style and its many forms. What began as an e-mail exchange with my answers to two of her main questions has since turned into a more refined sort of article outlining my personal impressions. Again, let me emphasize that this is my personal take on it. Take from it what you will. -Sharon Moore
Published 2003, edited 2008

ATS vs. Tribal Bellydance-what's the difference?

What is your definition of American Tribal Style

This is a hot topic for me right now. I trained under Paulette Rees-Denis, and this is how she explained it to me: SHE feels that ATS describes the FatChance style of bellydance, and that the word "tribal bellydance" encompasses other styles, including her own. She does not call herself ATS. I have now also pursued teacher training under Carolena Nericcio, as well, and have always and continue to agree with both of my mentors that ATS=FCBD and Tribal is more general a moniker for group improv based performers.

That said, there is a debate going on almost all the time, but especially right now on some of the lists I belong to, that believe that ATS refers to the strictly improvisational style of *any* group, and that tribal encompasses the "look feel" and is more "anything goes". So some people are perfectly fine with seeing a cabaret troupe in tassel belts and turbans calling themselves tribal, just because it has the tribal costume. I am not personally okay with this idea--I think tribal still must encompass some (even mostly) improvisational aspects, and does have some restrictions on style when it comes to choreographies as well, which help keep the spirit of tribal even when not improvising. As to what those limits are and how to express them in words...that would be another article in and of itself, and is a subject of even greater debate.
I have always used the word Tribal to define a more fusion style, which can incorporate both choreography and improv, and felt ATS should be reserved for the improvisational format created by Carolena Nericcio and FatChanceBellydance.

As for me, my troupe has agreed on calling ourselves "tribal fusion", because we do improvisation, but also do choreographies. We feel the former, improv, is the tribal part and the latter, choreo, is the "fusion". You will note we do not call ourselves "ATS fusion". Our definition of tribal is in and of itself primarily improvisation, and is not enough alone to define what we do, so we add "fusion". Our choreographies are mainly tribal in style/presentation, with some aspects that could be called cabaret or folkloric in nature, but mainly still maintaining the "look and feel" of the moves and/or spirit created in the improvisational format. In fact, we often throw in sections in the chorepgraphies that look just like improv, or throw bits of choreography into our improvisational pieces, to keep the audience guessing about when we are choreographed and when we are improvising.

Do you feel there is a difference between ATS and the Gypsy Caravan style?

YES! There are a LOT of differences between the FC and GC styles. A lot of it is in the movement vocabulary and execution of the moves. Many of the moves are similar, but have very distinct differences in arm placement, accents, posture, body orientation, rules on rotation and travelling with particular moves, etc. Also, I feel that Paulette simplified some of the moves she once did when she was an original member of FC, likely to suit her body and her personal aesethetics. There are some moves that are clearly the same in concept between FC and GC, but with changes in the details. In many cases I like the GC way, and in some I prefer the FC way.

The cues are often different, even on the same moves. One will use a certain arm placement to indicate a half turn, while the other may use the same cue to mean a quarter turn. This is true of almost any different tribal style, however, as everyone develops their own cue system. But of the study I have had of each style, there are calcuable differences in cues. For instance, GC uses some verbal cues in the form of words and/or sounds, whereas FC stays relatively quiet throughout their performances other than the usual joyous zaghareeting. I think the main reason why FC avoids verbal cues is their more extensive use of zils. FC almost *never* goes without zilling when performing to fast music, whereas GC is more flexible, using them sometimes and not others, allowing them to use verbal cues with more success. Again, both methods do their "magic"--it is just personal choice! But so far, really, these are cosmetic differences, which can be seen even among different ATS groups. So let's look a little deeper.

Music with relation to moves is a big difference...or rather, tempo. FC uses fast music and slow music. They do not use many "medium" songs. GC uses music with paces all up and down the scale, from veeeeery slow on up to lightning fast, and much in between. This musical delineation dictates differences in interpreting the music and what moves go with what music. Carolena is known for making it clear that there are *fast* moves and there are *slow* moves, and they stay in the corresponding music. You do *not* use fast moves with slow or slow with fast. Period. Gypsy has many moves that are appropriate for either pace, and a lot of mixing and matching in the medium paced songs, so they are not hard and fast about what moves go with what.

Of course there is a lot of study of appropriateness (for instance, one wouldn't whip out a slow snake-y movement in the middle of a thumping tribal beat--it wouldn't look right or feel right!), and study in interpretation of music and rhythm, but there are genuinely moves that work with many different paced music and Gypsy allows for more exploration of this.However, one great reason to delineate your fast and slow movement is to keep a focus on a more limited vocabulary so as to select more swiftly from the vast selections of moves that could be used. Meaning, instead of leaders and followers having to remember say, "all 100 moves", they only have to keep in mind and be ready for "the 50 (fast or slow) moves" based on the speed of the music playing. This ups the response rate to cues, since the brain only has to sort out so many cues and changes at a time, and allows them to move a little faster overall.

Speaking of fast and slow, that is another difference--slow music interpretation. Fat Chance has a lot of freedom in their taqsims because they do not have to follow the rhythm, per se. They aim more for following the phrasing--a harder concept to teach/learn, and frankly sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn't. But when it does work, it is really beautiful. They need not hit every beat, so to speak, when doing slow pieces, and often use music with asymmettrical beats or no beat at all. This allows them to use some music that may have a slightly faster beat, but a much slower feel, without having to speed up the movements to match the tempo of the beat. They can keep their hips really slooooow, despite a faster drum rhythm, because the music has a slow feel to it that they are responding to. sometimes this is great and liberating, but without proper training to do it well, it can look like the dancers are ignoring/walking all over the rhythm. So this concept takes a lot of practice to be done to its fullest effect.

Gypsy Caravan is rhythmic regardless--fast, slow or medium. You are always responding to the rhythm in the music, however fast or slow. This makes any group much more easily taught how to synchronize, and often makes it easier to respond to the music predictably, making leading and following more simplified, as more often than not phrasing changes with the rhythm. However, there are cases where the phrasing is offset from the rhythm, or as I mentioned before, songs where there rhythm is faster than the actual feel of the piece of it has no discernable beat to follow, and GC does not have a context in their teaching to address these situations (in my experience). Since they are always rhythmic, you must always be responding to the rhythm and have an appropriate rhythm available to respond to. While this makes teaching easier, and leading and following easier more often than not, having the freedom to choose music that is arrhythmic or has no rhythm can broaden your musical possibilities.

There is also a spirit/look feel difference between the two. While I don't feel FC is "aloof", per se, their presentation is more "royal" in stature. They are always "on" as the professional dancers they are, and do not break that character. It definitely has a mystery about it that is captivating, and is not inaccessible in attitude, per se, but is definitely more energetically distant in many ways. There is more of a 4th wall, untouchable quality (in my personal experience); and even though their energy does penetrate this wall and makes the audience a part of the energy they project, I have never felt like a "part of the celebration" at a FC performance. I am a witness, not a "participant". Gypsy Caravan, on the other hand, tends to have a more relaxed posture, and their energy is a little more of an inclusive, "everywoman" kind of experience. They zaghareet, yip and cheer, smile and laugh in their performances. They make a lot of eye contact with the audience in both stage and close performances, and endeavor to make their audiences feel like there is no "wall", and bridge the distance between stage and audience. I really relate to the more boisterous style of Gypsy Caravan, but adore the statuesque posture and presentation of FatChance which is beautiful and powerful in its own way. Having studied both extensively over the years, I enjoy the marriage of the two as my personal ideal.


Bottom line, those who have studied and specifically attempted to base their style on FatChance style is an ATS style, in my definition. It is very easy to spot. Those who have not necessarily based their format on the FC style are also recognizable, and would fall under a more general Tribal moniker. If you have any thoughts to share on this topic, I sincerely welcome them. Write me anytime.

© Sharon Moore 2001-2006