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This article grew out of multiple mails requesting information on the "hisotrical viability" of ATS/Tribal improvisational forms. Herein lies my answer. ~Sharon Moore
Is tribal belly dance a historical dance? I have heard that tribal is more authentic than other forms of belly dance. Is this true, and if so, how?
Tribal belly dance traces itself back through the same roots as many of the traditional dances found today in the Middle East, Spain, North Africa, Turkey, and India. These are also the same roots that modern cabaret belly dancers can trace their "lineage" through; only the chosen moves, styling, presentation and implementation is very different. Both Tribal and Raks Sharki are the product of fused cultural elements combined through shifts in borders, political and religious leadership, and migration over time; though I admit fully that Tribal relies heavily on the modern, purposeful fusion of these elements, while Raks Sharki's blendings are more deeply entrenched in historical changes we today have no control over. But I digress! Bottom line: No, Tribal belly dance, from a strictly scholarly angle, is no more authentic or tied to history than any other modern form of belly dance. That's the very short answer.
All the above said, I find that the *spirit and focus* behind Tribal belly dance is somewhat more closely tied to history than some other forms you may find in modern day. For and extreme example, from my studies, when Shakira 'shakes it' on stage, this is about as far removed from the original intent and presentation of the dance the further back you follow belly dance through history (please see my full article with more detail on this topic, coming soon). That is not to say that this dancing is wrong, lesser, or does not have its place. I am a strong believer in moving forward and adapting art to feed new audiences--I am a fusion artist myself, after all, and very much enjoy belly dance in all its beautiful forms. But from a strictly historical standpoint, this presentation doesn't quite accurately portray the dance in it's native historical setting.
A common thread found when one researches belly dance origins is the fact that dances such as these were more often private displays, performed only in the company of family or tribe, and was rarely viewed by the eyes of outsiders. In many examples, the dance was only performed and shared among the women, sequestered from the men. The focus of the dance was therefore turned inward, on one another, for one another. The dances were not choreographed or planned--it was a spontaneous expression of the dancer's feelings in the moment. They did, however, know a common vocabulary of movement among their family or tribe, and sometimes would come together in larger displays of synchronicity, while at other times they would just dance alone with abandon. A formal audience was not a consideration, as there really wasn't one. It was one big gathering of women to share, to heal, to laugh, to celebrate, to mourn...to dance.
I find this to be the same focus of Tribal belly dance today. Dancers are finding a connectedness with other dancers--their "sisters"--through the dance. The format of the dance demands a focus on one another that performing solo or a choreography does not. Many women seek out Tribal because they do not have aspirations to perform publicly or dance solo, but instead want to find a level of joy and fulfillment in sharing the dance among trusted friends. Many people are seeking a sense of community that the world of fast cars, "im-personal" computers, and MTV doesn't seem to afford them. Coming to class means joining their tribe for an hour or more a week, and encourages them to simply share of themselves on a different level than the rest of their life might allow. "Come on, it's just a dance class," you might say. And this is true. One should always remember that ultimately, we are in a class, learning a dance. But the side-benefits of studying Tribal belly dance are numerous and rewarding, and, I believe, links this dance to a long thread of history in a unique way.
A related question to this topic is "Do Tribal belly dancers really just dance for each other, and don't worry about whether the audience likes it or not?" This is a common misconception about Tribal as a performance art; which differs from Tribal as a personal expression, in my opinion. Both of which are perfectly valid pursuits!
I want to be very clear: while the overall effect of Tribal is to connect the dancers and turn their attention inward, when performing Tribal belly dance for the public, the focus and intent of the dance MUST shift. As a performer, one has a responsibility to their audience that differs from what is demanded casually in class or at parties. So while the spirit of connectedness and energy projected inward to your "tribe" is vital to maintaining the unique energy and presentation of Tribal, one must learn to divide their attention and energy to share with the audience. Much effort must be made to project yourselves outward to those who have come to watch, honoring their presence while still maintaining the synergy of the group on stage. This skill is one that only develops over much time and concentrated study of this art. And learning some other forms of dance, belly dance or otherwise, on the side helps a lot in developing stage presence, as well as having the side benefit of cross-training your body and providing you new inspiration to incorporate into your dancing!
The long answer made short comes down to this: while the dance itself is no more historically relevant than other forms of belly dance, the spirit of the gathering of Tribal belly dancers draws on a long line of traditional gatherings going back through centuries of dance. This doesn't make it better or more accurate than other forms of belly dance, but it does make it unique.
© Sharon Moore 2002-2006