The Trouble with Tribal (Fusion)
By Asharah, copyright 2008
Click here for a printable version (available soon)

I think tribal belly dance is going through a bit of a crisis right now. The problem? So many new dancers and so little definition of tribal's identity. With the explosion of soloists dressing up like The Indigo and posting videos of themselves on YouTube, I feel like these dancers don't know where their roots lie. With so many dancers out there without the resources or instructors to learn American Tribal Style (ATS)--the root of "tribal fusion bellydance"--I see the misconceptions and innocent ignorance going global. Dancers without access to ATS classes will call themselves "tribal fusion" and yet despite their costuming, they dance like oriental/cabaret dancers. It's like watching a hip hop performance by a dancer in a ballet tutu... and calling herself a ballerina.

After seeing video upon video, I think I've figured out what makes a dance "tribal". Of course sometimes the line isn't so distinct, and it doesn't always have to be... but I believe that a dancer should know the implications of what she calls her dance.

As I made the journey into becoming a tribal-inspired bellydancer, I tried to identify the core characteristics of tribal bellydance. These elements, when integrated with other dance forms, make that integration a form of "tribal fusion bellydance." Without those core elements, the dance can't be called "tribal fusion bellydance" but rather "fusion bellydance". And, for the record, there's nothing wrong with fusion bellydance as long as its performed well. Just don't call fusion bellydance "tribal".

Why even narrow these characteristics down? Why do I care?

I think I care because I like to know the roots of what I perform. Boiling down a dance to its bare essence helps me figure out whether I'm staying true to a dance form or style. I want to perform tribal fusion bellydance; therefore, I need to find out what defines "tribal bellydance".

Everyone has their opinion of what makes a fusion "tribal", but here are the core elements I believe should be part of a tribal fusion performance, and note how none of it has to do with the costuming:

* Arms and hands: floreos (ATS-style), high elbows, and strong ATS (flamenco-inspired) arms.

* Upper body posture: A lifted chest, using the muscles in the upper back. A relaxed upper body is more casual, less stylized, and, frankly, more oriental/cabaret.

* Use of classic American Tribal Style steps, integrated into a routine and not just thrown in to fulfill the "tribal" requirement.

* Open facial expression. True ATS dancers smile. Tribal fusion doesn't require a frown.

* A sense of grounding into the floor. Tribal is inherently earthy.

Note that "locking", "popping", and "ticking" are not mentioned. These are breakdance/hip hop movements that many tribal fusion dancers have integrated into their performances. These robotic and staccato movements are not essentially tribal, nor are they essentially belly dance. I have seen many cabaret and oriental dancers integrate these movements into their performances, and yet they still remain essentially cabaret because they lacked the other above mentioned characteristics. Popping, locking, ticking, and strobing are part of the "fusion" of "tribal fusion bellydance." I'm surprised at how many people I encounter who believe that these are essential to tribal style bellydance.

This also goes for the recent "vintage" trend that is so hot right now (and when done tastefully, can be stunning!). Neo-Victorian/Edwardian/Roaring 20s/burlesque-inspired costuming does not make a dancer "tribal fusion." As beautiful as the costuming may be, it, in and of itself, is not essentially tribal.

A costume does not make a dancer tribal. If a costume made a dancer "cabaret", then Carolena Nericcio's performance in San Francisco Beledi would be cabaret... and when you see this performance, it's SO tribal. (I wish I could find a screen capture online, but I'm not finding one.)

There are a few things that I feel like should be left out of a "tribal fusion bellydance" performance because I feel that they are contrary to the essence of American Tribal Style. These, of course, are only my personal opinions:

* Cabaret facial expressions

* Lifting the hair with the hands

* Suggestive movements such as wide hip circles a la Dina.

* Wild shoulder shimmies. ATS dancers do perform shoulder shimmies, yet they are subtle and "quiet".

Lastly, I believe that anyone who calls themselves a "tribal fusion bellydancer" absolutely MUST have studied with authentic American Tribal Style instructors. In this, I would expect anyone who calls themselves "tribal fusion" would be able to dance with others who know American Tribal Style and perform a decent group improvisation. If you've never studied American Tribal Style, what are you doing calling yourself tribal fusion?

Click Here to see a followup article with video examples, also by Asharah.