Belly Dance Culture Shock

November 21, 2010 § Leave a comment

One of the roughest times for me in my belly dance journey was leaving my first teacher.  I danced with her for about 3 1/2 years.  Her dancing style, her teaching style, and my time in her student troupe was my entire gateway to belly dance.  I stopped dancing at her studio because I moved with my family to Portland, OR.   My sister (who was in the troupe with me) and I looked up dance studios as soon as we got to Portland.  We attended open houses, we tried various classes, and what I found was Belly Dance Culture Shock.

I wanted to keep dancing, but I wanted to keep dancing how I had been dancing.  I liked my first teacher’s American Tribal Style (quite consistent with the Fat Chance Style).  I liked my teacher’s West Coast Cabaret Oriental Style.  Everything in Oregon was…different.

The Tribal Styles in Portland were strange, grunge fusion-hybrids.  The first cabaret dancers I saw seemed akin to drill teams–peppy smiling princesses.  Or they were too Modern.  Or too Egyptian.  Or too–NOT WHAT I WAS USED TO!   There were new techniques, new explanations, new step-combos, new tribal combos, new costuming styles!, new people, new payment systems!

Okay, okay.  Maybe I was unprepared.  A lovely dancer who came from the same studio in Santa Fe also moved to Portland (and would later become our roommate and troupe mate).  She told me she came to the new belly dance scene with the idea that she would just forget everything she knew. (Not literally, but you know, she was ready to embrace the new).  I was horrified!  I didn’t want to forget anything!  I was going to remember it all and dance like that forever!  Ofcourse, I did eventually warm up to the new styles and found many that I liked.

It was strange going from a small belly dance scene to a massive one.  There are definite benefits with large scenes…more workshops, more classes, more styles, more shows, more performance venues, more costume shops…but a small dance scene is intimate and comfortable and can feel close and supportive because everyone knows everyone else.  Now that I’ve experienced both, I don’t have a particular preference.  Huntsville has a small dance scene.  At the same time, there is a sense of connection and participation within the larger south east belly dance scene, so we get to really embrace the small scene within a bigger scene.

Once I got over my initial culture shock, I was able to really grow as a dancer, and I haven’t experienced the same kind of  shock since.  It was tough at first, but it has been beneficial in many ways to step outside of my comfort zone and explore.  I have been able to play different roles in different groups and try a lot of new things.

I love that there are so many belly dancers in the world!  It seems that no matter where you go, there will be belly dancing there.  That’s comforting.

Belly Dance Cross-Dressing

November 2, 2010 § Leave a comment

I’m sure there will be some disappointed people who find this post in their search results, but I’m not talking about that kind of cross-dressing.  I’m talking about Tribal ladies gone Cabaret!  And back again!  And vice versa!  While many people lean toward one belly dance genre or another, I am an equal-opportunity shimmyer.  An ATS girl with Cabaret in my heart.

And truth be told, I could use a little more Cabaret in my life.  I long for sparkly, sequined, hair-swinging, even sometimes down right cute, Oriental style.  That’s right!  Cute!  I said it.  (Just so you know, there’s no cute allowed in ATS!)  Sometimes I just want some big, lyrical freedom; to let my hair down, my arms relax and let out a big, sweeping, ooey-gooey, horizontal hip circle.  Maybe even complete with an adorable, feminine arm position; one hand to the head, one on the hip, accented with a hip-wiggling, psoas-engaging jewel.

I subbed for a couple of basic belly dance classes a couple weeks ago and I made the students do incredibly adorable things.  And I enjoyed it!  Some of my ATS students were in these classes and joked that the other teachers would come back from vacation and say, “what happened to Jade?!”

Well now everyone knows.  Your ATS teacher is a Cabaret lover.  This is also a huge motivator for me to do more solos.  I need an opportunity for feminine.  I need an avenue for cute.

My Reaction to Carolena’s “ATS Old School, ATS New Style”

September 26, 2010 § 3 Comments

I feel like I should comment on Carolena Nericcio’s recent announcement on her blog about the way we can now define ATS.  It has caused quite the stir in the ATS community.  In a nutshell, she announced that she no longer wants to police the dance and that new additions to the dance would be accepted.  The basic moves in ATS (as seen on Volumes 1-4 of the Fat Chance Belly Dance DVD series) will be considered the base for ATS and everything on the newer DVDs and whatever people add in their own troupes will be considered new ATS.

It seems like some ATS dancers were upset about the announcement.  They feel like the dance form will become diluted and it will become harder to dance with ATS dancers from other areas.  I also got the sense that some dancers who have been through Fat Chance’s certification program felt that their certification will mean less now.  There were also some people who took offense to Carolena’s use of the term “old school.”

First let me address the latter.  I feel like this is a silly thing to focus on, and not really the point, but it seems many people did, so I want to comment.  I know Carolena has already said she didn’t mean “old school” as a term of disrespect.  I have to say that I don’t get a negative feeling from the term.  Old School is the roots.  It’s where the Masters come from.  Old school doesn’t mean something’s out, it’s more like it’s so far out, it’s back in again.  Okay, just had to get that out of the way.

Now, let me say that I am excited about the announcement.  This is how it was when I began learning ATS nine years ago (at least as far as I was aware).  My teacher did a great job of staying true to the style, while adding clarity to cues and transitions where our troupe needed them to be a tighter, more together group.  We also created a few of our own combos within the ATS language of movements so we could do fancier things with our dance. Some changes didn’t happen on purpose.  Some parts of movements became slightly emphasized or de-emphasized as part of the natural reaction to trying to be uniform with each other.  Change happens in art.

At that time, you did see many variations on the ATS idea at Tribal Festivals.  There was also a lot of move sharing at the festivals back then.  This was before the festivals were completely dominated by the newer fusion styles. ATS was in a major place of growth.  So as far as whether or not the dance form will become diluted, well, I imagine not any more than it already has.

I agree that some troupes who call themselves ATS are so far from the style and language of Fat Chance that it really is something different.  Improvisational does not mean it’s ATS.  ATS is based on a very stylized set of moves and a particular format.  It has a particular timing and way of transitioning between moves.  The arms, the posture, the formations, and the timing make ATS very distinct.  If you vary from this by a wide margin, it is no longer ATS (in my humble opinion).  However, I think if you are consistent with the style, add a cue that is consistent with the format and add something fancy such as a turn, I still categorize that as ATS.  As long as you don’t lose the things that are fundamental to ATS.  This way, the language can be added to and be allowed to grow, without compromising the style. Some people will do this more artfully than others, but that is true with anything.

There are also some troupes who have a beautiful dance style, who call themselves ATS, but are completely different from Fat Chance.  Most prominently in my mind is Gypsy Caravan.  I hear they are no longer together, but they have a whole series of DVDs that is a completely different language of movements, but they have used the name American Tribal Style for so long, it would be hard to tell them to change it now.  Gypsy Caravan was awesome to watch perform, but it was entirely different.  Paulette Rees-Denis, the director of Gypsy Caravan, was an original member of Fat Chance, and when she branched off she really did just take the concept and change the moves entirely.  I refer to their style as “Gypsy Caravan style” or “Gypsy Caravan technique.”

Let me also say that I am not certified with Fat Chance.  I would love to be, but it will be quite some time before I could even picture myself in a financial position to do so.  But I still have a lot of experience with ATS.  My teacher had a lot of integrity in the dance and was pretty consistent with the DVDs.  We used to bring in Carolena for a series of workshops every year, and what we were doing was not that different from what she was doing.   I would also like to say that it doesn’t change anything for those who are certified.  They are still certified with Fat Chance.  It still says a lot.  They still have credentials where many do not.

I did feel a little bad when reading Carolena’s blog post.  I felt bad that she seemed to feel like the dance community did not listen to her when she asked that you do it like her or call it something else.  It was never my intention to disobey the dance creator’s wishes.  As soon as I learned of them, I would scrutinize and worry and try to make sure everything I was teaching my students was consistent with Fat Chance, because I had an excellent teacher, but did not learn it all directly from Carolena.  And there were some things that I felt were consistent with the style, a fancier combo, or an arm variation option, or a clarified cue to make my dancers more together, that I didn’t want to completely give up, so I made it very clear in my class when something was not 100% exactly like Fat Chance (or “traditional ATS”), so my students would know.  Also, I will never stop dancing on both the right and the left, for the health and balance of my body and my students’ bodies.  I feel very strongly about it. I know that some ATS dancers would probably say that this alone means I was not doing ATS, but ITS–Improvised Tribal Style.

I am very grateful for Carolena’s recent decision. I can stop doubting myself.   I can stop scrutinizing.  I can stop worrying about whether or not I am teaching ATS, or ATS based on Fat Chance ATS, or ITS, or ITS with some ATS,  or ATS with a little ITS.  I think Carolena has done a wonderful job of clarifying the standards and boundaries for the category of ATS.  We know what our fundamental moves, cues and transitions are.  They are everything the dance is built on.  They are the foundation and we should stay consistent with the style and format, but are now free to create.

Thank you Carolena, for setting us free and allowing us to grow.  I will do my best to represent the dance form with integrity and beauty.

***Update: It has been brought to my attention that Gypsy Caravan does not identify themselves as American Tribal Style, but simply as “Tribal.”   Black Sheep Belly Dance is another well-known troupe who has a unique language, but used similar ideas as ATS.  As I understand it, they used to call themselves American Tribal Style, but dropped the “American” part and settled on just “Tribal Style” as per Carolena’s request.  I actually can’t think of any other extremely well-known troupes who use a completely different language of movements who refer to themselves as ATS.***

ATS: If It’s Not Right, Is It Wrong?

May 27, 2010 § Leave a comment

American Tribal Style Belly Dance is a right side dominant dance form by design. The dancers are always turned slightly so their right side is more visible to the audience. Some moves, such as the Basic Egyptian, are very symmetrical so the two sides of the body are worked evenly. Other moves are not symmetrical such as the choo-choo, a hip bump that is always done with a weighted left leg and unweighted right leg and the right oblique working more than the left. Another is the Arabic Undulation, always done with the right foot in front. I am not sure that this is the healthiest thing for the body. I don’t know of any other dance form that works one side of the body more than the other. You wouldn’t go to the gym and lift weights with only your right arm, so why would we dance in a way that works out the right side more than the left?

I was lucky to begin my dancing with Myra Krien who is also an Oriental Style trained belly dancer and had thought it was not healthy to dance this way. She had designed a way to switch sides so we could also do ATS left side dominant. I still use this technique in my dancing today. Most students are right-handed so the right side is more comfortable for them, but it is important to get an even workout.

When I began ATS, my class would do what was easiest and dance on the right more. Later that year, I was injured while playing soccer in my high school P.E. class. I saw multiple doctors to help me through different stages of my healing. I saw an orthopedic doctor who said one of the problems was that my pelvis popped out of place and he sent me to physical therapy. Another doctor I saw was a cranial sacral specialist. He told me that the muscles in my sacrum were not equal in strength and it was causing my hips and pelvis to twist to one side. I told him about the style of belly dance I was studying and told him we end up dancing more on one side than the other. He told me I should work on building up the muscles on the other side, even if it was just during practice at home. After I told Myra about this, she was much more strict about making us practice both sides equally. Now that I am teaching ATS, I teach both the right and left side as it was taught to me and make my students practice evenly in class.

I believe the ATS community should adopt a more evenly strengthening approach to the dance. I have heard that Carolena Nerricio, who developed the dance form, is an avid gym visitor, so perhaps she builds her muscles evenly enough in other forms of exercise that it does not have adverse effects on her body like it did mine. A lot of people use dance as one of their main forms of exercise and do not have the time or motivation to get in as much gym time, so I think it is important that we workout evenly in dance class.

Adding left-sided ATS is actually quite easy and does not have to interrupt the improvisational choreography. What my teacher had come up with were a couple of moves based on the existing vocabulary that could cue a switch to the left. The transitions are really quite seamless. When dancing on the left, we use the same vocabulary and formations as on the right, only mirrored. This can be done when dancing to fast or slow music.

Here is a video of me and my students dancing at Panoply this year. The first song is performed by my ATS Basics students, with me leading them on the right (the traditional ATS way). The second, slower song is performed by two of my ATS Beyond Basics students on the right. I join them for the final, faster song and lead them into dancing on the left.  (The switch happens at 4:37.)

American Belly Dance: Tribal Versus Cabaret

March 1, 2010 § Leave a comment

Recently I was at a hafla at my dance studio and someone asked if she could start coming to my ATS classes. I said of course she could and told her what to bring and what to expect about the class structure and dance style. I explained how it would be different from other styles of belly dance.

This got me thinking about the notorious battle between Tribal and Cabaret. I personally love all styles of belly dance and know many other dancers that do as well, but it’s still there and talked about often enough in the belly dance community. It occurred to me that in ways American Tribal Style really is the antithesis of American Cabaret.

For example, I was talking about how she should bring zills with her to class, but explained that the zill patterns are coupled with particular dance moves, not specifically what rhythm the drum is playing. We learn the moves specific to ATS, a particular way to execute them, and the cue for each. We learn to dance in synchronization without a choreography.

With Cabaret, the zills usually reflect or play off of the drum rhythms and may be layered over any dance move. There are endless variations for each move and group pieces are usually choreographed.

Tribal dances are often beat driven; Cabaret tends to spend more time on the melody.

Tribal is earthy; Cabaret is airy.

Tribal is dark; Cabaret is light.

Tribal: coins and cotton, Cabaret: sequins and chiffon.

American Tribal Style!

January 13, 2010 § Leave a comment

I have been watching the Fat Chance Belly Dance DVDs. There are still a couple I don’t have access to (I am borrowing the ones I have right now) but plan on buying those soon. As I watch these, a couple thoughts come to mind.

First of all, my ATS training was far more accurate to the Fat Chance Style than I ever realized. I’m not really sure why I thought it wasn’t. I guess it was because I hadn’t watched the DVDs myself and as my class learned more, my teacher had us add in details.  It seemed like we were modifying things when we were usually just refining them.

Second, it’s interesting to me that I have been able to witness some of the more recent evolutions of the dance language. There are moves that were not in the Fat Chance language that I learned or saw from other troupes that have now made their way onto the most recent DVD, Tribal Basics, Vol. 7: Creative Steps & Combinations.

At Tribal Fest 3, my dance troupe learned a new move using a turning double hip bump that hit all four corners of a personal box. I believe the troupe we learned it from called it “The Spider.” The way they presented it, the arms were positioned out to the side when facing the front, and over head when facing the back. We adopted this move into our local ATS language. Several years later, I got a hold of Creative Steps and Combinations and discovered that a variation had found its way into the official dance language, but with different arms and the name “Chico Four Corners.” I really like the new arm positioning and now perform and teach it that way.

Another example is the Double Back. I had seen many other troupes perform versions of this move over the years, but had never done it myself until I watched Creative Steps and Combinations. Now it is one of my favorite moves.

The next thing I noticed when watching the DVDs is that the intention of how the dance information be used seems to have changed over time. On the revised Tribal Basics, Vol. 1, Dance Fundamentals, Fat Chance Belly Dance founder and director, Carolena Nericcio, says the moves included on the DVD are the “Tribal Basics according to Fat Chance Belly Dance.” I generally didn’t notice any implication that using different basic moves or variations of the basic moves would be considered incorrect or would not be true American Tribal Style. Perhaps this is a relatively new idea.

On Tribal Basics, Vol.6: Improvisational Choreography, Carolena talks about ATS.

“The concept of American Tribal Style Belly Dance is interpreted differently all over the world, but the idea that seems to repeat itself over and over is that of dancers enjoying each other, celebrating their bodies, and honoring the music with movement.”

Carolena used to annually teach workshops and guest star in a big show with my old troupe. It was in one of these workshops, around 2003, that I first heard her say that she thought the ATS language should be formalized. She said she thinks it should be like ballet and everyone should have the same form as her, but since it wasn’t that way, it was important that everyone in a single troupe at least use the same form as each other. Perhaps in the beginning, Carolena was not particularly direct about this because she could not have foreseen the explosion of variations her dance form would spawn.

This explosion has also led to the dance form having to be referred to more formally as “American Tribal Style” or “ATS” since the simple term “Tribal” has become all-encompassing to include any variations that have some similarities in stylization, costuming, or the feel or intention of ATS.

Watching these DVDs has been a very good experience for me. It has been a refresher on some of the finer details and I have learned a couple things I either didn’t know before or have forgotten from lack of use (such as a trio having the option of dancing in a diagonal line; I only recall regularly using a triangle).

Also, I can now tell my students what exactly is a classical ATS move and/or cue and what is an addition so they will know what to expect when they venture outside our local ATS community.  Dance is a universal language, and American Tribal Style is a fun conversation.

American Tribal Style?

November 19, 2009 § 7 Comments

A few months back, I had to do some belly dance teacher soul searching. I teach American Tribal Style Belly Dance. Recently, the creator of this amazing dance form, Carolena Nericcio, has become increasingly vocal that all ATS dancers should do the dance the way she does, or it shouldn’t be called ATS. Now, I teach a form of ATS that is very closely based on the Fat Chance dance vocabulary with a few stylistic decisions made here and there, some by me, some by my first teacher. Carolena has expressed that moves that haven’t been approved by her should not be considered ATS.

I understand where she’s coming from. I have seen a lot of ATS over the last 8 years. Some has been really good, some mediocre, and some really not true to the ATS style.   ATS has spawned a whole movement of growing and changing (and sometimes difficult to define) genres of belly dance. There is a great article on this at What a lovely movement this has been. Art giving birth to art.

So a couple months ago, after a few discussions and after reading the above article, I had to do some soul searching. If everything I’m performing and teaching is not exactly as Fat Chance would do it, am I really doing American Tribal Style?

I let this marinate in my mind for a bit and kept teaching the style as I learned it with some occasional stylistic choices and decisions made amongst my dancers to clarify cues and transitions to make our dancing cleaner.

I thought about how some of the stylistic decisions had been made by my first teach, Myra Krien, and thought of her decades of belly dance experience and decade of ATS experience. I trust her judgment.

I also thought about the incredibly strong technique and stylistic base she instilled in me in my several years of training with her.

I still had some doubt in my mind, until my two best ATS students went to TribOriginal last month. One of the workshops they took was with a couple of lovely ladies who perform ATS and study directly under Carolena.

First of all, my students expressed how confident they felt in this workshop and how they felt like their arms were in the correct places, their posture was correct and they had a pretty easy time following along and picking up the new moves they learned.  Other students asked for tips when they were getting something easily or their way of executing the movement looked correct. This made me feel very proud; proud of them for their dedication to classes and how much they’ve learned, proud of me for teaching them so well, and proud to be part of such a massive global dance movement.

This along with this next tidbit restored my confidence in my right to call myself an American Tribal Style dancer. They learned in this workshop that even the Fat Chance language is still evolving.  Even the base dance form is evolving. In beautiful ways. And we evolve with it.

And I feel confident enough in my ATS training and experience to make some technical, artistic or stylistic choices and still keep the integrity of the ATS language and style in tact.  As with any language, there may be slightly different dialects from place to place. Language is fluid, more about what you’re communicating than the exact words you are speaking. The sentence, more powerful than an individual word.  Art communicates in an organic way, with a life of its own.

I can honestly say I think we are representing American Tribal Style well.

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