Isis Wings and Imagery

June 3, 2012 § 3 Comments

Isis Wings!  They are fun, flowing and flashy!

Isis wings KAPOW

It is difficult to find information on the origin of Isis Wings.  The Dancers of the Desert write on their website “in doing research on Wings of Isis I found that there is no specific history on Isis wings.  They started in Las Vegas [as] a prop used by show girls, and I am assuming, because of their similarity to Isis, the Egyptian goddess of love, fertility (She is depicted usually as a kneeling lady with wings), got their name…It is an American prop and does not fall into traditional Middle Eastern dance, but was developed with so many other props, into the middle Eastern art of belly dancing.”

There is this video on YouTube circa 1895 which was the first hand-painted movie.  The props used are not Isis Wings, the description says they are veils (obviously attached to sticks), but the effect is rather Isis Wings-esque.

No matter where Isis Wings came from, they certainly awe audiences and capture the imagination.  Sometimes they remind people of other, often-whimsical things.

One person told me this prop reminds them of the artificial swallowtail butterfly developed by researches to study how these beautiful and oddly proportioned insects stay in flight: 

A spectator at one of Lumani‘s shows saw these…

Black Lamme Isis Wings

…and thought them reminiscent of this popular caped crusader:

Personally, Isis Wings make me think of this:

Less whimsical, but this deadly Jurassic Park dino comes to mind every time.

Like everything, Isis Wings get reinvented with new technology.  Behold!  Some really cool LED Isis Wings!

After seeing this video, Princess Farhana said on twitter “WOW!!!!!!!!!!!!!! that was better than being a kid at Disneyland’s Electric parade!!!!”

Do Isis Wings remind you of anything?

Getting Down and Dancey with Mira Betz

October 7, 2011 § Leave a comment

Some time ago, I participated in the most amazing, 3-day Ethics and Technique of Belly Dance Intensive with Mira Betz.  I’d describe it as a movement, dance theory, life, history, culture, performance, self-examination and trust-building workshop. This woman has inspired me not only in dance, but in life.  She is very honest and straight forward, and I really admire that. She works really hard and encourages her students to do the same.

In the dance section of the workshop, we learned some combos that Mira emphasized were not so much about the order of movements, but about the concepts we were learning. We explored stretching rhythms and altering the typical timing of combinations to create tension and variation of movement.  We also explored how to present ourselves on stage in a way that makes our audience comfortable and relaxed.

There were many talking circles. We discussed our views and the way others view belly dance, things we’ve struggled with, and how our journey within the dance has been. We talked about East vs. West and Orientalism.  We discussed pre-performance and post performance etiquette and how to elevate the dance form. We also ventured into how belly dance compares to other dance forms.  This was one of my favorite areas of discussion.  We compared it to Ballet and Burlesque and how they came to be respected and considered art and how belly dance could become an equally accepted art form.

I was surprised to learn that not everyone enjoyed the discussions as much as I did. A few subjects were addressed that some people took very personally such as performance etiquette, skill, religion, public presentation and other areas of ethics.  I suppose that can be expected when such things come up.

One of my favorite parts of the weekend was a homework assignment called a wish wall. We made “wish walls” that represented things we wished for or that represented our hopes and dreams or inspirations in some way.  Mira said we could make it whatever we wanted, but most people did some sort of collage.  I used to collage a lot in high school but hadn’t in years.  I really enjoyed this assignment and wish I had more excuses to do arts and crafts projects.

My cat, Almond, helping me collage.

When we brought them to class the next day, they were presented anonymously and were analyzed and discussed by the group before revealing who’s wish wall each was. This was interesting because we got to see how other people perceived what we had done and even gained some insight into what our art was saying about us.

My finished wish wall

I definitely recommend taking this workshop or any workshop with Mira Betz. She is authentic and inspiring. It was a weekend of exploration, learning and self discovery.

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.)

TribalCon VI, 2010

April 1, 2010 § Leave a comment

Once again, I had a great TribalCon experience.  This year, I only came to the Friday night hafla and Saturday workshops and show.

The hafla was fun.  I saw more ATS this year than I did last year.  There was less poi spinning and a bit of hooping.  Something new was African dancing, which I hadn’t seen at a hafla before.  That was really awesome.  Also, there were a few more male belly dancers participating in the convention.  Notably, the ATS troupe Shades of Araby was there.  They have a male troupe member and came all the way from Toronto.  They are a very fun troupe to watch.

My favorite workshops were Ariellah’s and Asharah’s.

Ariellah’s “The Artist’s Workshop: A primer for the well-rounded dancer”, was very interesting and thought-provoking.  We addressed many conceptual ideas about dancing, music interpretation, execution and expression.  We explored what moves us to dance, why we dance, how we envision ourselves sharing those things with an audience, and what qualities we want to possess when we dance.  During one really cool exercise, we listened to various songs and wrote down the temperature of each, the color and whether or not it evoked a memory.  Then, Ariellah taught us some combos, but insisted that we didn’t just go through the movements, that we actually danced the combos.  My favorite TribalCon quote was from after Ariellah had us do an arm movement as if we were touching velvet drapes with our finger tips.  A student in the class shared how much she was able to imagine that she could actually feel the drapes.  Ariellah told her, “That mental memory is going to become muscle memory, and it’s going to be beautiful.”

Asharah’s “Salimpour Legacy in Tribal” workshop was incredibly interesting.  She discussed the history of Tribal Belly Dance and how the dance morphed a little with each student becoming teacher. Jamila Salimpour is credited with establishing a common language in the dance.  Many of the names for movements we use today were coined by Jamila.  Jamila directed the first Tribal-like troupe, Bal Anat.  She was Masha Archer’s teacher, who was Carolena Nericcio’s teacher.  When Carolena began teaching, American Tribal Style was developed, somewhat unintentionally, to meet the needs of her and her dancers.  On the other side of Tribal, Rachel Brice was a member of Ultra Gypsy at the time she developed and named Tribal Fusion.  She was the first Tribal dancer to take the dance solo.  Ziah of Awalim was in the class and shared that she was at the Tribal Fest where Rachel Brice debuted her solo Tribal Fusion style.  Ziah said at the time they thought it was kind of funny and the general reaction was, “Hey, look! That Ultra Gypsy girl is dancing all by herself!”  We can thank Jamila’s daughter, Suhaila Salimpour, for refining the muscle technique to be more in line with other dance forms.  My favorite part of the workshop was when we danced through the moves as they were originally executed by Jamila and compared them to how they are executed today in American Tribal Style.  The moves are very similar, but the ATS versions have been modernized and altered to fit the music style and format of ATS.  One of the common changes occurs in the timing and where the downbeat and upbeat fall.  For example, Jamila’s Basic Egyptian was “step, twist, step, twist”, and the American Tribal Style version is “twist, step, twist, step.”

The Saturday show was beautiful.  It was a whopping 3 hours!  There was a lot of lyrical, modern-inspired pieces. Unfortunately, there were sound problems much of the night. It turns out a whole amp was turned off for the entire show.  The music didn’t fill the auditorium the way you’d expect during a dance show, and the mic levels for the live musicians were imbalanced, but it was still a pretty show.

My troupe is still waiting on our performance video, but here are two of my favorite performances of the evening.  The first is Jahara Phoenix and the second is their student troupe, Sherar.

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.

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