Saturday 27 June 2015

Tribal or technical? What forms the borders between bellydance styles?

A decade or so ago, when I was first taking note of the world of bellydance and its "politics" I heard of the Tribal/Cabaret divide. You see apparently there were "Cabaret" dancers ("traditional", oriental, raqs sharqui - many consider "Cabaret" to be an inappropriate or derogatory label), who were Barbie dolls in sequin 2 pieces who were bubbly and flirtatious; then there were the Tribal girls, who were goths in too much kuchi who were culturally inauthentic and weird.

Neither group seemed to like the other very much or have much respect for what they were doing.

Now, I am not sure whether this divide has diminished, whether it never really existed apart from in the minds of a few vociferous individuals online or if I am just surrounded by the most awesome community of dancers who are wonderful and supportive of each other; but the truth is, that I don't really encounter it so often anymore. Occasionally I come across the misconceptions and sadly it seems to be the newcomers and visitors to our world who are exposed to them.

A well respected dancer commented on a discussion a few months ago, about writing a piece comparing Oriental and ATS (American Tribal Style) to help beginners understand the differences. She listed some possible ideas for differences. Almost all were not very flattering to ATS and every one was over simplified, over generalised or just inaccurate.When  pointed this out, and suggested that there were differences between American Cabaret, Modern Egyptian and Turkish Oriental styles that were just as pronounced, she suggested I wrote my own piece. So here it is.

I suspect it will be controversial in places, I can live with that.

I'm not going to write a straight comparison that says one style is always this while the other is always that, because that would not do justice to the dances, the dancers, or you as readers. I am going to start though, with some of the misconceptions:

There is no musicality in ATS

Erm, nope. Slow ATS can be dripping with musicality and expression. Fast ATS steps tend to follow the beat rather than the melody, however, even I, as a very clumsy beginner in this style, can recognise that a good lead will choose steps that fit the music and there is real skill in having a group of dancers improvise in a way that really works with the music. It's one of those things which appears effortless when it is done right, but obviously jarring when it misses the mark.

Cabaret dancers don't learn precise technique

A dancer once said this to me, knowing that I have a background in Egyptian Oriental. It surprised me to the point that my only response was "erm, no....". It probably should have been "have you heard of Aziza?". I have spent as much time breaking down and drilling techniques, from the basics up, with Oriental style teachers as with Tribal Fusion teachers.

It is true that there are bellydance teachers who don't break down or correct technique, and expect their students to follow them and dance along. Some of these classes are fun and informal, some a poor value and unhealthy. Before the Tribal styles became popular, it stands to reason that these would have all been "cabaret" style classes. Times have moved on, classes like this exist in all styles now, it's the teachers, not the dance style. I don't teach like this because I feel it creates a ceiling, where the serious dancer will stop progressing and have to go right back to basics before they can reach a mid-improver to intermediate standard.

Tribal Fusion dancers only dance to Western music

They dance to any music they choose! That is the joy of fusion, could come from one origin, or the other, or both. There are many Tribal Fusion dancers who perform to Middle Eastern music (often in a folkloric style).

Raqs Sharqui is not modern or evolved

I'm going to leave this one to Rasha Nour...

ATS dancers don't engage the audience, are haughty or never smile.

None of these are absolute truths. Again, this is something you may see from individuals or groups, but it is not a universal rule for the style.

Check out all these happy faces:

There are immense technical differences that make it impossible to dance multiple styles well

The big one here is posture. Tribal dancers bend their knees deeply and hyperlift their chests in a posture that is very stylised and different from that of Oriental dancers. Tribal dancers also dance with flat feet while folkloric MENA dances are also flatfooted, but the stage versions are danced on the balls of the feet.

That last paragraph was not true.

Last summer I was lucky enough to take an ATS class with Kristine Adams - A teacher from the FCBD mother studio who is currently travelling the world like an ATS missionary, putting us all to rights. We spent a lot of time on posture. She pointed out that the stereotyped ultra high chest is not good form, and not part of the FCBD ATS canon. With the chest too high, you can't properly execute chest movements and it also leads to a swayback which is a whole pandora's box of not OK. Knees too, soft, not straight, not bent by default. As she broke down and corrected everyone's posture it became very clear to me that this posture was actually no different to good, safe, basic posture as taught by any good Raqs Sharqui teacher. Arm positions are different, and that gives a different look to the body, but the alignment of the pelvis and spine has to be healthy, in any style.

This is an issue close to my heart, because for years I have had Oriental teachers tell me that I am a "tribal dancer" (when in reality, I was an Oriental dancer first, and have much more training in that style). Several teacher wrote off issues with my posture as a result of me cross training with Tribal styles and adopting "Tribal posture". 

They were wrong. I realised during an extremely geeky practice session, where I spent around 2 hours examining my posture in various moves, that I had a problem keeping my pelvis neutral when my legs were straightish (i.e. soft knees). I had to bend my knees to drop my tail down. This is not a result of tribal training. I spent a lot of time stretching my hip flexors, my lower back, lying on the floor, standing up against the wall, engaging various muscles, and then I saw a physio. It turned out that my legs were slightly inwardly rotated, you can't see it, my knees weren't knocking, my legs looked fine, but the angle of my hip in the socket was preventing my pelvis from dropping into neutral. It's a combination of femoral torsion (bone confirmation, not correctable) and weak hip rotators (correctable, thanks Mme physio). 

I said it was geeky.

Anyhow, the outcome of this story is that I corrected my posture issue, well it's a work in progress, and I started looking more carefully at how my students were standing too, because it's very easy to get "lazy" and let your gluteus medius take over the job of the small hip rotators and mess up your pelvic alignment. The moral is that it's also very easy to "blame" your students' issues on something you don't understand.

So getting down to it, are there many differences in the fundamentals of Tribal Fusion and "Cabaret"? In my book, not so many. I would say there is a crossover of about 80%. There are major differences in stylisation, aesthetic, which moves are used more heavily than others etc, but when it comes down to how movements are executed, notsomuch. I know I'm not alone in this, because of the number of times I have seen an Oriental teacher suggest Rachel Brice's Tribal Fusion DVD as a good beginners' drill option.

So how do we explain the difference to our newbies?

It's difficult to condense the nuances of different bellydance styles into a short statement which is accurate, fair and accessible to the new dancer. Sometimes as teachers and ambassadors for bellydance, we have to do this and when we do, the most important thing is to be straightforward, and to try and put aside bias or personal agendas. I keep YouTube playlists with examples of different dance styles for my students to refer to, because a 4 minute video can communicate the essence of a dance far more clearly than any worded explanation.

It's also really important as a teacher to understand and admit to our limitations. If you haven't trained beyond beginner level in a style, you can't be expected to speak as an expert on it. As a secondary school teacher I have learned that there is very limited, negative even, educational value in bluffing your way through a question you can't really answer. There is a lot of educational value in saying:

"I'm sorry, that is beyond my field of expertise, but I am so glad to see you being inspired by this; why don't you find out more, then share it with us next time we meet - here is a good place to start"

The Jerry Springer moment...

The more I learn and understand about different styles, following the threads back to their origins, exploring the family tree of bellydance, dancing different styles and getting right down to the nitty gritty, the more I suspect that the divides in our community are not about technique. Perhaps they are not even stylistic or even about values or cultural interest. I think much of what divides us is tribal. Not Tribal bellydance tribal. The natural, deep seated need to belong to a strong, supportive community,  the natural competitive urge between tribes and exclusion of that which "does not belong".

I would love to see less examples of how different we are from each other, and more celebration of our common ground. We are a small community of people who are passionate about bellydance. We might have different aesthetics, different artistic ideas or priorities, but we have more in common than we often admit.

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