Why Folklorists (Should) Love American Tribal Style® Belly Dance

Carolena Nericcio, creator of American Tribal Style® Belly Dance, dancing with her troupe, Fat Chance Belly Dance®

I was recently chatting with a folklore colleague who was thinking about starting belly dance classes, specifically, American Tribal Style® Belly Dance classes (or ATS for short). It occurred to me if folklorists knew what made ATS different from other styles of belly dance, would be all over this as something interesting and neat to talk about with the concepts of our discipline.

Here’s why (in handy bullet point form):

  • ATS is an improvised dance form using an agreed-upon movement vocabulary to communicate and create within the moment. It shows us how artistic performers utilize the tools in their creative toolbox (in this case, the dance moves) to create an emergent performance, much like epic singers or fairy-tale tellers might also do, but with the body instead of with words and phrases.
  • ATS exemplifies tradition and variation at work. The way you’re “supposed” to do the moves is the stable current of tradition, while the “flavor” that develops in troupe worldwide (intentionally or not) is the dynamic of variation.
  • ATS is only a few decades old, so it represents a fledgling folklore genre and folk group that we can study as it moves through infancy into maturity. There are already offshoots (Improvisational Tribal Style/ITS, tribal fusion, and countless other takes on tribal/improvisational belly dance), which makes for an intriguing example of cause-and-effect and community-building in action.
  • Material culture galore! The costuming style of ATS is unique and rich in texture, color, sound, weight… so many things! I would refer anyone who’s interested in this particular aspect of ATS to my article, “’Whether it’s coins, fringe, or just stuff that’s sparkly’: Aesthetics and Utility in a Tribal Fusion Belly Dance Troupe’s Costumes.” Midwestern Folklore 32 (1/2). (Terre Haute: Indiana State University Press). 83-97.
  • Because ATS incorporates dance moves from the Middle East (as well as from Indian classical dance, flamenco, and Gypsy dances to a degree), practitioners have an interesting relationship with the idea of “authenticity.” Most dancers agree that they’re not trying to recreate an actual tribe’s dances or costumes, but rather that ATS is a fusion that draws on these elements. But we could be having a conversation about cultural appropriation, too… is it all roses and sunshine in ATS-land? It’s a tough call, and more scholarship might be illuminating.
  • Verbal arts abound: personal narratives (how one got into the dance, transformative moments while dancing, funny run-ins with other troupes’ “flavors” that you didn’t pick up on at first), legends about origins of the dance, folkspeech such as naming practices, greeting and cheering (zagarheet anyone?), etc. Plenty of customary folklore, too: haflas, finger cymbal/zil practices, and obviously the whole body of dance movements that we collectively learn and perform
  • ATS dancers are an intentional community, a folk group comprised of hobbyists and professionals (and everything in between) who develop a shared worldview and esoteric understandings of the beauty of women’s bodies, the value of exercise in otherwise sedentary cultures, and the importance of clear and direct communication, among other things. I’ve seen ATS dancers develop greater body awareness and confidence/self-esteem, likely as a result of practicing this dance form. How is that not interesting to folklorists?
  • Perhaps you’ve noticed all the “®”/registered trademarks appearing in this post. That’s because the creator of ATS and founder of the troupe FatChance BellyDance® wants to protect her creative/intellectual property. Can you really trademark art? Or a dance form? Enough folklorists are engaged in these questions with other folk arts that I think we’d be interested in what makes this instance unique.

I could go on, but hopefully you get the idea. I really love this clip where Carolena Nericcio, my teacher and the creator of ATS, explains what it’s all about.

I’d love to hear from other dancers and folklorists on this topic!

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