You haven’t bellydanced in years but for some reason it’s calling you back. You ring up the local school and tell the teacher you’d like to join their intermediate class and she tells you that no one, not even Shakira herself, gets to join her intermediate class without going through beginners first. You’re a bit affronted but quickly realise you haven’t got an isis wing to stand on. Her classes are in front of mirrors and everything is new and shiny. You listen to the mixed tape she’s made for you that has three versions of Aladdin’s theme song on it. It's strangely enchanting.
You meet another woman at a hafla who’s a bit of an oddball and says she also teaches not far from where you live. You are drawn to her. She’s one of those low-key characters that know everything about everything and you wonder sometimes whether she is even real. She starts teaching you steps from the Oulid Nail, Romani, Egyptian, Ghawazee. You’re always in a hall somewhere without mirrors. She has long black hair and might be a witch.
This reminds you of when you went to bellydance classes with your mum. Back then you danced in studios, halls, lounge rooms. You weren’t the only kid in the class. There was this tiny red head with a mean belly roll – your first experience of envy. Each class ended with a meditation lying on the ground that was all about goddesses and you counted how many cracks there were in the ceiling. Your mum danced like an octopus. It looked she had more arms and legs than she actually did. But she loved all the sisterhood stuff that came with bellydance. She’s pretty happy you’ve got back into it. ‘It’s in your blood’ she says. But you’re worried you’ve inherited the octopus gene.
One day your friend who’s the women’s officer at university, asks you to start performing on campus and next minute you’re teaching a little class of your own. Your teacher is happy for you. She dances at your hafla. Years later you’ll look back at the video and wonder why you didn’t make her the big star.
One day you visit her house. It’s full of sparkly material and feels like Merlin might live there.
At your last hafla you reveal you are having an identity crisis by doing one serious tribalesque piece and one jazz inspired burlesque piece with your boobs half hanging out. You’re glad that Facebook hasn’t been invented yet.
Fortunately at this point you head overseas. You find a teacher who tells you to not bother coming back the next week unless you have fixed your armlines and you spend the next week practising in the reflection of your bedroom window.
She lets you perform with her advanced students at a Gypsy event and you blank out. She does an improvisation to a trumpet solo where she moves in an unedited, wild fashion – sprawling, ticking all over the floor. You’re in love.
Several dance teachers later, your technique isn’t as octupussy and you’re living in a different city. An opportunity comes up to teach again and this time you make your own genre. Gradually you learn how to teach by experimenting on a steady trickle of women who come through the doors. Note to self, do not ask beginners to seduce each other. Do not be too silly. Do not be too serious. A small group hang around long enough to see your style blossom and perform with you. You start improvising with musicians every chance you get. You learn to use space, to spin. You teach yourself a bunch of stuff through repetition and performing endlessly when you’re not ready.
The school where you teach is a hub for contemporary dance, contact improvisation, and world fusions. You see a lot of people in track pants rolling around on the floor and walking in random directions. You see people picking up suitcases and putting them down again. For five minutes. You see people just lying there, looking like someone died. This has an effect on you. You remember the time your mum took you to the Opera house to watch a woman and man wearing body suits roll around each other for what seemed like 6 hours. Maybe it was just an hour. You were intrigued by how seamless it was. Where are their sequins?, you thought. You labelled it ‘sausage dance’ in your head and years later find a burning desire to sausage with other adults.
You join a contact improvisation class and constantly apologise because you’re not ex ballet, tap, jazz kid and you can’t do the splits. They don’t care. You secretly like dancing with men, rubbing backs, being lifted. You decide there is nothing better in the whole world than rolling on the floor. Apart from spinning that is. You decide to incorporate it into ‘your style’ of dance. You get used to awkward, stunned faces from audience members. Remarks like ‘you’re so creative.’ Or ‘I love how you express yourself’. You hope one day someone will think you can dance. Fortunately you’ve had years of experience of experimenting on audiences, so you keep going.
One day you find yourself speaking in a performance with an eastern European accent. You ask random men in the audience for massages and try to crowd surf. You ask men to come onto stage and pretend to be furniture for you to sit on. You have fiery arguments with strangers. People like this. They like it even more than your dancing. You keep going.
Be outrageous. Roll on someone. Spin. Turkish Drop.
Occasionally you break out a more solemn piece to Bjork. You lose half your students because it’s too dark. More wide eyes. You keep going.
Then you move again. You find a school that teaches a style very similar to yours. You buy a house next door to their studio. They invite you in. You learn and discover new things and continue to study contemporary dance. You start moving into a no-woman’s land – in between the east and the west. It’s too late to go back. To look back. Just keep going. One day, it will make sense.
As tribal bellydance becomes more of a discipline and less of a folk art, with students spending small fortunes to study with international teachers and embark on gruelling regimes of body conditioning and drills, the expectations students place on themselves changes - especially when it comes to performance. Bellydance, once home to women who wanted to express femininity, fun and mysticism, is now a haven for perfectionists wanting to conquer their bodies. There exists an obsession to manipulate bodies into precise organisms of art. This is a product of the pioneers of tribal fusion, yoginis who have plundered every limit of their muscular range, and made precision and articulation the cornerstone of their dance. Dancers from the oriental world like Suhaila have also codified and explained ancient moves of the hips and torso into muscular terms. Interestingly, she is also American.
American Tribal Style ® sets foundations for good posture, lifted arm lines, and ways of moving, of travelling and spinning and dancing to any direction. It builds peripheral awareness, spontaneous musical interpretation, and spatial awareness amongst fellow dancers, attention to detail in following, courage and boldness in leading. It teaches reverence to tradition, to the lineage of teachers, to the 'tribe'. Some students love the cut and thrust of group improvisation. Others find it deeply uncomfortable. Some move away for that reason. Some embrace it.
As a dancer who spent a lot of time experimenting through solo improvisation, and experiencing other genres like contemporary dance and free spirited Gypsy dance, i come to ATS ® performance with some mixed feelings. So much of what is presented can appear formulaic, regimented, even cold. More often than not, it is because dancers are so worried about fitting the bill, having good technique, being in sync, that they forget to play, to have fun.
I noticed during my tribal performances for many years (and still sometimes today) that as soon as I switched to the playful and creative side of myself, my posture crumpled. But when I focused solely on strong posture and technique, I looked on edge. Of course, the audience picks up on that.
This journey from the discipline of the left brain to the creativity of the right brain takes time. For starters, the primary goal of the ATS dancer ® is to incorporate good posture, technique, arm lines, and constant zilling into their muscle memory. Once imbued in muscle memory that posture doesn’t collapse once you start having fun. But here is the catch. One of the most effective ways to get good posture and technique into your deeper muscle memory, is to let those muscles experience good posture as unconsciously as possible. Visual cues presented by mirrors are excellent early on, but then embodying those movements away from mirrors, repetitively, slowly, quickly, freely, on the precipice of the right brain sphere where true improvisation lives, is where they will sink deep down. It is where our brain’s proprioceptive mapping powers can forge patterns in our own language. It is also amongst the spaciousness of the right brain that our peripheral awareness is most acute (essential for following).
This means that the ‘linear progression’ of getting technique right, and then learning how to let go and have fun, is a falsehood. These processes actually need to run at the same time. The sooner one can experiment and 'own' tribal moves through free improvisation, the sooner one's technique and posture will gel.
This leads me to the psychology behind pèrforming. In oriental dance, our goal is to entertain, engage the audience, bring the music to life. In tribal, there is more of a sense of doing the dance for ourselves and our tribal sisters - it has a social dimension. The strongest emotion carried in fast tribal is collective joy - like the joy experienced at a wedding. So while we might not play up the audience or be as cheeky as an Oriental performer, or even as sensual, we are joyous because we dance together. That joy needs to reach the audience. So rather than thinking 'will i be good enough?', the dancer needs to think 'what fun this will be!' or 'how can i have fun with this?' The tribal dancer can show off. They can play with moves, give them little twists. They can play with angles, levels, direction. They can enjoy the game of roulette. The beauty of tribal is the connection between dancers, its spontaneity, and the ebb and flow of synchronicity through different formations. The goal is not to be perfectly in sync all the time, but to have moments of it, woven in with graceful moments of chaos. Maybe that thought alone will help us to enjoy the dance more, and bring that joy to the fore.
If one needs a bit more help to let go of the fear and feel the joy, then channel gratitude before you go on stage. Be grateful for having dance in your life, for having dance sisters to share the journey with, for having an excuse to dress up, for having that space where you can be you - joyful you.
When Antonia Gore, the director of Lumière , asked me to collaborate with Alice Knox on a neo-fairy tale, I wasn’t sure how it would work. Our styles were so wildly different. Alice played a witch who casts a spell on me as a little mermaid, to give me legs. She invites me to trust her, and then turns on me. There is an uncanny, sinister thread to the dance drawing on our most primal psychical desires to belong and be accepted.
What made collaborating with Alice more straightforward is that she is one of those dancers with a distinct and self-assured artistic voice. Her craft lies in the sensuality and fluidity of her movement, and the precision in which she mingles it with more percussive and contemporary-esque shapes with her arms and turns. The way she interprets music and movement is enigmatic. Dancing with someone who I could only sense in glimpses, who I could not imagine on the inside, or imitate, had me full of wonder. She is a classical introvert. She hates her mobile phone. She moves and sits as if arranging a cloud. All of this was highly intriguing.
We both weren’t too interested in putting our dance to a count and worked more with imagery and conceptual storytelling. This was liberating! She was very generous, supportive and adventurous as a dance partner. From her I witnessed the beauty of restraint and finer detail. Her dry wit countered my juvenile sense of humour many times. Here are some examples (how I remembered anyway – you should be able to guess who was who):
‘If we don’t finish I’ll do a ton of spins and improvise you know’
‘Don’t worry, I’ll just be doing epic snake arms.’
‘I learnt some cool stuff on the weekend. I thought we could incorporate some of it.’
‘ yeah, I thought I could mount you.’
‘That’s not happening.’
‘So you didn’t think the mounting worked?
‘You mean besides the fact it doesn’t fit the story and looked… like you were mounting me?’
‘We should take a photo for Facebook.’
‘Because we’re both eating bananas.’
‘And that is exactly what’s wrong with the world right now.’
‘Making choreography with you is like riding a wild horse into a burning stable.’
To see more of Alice go to www.darknile.com
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