The style of belly dance I practice is often called tribal or tribal fusion, although I'm not sure I'd call it by that name these days. The word tribal is claimed by a lot of people to be a lot of things. I hope these paragraphs clarify the use of the word in regards to belly dance.
If anything I've written here is incorrect, please post on my Facebook page and let me know.
The term tribal was originally used by dancers in the 1960s to describe a general aesthetic (a "tribal" look or feel), but in the early 90's, it was used for the first time to describe a definitive style: American Tribal Style or ATS®. The originators of this style of belly dance, Fat Chance Belly Dance, founded by Carolena Nericcio, started out with a vocabulary inspired by Jamila Salimpour's format, published in her manual, the Danse Orientale (1978).
According to her daughter Suhaila, Jamila didn't call her style tribal, she just called it "belly dance," and some confusion has arisen about this: the root vocabulary of ATS® comes from Jamila's format through the filter of Carolena Nericcio's teacher, Masha Archer, and Masha made some significant changes to the style.
Masha became fascinated with belly dance as a a way to explore what she called "the mechanics of dance jewelry," and created her own look and approach to the dance. She traveled internationally to teach this style that her husband Charles Archer called "Parisian Tunisian."
In the article Grandmother of Tribal Style by Nadia Khastagir (Tribal Talk, November 2001), Masha discusses the "tribal" philosophy that she wove into her group culture, insisting that all her dancers must be an "unwavering support" for each other on stage, and that all members of the tribe would present a soloist as "the best thing you could get." She felt this attitude would destroy feelings of competition, and sought to increase the power of each dancer. She completely changed the costume of the day, using the choli from India and voluminous pantaloons. She also introduced head-wraps because "no matter how oblique the angle, we need to be able to read the gesture." She created costumes with layers of exceptional textiles from all over the world, including Egyptian assuit, but also items not usually associated with belly dance, such as Kimonos, and Flamenco and Russian shawls. She had no desire to be a representation of any particular group (other than her own), and used music from many different cultures. She was the first (as far as we know) to make performance mix-tapes, and stayed out of the belly dance "scene." Masha used belly dance as springboard to express her love for textiles, jewelry, photography, art, and music, and completely broke from tradition to satisfy her own aesthetic.
Carolena Nericcio was Masha's student for many years. From the age of fourteen, Carolena studied and danced with Masha's San Francisco Classic Dance Troupe. About 4 years after Masha gave up teaching, Carolena decided to start teaching, and over time, developed a complex system of cued group improvisation never before seen in belly dance.
Almost accidentally, her dancing was called "tribal" by a student of Morocco's backstage after a show, and Carolena thought the woman was naming her style, rather than describing a "tribal" feeling. Carolena decided to take on the name, and Tribal Style, as a description of FatChance BellyDance's costume, approach, and group improvisation for belly dance, was born.
What makes ATS® (Tribal Style in name) distinct from Jamila's style (a "tribal" feel) is the improvisational approach and specific stylization of the arms, posture, and costume. Improvisational cues and transitions for the group formations are used by ATS® dancers to create a polished performance. Each show is created right there on the spot, in the moment.
Without Jamila, Masha, or Carolena, none of this would have happened. It's important to me to credit all three artists for the development of this form.
Tribal Fusion's beginnings
ATS® was fused with American Cabaret styles in about 1999 (first by Jill Parker, a long time member of FatChanceBellyDance), and Tribal Fusion was born. I was fortunate to be in the audience when Jill first removed the head-wrap and choli, and no one was ready for it...
More to come in Part II... Tribal Fusion's Early Years