The Vintage Fusion trend – Is it “Tribal” style?

Tribal style bellydance, even before the emergence of American Tribal Style, has always drawn inspiration from times past.  We use antique textiles and old jewelry from the Middle East, North Africa, and South Asia, incorporating them into new costuming. The costuming itself–pantaloons, decorated coin bras, big full skirts, and cholis–also evoke an “Old World” flavor.  I know I was attracted to this combination of new and old, not only in the costuming, but in the music and the dance movements of tribal style bellydance.  The dance style and its aesthetics draw on archetypal images of caravans, nomadic peoples, and old-fashioned femininity.

Recently tribal fusion bellydancers have adopted a new kind of “vintage” look, using costuming elements inspired by the late 1800s to early 1900s, incorporating lace, ruffles, frilly skirts, and “Granny” boots.  This style also incorporates the use of Balkan Romany (Gypsy) music, carnival and circus themes, as well as Vaudeville and sometimes burlesque.  This trend is everywhere in tribal fusion right now, not only in the United States, but it appears that it has made its way to Europe and beyond.  And, I have to say, that I wonder if this new style that has taken the tribal fusion dance world by storm is even tribal style anymore.  And what are we conveying to the general public and those who know nothing about bellydance through the use of these vintage elements?

On my travels I’ve seen several troupes attempting this “vintage fusion” style of bellydance… but they’re incorporating props and costuming that I find somewhat inappropriate in a bellydance, particularly a “tribal” bellydance, context.  I wonder if these troupes and dancers have reflected on their choreographies, or prop, costuming, and music choices, and have they considered what someone completely ignorant about bellydance (especially tribal) might think of our dance style as a whole after seeing one of their “vintage fusion” performances.

I’d like to caveat this post by saying that when done well, “vintage tribal fusion” is beautiful and captivating.  There are several troupes who perform “vintage tribal fusion” elegantly and professionally.  The Indigo, Zafira Dance Company, Delirium Tribal Bellydance Company, and the Mezmer Society/Onça all pull in vintage and antique elements into their costuming, music, and dance artfully and tastefully.  I also like to break out ruffles and lace once in a while.  I have nothing against what I call “vintage fusion” tribal bellydance.

Aspects of “vintage fusion” that strike me as odd…

One element that I’ve seen often is the use of wine and whiskey bottles, sometimes empty… sometimes not.  Now, I have nothing against having a drink.  What does bother me, though, is when dancers, especially inexperienced ones, are on stage pretending to (or actually) getting drunk and stumbling around on stage.  From what I have observed, only very experienced and serious dancers can really pull off the use of wine bottles and alcohol in their performances.  It takes a certain amount of technical and performance skill to be able to pull that off without looking like a fool.  Otherwise the performance can look haphazard, lazy, and unprofessional.

Another element that I find a little bit odd is the wearing of undergarments on the outside as part of the costuming itself, such as frilly panties and bustiers.  Maybe I’m “old school”, but my mentors told me that even though our costuming might be revealing at times, we should never wear anything that still looks like underwear.  It seems to me that the resurgent interest in burlesque has influenced this trend, and I have nothing against burlesque… but I often wonder what someone new to bellydance might think if they saw a troupe in underwear-like costuming.  They’d probably wonder, “what does this have to do with the Middle East, and what does it have to do with bellydance?”  If I didn’t know anything about bellydance except that it’s something I’d seen at a Middle Eastern restaurant, I would probably be very, very, confused.

Something else I’ve noticed amongst the less successful attempts at “vintage” style bellydance performances is that there has been more emphasis on the comedy, acting, and slapstick than the dancing itself.  Again, I have nothing against theater or comedy… but if you’re going to call yourself a tribal style bellydancer, please make tribal style bellydance the primary element of your performance. The playful, flirty quality often found in “vintage fusion” isn’t very tribal, if we’re using American Tribal Style bellydance as our standard of what defines Tribal style bellydance.  Posing and being cute with a wine bottle isn’t tribal, and it’s not bellydancing.  Dance first… then add the theater once you have a good foundation in bellydance. So, if you’re going to play with “vintage fusion” bellydance, be aware that what you are doing might not be tribal anymore.  It might be something entirely new and different.  And please focus on the dance first.

From the point of view of the outsider…

What if someone from the general public came to see one of these performances?  What if this person knew nothing about bellydance?  Do we want to give the general public the impression that we’re only comic relief and slapstick acts that have no qualms about showing our frilly panties to strangers, particularly as we lose (or pretend to lose) our inhibitions through the imbibing of alcohol on stage?  Is that bellydance, and, more importantly to me, is that tribal?  And, I know that many of us bellydancers are trying very hard to elevate this dance into the realms of both popular and high art… and in order for that to happen, we must earn the respect of not only our peers but also the general public.  How do we expect to be respected as an art form when we’re stumbling around on stage in our underwear?

The importance of training and self-reflection.

As an artist and dancer I’m not against experimentation and pushing the boundaries of bellydance.  I have been fusing bellydance with other dance and movement influence for years.  I am, however, passionate about fusion with integrity. What that means to me is that in order for your artistic experimentation to be successful, you must spend time in the studio training, drilling, and focusing on the dance.  If you want to continue to call yourself a tribal style bellydancer, you must make your primary focus tribal style bellydance, not acting, slapstick, comedy, costuming, props, or music.  Also, as you’re preparing a performance, take the time to reflect on it and ask yourself, “What message am I giving the audience by dancing to this music in this costume with these movements?  Is that something I want to convey?  Why am I putting these influences together in the way that I am?”  It’s also completely acceptable to have a good time on stage.  So much of why we dance is because we find joy in it, but there is much joy to be found in the dancing itself, and you don’t need a frilly costume and a bottle of wine to enjoy it.

 

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The only person I’ve really seen doing this is Saz’rah and I didn’t find her dancing offensive or anything. I need to get out to more dance shows, cause I didn’t know this was such a big trend!

And why does 1800s/early 1900s underwear make it ‘vintage’? Lol. I guess this is as opposed to the Steampunk feel- which not many people actually seem to embrace in dance, it seems.

I think sometimes people feel safer presenting things like that at dance festivals that are oriented towards the general BD or ME dance community- not at festivals intended for the general public. I don’t really know, I haven’t seen that much of it to begin with.

I think in general too many people go the fusion route before understanding the traditional roots of what they are doing.

 

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This is a sticky subject. I don’t have my thoughts clear on this and today isn’t going to be one of those days. It’s interesting to see how there’s this push and pull between the ideas of bellydance as high art (divorced from sexualization/prostitution/stripping) and this welcoming of themes that are really closely tied to sexualization/prostitution/stripping. We really do have tunnel vision when it comes to aesthetics, and it’s hard to simultaneously see and respect the cultural and historical [sometimes seedy and unsavory] undercurrents.

 

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    It’s definitely a sticky subject. Lisa, I think you’re right in that there’s a push and pull between these two aspects of the dance. I just hope that people reflect a bit on what they’re performing and how they’re performing it before they set foot on stage… you know?

     

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I’m only familiar with some of the more prominent and respectful troups that you mentioned (Zafira, The Indigo, The Mezmer Society) so it’s possible that I just don’t have the exposure to the same range of vintage fusion dancers that you do, but it seems that for the most part the ones I’ve seen have not specifically identified themselves as Tribal (the exception might be The Indigo).

Vintage fusion may well be developing into its own genre. I’m not sure if this genre will be (or should be) considered bellydance, but then again I could say the same for a number of the Gothic fusion performances I’ve seen as well. As various forms of bellydance fusion become more popular, there will always be examples of poorly done, ill-considered fusion as people struggle to keep up and experiment. I think that this is the case with the less successful attempts at vintage fusion you describe.

The public may not associate bellydancers with exactly what vintage fusion dance often looks like, but the public also sometimes associates bellydance with stripping, so I’m not sure if conforming to the public’s idea of bellydance is always a good thing :) (I do see though how blundering around with an alcoholic beverage in frilly undies projects a bad image.)

One thing I do like about the word “bellydance” is that while it has connotations of its Middle Eastern origins, it’s not (in my opinion) a term like “Raqs Sharki” or “Middle Eastern dance” which explicity implies a direct and binding tie to those cultures. Bellydance is more fluid and as its history goes it also indicates a significant Western component or interpretation. Some of the vintage fusion costuming I’ve seen really harkens back to the photos I’ve seen of Mata Hari and Little Egypt, so perhaps we’re coming full circle in way for “bellydance” in the US.

 

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I think there are a lot of people out there who see something on youtube and just want to copy it without having the firm foundation in bellydance. For me, I’ve spent a lot of time drilling and fine-tuning my technique and polish and feel it’s important to have that strong base first so it shines through the theatrics.

One thing I discovered as I progressed in my bellydance – taking a lot of workshops, studying with a variety of people, practicing on my own – is that I hate labeling my dancing. I have an appreciation of where the art comes from: the Middle East, the tribal movement in SF (and my dancing is very much rooted in tribal), the various fusion styles, etc. I’ve gotten to the point where I just call myself a bellydancer. If further clarification is needed, I’ll start going into my full background but I don’t want to feel limited by a label nor do I want to give the wrong impression of one of the more specific styles.

On the dancing while “drunk.” The worst example I saw was a pair of teenage girls as “pirates” stumbling with *shot glasses* of all things. It was inappropriate and poorly executed. They then dropped their swords on the ground (deliberately) so that pretty much killed the performance for me.

 

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It seems like there are constantly new trends coming out but this is one that I have noticed, at least in the costuming and musical aspects with the Victorian and circus throwbacks. I think it’s ok to experiment with different forms of dance, but I do agree, if you aren’t working tribal moves into your dance, don’t bother calling it tribal fusion. That’s mainly the problem. There is no definitive source telling dancers what is and isn’t a particular style of dance. Like I’ve seen you mention before, popping and locking moves don’t constitute a tribal fusion dance. I don’t think everyone gets that.

Personally, I’m fine with people experimenting, but it really grinds my gears whenever I see anything risque. Bellydance burlesque in my opinion is the worst combination ever, because I feel like we have been working so hard to get away from the image of a stripper or exotic dancer and that just doesn’t help.

In terms of people who aren’t familiar with bellydance, I think dancers should stick to more classical and ethnic forms of dance. It just doesn’t seem like the general public would understand some of the fusion styles, simply because they seem “artsy.” For instance, I would rather have my family’s first impression of one my performances be with something classic so that if they see something more modern later on, they have a basis to compare the two. Lol, just seems like older people don’t understand the draw of musical genres like industrial, gothic, or hip hop beats. The troupe I’m with has been told at one venue to mostly only use Middle Eastern music.

If someone can pull off some serious vintage looks, I’m taking more than three centuries ago, I shall be impressed. Huge history buff here, so I would love to see medieval gear come out!

I feel like I learn so much from you about the different styles of bellydance. No one really seems to challenge what makes one type different from the other, so it’s good you write out these posts and giving it serious thought. The bd community needs more of this.

Oleh!

 

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I totally agree with Asharah on this one (too…). There is a huge lot of dancers who skip the dancing part and technical training and go “for the feeling”, sometimes fogetting it still should be a dance performance. I’ve told my students they can do anything, as long as they recognize what it is, call it by its rightful name and give some thought to what audience they’ll have and the context of the performance.

A problem very similar to the one described here also has hit the gothic fusion scene. Black, black and black, laces, chains, heavy eyeliner, scary contacts, tons of jewellery, sad or angry looks… They can make a costume and a performance feel more dark and “gothy”, but unless you DANCE it’s not a gothic bellyDANCE performance!

In some parts of the Swedish bellydance scene a heavily disturbing trend has rooted; technical dancers get put down by those who think “It’s all about FEELING stuff”… I say everything must be there; technique, strength and endurance, AND last but definitely not least presence and emotion of some sort. To me it appears af if those “technical dancing is bad”-dancers just didn’t bother to practice that much.

So yes, dance performances should primarily be about… DANCING!

 

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I am a member of a dance company that has a consistent tradition of…well, tradition. Awalim’s firm foundations are in the “Old School”, the precedents set by groups like Bal Anat, Troupe Ghawazee, and others. I also love the New Romantic style, but like any other fusion, it must have the cornerstones of technique, good taste, and professionalism. Thanks for posting this, lady! I look forward to your blogs.

 

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Good stuff. I have to say, though, that sometimes some of the underwear-like costuming pieces are so over the top and decorated they are to actual underthings like a BD bra is to what women wear everyday. I love a vintage/turn of the (last) century look, but I want to look like a belly dancer, not a saloon girl

See, this is why we have the Inappropriate Hafla, where everyone can get out their under-as-outwear, whiskey drinking, stumbling, acting, dancing or not dancing, creative prop using, fusing every which way urges in a supportive atmosphere. Let’s just not make every hafla an inappropriate one.

 

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Bingo again, Asharah. Your thoughtful posts leaves little to really say except “THIS.” Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

 

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Wow. Your blog is amazing. I agree with pretty much everything that you’ve said in this blog.
I would love to know what you think about the origins of ATS belly dance. Honestly, because I’m not sure what the origins are.. I’m 16 and I’ve been dancing for 4 years and i started taking ATS belly dance 2 years ago. Then around last year I learned that Jamila Salimpour was the original creator of “american tribal style” belly dance even though I always thought it was carolena nericchio because every one gives her all the credit… Maybe this is a touchy subject for some dancers but no one has ever explained it to me :/ Perhaps you can enlighten me on this subject? I don’t mean to cause any type of controversy or something like that. Sorry if these seems odd :(

 

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Thank you for posting this. I appreciate your honesty and experience. I am strictly an ATS dancer and teacher, and I think I’m pretty hard on all imitations of classic or modern BD.
For me, whatever one is doing on stage calling it BD (of any kind), it needs to be beautiful. Of course, beautiful is reletive, but I think there a very wide range of beautiful that we would all agree on.
Where I live, ‘theatrical belly dance’ is all the rage. And I feel the community and upcoming students are starting to view belly dance as always being ‘themed’ and not traditional or classical or even modern for that matter. It’s more acting than it is technique. I feel this lends to students being more in it for the costuming and getting to perform, than taking the time and having the dedication to truly study one or more styles.
And I do really like all types of fusion costuming, especially the turn of the century look. I don’t perform in it myself, but can easily see it’s appeal to dancers and audience members.
But the thing is.. is that as an audience member, when you pay money to see something of a low standard no matter what the dancer is wearing, you say, “Oh, that’s belly dance? No, I don’t like that”
But, how do we keep the standards high for all styles of BD? There’s no way to do any quality control. Where would one even start?
I guess for those that have high standards have to do the best we can and try and set outselves a part from those who might be in it for different reasons.
I guess, after all my babbling. I don’t care what people wear, or what they call it, but I’m happy as long as it’s beautiful, creative, stemmed from hard work, dedication, and a true respect and passion for the dance in all its entirety. (run on sentence much?)
Thanks again!

 

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Here, Here!!!
Enough with the popping, locking filler and fluff! Bring back The DANCING already!!!
The New Romantic style is Played Out. Let’s have a fresh infusion of something new, please.

 

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    I have to agree with Marie to an extent. I was also hyped up a bit to see this mclsuaine approach to belly dancing, but it wasn’t so. It was actually very feminine!I suppose it’s the same problem with male ballet dancers many of them are thought to be gay’ because ballet is a naturally feminine dance. My sister (who is a ballet dancer) and I watched a documentary a week ago about the male principal dancers of the American Ballet Theatre. They interviewed 4 of these dancers, and two of them are very mclsuaine and add something different to a feminine dance you definitely wouldn’t call them gay ! One of the dancers was incredibly feminine, which is OK its not a problem. But this is what sets the stereotype for gay dancers’. Many men refrain from doing ballet, belly dancing or ballroom dancing because it is seen as feminine. So those drawn to the dancing have a more feminine side and this is why we see so many feminine male dancers.I would just like to see a male belly dancer bring something mclsuaine to belly dancing. Heck! Just call it a fusion! {I hope that post made sense!}.-= Alex s last blog .. =-.

     

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This is *exactly* how I feel about this subject… I couldn’t have said it better myself! I’ve been following your blog for quite some time and I don’t know why I hadn’t seen this before!

 

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My troupe is a pretty young one but we are trying to find out exactly what we are. Our teacher was originally a cabaret dancer but we have strayed from that point. We draw from all types of Belly dance Middle Eastern, Tribal Fusion, Hip Hop Fusion and pretty much anywhere that we thinks fits the song that we are doing at the time. Whether it’s Azam Ali, Tarkan, Zachary Meklem, or Beats Antique. That hardest thing we find is figuring out a label because as much as we don’t want one every time we dance people ask “What type of Belly Dance are you?” and we never have an answer!

 

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[…] 2009, I wrote a post about the “Vintage Fusion” trend in Tribal Fusion.  In the 3 years (holy crap, has it been 3 years?!) since I wrote that post, Tribal Fusion as a […]

 

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